If she hadn't gone to Washington 15 years ago as the nation's first black congresswoman, Shirley Chisholm might be stealing applause today from political satirist Mark Russell. Her talent for mimicry makes deft, deflating stabs at some of the capital's most prominent egos in a good-humored but caustic style.
''Chisholm,'' she growls, affecting the deep drawl of one Southern representative, ''I saw in my newspapers that you were down in my state recently. What are you up to?''
''Why, I'm just teaching these days.''
''You're supposed to be teaching at Mount Holyoke, not in my district. You're up to something, Shirley.''
There's Cheshire cat in the Chisholm smile as she recalls that incident and other recent speculation about a possible return to politics after deciding to leave Congress two years ago. But when she's asked about the latest talk in Washington - that she's being considered for the No. 2 spot on the Democratic Party ticket in 1984 - the unpredictable former Brooklyn representative says only, ''I'll take the Fifth.''
In her tidily furnished office at Mount Holyoke College, the first black woman to make a run for the US presidency (in 1972) appears to have settled comfortably into her second term of academic life. She sports the sensible brown tweeds of a professor of sociology, and she's wearing her hair in a style that's reminiscent of a frontier schoolmarm.
As Purington Professor at the college, a position previously held by W.H. Auden and Bertrand Russell, Mrs. Chisholm teaches undergraduate courses in politics relating to women and race. She always has contended that being female has been more of a drawback in her own political career than ''having skin darkened by melanin.'' She says she tries to make her students at the all-women school aware that prejudice against women is so universally accepted that it's become invisible.
An educator by training, Shirley Chisholm demands the kind of independent thinking in her classroom that she was known for in Congress. ''My students who are the most creative and innovative thinkers are learning to put forth their ideas in a discussion without feeling that it will affect them academically,'' she explains. ''I think it's important for them to learn to have different viewpoints and different approaches without feeling intimidated by a professor.''
The two days each week that she doesn't have classes, Mrs. Chisholm is on the road lecturing. By her count, she's spoken at more than 150 college campuses in the past 25 years. The specter of growing intolerance in the United States has been a driving theme of her most recent talks with students. In a packed auditorium at Radcliffe College, she recently told the incoming freshman class that the educational challenges of the 1980s were the combating of polarization and hostility. ''If you don't accept others who are different,'' she noted, ''it means nothing that you've learned calculus.''
In her own battles against intolerance, Shirley Chisholm has been called disruptive by political colleagues and crafty by political foes. The news media have characterized her as a scrappy, assertive fighter, and one national news magazine has described her as ''not unduly hampered by modesty.''
''Discipline'' is the word Mrs. Chisholm uses to describe the angularity commented on by others. Stern, firm discipline of mind and body, she says, was an important teaching of the Quaker faith she was raised in. ''You can't withstand the constant onslaughts and abuses, the misinterpretations and misunderstandings unless you have self-confidence - which discipline helps to bring about. It's an inner strength that Quaker women have always had.''
Two Quaker women who left a deep imprint on young Shirley Anita St. Hill were the grandmother who raised her on Barbados until she was 11 (''Child, you're bright, you know!'') and the mother who dispensed advice about bills and other legal pitfalls to neighborhood women in New York City's Brownsville in the early 1930s.
From her father, a Guyana immigrant, she learned pride in being black. And from a white teacher at Brooklyn College she learned that white people were not so different from herself.
Those early lessons are at the heart of the gospel of coalition politics Shirley Chisholm is preaching today. As she travels the country talking with groups of women, students, blacks, Chicanos, and Indians (''I'm speaking to everybody who's not white male, it's as simple as that''), she urges them to break down the stereotypes they have of one another in order to become a potent political force at the local level.
Although Mrs. Chisholm's engagement calendar generally is booked ahead for five months at a time, she reserves at least two weekends each month to spend with her husband, Arthur Chadwick Jr., in their newly purchased home in Williamsville, N.Y. Since she left Congress a year ago, she's been methodically making her way through their 5,000-book library of biographies, autobiographies, and historical tomes. In between chapters, she's apt to sit down at the grand piano for a jazz session or dash to the nearest disco for some fancy footwork.
It's a schedule that many husbands might find hard to keep up with, but not Mr. Chadwick.
''He says to me, 'Look, Shirl, you can go wherever you want. But just remember, when you do decide to make a trip to the moon or to outer space, to pick up the phone and let me know where you are.' ''