Too few know enough about Shirley Chisholm − the first African-American woman to be elected to Congress and the first African-American major-party candidate for president of the United States. As part of a the Department of Labor’s initiative to create a list of Books that Shaped Work in America, I was asked to suggest books that I believe have shaped work in America or influenced my own life. Among my picks is “Unbought and Unbossed,” Chisholm’s autobiographical account of her path to politics and her remarkable and inspiring story of challenge and triumph.
Chisholm spent part of her childhood in Barbados and finished out her school years in Brooklyn before attending Brooklyn College and later earning a master’s degree at Columbia University.
She ran for Congress under the slogan “unbought and unbossed,” as an emblem of her unwavering commitment to the people she represented rather than to party interests. She served seven terms in Congress, and throughout her time in office, she sponsored a number of bills to help women, families and the poor.
When Shirley Chisholm ran for president in 1972, she did not expect to win, and explained that she ran “because somebody had to do it first,” and because “most people think the country is not ready for a Black candidate, not ready for a woman candidate.” She recognized that with the presidency, as well as many other things, “tremendous amounts of talent are being lost to our society just because that talent wears a skirt.”
Unfortunately, this still bears true today. While women make up nearly half of the workforce, they only make up around 17 percent of board seats for Fortune 500 companies. And even though women are half of the population, they only hold 18.5 percent of the seats in Congress and just 24.2 percent of state-level legislators.
It’s clear that while we’ve made some progress since Chisholm’s time, our work isn’t finished − and that includes the work of my agency, the Women’s Bureau.
When introducing a commemorative stamp of Chisholm as part of the U.S. Postal Service’s Black Heritage Series earlier this month, Deputy Postmaster General Ronald Stroman said that she “shattered barriers of race and gender.”
I hope that her story will inspire others − as it inspired me − to continue working to shatter those barriers. Check out her book and the other influential works in our books project, and then let us know which works you think have shaped work, workers and workplaces in America.
Latifa Lyles is the acting director of the department’s Women’s Bureau.