During her 1968 congressional campaign, Shirley Chisholm was at home in New York City when she heard a knock. Outside her door, she found a woman holding a dirty envelope full of nickels, dimes and quarters—campaign contributions, the visitor explained. She and her friends had raised $9.62.

“Their gesture moved me to tears,” Chisholm later recalled. It also fortified her resolve. On November 5, she became the first Black woman elected to the United States Congress.

This was Chisholm’s origin story, and she told it often, so often that the details weren’t always consistent. In some accounts, she found an elderly woman at her door on a winter night. In others, it was a woman on welfare with an envelope; sometimes the knock came on a summer morning.

Chisholm announces her presidential campaign
Chisholm announces her presidential campaign at the Concord Baptist Church in Brooklyn, New York, on January 25, 1972. Don Hogan Charles / New York Times Co. / Getty Images

“The story varied slightly in different published versions,” writes historian Anastasia C. Curwood in Shirley Chisholm: Champion of Black Feminist Power Politics. “More important than the details of the story was Chisholm’s repetition of it. She wanted it known that she was the people’s candidate. Black women of small means wanted her to represent them in the national government.”

A few years later, Chisholm started sharing a similar story: People kept asking her to run for president. She kept telling them to be realistic. “You don’t run for the presidency of this country on the basis of a moral feeling or moral commitment,” she remembered saying. “You need money.” Voters in Florida and Minnesota took her words as a challenge, scraping together $10,000 for her campaign. It was too late to back out.

On January 25, 1972, Chisholm called a press conference at a Baptist church in her Brooklyn district. She stood at a podium, her face slightly obscured by a tangle of microphones, smiling and waving at a cheering audience. As the applause faded, she briefly lowered her head; when she looked back up, her gracious smile replaced with a firm gaze, she announced that she was running for president.

“My presence before you now,” she said, “symbolizes a new era in American political history.”

Chisholm speaks at the Democratic National Convention
Chisholm speaks at the Democratic National Convention after losing her bid for the presidential nomination in 1972. Bettmann via Getty Images

Who was Shirley Chisholm?

Shirley, a new biographical drama written and directed by John Ridley (writer of the 2013 film 12 Years a Slave), fictionalizes Chisholm’s history-making political career. Arriving on Netflix on March 22, Shirley begins with the politician’s election to Congress but focuses primarily on her 1972 bid for the Democratic nomination, which made her the first Black woman to pursue a presidential nomination on a major party’s ticket.

“Her resilience was impressive,” says Academy Award-winning actress Regina King, who stars in the film as Chisholm. “Every photograph you see of her, every interview you watch, she always has such a commanding presence about her.”

When King and her sister, Reina King (both co-producers on the film), began working on the project about 15 years ago, they realized how many people had never heard of Chisholm. They weren’t historians themselves, and “​​there was so much that we didn’t know,” says King, but “at least we knew that there was an awesome being named Shirley Chisholm [who] existed.” King later approached Ridley with the idea while they were working together on the anthology series “American Crime.”

SHIRLEY | Official Trailer | Netflix

Born to immigrant parents in Brooklyn in November 1924, Chisholm was the oldest of four sisters. Her father, Charles St. Hill, was a factory worker from British Guiana, while her mother, Ruby Seale St. Hill, was a seamstress from Barbados. As the family grew, the young couple struggled to make ends meet. They decided to send the girls to live with their maternal grandmother, Emmeline Seale, in Barbados while they saved money.

These years were formative for Chisholm, a headstrong child who had been regarded as something of a nuisance back in Brooklyn. Two thousand miles away, she formed a deep bond with her grandmother, who nurtured her independence. (Chisholm would later name her grandmother as one of her role models, alongside the illustrious civil rights leader Mary McLeod Bethune and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.) She also attended Barbados’ “strict, traditional, British-style schools,” where she learned to read and write before her fifth birthday, as she later recalled in her 1970 memoir. “If I speak and write easily now, that early education is the main reason.”

The girls returned to Brooklyn in 1934, when Chisholm was 9. She felt stifled by her parents’ strict rules and the city’s cold winters. But she was a top student throughout high school, ultimately becoming the first person in her family to go to college. She turned down scholarship offers to Vassar College and Oberlin College—her family couldn’t afford room and board—and enrolled at Brooklyn College, graduating with a degree in sociology in 1946.

Chisholm, a diminutive 22-year-old who looked much younger than her actual age, had trouble finding work. Eventually, a Harlem child care center took a chance on her, and she rose quickly through the ranks. During those years, she married Conrad Chisholm, a private investigator from Jamaica, and took night classes at Columbia University, where she earned a master’s degree in elementary education in 1951.

