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Shirley Chisholm, 80, first black woman elected to Congress

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress and an outspoken advocate for women and minorities during seven terms in the House, died Saturday, friends said. She was 80.

"She was our Moses that opened the Red Sea for us," Robert E. Williams, president of the NAACP in Flagler County, said yesterday. He did not have the details of her death.

Ms. Chisholm, who was reared in a predominantly black New York City neighborhood and was elected to the US House in 1968, was a riveting speaker who often criticized Congress as being too clubby and unresponsive.

"My greatest political asset, which professional politicians fear, is my mouth, out of which come all kinds of things one shouldn't always discuss for reasons of political expediency," she told voters.

She went to Congress the same year Richard Nixon was elected to the White House and served until two years into Ronald Reagan's tenure as president.

Newly elected, she was assigned to the House Agriculture Committee, which she felt was irrelevant to her urban constituency. In an unheard-of move, she demanded reassignment and got switched to the Veterans Affairs Committee.

Not long afterward she voted for Hale Boggs, who was white, over John Conyers, who was black, for majority leader. Boggs rewarded her with a place on the prized Education and Labor Committee and she was its third ranking member when she left.

She ran for the Democratic nomination for the presidency in 1972. When rival candidate George Wallace, her ideological opposite, was shot, she visited him in the hospital, an act that appalled her followers.

"He said, 'What are your people going to say?' I said: 'I know what they're going to say. But I wouldn't want what happened to you to happen to anyone.' He cried and cried," she recalled.

When she needed support to extend the minimum wage to domestic workers two years later, it was Wallace who got her the votes from Southern members of Congress.

Pragmatism and power were watchwords. "Women have learned to flex their political muscles. You got to flex that muscle to get what you want," she said during her presidential campaign.

When Bella Abzug challenged Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the 1976 Democratic Senate primary, Ms. Chisholm caused a stir by backing Moynihan. "Where was Abzug when I ran for president?" she asked, when questioned about her choice.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson called Ms. Chisholm a "woman of great courage."

"She was an activist and she never stopped fighting," Jackson said from Ohio. "She refused to accept the ordinary, and she had high expectations for herself and all people around her."

Her leadership traits were recognized by her parents early on. Born Shirley St. Hill in New York City, she was the eldest of four daughters of a Guyanese father and a Barbadian mother.

Her father, an unskilled laborer in a burlap bag factory, and her mother, a domestic, scrimped to educate their children.

At age 3, Shirley was sent to live on her grandmother's farm in Barbados. She attended British grammar school and picked up the clipped Caribbean accent that marked her speech.

She moved back to New York when she was 11 and graduated from Brooklyn College and earned a master's degree from Columbia University.

Ms. Chisholm started her career as director of a day care center before becoming active in local Democratic politics and running successfully for the state Assembly in 1964.

She was an assemblywoman from 1964 to 1968 before besting James Farmer, the former national chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality, to gain the House seat.

"I am the people's politician," she said at the time. "If the day should ever come when the people can't save me, I'll know I'm finished."

After leaving Congress, she was named to the Purington Chair at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., where she taught for four years. In later years she was a sought-after speaker.

She was married twice. Her 1949 marriage to Conrad Chisholm ended in divorce in 1977. Later that year she married Arthur Hardwick Jr. She had no children.

Once discussing what her legacy might be, she commented, "I'd like them to say that Shirley Chisholm had guts. That's how I'd like to be remembered."

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