Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to the United States Congress, is one of the personalities at the centre of BBC2’s historical drama Mrs America – but what else do we know about the politician who sought to get the Equal Rights Amendment ratified in the 70s?

Shirley Chisholm
Uzo Aduba as Shirley Chisholm in Mrs America

Mrs America chronicles the historical campaign for a change to the US constitution that would prevent equal rights under the law from being “denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex,” the proposed text read.

Activist Shirley, played by Orange is the New Black actress Uzo Aduba, rallied for the amendment. Tonight’s episode was directed by Amma Asante, who urged producers to give her that particular story, and is a powerful insight into Shirley’s efforts and who she was. Shirley died on 1 January 2005.

Amma Asante
Film director, Amma Asante directed two Mrs America episodes

Amma, speaking at a BAFTA masterclass earlier this month, said: “For my two episodes, Shirley Chisholm and Betty Friedan [played by Tracey Ullman], I had to consume as much information as I could. For those of you who watch the series, you’ll see there’s a combination of types of filmmaking and camerawork that go on. For the anti [campaigners] it’s shot very traditionally and for the pros, it’s shot really handheld. Of course, Shirley would fall into that pro-movement category.

“Many of us have aunts like this [Shirley]. I think a lot of the time when you’re Black, you’re seen as radical.”

“Many of us have aunts like this [Shirley]. I think a lot of the time when you’re Black, you’re seen as radical. We sit in the part of the universe that’s evolving and always on the edge and always pushing things forward, but actually, many of our family members are very conservative.

“If you look at the way Shirley dressed, she was Margaret Thatcher before Margaret Thatcher, and so for me, it was really important in terms of treatment and directing the camera to do a combination of both. To reflect her very conservative traditional side as well as the fact she was this courageous woman who was groundbreaking.”

Shirley Chisholm
Shirley Chisholm, future member of the U.S. House of Representatives (D-NY), announcing her candidacy. Credit: Wikipedia Commons


Ahead of tonight’s episode at 9pm, here are 10 facts about this inspiring Black woman.


In 1972, Shirley was the first Black person to run for US presidency from one of the two major political parties being the Democrats. She was also the second woman to run for presidency, the first being Republican Margaret Chase Smith in 1964.


Four years earlier in 1968, she became the first black US Congresswoman, representing her native New York and defeated civil rights activist James Farmer. Shirley continued for seven terms in the House of Representatives.


Her presidential campaign slogan was ‘Unbought and Unbossed’, which became the title for her first autobiography in 1970. Shirley’s second book, The Good Fight, followed in 1973 and not only revisited her presidential campaign but her relationship with Black political leaders, who didn’t necessarily support her, and discussed the future of Black politics.


Both of Shirley’s parents arrived in New York via Barbados and from age five until 10, she lived in Barbados with her two sisters. Later in life, she could have been President Bill Clinton’s ambassador to Jamaica, but Shirley turned down the opportunity because of poor health in 1993. However, she’d also been retired for two years by that point.


In the same year, Shirley was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame for all she’d done for women, children and ethnic minority groups. Her legacy lives on at the Shirley Chisholm Centre for Research on Women at Brooklyn College, where she earned her undergraduate degree.


Advocating for inclusion and equal rights began early for Shirley, who was a member of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority at Brooklyn College and the Harriet Tubman Society. Even then she wanted to see more women involved in student politics and became a feminist who deeply understood the intricacies of intersectionality and privilege.


President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Shirley the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.


Award-winning filmmaker Shola Lynch made a feature documentary about Shirley’s political prowess called Chisholm ’72 – Unbought & Unbossed. It was her breakout film and premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2004. It later won several independent film awards.


Before politics, Shirley was entrenched in education, teaching at many settings before earning a Master’s degree in elementary education at Columbia University and becoming an educational consultant and all-round early years expert.


She founded both the Black Congressional Caucus and the National Women’s Political Caucus in the 1970s.

Mrs America airs Wednesdays at 9pm on BBC Two

Written by Vicky Gayle  – Follow her: @vi_gayle

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