In her 30s, Chisholm worked as the director of child care centers in Brooklyn and Manhattan before becoming a consultant in New York City’s Bureau of Child Welfare. Along the way, she developed a reputation as a fierce advocate for early learning, pushing back against experts who believed young children’s eyesight wasn’t developed enough for reading. “I say baloney, because I learned to read when I was 3 1/2,” Chisholm once said, “and I learned to write when I was 4.”

Around this time, she started thinking about politics, volunteering with groups like the Bedford-Stuyvesant Political League, the League of Women Voters and the Democratic Party club in Brooklyn. In 1964, she ran for an open seat in the New York State Assembly—and won. Just after her 40th birthday, her political career began in earnest.

Chisholm in a voting booth
Chisholm in a voting booth in Brooklyn on November 5, 1968 Charles Frattini / NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images
Shirley and Conrad Chisholm
Chisholm with her first husband, Conrad Chisholm, in their home in 1968 Leroy Jakob / NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Chisholm’s historic congressional victory

During her nearly four years in the assembly, Chisholm established a political agenda, advocating for causes such as unemployment insurance for domestic workers and access to higher education for low-income students. The experience also taught her valuable lessons about navigating complex political systems. “In Albany, I learned how the processes of representative government work—or do not work,” she wrote in her memoir. “Often it was their failure that I saw.”

Nevertheless, Chisholm believed that at this point in her career, exposure to this “cumbersome, obsolescent legislative apparatus geared to the 19th century” was vital. “All this prepared me consummately well for Washington,” she wrote. “The lesson was what I needed before I became a congresswoman.”

In 1968, lawmakers redrew Brooklyn’s 12th Congressional District. The new district covered the majority-Black Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, which had previously been split up into several surrounding districts. The incumbent white congresswoman, Edna Kelly, opted to run for re-election elsewhere, and onlookers expected the open seat to go to a Black candidate.

Chisholm wanted to be that candidate. The local Democratic Party chapter publicly declared its neutrality, but she believed it was unofficially backing another candidate, State Senator William Thompson. Chisholm attempted to turn the party bosses’ lack of support into a selling point, running under the slogan “unbought and unbossed.”

“Chisholm did not have access to the cash that the party’s candidate did, but neither was she beholden to any party leadership,” writes Curwood in her biography. “She was literally a free agent and set about turning the party’s snub into an asset that would define her career.”

With very little money, Chisholm “campaigned the hard way, in the streets,” as she wrote in her memoir. “Indoors, with a selected audience, you have control. But out on the street corners with the people, in the housing projects, in parks, you are under fire constantly. If you are insincere or have something to hide, you will be found out.”

Chisholm ran on a platform that included low-cost housing, equality in education and federal support for day care centers. The newly redrawn 12th District had roughly 12,000 more women than men, and she built her campaign around them, courting her base over “endless little house parties and teas,” according to her memoir. Thompson, meanwhile, was “so sure he would win with the organization behind him that he was up at Cape Cod vacationing.”

Regina King as Chisholm standing with colleagues
Shirley begins with Chisholm's election to Congress. Glen Wilson / Netflix

In the summer of 1968, Chisholm scraped out a narrow victory in the Democratic primary. She then set her sights on the general election, where she would face off against James Farmer, a Black civil rights leader who didn’t live in Brooklyn. “I had to fight to win the primary,” Chisholm told Ebony magazine in 1969, “but once I beat Senator Thompson and the machine, I knew I could take on anyone.”

But soon after the primary, Chisholm’s husband started to worry that something was wrong. She wasn’t sleeping. She got up repeatedly throughout the night. When Conrad pushed her to go to a doctor, she learned she had a pelvic tumor. She would need to put her campaign on hold.

A biopsy quickly revealed the tumor was benign, but it had been growing for as long as two years. Chisholm would need a hysterectomy right away. Despite her protests, she was told the operation couldn’t wait until after the election.

When she arrived for surgery in late July, “I was so determined not to have the operation that I refused to go to sleep,” she wrote in her memoir. The surgical team then administered “such a large dose of anesthetic that I didn’t come to for 13 hours.” The hospital didn’t discharge her until August.

Later, recovering at home, she could hear trucks broadcasting pro-Farmer messages outside. Rumors circulated that she had cancer. That she was dying. Without her doctors’ permission, she returned to her campaign. One day, Chisholm, who normally weighed about 100 pounds, layered a beach towel under her clothes to hide the 17 pounds she’d lost and drove around with her team in her own truck, shouting from the loudspeakers that she was “up and around.”

