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Shirley Chisholm's Campaign Legacy

She Knew She Wouldn't Win, But Someone Had to Be First


Shirley Chisholm's Campaign Legacy

Shirley Chisholm Button

Courtesy Anderson Auction, Troy, Ohio
During her 1972 run for the White House, Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm encountered obstacles at nearly every turn. Not only was the political establishment of the Democratic Party against her, but the money wasn't there to fund a well-managed and effective campaign.

If She Could Do It Over Again

Feminist scholar and author Jo Freeman was actively involved in trying to get Chisholm on the Illinois primary ballot and was an alternate to the Democratic National Convention in July 1972. In an article about the campaign, Freeman reveals how little money Chisholm had, and how new legislation would have made her campaign impossible today:

After it was over Chisholm said that if she had to do it over again, she would, but not the same way. Her campaign was under-organized, under-financed and unprepared....she raised and spent only $300,000 between July 1971 when she first floated the idea of running, and July of 1972, when the last vote was counted at the Democratic Convention. That did not include the [money] raised and spent on her behalf...by other local campaigns.

By the next Presidential election Congress had passed the campaign finance acts, which required careful record keeping, certification and reporting, among other things. This effectively ended grass roots Presidential campaigns like those in 1972.

"Was It All Worth It?"

In the January 1973 issue of Ms. magazine, Gloria Steinem reflected on the Chisholm candidacy, asking "Was it all worth it?" She observes:
Perhaps the best indicator of her campaign's impact is the effect it had on individual lives. All over the country, there are people who will never be quite the same....If you listen to personal testimony from very diverse sources, it seems that the Chisholm candidacy was not in vain. In fact, the truth is that the American political scene may never quite be the same again.

Realism and Idealism

Steinem goes on to include viewpoints from both women and men in all walks of life, including this commentary from Mary Young Peacock, a white, middle-class, middle-aged American housewife from Fort Lauderdale, FL:

Most politicians seem to spend their time playing to so many different points of view....that they don't come out with anything realistic or sincere. The important thing about Chisholm's candidacy was that you believed whatever she said....it combined realism and idealism at the same time....Shirley Chisholm has worked out in the world, not just gone from law school straight into politics. She's practical.

"Face and Future of American Politics"

Practical enough that even before the 1972 Democratic National Convention was held in Miami Beach, FL, Shirley Chisholm acknowledged that she couldn't win in a speech she gave on June 4, 1972:

I am a candidate for the Presidency of the United States. I make that statement proudly, in the full knowledge that, as a black person and as a female person, I do not have a chance of actually gaining that office in this election year. I make that statement seriously, knowing that my candidacy itself can change the face and future of American politics - that it will be important to the needs and hopes of every one of you - even though, in the conventional sense, I will not win.

"Somebody Had to Do It First"

So why did she do it? In her 1973 book The Good Fight, Chisholm answers that significant question:

I ran for the Presidency, despite hopeless odds, to demonstrate the sheer will and refusal to accept the status quo. The next time a woman runs, or a black, or a Jew or anyone from a group that the country is 'not ready' to elect to its highest office, I believe that he or she will be taken seriously from the start....I ran because somebody had to do it first.

By running in 1972, Chisholm blazed a trail that candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama - a white woman and a black man - would follow 35 years later.

The fact that both those contenders for the Democratic nomination spent much less time discussing gender and race - and more time promoting their vision for a new America - bodes well for the lasting legacy of Chisholm's efforts.


"Shirley Chisholm 1972 Brochure." 4President.org.

"Shirley Chisholm 1972 Announcement." 4President.org.

Freeman, Jo. "Shirley Chisholm's 1972 Presidential Campaign." JoFreeman.com February 2005.

Nichols, John. "Shirley Chisholm's Legacy." The Online Beat, TheNation.com 3 January 2005.

"Remembering Shirley Chisholm: Interview with Shola Lynch."WashingtonPost.com 3 January 2005.

Steinem, Gloria. "The Ticket That Might Have Been..." Ms. Magazine January 1973 reproduced at PBS.org

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