In 1946 she graduated from Brooklyn College and then earned a master's degree from Columbia University in early childhood education. In 1968, she became the first black congresswomen in the House of Representatives. Nicknamed "Fighting Shirley", she introduced more than 50 pieces of legislation during her tenure and advocated for racial and gender equality, the poor, and ending the Vietnam War.
Additionally, she was also a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus. IN 1972, she became the first African American and second woman to make a bid for the presidency. After leaving Congress in 1983, she taught at Mount Holyoke College. In November 2015, 10 years after her death, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.