SHIRLEY CHISHOLM and CAROL MOSELEY BRAUN
“The first Black women in the US Congress: in the House and the Senate”
Rep. Shirley Chisholm
“Unbought and Unbossed,” that described and defined the Honorable Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman to grace the Halls of the U.S. Congress. Today, she would feel a sense of great accomplishment were she alive to witness the historic events of the last presidential election. (However, she may have been tuned in on the “heavenly network” anchored by St. Peter smiling as she observed her legacy in action). Chisholm was the first Black woman to be elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1968, and in 1972, she became first Black person, of a major party (the Democratic Party), to run for the presidency of the United States; she received 162 delegates.
Born Shirley Anita St. Hill on November 30, 1924 in Brooklyn, Kings County, New York, there Chisholm spent all of her adult life. She was the eldest of four children of West Indian parents, and spent her early childhood with her grandmother in Barbados. There Chisholm received her early schooling under the British colonial system that she later characterized as a strong academic foundation and also acquired the Caribbean accent that marked her speech throughout her life. When she was about ten years old, Chisholm moved back to New York where she continued her education attending public schools in Brooklyn; excelling in academics, she graduated from high school in 1942.
Chisholm went on to receive a Bachelors of Arts degree in Sociology from Brooklyn College and a Masters degree in Elementary Education from Teachers College, Columbia University. Encountering racism at Brooklyn College, she aggressively fought against it forming a social club for Black students who were denied admittance to the school’s existing social club. But despite her activism, when she graduated (with honors) in 1946, she experienced the same racial barriers in her post-graduation employment efforts.
After countless rejections, Chisholm ended up working at a childcare center in Harlem and began to focus a professional career in that direction. There she spent her early career, first as a nursery school teacher, then as the director of Hamilton-Madison Child Care Center and as an educational consultant of Division Day Care both in New York City.
In 1949, she married Conrad Chisholm, a Jamaican private investigator (prior to that time, she had been using her birth name “St. Hill”) with whom she began to participate in the local Bedford-Stuyvesant area politics. Years later, she formed the Unity Democratic Club to help mobilize Black and Latino voters. In 1964, she ran for the New York State assembly, and won. She served in the state assembly from 1964 to 1968. The highlights of her tenure in the state legislature were her authorship of bills to provide state aid to day care centers, and her vote to increase funding for schools on a per pupil basis. These were issues that she had worked on all of her previous professional career.
At the end of her first term in Albany in 1968, she ran for New York’s 12th Congressional District and won. Chisholm began in the 91st Congress and served with distinction and honor for six succeeding congressional terms, from 1969 to 1983, earning a reputation as a legislator par excellence. She was a riveting speaker as well as a critic of the Congress. Chisholm was the only woman among the founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus.
While in Congress, she was an outspoken advocate for women, minorities and the civil rights of the “downtrodden” and the “forgotten” of society. She fought fiercely and engaged in public policy issues and debates for all people of color, especially for women and children. Since she had grown up in a predominantly Black New York City neighborhood, her legislative service mirrored that environment when she stated, “I am the people’s politician.” Her upbringing also produced a healthy outspokenness-a rare attribute for a politician-for which she was well known, and sometimes feared. This was readily apparent in the substance and the title of her book, Unbought and Unbossed. The title actually tells her story, and that was the core value of Chisholm’s public life. She always spoke forcefully and unapologetically, “Our representative democracy is not working and the chief reason is that it is ruled by a small group of old men.”
Rev. Jesse Jackson called her, “A woman of great courage, and an activist who never stopped fighting. She never accepted the ordinary, and she had high expectations of herself and those around her.”
She was a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus and was the driving force behind the caucus that it became known as the “Conscience of the Congress.” She worked incessantly to protect programs that supported women and children, and introduced legislation in support of daycare centers and unemployment insurance for domestic workers.
In 1972, she became a national figure when she entered the presidential race seeking the nomination of the Democratic Party. As a candidate, her mantra was that she was running to represent all of the people and especially to help women to flex their political muscles to get what they want. At the announcement of her candidacy, Chisholm said, “I stand before you today as a candidate for the Democratic nomination for the presidency of the United States. 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 not the candidate of any political bosses of special interests. I am the candidate of the people.”
As a Black woman who ran for the presidency, were she here today, she would feel assured that her pioneering efforts helped to pave the way for the historic campaigns of President Barack, former Senator Hilary Clinton and many others. After she left Congress, she continued to fight for equal rights by establishing the National Political Congress of Black Women.
Chisholm was an independent politician-a term that many consider an oxymoron-and was once described as “feisty and brash” when, as a newly elected representative, she demanded, and got, a reassignment to the Veterans Affairs Committee. Her independence sometimes forced her to support unpopular, yet worthy issues and personalities, but that was a part of her strength-she would never “go along to get along.”
Her private life was indeed private. After her first marriage, she remarried to Arthur Hardwick, Jr., but never had any children. Chisholm died on January 1, 2005 at the age of 80 years old.
Of her many quotes, she may best be remembered for the following:
‘I KNOW I WILL SURVIVE, I’M A FIGHTER’ and ‘OF MY TWO HANDICAPS, BEING FEMALE PUTS MORE OBSTACLES IN MY PATH THAN BEING BLACK’.
Sen. Carol Moseley Braun
While the Honorable Carol Moseley Braun was a member of the United States Senate, a well-known national syndicated columnist wrote an article alleging that she was a corrupt legislator. She responded, “I think because he couldn’t say nigger, he said corrupt,” and she compared his words to that of a ku klux klansman (one of the group of domestic terrorists). “He can take his hood and put it back on again.” In 1992, she was the first Black woman to be elected to the U. S. Senate in history, and when she took her place among the Senators of that august body, the U.S. Senate had been in existence for two hundred years.
