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Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman to run for president, just got the Presidential Medal of Freedom

Shirley Chisholm during her historic 1972 run for the Democratic nomination for president.
Shirley Chisholm during her historic 1972 run for the Democratic nomination for president.

While the idea of a black person or woman running for the country’s highest office isn’t exactly novel anymore, it certainly was when Rep. Shirley Chisholm (D-NY) ran for the Democratic ticket in 1972.

Chisholm, who died in 2005, received a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom Tuesday along with 16 other notable Americans including indigenous persons advocate Billy Frank Jr., baseball legends Willie Mays and Yogi Berra, and entertainer Barbra Streisand.

"Shirley Chisholm’s example transcends her life," President Barack Obama said Tuesday during the ceremony. "When asked how she’d like to be remembered, she said, ‘I’d like them to say Shirley Chisholm had guts.’ And I’m proud to say it — Shirley Chisholm had guts."

Among a crowded field of Democrats, Chisholm was the first woman of color to run for president for a major party, and the first woman Democrat. But at that point, she was no stranger to firsts. She was the first black woman elected to Congress in 1968 and was a co-founder of the Congressional Black Caucus and later, the Congressional Women’s Caucus. Chisholm, who famously declared herself "unbought and unbossed," wasn't exactly warmly received in Congress, where she was decidedly the odd woman out. "I have no intention of just sitting quietly and observing," she once said. Of course, she certainly did not. Early on, Chisholm openly fought her appointment to the Committee on Agriculture because it would hardly affect her constituents in Brooklyn, New York. Eventually she was appointed to the Veterans' Affairs Committee. Throughout her tenure, she was known to criticize both Republicans and members of her own party for not addressing the needs of the "have nots."

In 1972, Chisholm declared her candidacy for president on behalf of the "have nots" of the country, imploring them to exercise their duty to vote. "I ran because somebody had to do it first," Chisholm said in the 2004 documentary Chisholm ’72. "I ran because most people thought the country was not ready for a black candidate, not ready for a woman candidate. Someday — it was time in 1972 to make that someday come."

While she was not a major candidate (South Dakota Sen. George McGovern barely won the Democratic primary that summer over Hubert Humphrey), she did appear on 12 primary ballots and gained a small yet fierce following of voters who had largely not been represented in national politics before her run. Still, the lack of actual endorsements from the two political groups who should have been the most obvious backers — women and black Americans — was quite telling.

Chisholm’s black male colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus were split about whether to support her run. Some said they did not support her campaign’s coalition building with other minority groups (which, incidentally, the Black Panthers did see the value in). The caucus did not back Chisholm, citing the importance of supporting a candidate who could beat Republican President Richard Nixon, who was running for reelection. "Black male politicians are no different from white male politicians," Chisholm said, according to a congressional biography. "This ‘woman thing' is so deep. I've found it out in this campaign if I never knew it before."

Meanwhile, many feminist activists and congresswomen vocalized their support for Chisholm’s run, and many supported her ideas, but they were hesitant to give their full backing to a candidate who would not win office. Gloria Steinem and other members of the burgeoning feminist group, the National Organization for Women, personally endorsed her, but the group's official endorsement went to McGovern.

Chisholm managed to carry 151 delegates at the Democratic National Convention that summer, but in the end, black and feminist Democratic delegates sided with McGovern. A few months later, Nixon won reelection over McGovern by a landslide.

Sure, it was unlikely that Chisholm would have won that year, but the hesitance to endorse her among feminist and black leaders especially speaks to the greater disparity known as white feminism. While the newest wave of feminism is becoming more intersectional, or inclusive of all issues of equality like race and sexual orientation, Chisholm’s run was a prime example of the exclusion of women of color had and have experienced with mainstream feminism. Still, Chisholm's attitude about those who didn't support her echoed that of many black women: "If you can’t support me, or you can’t endorse me, get out of my way," she said. "You do your thing and I’ll do mine."

Correction: A previous version of the article stated Shirley Chisholm was the first woman to wage a presidential campaign for a major party. She was the first woman of color to run for any major party, and the first for the Democrats. Sen. Margaret Chase Smith (R-Maine) was the first woman to make a presidential bid for a major party in 1964, though others ran prior to Smith for minor and niche parties.

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