By Mollie Appel-Turner
On Jan 25, 1972, Congresswomen Shirley Chisholm, representative for New York State’s Twelfth District and the first African American woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, announced her candidacy for president. With this announcement, Chisholm became both the first African American to run for a major party’s presidential nomination and also the first woman ever to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. The UC Berkeley Oral History Center has several interviews that address Chisholm’s trailblazing candidacy. In addition, the Center has numerous interviews with other ground-breaking female politicians.
“Anything that black women do like that, they’re pioneering; they’re the first, or one of the first. Because it takes a lot of guts and militancy and sacrifice to do those things when it isn’t popular.”
— Frances Mary Albrier
Frances Mary Albrier was a woman of numerous accomplishments. A graduate of UC Berkeley, she was an indefatigable opponent of racism, a civil rights activist from the 1920s onward, the first woman elected to Alameda County’s Democratic Central Committee, as well as the first black woman hired by Kaiser Shipyards during World War II. She founded the East Bay Women’s Welfare Club, and her efforts led to the hiring of black women teachers in the Berkeley public schools. Albrier discussed Chisholm’s then-recent candidacy when she was interviewed in 1977 and 1978 as part of a series on women political leaders.
Mrs. Chisholm pioneered when she ran for Congress in New York as a black woman. Anything that black women do like that, they’re pioneering; they’re the first, or one of the first. Because it takes a lot of guts and militancy and sacrifice to do those things when it isn’t popular, and it wasn’t popular for a black woman in the East or anywhere. Now, when Mrs. Chisholm ran for president, she did it again. She’s pioneered the way for [others]. Eventually, we’ll have a woman president of the United States. Those doors have been opened. People had looked at her and they’ve talked about a woman running for president. They heard what she had to say. It will be much easier for the next woman who has the ambition to run for president to do so.
Janet West was also interviewed for the women political leaders series, focusing on her work as a Santa Barbara Board of Education member. In the multi-interview volume Women in Politics Volume II, West spoke about how her experiences as a parent influenced her desire to run for office, and both motivated and informed her decisions as a board member. In her 1972 oral history, West discussed the significance of Chisholm’s then-contemporary candidacy:
I think if you’re talking about a large political office, people have the idea that you know, a woman couldn’t stand up under the pressures and maybe couldn’t take all that guff or whatever it is. I think we really have to overcome that type of thing and I’m not sure how many votes Shirley Chisholm will get just because she’s a woman, certainly not because she’s black but because she’s a woman and I don’t think people really feel that a woman can do all that hard work. It’s a lot of hard work.
Professor Harry Edwards joined UC Berkeley’s department of sociology in 1971. He conducted scholarship in the area of sociology of race and sport and is also renowned for his involvement in the famous Black Power salute on the victory podium at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. In “Harry Edwards: An Oral History,” he discussed his early life and upbringing in addition to his role as a scholar-activist, his time at Berkeley, and his work as a consultant to national football and basketball teams. When he was interviewed as part of the UC Berkeley African American Faculty and Senior Staff oral history project in 2005, Edwards spoke of Chisholm with both the knowledge of a contemporary and the perspective of a sociologist. Edwards discussed Chisholm’s extraordinary independence:
Shirley Chisholm, first of all, she had one phenomenal liability, and what I call it is the Stevenson syndrome. She was extraordinarily bright. She was extremely intelligent. That’s a phenomenal liability in the convention of the American political scene. She also had an independence to her that put her outside of the authoritative black leadership influence and control circle. The authoritative black leadership influence and control circle tried to get her not to run. They did not feel that it was “time” for a black woman to step out and run for President. She ran without the endorsement of the NAACP, without the endorsement of the Congress of Racial Equality, without the endorsement of SCLC, without the endorsement of Operation PUSH and Jesse Jackson. She ran on her own.
Shirley Chisholm is one of many women politicians discussed in the Oral History Center’s collections. The Oral History Center contains a wide variety of interviews on women in local, state, and national politics. For more on ground-breaking female politicians, the Oral History Center’s Women Political Leaders collection contains interviews that cover almost the entirety of the 20th century, from the suffragists onward. Interviewees include March Fong Eu, the first Asian American woman in the United States to be elected to a state constitutional office; Helen Gahagan Douglas, the first Democratic woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives; and Hope Mendoza Schechter, a member of the Democratic State Central Committee and an activist for both the labor movement and the Mexican American community. The Oral History Center continues to preserve the histories of women leaders in the political sphere and is currently conducting new interviews with female political leaders in the Bay Area Women in Politics and California State Archives projects. For those who wish to learn more, a good place to start is the Oral History Center’s Women in Politics podcast, which has episodes on a variety of important female political leaders of the twentieth century — at the local, state, and national levels — including Francis Albrier.
Mollie Appel-Turner joined the Oral History Center as a student editor in fall 2021. She is currently a fourth-year history student with a concentration in medieval history.
About the Oral History Center
The Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library has interviews on just about every topic imaginable. You can find the interviews mentioned here and all our oral histories from the search feature on our home page. Search by name, keyword, and several other criteria. We preserve voices of people from all walks of life, with varying political perspectives, national origins, and ethnic backgrounds. We are committed to open access and our oral histories and interpretive materials are available online at no cost to scholars and the public.