Chisholm '72

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Excerpt: Chisholm's Memoir

On Entering Congress

On Entering Congress

Shirley Chisholm with the U.S. Capitol building in the background

When the 91st session of the United States Congress convened, I arrived a little late and broke one of the venerable traditions of the House before I was even sworn in as a member. They had just finished calling the roll when I got there, so I rushed onto the floor with my coat and hat on. At least three members told me that I was breaking a House rule. I went back to a cloakroom to leave my hat and coat and returned to take the oath.

There was nothing like the decorum I had experienced the first day in the New York State Assembly. Members were walking around shaking hands and slapping each other on the back, talking without paying any attention to the proceedings. Up behind a raised platform high in the front of the room sat a gaunt, frail-looking old man, Speaker John McCormack. I was shocked by the way the members milled around and set up a din that drowned out both the Speaker and the men who were taking turns giving brief speeches. The speechmakers were talking on an incredible variety of subjects that seemed of no importance to me. Each talked for one minute, then broke off and handed a copy of his speech to a clerk. The next day it would be printed in full in the Congressional Record as if it had really been given and the other members had listened to it.

Only a few of the faces were known to me, but everyone knew who I was. They were cordial, but in many greetings I sensed aloofness. Men kept asking me, "What does your husband think about all this?" They acted as if they were joking, but they meant to imply that, after all, "a woman's place..." I told them all that this was nothing new for Conrad and me; we had met while I was running from one meeting to another; during the early years of our marriage when he worked as a private detective, he was often away from home; then when he became an investigator for the city and was home every night I was away in the state Assembly four days a week, so my being in Washington four days a week would be nothing new.

After several weeks I realized that everyone had been expecting someone else, a noisy, hostile, antiwhite type. Some of my new colleagues admitted it frankly. "You're not the way we thought you'd be," one said. "You're actually charming."

When the campaign ended, I had taken three weeks' vacation in Jamaica, sleeping and eating, trying to gain back a few pounds. The months of campaigning, broken up by a major operation, had drained my vitality. I knew I should be in Washington rounding up a staff, but first I had to have some rest. When I came to Washington in December, I had to do everything at once. I interviewed a string of applicants for my office staff. Many new Congressmen reward their supporters by putting them in staff jobs. I knew from my experience in Albany that this would be a mistake. What I needed was experience, to make up for my own inexperience in Washington, and after that, of course, I needed competence and loyalty. Before long, I decided my staff would be composed of young women, for the most part, from the receptionist to my top assistants. Capitol Hill offices swarm with intelligent, Washington-wise, college-trained — and attractive — young women who do most of the work that makes a Congressman look good, but often get substandard pay for it and have little hope of advancing to a top staff job. The procedure in my office, I decided, would be different. I have never regretted it. Since then, I have also hired some outstanding young men, on my district and Washington staffs, but the majority is still female. More than half are black, but there has been pressure on me from some of my constituents to hire all all-black staff. "If you don't, who will?" I have been asked. What I have done is hire the best applicants I can get. If they are black, so much the better. But the young white women on my staff are every bit as dedicated and hard working. Even the most suspicious folks from Bedford-Stuyvesant, once they come in contact with them and see how they are working for me and my district, are won over. One constituent paid one of the girls what he thought was the ultimate compliment. "She's black inside," he said.

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Excerpted with permission from Unbought and Unbossed by Shirley Chisholm, 1970.