Hulu’s streaming miniseries Mrs. America stars Cate Blanchett, Rose Byrne, and Uzo Aduba, among others, and dramatizes the pivotal fight over the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in the 1970s. Many of figures featured onscreen are based on real-life titans of that era including Phyllis Schlafly, Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm, and Bella Abzug. They also happen to be women who figure prominently in Women March, the immersive New-York Historical exhibition about 200 years of women’s activism and organizing. While the Museum is temporarily closed to help contain the spread of COVID-19, we’re committed to sharing the ideas of Women March from afar. So as you settle in for Mrs. America, here’s a primer on everything you need to know about the history behind the series.
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In recent years, there’s been a new appreciation for the leadership and influence of Rep. Shirley Chisholm (played in the series by Orange is the New Black star Uzo Aduba), America’s first Black congresswoman. Chisholm was known for her iconic style, her immaculately curled and perfectly coiffed hair, and her immutable confidence. Her face and words have graced everything from a forever stamp to Women’s March protest signs. Chisolm’s arrival on the hill, some 50 years ago, opened doors for women who would follow in her path and anticipated the “pink wave” of the 2018 midterms when more than 250 women were on the ballot and nearly half were elected, including 42 women of color.
Born in New York City on November 30, 1924, to Barbadian parents, Chisholm spent her early childhood in the countryside of Barbados with her grandmother before returning to the U.S. to continue her education. She attended Girls High in Brooklyn, where she excelled, and later Brooklyn College, majoring in sociology and Spanish. Chisholm graduated cum laude in 1946, but returned to school shortly after to earn a master’s in Early Childhood Education from Columbia Teachers College, teaching nursery school during the day and taking classes at night. Graduating in 1951, she assumed the directorship of a nursery school in Brooklyn and, later, in Manhattan. During the 1950s and early 1960s, Chisholm was active in local politics through the Bedford-Stuyvesant Political League and engaged in city-wide early childhood education reform as a consultant for the New York Division of Day Care in the Bureau of Child Welfare.
Unlike some of her peers, who chose to go South and participate in the civil rights movement in the early 1960s, Chisholm stayed in New York City to work to reform the Democratic Party. Along with Black servicemen, she organized the Unity Democratic Club to put an end to the white Democratic Party Machine before running for office herself. In 1964, Chisholm won her first election to the New York State House, and four years later, she won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Her campaign slogan, “Unbought and Unbossed” evoked both race and gender liberation.
While much attention falls on Chisolm’s historic 1972 presidential bid—the first serious attempt by any African American—less known are the accomplishments of her 14-year long legislative career representing New York’s 12th district. A tireless advocate for the working class and the poor, a consummate educator, and a champion of women’s and civil rights, the “unquiet” Congresswoman introduced more than 50 pieces of legislation. In 1971, she co-founded of the Congressional Black Caucus, a collective of Black congresspersons who represented not only their individual districts but assumed “the onerous burden of acting as congressman-at-large for unrepresented people around America.” That same year, Chisholm co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus (NWPC), institutionalizing the presence of women and legislators of color on the Hill.
What were those years like for the first Black woman in Congress and what kind of environment did she cultivate in her office? In 2017, Shirley Chisholm’s legislative assistant, Muriel Morrisey, was interviewed by one of the historians of the U.S. House of Representatives. Morrisey’s interview reveals the character of a woman who “wasn’t unwavering or uncertain” and who embraced female leadership. On her experience working in Representative Chisholm’s office, Morrissey recalled:
There wasn’t any issue of, “I wonder if a strong Black woman has a place here.” And her D.C. staff was dominated by women. Her press secretary was a woman. The senior legislative assistant was a woman. The chief of staff…was a woman. There was a young white man on the staff who was a terrific guy and beloved by everybody, but he was the [only] white man on the staff. [Laughter]
According to Morrissey, the staff welcomed the women-centered workspace and viewed the opportunity to work with Chisholm as invaluable:
We were the Chisholm staff, and that carried so much meaning because of who she was—and also that she empowered her staff enormously. So we moved through our work, and even our social lives, carrying the mantle of being one of Chisholm’s staffers. And people knew that meant we really were very powerful by virtue of the confidence that she had, the way she relied on us, the trust she exhibited.
When it came to the women’s movement, Chisholm was elected among a cohort of feminist legislators—“the vanguard” in Morrissey’s eyes—seeking to enact progressive legislation. However, Morrisey remembered Chisholm emphasizing her intersectional identity as a Black woman:
She was very much part of the women’s rights efforts that included Bella [Savitsky] Abzug and [Patricia Scott] Pat Schroeder and the other women in Congress. But I think she was very clear that as a Black woman—and the first Black woman in the U.S. Congress—she was in a very special position to recognize and bring attention to Black women, and highlight the efforts of other Black women in leadership roles, and give them visibility by attaching her name to an organization [NWPC] as a co-founder.
In 1983, Chisholm retired from Congress and returned to teaching. She died in 2005 at the age of 80. She remains an inspiration and hero for women who have a seat at the legislative table decades later. In a touching bit of symbolism, Rep. Ayanna Pressley—part of the “pink wave” of victories in 2018 and the first Black congresswoman from the state of Massachusetts—now occupies Chisholm’s former office after swapping with another representative. Said Pressley of Chisholm, “Her commitment to fighting injustice and lifting up the voices of the disenfranchised is an inspiration and an example I hope to follow.”
Read more of our Mrs. America coverage:
“Mrs. America” Roundtable: Historians Respond
“Mrs. America” Primer: Bella Abzug’s Serious Career
“Mrs. America” Primer: The Real Story of Phyllis Schlafly’s Campaign Against the ERA
Written by Pamela Walker, Andrew W. Mellon Predoctoral Fellow in Women’s History and Public History, Center for Women’s History.