Shirley Chisholm and the 9 Other First Black Women in Congress – Biography

This article was originally published here.
These political pioneers broke racial and gender barriers during their time as members of the House of Representatives.

As African-American writer and civil rights activist Audre Lorde once said: “Women are powerful and dangerous.” Perhaps it wouldn’t be far-fetched to say that women are a lot more powerful and dangerous when they decide to throw their hats into the ring of American politics. 

These 10 African-American women made history as the first in their communities to be elected to the House of Representatives. Discover more about their lives, the issues that inspired them and the ways in which they broke down barriers, both racial and gender-based, in American politics.

Shirley Chisholm (D-NY), 1969-83

Shirley Chisholm

Representing the 12th district of New York, Shirley Chisholm became the first black woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1969. While in office, Chisholm fought for the same issues that she had been passionate about as a community activist: children’s education and welfare, a guaranteed minimum income to help the poor, immigration rights and women’s rights.

Chisholm did not see herself as a skilled legislator; rather, she believed her function in Congress was to be a trailblazer who could build coalitions to bring about the change she, and her constituents, wanted. True to her goals, she helped establish the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) in 1971 before becoming the first black person from a major party to make a run for the White House the following year.

After her failed bid for the presidency, Chisholm continued her work in Congress, establishing a lot of new ground along the way. In 1977, she co-founded the Congressional Women’s Caucus. After leaving Congress in 1983, Chisholm co-founded the National Political Congress of Black Women and campaigned for Jesse Jackson‘s presidential bids.

Yvonne Brathwaite Burke (D-CA), 1973-79

Yvonne Brathwaite Burke

Yvonne Brathwaite Burke

In 1972, Yvonne Brathwaite Burke became the first African-American woman from California to win a House seat. While she achieved many historic firsts, such as serving as the first female chair of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) as well as earning a coveted spot in the Appropriations Committee, Burke is most known for being the first Congresswoman to have given birth and been granted maternity leave while in office.

Among her legislative agenda, Burke fought for the rights of minority-owned businesses. As a proponent of the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline, she successfully added two amendments to the bill — the first ensuring the implementation of affirmative action programs, and the second requiring that the pipeline materials be manufactured in the United States.

Women’s issues were also at the forefront of Burke’s work. In 1977, she became the first treasurer of the Congressional Women’s Caucus and also helped extend the Equal Rights Amendment by three more years. She also proposed the Displaced Homemakers Act, which helped women in challenging circumstances re-enter the workforce. In 1978, she also sought to protect pregnant women against workplace discrimination before retiring from Congress the following year.

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Barbara Jordan (D-TX), 1973-79

Barbara Jordan

Barbara Jordan

As the first black woman elected to Congress from the Deep South, Barbara Jordan was a politician who focused on local community interests rather than broader issues like women’s and civil rights. Aiming to get things done, she worked within the established power structures and avoided committing to any particular interest group.

Jordan took a seat on the Education and Labor Committee, as well as on the Judiciary Committee. It is the latter assignment that propelled her to national fame when, in 1974, President Nixon was under consideration for impeachment for the Watergate scandal.

As a freshman member of the Judiciary Committee, Jordan delivered her opening statement supporting articles of impeachment against Nixon on national television. “My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total,” Jordan said. “I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.” Her response was received with widespread praise.

In 1976, Jordan became the first black person to deliver a keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention. After she stepped down from her office in 1978, Jordan went on to serve as a national chairman at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas in Austin. She also served as President Bill Clinton‘s appointee for the Commission on Immigration Reform in 1994.

Cardiss Collins (D-IL), 1973-97

Cardiss Collins

Cardiss Collins

With the sudden death of her husband, Representative George Collins, in 1972, Cardiss Collins chose to continue his legacy and fill his vacant seat. Despite having no political experience, Collins was elected by Chicago voters and would go on to serve 12 consecutive terms in Congress, becoming one of the longest-serving minority members in its history.

Being loyal to the local politics of her city, Collins focused on housing and economic development for Chicago’s low-income families and worked on similar legislation on the national level. In 1979, she became the Congressional Black Caucus’ second chairwoman, which enhanced her stature in the House.

Other issues Collins promoted were affirmative action programs, including the Airport and Airway Safety, Capacity and Expansion Act of 1987, which pushed for women and minority-run businesses in the industry. In 1993 she introduced the Equality in Athletic Disclosure Act, which encouraged gender equity in collegiate sports and, as an advocate for women’s health, co-sponsored the Universal Health Care Act and the Health Security Act that same year. She also introduced a bill that would designate October as National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Katie Hall (D-IN), 1982-85

Katie Hall

Katie Hall

Katie Hall didn’t anticipate becoming the first black female from Indiana to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives, but with the sudden death of Indiana Democratic Representative Adam Benjamin, Jr. in 1982, she became the choice pick to fill his vacant seat and won.

Hall focused on labor, education and women’s issues, but her most memorable legislative mark was becoming chairwoman of the Post Office and Civil Service Subcommittee on Census and Population. It was there that she introduced a bill to make Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday. After much negotiation and persistence, she convinced the majority of her fellow House members to pass the bill (338 to 90), and on November 2, 1983, President Reagan signed it into law.

After Hall failed to win her re-election bid in 1984, she stayed active in Indiana politics, serving on Gary’s housing board and becoming city clerk. In 2003, she was charged with federal mail fraud, to which she plead guilty.

