The Moses who opened the Red Sea for us
“If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.”
As a movement, we are honoured to be a part of Women’s History Month, which is a celebration of women’s contributions to history, culture and society and has been observed annually in the month of March.
It is a time to honour strong African women, who are aware of the obstacles in their way, and the misogynistic expectations people may have of them, and the decision they make to themselves to want to work towards achieving more. They are willing to lean on the support from friends, family members and mentors, despite the notion that women should be independent and do it all.
The women we will be featuring this month are self-aware. They continually overcome their fears, and know how to control themselves in the face of adversity. They are, and have not been afraid to reveal their feelings because, let’s be real; we all have them. They work hard, chase their beliefs; they love endlessly and show appreciation to those around them. Most importantly, they are not selfish, and once they have made it, they reach back to help others.
We want you to take some time to honour these inspiring forces with us this month, and who better to start it off with then the powerful, sensational Shirley Chisholm.
Shirley Chisholm was born Shirley Anita St. Hill on November 30th, 1924, in a predominantly Black neighbourhood in Brooklyn, New York. She spent part of her childhood in Barbados with her grandmother, and then returned to Brooklyn to attend a prestigious girls high school in Brooklyn’s Bedford Stuyvesant neighbourhood.
At a young age, it was noted that she had an aptitude for academics and activism alike. Even though she came from one of the poorest communities in New York City, and her parents struggled during the economic crisis, she excelled in school and was recognized for her incredible talent.
While attending college, she joined the Delta Sigma Theta sorority and the Harriet Tubman Society. Once again, she was recognized and awarded for her skills as a debater, as well as her advocacy efforts for African American history curriculum and having more women as student government leaders.
She graduated from Brooklyn College in 1946, and began her career as a teacher. She went on to earn a master’s degree in elementary education from Columbia University. It was no surprise that Shirley went on to serve as Director of the Hamilton-Madison Child Care Centre from 1953 to 1959, and as an educational consultant for New York City’s Bureau of Child Welfare.
Her early career was a clear indication of the woman that Shirley was becoming. Her work led her to being assigned to different committees including: the House Forestry Committee (which she demanded reassignment), the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, and finally the Education and Labour Committee. It was what came next in her progressive career that put Shirley on the map, and made her a heroine to many.
“I am not the candidate of Black America, although I am Black and proud. I am not the candidate of the women’s movement of this country, although I am a woman and I am equally proud of that. I am the candidate of the people, and my presence before you now symbolizes a new era in American political history.”
In 1968, Chisholm made history by becoming the United States’ first African American congresswoman, beginning the first of seven terms in the House of Representatives. She was also one of the founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus in 1969 and championed minority education and employment opportunities throughout her tenure in Congress.
In the same year, she was named the honourary co-president of the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL), and in 1970, she became the co-founder of the National Organization for Women (NOW).
Chisholm went on to make history yet again, becoming the first African American and the second woman to make a bid for the U.S. presidency when she ran for the Democratic nomination in 1972. Although she ran a spirited campaign, Chisholm was unable to consolidate the support of influential Black leaders, giving way for South Dakota Senator George McGovern to claim the Democratic nomination.
Throughout her political career, Chisholm fought for education opportunities and social justice. Some of Shirley’s lasting contributions include her efforts to broaden the food stamp program and establish the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children.
To add to her already stellar resume, in 1974 Shirley passed one of the most important pieces of legislation to date; the 1974 minimum wage law. That bill expanded minimum wage standards to apply to domestic workers, as well as to more state and local government employees.
Chisholm left Congress in 1983 to return to teaching, but her legacy preceded her. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993, and this was followed by a nomination from President Bill Clinton to serve as United States Ambassador to Jamaica. Shirley’s failing health prevented her from accepting the honour. She transitioned from this world on January 1st, 2005, at the age of 80, in Ormond Beach, Florida, but she continued to earn accolades posthumously.
President Barack Obama awarded Shirley a Presidential Medal of Freedom during a 2015 White House ceremony, and in 2014, the U.S. Postal Service issued a “forever stamp” in her honour.
One thing has not changed, and that is the need to draw inspiration and guidance from the past. It is through this inspiration that people find the motivation to live their lives with purpose. Who cannot help but be inspired by the beloved Shirley Chisholm, and her commitment to her passion and her people.
“I want to be remembered as a woman … who dared to be a catalyst of change.”
Simone Jennifer Smith