Susan Liebell

Sep 7, 2020


Shirley Chisholm as Principled Political Strategist

New Books Network 2020

“I stand before you today as a candidate for the Democratic nomination for the Presidency of the United States of America.

“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.” – Shirley Chisholm, January 25, 1972, Announcement of Run for the Presidency

What is the political and intellectual legacy of Shirley Chisholm? Recent coverage of Chisholm – especially after the announcement of Kamala Harris as Joe Biden’s choice of Vice-Present – emphasizes ‘trailblazer talk.’ Chisholm’s extraordinary career included being both the first African-American woman elected to the United States congress and the first to run for the U.S. presidency. But emphasizing these “firsts” obscures Shirley Chisholm’s political and intellectual significance. She was a brilliant political strategist who deftly cultivated relationships that allowed her to accomplish her principled and wide-ranging political agenda. Shirley Chisholm said of herself that her achievement was having the "audacity and nerve" to run for the presidency of the United States: "I want history to remember me not as the first black woman to have be elected to the Congress, not as the first black woman to have made a bid for the presidency of the united states, but as a black woman who lived in the 20th century and who dared to be herself." Chisholm spoke and acted forcefully throughout her long career – Her slogan was “unbought and unbossed” – and she defined empowerment in the second half of the 20th century. She is better understood in the context of #BLM and than Kamala Harris.

POSTSCRIPT, a new series from New Books in Political Science, invites authors to react to contemporary political developments that engage their scholarship. Dr. Anastasia Curwood and Dr. Zinga A. Fraser – imminent scholars of Shirley Chisholm’s political strategies and ideals – engage in a remarkable dialogue.

Shirley Chisholm is often “disremembered” and Drs. Curwood and Fraser emphasize the importance of evaluating her work in the context of the Black Power movement of the 1970s, Black Women’s history, and Black feminism. Chisholm’s feminism was central to both her principles and her practice. She spoke the language of intersectionality – emphasizing the overlapping identities of gender, race, and class – decades before it was a popular term in Critical Race Theory. She had a majority woman staff with a woman as her top legislative aid. Political Science often equates political strategy with masculinity – failing to adequately explore Chisholm’s brilliant strategy of cultivating relationships that allowed her to deftly construct cross-cutting alliances. Her understanding of power was complex. She did not care who got credit and artfully created unlikely coalitions that allowed her to accomplish her political goals – always her priority.

Dr. Anastasia Curwood is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Kentucky and the Director of African-American and Africana Studies in the University of Kentucky’s College of Arts and Sciences. She’s held prestigious fellowships from Ford Foundation, the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, and the James Weldon Johnson Institute for the Study of Race and Difference at Emory University. Dr. Curwood's scholarship focuses on the interface between private life and historical context for black Americans in the twentieth century. In particular, she studies the workings of gender in African Americans' social, cultural/intellectual, and political history. Her first book – Stormy Weather: Middle-Class African American Marriages Between the Two World Wars (University of North Carolina Press, 2013) – explored marriages between middle-class African Americans in the era of the New Negro and the Great Depression. Dr. Curwood’s current project is a critical biography of Shirley Chisholm entitled, Aim High: Shirley Chisholm and Black Feminist Power politics. An earlier article, "Black Feminism on Capitol Hill: Shirley Chisholm and Movement Politics, 1968-1984" Meridians 13, no. 1 (2015): 204-32 emphasizes how Chisholm interwove antiwar, civil rights, women's, and poor people's movement issues into her political priorities. However, unlike other black feminists, Chisholm sought transformation from within the heart of the Democratic Party and Capitol Hill politics.

Dr. Zinga A. Fraser is an Assistant Professor in the Africana Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies at Brooklyn College. In addition to her academic responsibilities she is also the Director of the Shirley Chisholm Project on Brooklyn Women’s Activism at Brooklyn College. Dr. Fraser is a foremost expert on Shirley Chisholm and Black Congressional Women. She is currently completing her book manuscript titled, Sister Insider/ Sister Outsider: Shirley Chisholm and Barbara Jordan, Black Women’s Politics in the Post- Civil Rights Era. She has appeared on local, national and international news outlets such as: The New York Times, Washington Post, Essence Magazine, Elle Magazine docuseries, Buzzfeed News, C-SPAN, BBC- Africa, NY1 and WNBC-TV, USA Today, Chronicle of Higher Education, AP Press and the Amsterdam News and National Public Radio.

Dr. Fraser is the recipient of the 2017-2018 AAUW American Association of University Women fellowship, the American Political Science Association on Minority and Urban Politics Award, and the Zora Neale Hurston Award in Social Sciences from Columbia University. Dr. Fraser was the 2009-2010 Vivian Ware Fellow at the Delta Research and Educational Foundation, at Delta’s National headquarters in Washington, DC. Dr. Fraser a proud member of the North Manhattan Alumnae Chapter in New York City and was initiated into the Epsilon Delta Chapter of Temple University. Dr. Fraser is currently a Sister Scholar for DREF. Her life abides by one of Shirley Chisholm’s most famous quotes. “Service is rent we pay for the privilege of living on this earth.”

Adam Liebell-McLean assisted with this podcast.

Susan Liebell is associate professor of political science at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. She is the author of Democracy, Intelligent Design, and Evolution: Science for Citizenship (Routledge, 2013) and, most recently, Retreat from the Rule of Law: Locke and the Perils of Stand Your Ground” in the Journal of Politics (July 2020). Email her comments at or tweet to @SusanLiebell.

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Susan Liebell is a Professor of Political Science at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.

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