Carol Elizabeth Moseley was born in Chicago, Illinois on August 16, 1947 to Joseph Moseley, a law enforcement officer, and Edna Moseley, a medical technician. She attended Chicago public schools, received a Bachelor’s Degree in 1969 from the University of Illinois at Chicago and her law degree in 1972 from the University of Chicago. The following year, she got married to Michael Braun and began using a hyphenated surname, Moseley-Braun. (They had a son, Matthew Braun, who eventually became a computer engineer).
Her first major assignment as an attorney was a prosecutor in United States Attorney’s office for the Northern District of Illinois in Chicago. While there, Moseley-Braun handled high-profiled cases that mostly involved civil and appellate law in the areas of housing, health and the environment. Her work as an aggressive assistant U. S. Attorney earned her the Attorney General’s Special Achievement award and recognition in the area of public interest.
Moseley-Braun left the U. S. Attorney’s office in 1977 and began to explore running for elective office. Her first public office was in 1978-she was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives. In the state legislature, she championed education reform, civil rights, gun control, health-care and governmental reform, and she also led the fight for a moratorium on the death penalty. Moseley-Braun became the assistant Democratic, majority leader and was recognized as “the conscience of the House.”
She was re-elected to a second term after four years and continued on the same legislative path that characterized her first term. Moseley-Braun initiated a reapportionment case, Crosby vs. State Board of Elections, against the State Democratic Party and the state of Illinois on behalf of African Americans and Latino citizens. When it was concluded, the ruling became a landmark case.
After two terms as a state legislator, she ran for the Cook County, Illinois, Recorder of Deeds. Around that time she and her husband were divorced. The recorder of deeds was somewhat of a lower-profiled elective position in contrast to the State House of Representative. She remained in that post for four years.
In 1991, when the President nominated Clarence Thomas to replace retiring Justice Thurgood Marshall as the U. S. Supreme Court’s lone African American Justice, the confirmation battle that ensued resulted in some unintended consequences and collateral damages in several parts of the nation. One such instance was one of the then current two-termed U.S. Senators from Illinois voted to confirm Clarence Thomas. Though poorly financed, Moseley-Braun challenged him in the primary and gained 38 percent (the most), in a field of three candidates. It was an upset victory but since she did not get the required minimum of 50 percent plus one, she had to face the Republican candidate, who was also vying for the same seat, in a runoff. She prevailed after receiving 53 percent of the votes and became the first African American woman to be elected to the U.S. Senate. Moseley-Braun was also one of two African Americans to serve in the Senate during the 20th century (the other one was Senator Edward W. Brooke, a Republican representing Massachusetts), and was the only African American among the 100 members of the Senate, when she arrived in Washington, D.C. in 1993.
There she established herself as a liberal and was noted for supporting rights for homemakers, for restoring budget monies for youth, senior citizens training, but would move a little to the “right” on economic issues. Moseley-Braun paid special attention to racial and gender issues for obvious reasons, and her reputation, as a liberal, took a backseat during those times. She clashed with Southern senators over a patent for a Confederate insignia and won.
Before she had a year in the Senate, she encountered Washington’s vintage preoccupation-an investigation. Moseley-Braun became the focus of an investigation by the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) for unaccounted campaign funds. After a thorough investigation, the FEC found some minor violations that were due to book-keeping errors and not any irregularities.
However, her activities were closely watched because though there were other woman senators, the Senate was still a White male-dominated institution and Moseley-Braun was Black and female. The women in the Senate were a close-knitted “sisterhood” and Moseley-Braun was placed in the Women In Congress, 1917-2006 to be noted in the historical record of the Congress. In 1993, there were five female senators in a total of one hundred members.
As she was the junior senator from Illinois, and her senior colleague was also a Democrat, it was prudent that they operated as a team whenever possible. Though the Senate operated as a body, each member had an individual, independent position; the only difference in rank was seniority. Moseley-Braun voted in favor of many of the quality-of-life issues including the Northern American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act, the Balanced Budget Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, the Freedom to Farm Act, and the Telecommunications Act. The latter two were contrary to the more populist wing of Democratic Party.
She also opposed those laws that she believed were adverse primarily to her state and the well-being of the nation including the Communications Decency Act, the Defense of Marriage Act and the Death Penalty. Besides the aforementioned acts, there was social legislation that Moseley-Braun held strong positions on such as pro-choice, partial birth abortions, funding in military bases and gun-control measures.
As an African American and a senator, Moseley-Braun felt compelled to reach out to countries in Africa as part of her responsibility as an emissary of the U.S. government and to bridge the gap in her heritage, especially since it was commonplace among legislators. She met with General Sani Abacha, the military leader of Nigeria and was criticized for that meeting because Abacha had a questionable human rights record, and his country seemed to have always been in the throes of political upheavals.
Her career suffered as a result of the previously-mentioned campaign finances investigation, her political enemies mis-characterized her alleged “foreign policy blunder” and some of her actions to the public. Moseley-Braun was unsuccessful in her bid for a second term but later became the U.S. ambassador to New Zealand.
In February 2003, she formed an exploratory committee for the U. S. presidency. When a reporter asked her what made her want to run for president, Moseley-Braun reportedly said, “I wanted to serve my country. I’d come back from New Zealand and found that I had some real concerns about the direction in which this country was headed. And I decided that this office was the one most suited to the skills that I’ve brought to public service.” After almost a year of campaigning, she pulled out of the race and endorsed one of the other candidates.
Since Moseley-Braun left public office, she opened the law firm of Moseley-Braun LLC in Chicago. She is often invited as a guest speaker at many of the nation’s prestigious universities including Howard and Brandeis Universities and spends her time between homes in Chicago and Atlanta.
She also ran unsuccessfully for the office of the mayor of Chicago in 2011.