When Kimberly Peeler-Allen was in the fourth grade, she had to pick someone to research for Women’s History Month. Her mother had a thought: Why not Shirley Chisholm?

For Peeler-Allen, 47, the link was personal. Like Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress and the first Black candidate to seek a major political party’s presidential nomination, Peeler-Allen has ties to the Caribbean: Her mother is Jamaican, while Chisholm’s mother was Barbadian and her father Guyanese.

Peeler-Allen, a visiting practitioner at the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP), explained that learning about how someone from a background similar to hers inspired generations of Black women to enter politics energized her professional ambitions.

“I learned early on that Chisholm was someone who changed the world,” said Peeler-Allen, who’s from Maryland but has lived in Brooklyn, Chisholm’s old New York City borough, for almost 25 years. “Her career made me ask: How can I help make more political opportunities available to people like Chisholm? And how can we learn from her story so that more Black women can step off the sidelines and lead?”

Ultimately, Chisholm’s historic 1972 bid for the Democratic Party nomination, which is the subject of a new Netflix biopic starring Regina King, was unsuccessful. Even so, her legacy — her insistence on being “unbought and unbossed” and on bringing your own folding chair “if they don’t give you a seat at the table” — endures more than half a century later.

A former school teacher who was frequently doubted on the campaign trail, Chisholm blazed a path for many Black women currently in elected office. U.S. Reps. Barbara Lee of California and Jasmine Crockett of Texas and Vice President Kamala Harris routinely name-check Chisholm as a key influence. And today, a record 28 Black women are voting members of Congress, per the 2023 Black Women in American Politics report from CAWP and Higher Heights Leadership Fund, a nonprofit that focuses on expanding Black women’s political power.

The study also points out that Black women’s presence remains glaringly absent at some of the highest levels, including governor.

“We’re closing gaps. The state of Black women in American politics is stronger than it’s ever been,” Peeler-Allen said. “But there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done — and that’s achievable.”

To further discuss Chisholm’s impact and Black women’s political representation in 2024, Worldacad spoke with Peeler-Allen, who co-founded Higher Heights. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Worldacad: Shirley Chisholm’s legacy has gotten more attention in recent years. Why is that?

Kimberly Peeler-Allen: I think that there’s been an overall increase in awareness of the importance of Black women’s elected leadership. The flip side of that is the vacuum where there hasn’t been Black women’s leadership, such as in the governor’s mansion.

Also, when the vice president became the vice president, there was a void, again, in the U.S. Senate. In our nation’s history, only three Black women have served in the Senate.

All of that makes clear Black women’s political underrepresentation, but also the incredible importance of having their voices in elected leadership positions across the country.

Chisholm, in her successful run for Congress and then in her absolutely historic run for president, highlighted the possibilities that exist. And we see that influence through the path she paved that so many Black women today are walking down and even trying to surpass.

U.S. Rep. Shirley Chisholm gives the peace sign to a crowd of demonstrators as she speaks to veterans on the National Mall in Washington in April 1971. (Mike Lien/New York Times Co. via Getty Images)

What does Chisholm’s impact look like in 2024?

Her commitment to being “unbought and unbossed” is the first thing that comes to mind when I think about Black women’s elected leadership and where the country currently is.

We can also see Chisholm’s impact when pundits or other folks say to Black women that they shouldn’t run for something because they won’t win, but instead of listening, these women stand up and raise their voices and go for whatever office they’re seeking — despite the odds. Their belief in themselves and in their communities and in the importance of being a voice takes precedence over whatever might seem politically expedient.

That, I think, is something we’ve seen more of, especially with the continued increase in Black women running for Congress and for state legislatures. They believe that their voices are essential for furthering our democracy.

How has Black women’s political representation improved? Where does it still need work?

If you’re going sheerly by the numbers — the number of Black women in Congress, the number of Black women in state legislatures, the number of Black women who have served as mayors in the top 100 cities — we’ve definitely had tremendous growth.

It’s possible that we’ll have at least one additional Black woman in the U.S. Senate come 2025 because of Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester in Delaware and Angela Alsobrooks in Maryland. We’re also seeing that the number of Black women leading legislative chambers at the state level has increased tremendously.

And it’s not just the numbers. It’s the political power of Black women who are leading in all sorts of roles. They can shape policy and politics not only for Black women and their communities but also for their states and for the nation overall.

I think that because of the continuous hard work of the women who are running and the organizations that are supporting them, we’re making progress.

What are some of the key challenges to growing the number of Black women in elected office — and what can be done to address this issue?

I think that the big three — racism, sexism, and misogyny — almost go without saying. The double standard of what women’s leadership, and especially Black women’s leadership, has to prove in order to be considered electable and viable is a significant hurdle.

We’re also seeing violence, threats, and harassment directed at women of color, Black women in particular, who are candidates, elected officials, and prominent leaders. This is definitely a deterrent for women who are thinking about running.

I’d say that those are the things that are the biggest challenges. And how we combat them is through a culture shift.

It’s calling out racism, sexism, and misogyny.

It’s being able to say that Black women’s leadership looks different. Just because someone isn’t white or a man doesn’t mean that they aren’t capable of making tough decisions or being on top of complicated subjects or legislating effectively.

It’s responding appropriately to the violence, threats, and harassment against these women, and not chalking it up to, “Oh, that’s just how the game is played.” No one should feel that their or their family’s safety is in jeopardy because they’re running for office or because of the community they represent.

Brandon Tensley is Worldacad's national politics reporter.