On November 5, Chisholm beat Farmer by a two-to-one margin, becoming the first Black woman ever elected to Congress. She was also the only woman in the freshman class of 1969. Two other Black congressmen, Louis Stokes of Ohio and Bill Clay of Missouri, entered the House of Representatives that year, bringing the total number of Black members to nine.

Chisholm and her congressional staff in 1970
Chisholm and her congressional staff in 1970 Bob Peterson / Getty Images

Chisholm hired a devoted staff in Washington, D.C. But she struggled to find her footing in an environment that was largely hostile to her presence. For instance, one colleague voiced his amazement that she was making a $42,500 salary, just as he was, every time he saw her on the House floor. Finally, she confronted him with a suggestion: “First of all, since you can’t stand the idea of me making [$42,500] like you, when you see me coming into this chamber each day, vanish,” she told him. “Vanish until I take my seat so that you won’t have to confront me with this.”

Soon after taking office, Chisholm, like all new members, was assigned to a committee. While members can state a preference—her first choice was the Committee on Education and Labor—assignments are typically allocated based on seniority. Chisholm understood the process, but she was still surprised when she learned she would be serving on the Agriculture Committee. (Shirley dramatizes this moment near the beginning of the film: “Corn? Wheat? Cows? I represent Brooklyn.”)

She decided to challenge the decision and approached ​​the House speaker, John McCormack, who told her nothing could be done. Undeterred, she kept pushing, insisting that the assignment made no sense for a member from an urban district. These efforts paid off, and she was eventually assigned to the Veterans’ Affairs Committee. She later made it onto Education and Labor—eventually becoming the committee’s third-highest-ranking member—and was a founding member of both the Congressional Black Caucus and the National Women’s Political Caucus.

Regina King as Shirley Chisholm and Lucas Hedges as Robert Gottlieb in Shirley
Regina King as Shirley Chisholm and Lucas Hedges as Robert Gottlieb in Shirley Glen Wilson / Netflix

A divisive presidential campaign

Two years into her time in Congress, Chisholm was already publicly floating the idea of running for president, and people wanted to know why. What was the “real reason” to fight a battle she knew was doomed to fail? She didn’t like this question. “People don’t understand that I really want to be president of the United States,” she told United Press International in December 1971. “I really want to run this country.”

Despite the initial $10,000 that convinced Chisholm to throw her hat into the ring, her campaign ran on a tight budget. She raised about $250,000, but the final cost added up to $300,000, which left her in debt for several years.

These sums paled in comparison to the money raised by her top Democratic competitors. Senator George McGovern, who ultimately snagged the nomination, spent $12 million on the primaries. Senator Hubert Humphrey, who’d lost to Richard Nixon in the previous presidential election, spent $4.7 million; Senator Edmund Muskie, Humphrey’s running mate in 1968, spent $7 million; Alabama Governor George Wallace spent $2.4 million; and Senator Henry Jackson spent $1.5 million.

Without the funds for a nationwide campaign, Chisholm made strategic decisions about which primaries to enter, skipping states she didn’t have a shot at. She decided, for example, not to try for New Hampshire, where Muskie had widespread support. Florida, on the other hand, would be a priority. California, which was a winner-take-all state, was also out. “We tried to be rational and orderly about it, but decisions about where to go and what to do were almost always made on a spur-of-the-moment, last-minute basis,” she wrote in her second book, The Good Fight. “It was a hell of a way to run a railroad, but it was the only way we had.”

Chisholm struggled to secure support from some of the groups she’d built her campaign around, particularly white women and Black men. Some feminist leaders gave Chisholm only equivocal support, offering a more serious endorsement to another candidate. For instance, Gloria Steinem, co-founder of Ms. magazine, backed Chisholm but said McGovern was the “best white male candidate” in the running. Then there was Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique, who announced a campaign event for Chisholm in Harlem in the form of a “traveling watermelon feast,” apparently unaware of the well-known racist trope.

“Feminists were split over her candidacy,” Robert Gottlieb, the student coordinator for Chisholm’s presidential campaign (played by Lucas Hedges in the film), told Smithsonian magazine in 2016. “Having a woman run for president was like having somebody from Mars run for president. And you then have a Black woman running for president, and everybody, all interest groups, were grappling with, ‘How do you deal with such a changed landscape?’ People were not comfortable with having a Black woman.”

