AS WITH MOST things in her life, Shirley Chisholm had some pretty definite ideas about how she wanted to be remembered. "I'd like them to say that Shirley Chisholm had guts," she said. Mrs. Chisholm died Saturday at age 80, and her obituaries inevitably led, as she knew they would, with her litany of firsts -- first black woman in the House, first black woman to seek a major party presidential nomination. Yet -- to the surprise of no one who knew her -- the not-always-so-gentlelady from Brooklyn also got her wish: The cascade of remembrances from friends and colleagues reverberates with the common themes of unshrinking independence and fearlessness in the face of power.
"Unbought and Unbossed" was the campaign slogan for her run for the House in 1968, and it proved apt. Upon her arrival, the freshman Democrat took the unheard-of step of balking at her assignment to the Agriculture Committee, which she considered irrelevant to her urban district. Rejecting the speaker's counsel to "be a good soldier," Mrs. Chisholm ended up with a preferable slot on Veterans Affairs. Some years later, having climbed the House rungs to a spot on the powerful Rules Committee, she publicly chastised the chairman, at her first meeting, for referring to her by first name, when the male members of the panel were all called "Mr." Receiving an invitation to the prestigious -- but then all-male -- Gridiron dinner, Mrs. Chisholm fired off the perfect rebuff: "Guess who's not coming to dinner."
Her 1972 presidential run was similarly bold. Mrs. Chisholm knew she stood little chance of winning. But, she said on announcing her candidacy, she wanted "to repudiate the ridiculous notion that the American people will not vote for a qualified candidate simply because he is not white or because she is not a male." As if on cue, Walter Cronkite of CBS duly reported, "A new hat -- rather, a bonnet -- was tossed into the presidential race today." Mrs. Chisholm didn't shy away from taking on those in her own camp either. When candidate George Wallace was wounded in an assassination attempt, Mrs. Chisholm went to visit the former ardent segregationist at the hospital, and, she said, "Black people in my community crucified me."
By the time she retired in 1982, Mrs. Chisholm, an icon of activist liberal politics, said that with the advent of the Reagan administration and a more conservative Congress, "many of us can't be effective at this time. It's not because we're not trying but because the gods seem to be against us." In recent years, said her friend Donna Brazile, "she would call and ask, 'What the hell is going on up there?' " But if the political tides flowed in a different direction than Mrs. Chisholm wanted, she nonetheless charted a course that many others were to follow. Just ask the 14 African American women in Congress today. A modest sign of progress, perhaps, but no one is remarking on their bonnets.