Barbara-Rose Collins (D-MI), 1991-97

Barbara-Rose Collins

Barbara-Rose Collins

Single mother Barbara-Rose Collins rose up the ranks of Detroit politics, becoming a champion for the city’s poorest neighborhoods. When she entered Congress in 1991, she focused and fought hard on several local issues: advocating for minorities, providing economic assistance to the poor and promoting the preservation of black families.

In addition to her House duties, Collins also became a member of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Women’s Caucus and was the Majority Whip At-Large (1993-94). While she eventually approved the final version of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Collins vehemently opposed President Clinton’s crime bill, stating it would disproportionately affect minorities in a negative way.

In 1995, Collins supported the Million Man March, which was a rally for black men to be responsible fathers and partners. And although she believed in taking care of Americans first, she passionately opposed the national policy that made it difficult for Haitian refugees to seek asylum and even got arrested while protesting at the White House. In 1996, federal authorities investigated her for alleged abuse of scholarship and campaign funds, which led to the end of her career as a representative. Still, she remained politically active back home, earning a position on Detroit’s city council.

Eva M. Clayton (D-NC), 1992-2003

Eva M. Clayton

Eva M. Clayton

As the first black Congresswoman representing the state of North Carolina — she was also the state’s second black representative since 1901 — Eva M. Clayton built her political career on helping protect her rural district’s agricultural interests, as well as providing federal aid to disadvantaged black communities.

Because many of her constituents were poor tobacco farmers, Clayton, who would eventually become a ranking Democratic member on the Agriculture Committee’s Operations, Oversight, Nutrition, and Forestry Subcommittee, supported the extension of tobacco subsidies. She also successfully protected affordable housing under the Agriculture Department’s Section 515 program. Clayton secured billions of dollars in relief aid when Hurricane Floyd damaged North Carolina in 1999, helped organize a campaign to encourage African Americans to become homeowners and was a key opponent against the GOP’s attempt at cutting federal aid for summer job programs for youth.

Carrie Meek (D-FL), 1993-2003

Carrie Meek

Carrie Meek

When Carrie Meek won her congressional seat in 1992, she was 66 years old and the first black person to represent the state of Florida since the Reconstruction era.

Despite her grandmotherly demeanor, there was nothing meek about Meek. In her first year, she fought hard and secured a spot on the House Appropriations Committee —something unheard of for a freshman member of Congress.

She focused on immigration and natural disaster issues that affected her constituents, fighting for visa extensions for refugees and immigrants and proposing a measure to allow for household workers to receive Social Security benefits. Although she was known for working across the aisle — she collaborated with Republicans on health measures and on providing grant money for college students with learning disabilities — Meek passionately opposed GOP-proposed cuts to welfare programs that would disproportionately affect minorities and the elderly.

Due to her advancing age, Meek decided not to seek re-election in 2002. That same year, however, her youngest child, Kendrick Meek, decided to build upon her legacy. He ran for his mother’s empty seat and won, proudly succeeding her.

Denise Majette (D-GA), 2003-2005

Denis Majette

Denise Majette

With the support of then-Georgia governor Zell Miller, who was on his way to becoming a U.S. senator, Denise Majette won a sweeping victory in the state’s general election to become a U.S. House representative starting in 2003. Although her career in Congress was brief, she became Democratic president of her freshman class and an Assistant Democratic Whip, fighting for issues that would help her fellow Georgians, such as bringing tourism funds to her representative district, protecting federal funding on education initiatives and increasing spending for youth programs like Head Start. Majette spoke critically against the Bush administration’s record on handling domestic abuse issues, and she voted against the Republicans’ overhaul of Medicare in 2003.

Majette surprised many of her colleagues when she decided to run for Miller’s vacated Senate seat in 2004. Her successful grassroots campaign made her the first black woman from Georgia to secure a nomination for the U.S. Senate, but she lost in the general election. In 2006 she also lost her bid for Georgia superintendent of schools. Majette continued working as an attorney in private practice until 2014 when she was disbarred by the Georgia Supreme Court for overbilling her clients and misleading the court on what she was owed in legal fees.

Cynthia McKinney (D-GA), 1993-2003, 2005-07

Cynthia McKinney

Cynthia McKinney

As the daughter of Bill McKinney, one of Georgia’s first black police officers who also served as a state legislator and civil rights activist, Cynthia McKinney was born a firebrand. McKinney grew up protesting against racial injustice alongside her father, and together, they became the first father-daughter duo to serve in Georgia’s state legislature at the same time.

When McKinney won her bid for Congress in 1992, she made history as the first black woman from Georgia elected to the House. She immediately gained a reputation for her unusual style — gold tennis shoes and a Mickey Mouse watch became her trademark accoutrements — but she was also a politician of fiery substance, known for being a workhorse and a confrontational legislator.

McKinney focused on human rights and economic issues as a Congresswoman. As a member of the International Relations Committee, she successfully sponsored the Arms Transfers Code of Conduct in 1997, an act that prevented weapons sales to countries with longstanding human rights violations. She also frequently criticized America’s foreign policy around this time, denouncing the bombing of Kosovo in 1999 and the sanctions against Iraq.

In 2002 McKinney’s outspoken rhetoric turned off many of her voters. She suggested that officials in the White House under President Bush knew about the 9/11 terrorist attacks beforehand, but did nothing to stop them in order to benefit from the spoils of war. This, along with other criticisms on the national front, pushed Georgia voters away from McKinney at the polls, and they opted for her more moderate primary challenger, Denise Majette. Still, McKinney won back her seat two years later, making her one of the few Congresswomen to serve nonconsecutive terms. After finishing up her career in the House, McKinney ran for president as a Green Party candidate in 2008.

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