Shirley Chisholm

First black woman to sit in the US House of Representatives
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The Independent Online

Shirley Anita St Hill, politician: born New York 30 November 1924; Member, US House of Representatives 1969-83; married 1949 Conrad Chisholm; died Daytona Beach, Florida 1 January 2005.

Shirley Chisholm will go down in US political history as the first black woman to sit in the House of Representatives, who took on as few had before the hidebound ways of an institution she branded as out of touch with the country, "ruled by a small group of old men".

The new member for New York's solidly Democratic 12th Congressional District in Brooklyn arrived on Capitol Hill in January 1969 at the start of Richard Nixon's presidency, after a shock primary election victory over her heavily favoured opponent, hand-picked by the local party machine. Her slogan then was "Unbought and Unbossed". In Washington, she continued in exactly similar vein.

That first year, she became a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus. Chisholm operated with an all-female staff and became a passionate campaigner for civil rights, women's rights and the poor, and against the Vietnam War. Even more noteworthy, she took on and defeated the entrenched seniority system (a political version of "Buggins' Turn") by which the House then operated - and to a large extent still does.

As a very junior and theoretically insignificant member, she was sent to serve on the Agriculture Committee. Others would not have complained, but Chisholm did, saying the job was pointless for someone who represented an urban district like Brooklyn.

After publicly challenging Wilbur Mills, the hugely powerful chairman of the Ways and Means Committee who distributed such assignments, she secured new posts, first on the Veterans' Affairs panel, and then on the prestigious Education and Labor Committee, far more suitable to her background in teaching and child welfare.

By now Chisholm was a celebrity, and she became an even larger one midway through her second term when she entered the race for the Democratic nomination to take on Nixon in November 1972. Although she contested several primaries and collected a more-than-respectable 151 convention delegates, the bluntly honest Chisholm admitted from the outset she had no realistic chance of winning. Her goal, she said, was to make a point, and raise the profile of not only blacks but also women in political life.

Indeed as she prepared to leave Congress to take up a teaching post, she told an interviewer in 1982 that the worst discrimination she suffered had been against her gender, not her race. "Men are men," she once declared. In order to achieve equality, women had to become revolutionaries - "We must refuse to accept the old, the traditional roles and stereotypes."

In matters of race indeed, she could be astonishingly magnanimous. During the 1972 campaign, George Wallace, her rival for the Democratic nomination and ideological opposite, was shot. To the anger of many supporters, Chisholm visited the fiery Alabama segregationist in his hospital bed. "What are your people going to say?" asked an astounded Wallace. "I know what they're going to say," she replied, "but I wouldn't want what happened to you to happen to anyone." As Chisholm recounted, "He cried and cried."

She was born Shirley Anita St Hill, the daughter of West Indian immigrants to New York. Her father, from British Guiana, worked in a burlap factory, while her Barbados-born mother was a seamstress and cleaning woman. In 1927, her parents sent their three-year-old daughter and her three sisters back to Barbados to live with a grandmother, in order to save money for their higher education.

At the age of 11 she returned to the US, armed with a solid elementary education from the British colonial school system and a clipped Caribbean accent which she never lost. After attending Brooklyn College and then gaining a master's degree at Colombia University, she emerged as a passionate advocate of early education.

From 1959 to 1964 she was a consultant in New York's child welfare bureau, before running for the state assembly. The party did not much like her, she acknowledged, in words that summed up her remarkable political career, "but the people wanted me".

Rupert Cornwell