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January 28, 2005

Shirley Chisholm: Activist, Professor, and Congresswoman

Shirley Chisholm, who held the Purington Chair at Mount Holyoke for four years after retiring from the U.S. Congress in 1983, died January 1, 2005, in Ormond Beach, Florida, at age 80.

Chisholm was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1924 and was sent to live with her maternal grandmother in Barbados in 1927. She returned to Brooklyn in 1934 and attended Girls High School in Brooklyn and Brooklyn College, where she began her lifelong battle against racism and social injustice.

After graduating in 1946 from Brooklyn College, she worked in day care and participated in local politics. She won a seat in the New York General Assembly in 1964 and was elected to the U.S. Congress in 1968. Chisholm was the first African American woman to serve in Congress. She was a staunch opponent of the Vietnam War and a cofounder of the National Organization for Women. She stated, "Women in this country must become revolutionaries. We must refuse to accept the old, the traditional roles and stereotypes."

In 1972, Chisholm ran for president of the United States, declaring, "I am not the candidate of any political bosses or special interests. I am the candidate of the people." She was the first African American -- and the first woman -- to seek nomination for president by a major political party, winning 151 delegates.

Chisholm retired from Congress in 1982. History professor Joseph Ellis, dean of faculty at the time, suggested to then president Elizabeth Kennan Burns that they invite Chisholm to teach at the College. At a series of initial meetings with the congresswoman on campus, Ellis recalled a group of students asking her for advice on becoming social activists. "Learn how to raise money," she told them. Chisholm accepted the offer and came to Mount Holyoke in 1983 to teach politics and sociology.

"She contributed to the vitality of the College and gave the College a presence," said Ellis. "Her message was always, 'Blacks and whites need to do this together.'"

Chisholm received many honorary degrees and awards, including Alumna of the Year, Brooklyn College; Key Woman of the Year; Outstanding Work in the Field of Child Welfare; and Woman of Achievement.


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