As the first African-American woman elected to Congress and the first major party black candidate to run for president, Shirley Chisholm is one of the most important political figures in history. Never heard of her? Don’t worry — you are in good company.
“Most people under 50 have never heard of her,” said Barbara Winslow, who recently published a biography of Chisholm. “She’s completely written out of history.”
Winslow is working to change that. A women studies professor at Brooklyn College — from which the Bedford-Stuyvesant-born Chisholm graduated in 1946 — Winslow not only teaches her students about Chisholm in her classroom, she also founded an historical archive called the Shirley Chisholm Project at the school.
The professor’s new book on Chisholm, “Shirley Chisholm: Catalyst for Change,” is the first biography of Chisholm in more than 40 years.
“This is the first really scholarly biography of Chisholm,” said Winslow. “It’s a historic look at her life and accomplishments and relies on materials that have not been used before.”
These include campaign materials and interviews with people who knew Chisholm, including former New York City Mayor David Dinkins, feminist and journalist Gloria Steinem, and even her hairdresser. Winslow also referred to resources used in the 2004 documentary “Unbought and Unbossed,” about Chisholm’s 1972 presidential bid. Thanks to this research, the Shirley Chisholm Project now boasts the largest collections about the politician anywhere, said Winslow.
Being the first was not easy for Chisholm. She was a champion of women’s rights, equal pay for all, and access to education, helping to pass legislation that assisted students from urban schools in getting into the City University of New York. But she found it difficult to get things done in an increasingly conservative political environment, which could also be racist and sexist. After 14 years in Congress, Chisholm retired in 1982. She went on to work as an educator, and passed away in 2005 at the age of 80.
Thanks to documentaries such as “Unbought and Unbossed,” as well as, of course, her own book, Winslow is hopeful that more people will come to appreciate Chisholm’s legacy.
“She was an outspoken, proud feminist,” said Winslow. “She went the course she wanted to go, in spite of all the attacks.”
Barbara Winslow celebrates the release of “Shirley Chisholm: Catalyst for Change” at Brooklyn College [2900 Bedford Ave. at Campus Road in Flatbush, (718) 853–7350, www.chisholmproject.com]. Feb. 25 at 5 pm.