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A Trailblazer’s Story

A new movie will tell the story of Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman member of Congress.

Portrait of Shirley Chisholm.
Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (LC-U9-25383-33)
This 1972 photo was taken as Representative Shirley Chisholm announced that she was running for president.

The story of the first Black woman in Congress is coming to Netflix on March 22. Shirley (rated PG-13), starring Regina King in the title role, traces the life and career of trailblazing lawmaker Shirley Chisholm.

“What she did was so pioneering,” King, who is also a producer on the movie, told Harper’s Bazaar. “She was a true maverick and, you know, we use this term all the time, but she was a true first.”

Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1924, Chisholm started her career as a nursery school teacher, eventually earning a master’s degree in early childhood education from Columbia University. Chisholm’s desire to tackle race and gender inequality led her to become more and more politically active. She belonged to the Brooklyn chapters of the League of Women Voters, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the Urban League. 

In 1964, Chisholm won a seat in the New York state legislature, representing her Brooklyn district. Four years later, she was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where no Black woman had ever held a seat.

Chisholm’s dedication to the causes she believed in earned her the nickname “Fighting Shirley.” She introduced more than 50 pieces of legislation, spoke out for racial and gender equality, opposed the Vietnam War, and championed increased funding to fight poverty.

Shirley Chisholm speaks before a crowd and stands in front of the sign that reads equal rights for women.
Archive Photos/Getty Images
Representative Shirley Chisholm delivers a speech on women’s rights at an event in 1981.

In 1972, Chisholm campaigned to become the Democratic Party’s nominee for president. She was the first Black woman in the U.S. to seek the nomination from a major political party. However, she was not allowed to participate in televised debates and could not make televised speeches until she fought that decision in court. She eventually dropped out of the presidential race. Chisholm retired from Congress in 1983 and cofounded the National Political Congress of Black Women, an organization that supports political, educational, and economic opportunities for Black women. She died in 2005.

Chisholm’s biopic (biographical film) is being released 100 years after her birth. But King, who won an Academy Award in 2019 for her performance in If Beale Street Could Talk, says a movie about this political pioneer is long overdue.

“She felt such a strong sense of ‘If it’s not me, then who?’ And she didn’t see it any other way,” King told Harper’s Bazaar. “If no one else was doing it, she would take action.”

Did You Know?

Elizabeth Cady Stanton was the first woman to run for Congress. Stanton ran in 1866, more than 50 years before the 19th Amendment (1920) gave women the right to vote.

The photo above shows Stanton (seated, third from right) at an 1888 gathering of suffragists, activists who fought to extend the vote to women.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and many other suffragists pose for a group photo
Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Slow Progress

Today, there are many more women in government than there were when Shirley Chisholm served in Congress. But women are still underrepresented.

Pie charts show the percentage of female governors, representatives, senators, and lieutenant governors.
Tony Miller, © Michael Brochstein—SOPA Images/Shutterstock.com, New Jersey National Guard, Office of U.S. Senator Katie Britt, © Orhan Cam/Shutterstock.com; Infographic Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

International Women’s Day

North Wind Picture Archives, © PictureLux—The Hollywood Archive/Alamy, Addison N. Scurlock—Michael Ochs Archives, Bettmann/Getty Images, UPI/Bettmann Archive, NASA, Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-65195), National Portrait Gallery (NPG.87.43), Wellcome Collection, London; Photo composite Encyclopædai Britannica, Inc.

March is Women’s History Month in the United States, and March 8 is International Women’s Day around the world.

Learn more about International Women’s Day, and what it means, at Britannica.

WORD OF THE DAY

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