Shirley Chisholm broke barriers as the first Black woman elected to Congress, the first woman to pursue a presidential nomination for the Democratic party, and the first African-American to run for president for either of the major parties. But it wasn’t all was smooth sailing for the political trailblazer. She was blocked from participating in televised debates, and she was the target of assassination attempts. And even though she had support from famous feminists like Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, Hulu’s new show Mrs. America suggests that there were times they doubted her.
“Why am I the only one in this convention who thinks a Black woman being president is worth the run?” Chisholm, portrayed by Uzo Aduba in the series, cries out in frustration in an emotional Episode 3 scene.
I know that from a beauty end, I know that from a size end, I know that from a professional end …
Aduba, who previously starred in Orange Is the New Black, could deeply relate to Chisholm in that moment. “I know this woman because I know what that feels like,” she told reporters on a conference call last week. “I know what it feels like to have a vision for your life and for someone else to look at you and try to tell you who you are or what you’re capable of. I know that from a beauty end, I know that from a size end, I know that from a professional end of who can or cannot act and who can. So, I can’t even imagine. Well, I mean, I can imagine what the weight of that must look like when you’re now running for the highest office in the land—forget about it being held by a woman, not having been held by a woman, but also not having been held by a person of color.”
Of Chisholm being underestimated by her feminist allies, Aduba said, “I know it had to hurt the most to feel doubted by those closest to you. These weren’t anti-ERA [Equal Rights Amendment] women who were in her ear saying, ‘You can’t do this.’ These are women she built a caucus with who ultimately felt, when push came to shove, they couldn’t pull the trigger. Yet she’d already proven herself capable in being elected to Congress. And I think that’s why in that scene with her husband, and she’s saying, ‘I don’t understand why, why am I the only one who believes it’s possible for a Black woman to be the president?’ You know, it hurts to even say that.”
The Emmy winner, whose family is Nigerian, also recalled a time when her mother told her, “I never knew there was anything wrong with being Black until I moved to America.” She said she tapped into that memory for her performance. “I know that feeling of knowing something to be true about yourself, or at least you know it’s possible, but this shortsighted view of you is the hurdle that you’re finding challenging to overcome,” Aduba explained.
She also pointed out a poignant moment from Chisholm’s documentary, when the presidential hopeful concedes and decides to give up her delegates. “I remember that was another piece for me that I hung my hat on,” she said. “She folds into her hands and it’s the first time you—for me, anyway—I saw the crack and the weight of it all and the hurt of feeling let down and that sob she lets out. It had to hurt. And not hurt just because, ‘Oh, I wasn’t able to do it,’ but in a, sort of ‘Et tu, Brute’ kind of way.”
The first three episodes of Mrs. America are now streaming on Hulu. Watch
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