Shirley Chisholm was a trailblazer in American politics. She made history when, in 1968, she became the first black woman elected to the United States Congress, a ground-breaking feat that challenged racial and gender mores of the time.


However, Chisholm's legacy extends far beyond that initial achievement; she went on to run for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Her tale is explored in Netflix biopic, Shirley, starring Regina King in the title role. It adapts some of the key moments, challenges, and successes of her life – but how true to real history is it?

Who was Shirley Chisholm?

Born in 1924 in Brooklyn, New York, to parents from Barbados and Guyana, Shirley Anita Chisholm had a childhood spent between Brooklyn and Barbados.

Throughout her youth, she proved her academic talent and graduated with honours from Brooklyn College in 1946. She would go on to work in teaching while simultaneously completing a Master of Arts course in childhood education at Columbia University, which she finished in 1951.

In her early career, she worked as the director of a nursery and childcare centre, and, between 1959–64, she became an educational consultant for the New York City Bureau of Child Welfare.

The decision to orient her life towards the pursuit and advancement of education was based on her own experience of schooling, and its impact on her. In her 1970 autobiography, Unbought and Unbossed, she describes her “early education in the strict, traditional, British-style schools of Barbados” as an “important gift” from her parents.

Is Netflix’s Shirley a true story?

Yes, Netflix’s Shirley and the story of her run for the 1972 Democratic presidential nomination is based on the real life of Shirley Chisholm.

In 1964, Chisholm campaigned for and won her first political position on the New York State Assembly, taking up her seat in January 1965, kickstarting a new era of her life.

Chisholm’s rise continued and three years later, in 1968, after fighting an underdog campaign she successfully became the first black woman elected to Congress, winning a seat in the House of Representatives. It was during this campaign that Chisholm first used the slogan ‘Fighting Shirley Chisholm – Unbought and Unbossed’, helping her to earn the nickname ‘Fighting Shirley’.

African American educator and US Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm
Shirley Chisholm in 1970, two years after becoming a congresswoman (Photo by Getty)

In 1972, she ran a historic presidential campaign, attempting to become the Democratic Party's nominee. Though she ultimately failed, Chisholm gained increased recognition, reputation, and status.

In 1983, a decade after her campaign for the Democratic nomination, Chisholm retired from Congress to return to teaching, and focus on her personal life.

Recognising her stature and experience, US President Bill Clinton nominated Chisholm to be the US ambassador Jamaica in 1993, though she couldn’t accept the role, citing her declining heath.

What did Shirley Chisholm achieve?

Shirley Chisholm’s legacy is marked by her claim to a number of ‘firsts’ as she repeatedly battled to break new ground in American politics, hence her nickname ‘Fighting Shirley’. This fighting spirit culminated in a legacy of great personal and political achievements along racial and gender lines, defining her as a trailblazer.

In 1964, she took a seat on the New York State Assembly. Four years later, she was the first black woman elected to Congress, and was a founding member of the important and influential Congressional Black Caucus, a caucus made up of African-American members of the United States Congress.

Her role in Congress saw her become the first black woman to serve on the House Agriculture Committee (a position which she used to address food poverty) and, later, the more respected Education and Labor Committee.

Throughout her time serving on these committees, she consistently championed and battled for socially progressive legislation such as allowing greater education funding, access to food stamps, and the creation of a nutritional programme for women, infants, and children.

In 1972, Chisholm was both the first black candidate to run for president by seeking the nomination of a major political party – and it’s this episode of her life that is the focus of Netflix’s Shirley.

Regina King as Shirley Chisholm in Netflix film 'Shirley'
Regina King as Shirley Chisholm in Netflix film 'Shirley' (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

In her campaign she secured nearly half a million votes, won over 150 delegates, and managed a strong seventh place finish, despite significant public backlash. This backlash even came from within the Democratic Party establishment, with Chisholm explaining that she struggled to be taken seriously, despite the seriousness of her campaign.

Though Chisholm experienced derision due to her race, as she said herself, she found reactions to her gender her biggest barrier in the campaign.

In 1982, reflecting on the challenges of her career, she said: "I've always met more discrimination being a woman than being black. When I ran for the Congress, when I ran for president, I met more discrimination as a woman than for being black.”

She echoed that sentiment in another famous quote: “Tremendous amounts of talent are lost to our society just because that talent wears a skirt.”

African American educator and US Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm
African American educator and US Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm speaks at a podium at the Democratic National Convention in Florida in July 1972 (Photo by Getty)

Though Chisholm didn’t succeed in securing the nomination, her role in the race shifted perceptions. Current Vice President Kamala Harris has said that Chisholm “paved the way for me and so many others,” praising her “brilliance and boldness to break down barriers”.

In 1977, Chisholm took hold of the office of Secretary of the House Democratic Caucus, which was one of the most senior, influential roles in the Democratic Party machine. She held the office until 1981.

The legacy of Chisholm’s achievements cements her as a bold, ground-breaking US politician who fought to change the social and political dynamic of her country, proving that times had changed.

Speaking in 1972, she concluded, “I’ve broken the ice.”

When did Shirley Chisholm die?

Chisholm died in 2005, aged 80. In 2015, she was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honour in the US, by President Barack Obama.


Shirley is streaming on Netflix now


James OsborneContent producer

James Osborne is a content producer at HistoryExtra where he writes, researches, and edits articles, while also conducting the occasional interview