Presidential candidates stand at a podium
L to R: Thomas Eagleton (vice presidential nominee) with presidential candidates Hubert Humphrey, Shirley Chisholm, George McGovern, Henry Jackson, Edmund Muskie and Terry Sanford at the Democratic National Convention in July 1972 Bettmann via Getty Images

Black men seemed similarly uncomfortable with Chisholm’s candidacy. There were exceptions, such as the Black Panther Party, which formally endorsed her in April 1972. But in Washington, many Black politicians saw her as an obstacle to their own goals. “I recall hearing about a great deal of tension between certain male members and Mrs. Chisholm,” Gottlieb added. “There clearly was within the [Congressional] Black Caucus a significant degree of sexism that she felt.”

As Chisholm’s profile rose, she also became the target of alarming threats. For a while, she relied on her husband as her unofficial bodyguard. That security arrangement would come to an end when all candidates were given Secret Service protection, after a gunman shot Wallace during a campaign event in Maryland on May 15.

Wallace survived the attack, which left him paralyzed in both legs. As he recovered in the hospital, Chisholm made the controversial decision to visit the governor, who was known as the staunch segregationist who called for “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

“Black people in my community crucified me,” she later told the New York Times. “But why shouldn’t I go to visit him? Every other presidential candidate was going to see him. He said to me, ‘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 and cried.”

In his later years, Wallace would renounce his racist beliefs, offering public apologies and asking Black Americans for forgiveness. His daughter Peggy Wallace Kennedy thinks Chisholm may have helped inform that decision. As she told Smithsonian in 2022, “It was after her visit that [Wallace] started to change.”

Chisholm’s name appeared on ballots in about a dozen states. By the end of the primaries, she had won 28 delegates out of the roughly 1,500 needed to secure victory. When McGovern’s nomination was all but certain, Humphrey made his exit with a surprising symbolic act: He released his Black delegates to Chisholm, who consequently finished at 151.95, putting her in fourth place after McGovern, Jackson and Wallace.

Chisholm in front of an equal rights for women banner
Chisholm delivers a Women's Rights Day speech on April 4, 1981. Nancy Shia / Archive Photos / Getty Images

A “lonely politician”

After the primaries, Chisholm continued building her legacy in Congress, where she supported the Equal Rights Amendment; opposed the Vietnam War; and fought for access to education, health care and legalized abortion. She also helped pass legislation that extended the minimum wage to domestic workers—which she considered one of her biggest victories.

“She always stood erect and always looked and felt confident and felt like she was always ready for the fight,” says King. “She was a strategist. She understood the importance of optics, the way she dressed, the way she accessorized.”

Still, the work took a toll.

“She was tired,” King adds. “She did feel like she was fighting an uphill battle by herself.”

When Chisholm announced her retirement in 1982, the Washington Post called her a “lonely politician” who was “willing to fight all alone” but frustrated about the ways her decisions were interpreted.

After leaving Washington, “I’ll be in Buffalo most of the time,” she told the New York Times. “I will be at Mount Holyoke College teaching for three days a week for eight months. I will be doing a lot of things to take my mind off the aches and pains of being so misunderstood.”

Shirley Chisholm addresses the Democratic National Convention in 1988
Chisholm addresses the Democratic National Convention in 1988, several years after her retirement. Dirck Halstead / Getty Images

Chisholm died in 2005 at age 80. In the years since, the public has grown to better understand her legacy. She was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. “Shirley Chisholm’s example transcends her life,” President Barack Obama said at the ceremony. “When asked how she’d like to be remembered, she had an answer: ‘I’d like them to say that Shirley Chisholm had guts.’ And I’m proud to say it: Shirley Chisholm had guts.”

Since Chisholm’s history-making congressional victory, more than 50 Black women have been elected to the House, and two have been elected to the Senate (including Vice President Kamala Harris). Today, nearly 30 Black women serve in the House, though none currently holds a seat in the Senate.

Ridley’s Shirley movie is being released in an election year. King says this was not intentional, but she’s glad the timing turned out that way. She hopes that telling Chisholm’s story will inspire civic engagement among viewers.

The film concludes with a short interview with Barbara Lee (played by Christina Jackson), who got her start working on Chisholm’s presidential campaign. Before meeting Chisholm, Lee was so disillusioned with the political process that she hadn’t even registered to vote. Since 1998, she has been a congresswoman from California.

“[Chisholm’s] legacy is directly connected to today,” says Lee in the film. “So many of us have felt like we could take that baton and keep running.”

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