Women of History
By Paulette Schuster (Student Activist)
March 8th marked International Women’s Day in which we celebrated women and all of their fabulous achievements. Even as this year’s International Women’s Day has now turned to memory, we must remember that women should be celebrated every day. Here are 15 crucial contributions made to society by some wonderful and powerful women!
Edmonia Lewis (1844-1907)
Edmonia Lewis was a renowned artist and the first professional African-American and Native-American sculptor. As a young adult, she left her home in Upstate New York to study at Oberlin College in Ohio where she blossomed as a talented artist. Lewis’ education at Oberlin was cut short after someone falsely accused her of poisoning two white classmates. A white mob then captured and beat Lewis. She eventually recovered and managed to escape to Boston, Massachusetts. By 1860, Lewis had made a small fortune selling medallions of William Lloyd Garrison, John Brown, and other abolitionists. She created a bust in 1864 of the Civil War hero Colonel Robert Shaw, the commander of the first all-black regiment for the Union Army. This is her most famous work to date, and at the time made her enough money to move to Rome. In Rome, she sculpted some of her most prized works, including Forever Free (1867), The Arrow Maker (1866), and The Death of Cleopatra (1876). While the last decade of her life remains murky, her work is still cherished and can be found in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Howard University Gallery of Art, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Beatrix Potter (1866-1943)
Did you ever read The Tale of Peter the Rabbit as a child? You have Beatrix Potter to thank. Potter is one of the most beloved children’s books authors for authoring and illustrating over twenty children’s books. She had a knack for captivating young authors with animal adventures, including The Tale of Peter the Rabbit, The Tale of Benjamin Bunny, The tale of Samuel Whiskers, and the tales of many other cutely named animals. Potter also worked tirelessly to conserve some of her favorite countryside spots in England for future generations to enjoy. Even though Potter died in 1946, her most recent book, The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots hit bookshelves in the fall of 2016 after a children’s novelist recently discovered an unpublished manuscript.
Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1651-1695)
Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz was born in Mexico at a time when the country was still under the wrath of Spanish colonialism. At age 16, she became a nun so she could devote all of her days to studying. She taught herself everything possible about literature and quickly became a renowned writer. Her most famous works are plays such as Brave and Clever Woman, and poems including Hombres Necios (Foolish Men) and Primero Sueño (First Dream). Much of her work covered topics like gender equality and proved controversial at the time. Inés de la Cruz faced much backlash from the Church for being a fearless champion of women’s rights, particularly for all women to have access to knowledge. She is now an emblem of Mexican identity, and graces the Mexican 200 pesos bill. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz is admired as one of the world’s most influential Latinx writers and the first feminist of the Americas.
Frances Perkins (1880-1965)
Many people attribute the New Deal, the legislation that helped bring America out of the Great Depression, to Franklin Roosevelt. However,no New Deal would exist if not for Frances Perkins, FDR’s Labor Secretary. As a young woman, Perkins was not content with her parents’ desire for her to become a teacher and wait for a suitable husband. Her passion to end poverty drove her into social work. In 1911, Perkins witnessed an event that changed her life. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire is the deadliest industrial disaster in New York City’s history. Perkins claims that the day of the devastating fire was “the day the New Deal was born.” In response to the tragedy, the state established The Committee on Safety. Perkins led the committee as executive secretary with the suggestion of Theodore Roosevelt. The Committee created a commission whose report led to the most thorough laws for workplace health in the country.
In 1918, Frances Perkins filled a vacant seat on the New York State Industrial Commission. With this job, she became the first woman in the New York State Government appointed to an administrative position and the highest paid woman in public office in the country. When Franklin D. Roosevelt became the Governor of New York in 1928, he asked Perkins to serve as the State’s Industrial Commissioner. When the Great Depression hit, Perkins rose to be one of the country’s most important state labor officials as she worked with Roosevelt to lower New York’s terrifyingly high unemployment.
When FDR won the presidency in 1932, she left state government to become the Secretary of Labor in his cabinet. She accepted the position with one condition: that Roosevelt would honor the priorities she outlines to pursue—minimum wage, unemployment compensation, forty hour work weeks, ending child labor, Social Security, universal health insurance, a better federal employment service, and money from the federal government to states for unemployment relief. FDR agreed and she hit the ground running as America’s first female cabinet secretary. With the help of Perkins, Congress passed the Civilian Conservation Corps, and sent billions of dollars to public works projects under Roosevelt’s Federal Emergency Relief Recovery Act. After FDR’s first 100 days, Perkins helped craft legislation that would become Social Security Act of 1934 and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. She served as Labor Secretary until 1945. After her 12 years as the Labor Secretary, she had accomplished all but one of her original priorities from 1933. Which one? Universal healthcare. I think the 114th Congress could use some help from Frances Perkins.
Shirley Chisholm (1924-2005)
Hillary Clinton recently made history as the first woman to win the presidential nomination from a major political party; however, she was not the first to try. Shirley Chisholm paved the way in 1972 when she became the first woman and African-American to made a bid for presidency when she ran for the Democratic nomination. Before that, Chisholm broke down barriers by becoming the first African American Congresswoman in 1968. She represented New York’s 12th congressional district, an area that covers parts of Queens, Brooklyn, and Manhattan in New York City. Chisholm served as a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus in 1969, a political organization represents issues pertinent to African Americans in Congress. Shirley Chisholm was a crucial figure to programs including the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). She is a pioneer in creating more representation for women and especially women of color, and supported women throughout her career by hiring an all-female staff.
Noor Inayat Khan (1914-1944)
Noor Inayat Khan is the definition of bravery. Khan was a direct descendant of Tipu Sultan, the Muslim ruler of Mysore, India, in the 1700s. Growing up, her family taught her their core values of non-violence and religious tolerance. She grew up in London then Paris. When France fell during World War II, Khan escaped back to England and joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air force. The Special Operations Executive (SOE) recruited her in 1942 to work undercover as a Paris radio operator. She joined the resistance network code named Prosper. Kahn’s commanders soon urged her to return to England as suspicions rose that a Nazi had broken into the network. She refused. Kahn continued to send messages back to England even as the Gestapo gradually captured her team. For three months, Kahn ran a network of spies on her own. Those three months of grueling undercover work, frequently changing her look and alias, ended after a Frenchwoman exposed her. The Germans captured Khan and sent her to Pforzheim prison where they forced Kahn into chains in solitary confinement. A year later in 1944, the Nazis transferred Kahn and three other SOE women to the infamous Dachau Concentration Camp. Kahn and the other three SOE women were shot and killed a few days later.
Syhil Ludington (1761-1836)
Syhil Ludington is known as “the female Paul Revere” for her heroic ride to warn people of the British’s plan to attack Danbury, Connecticut. The night of April 26, 1777, 16-year-old Ludington rode around the countryside assembling militias to fight at Danbury. When she returned to her home in Patterson, New York, four hundred men were there and ready to fight. She rode just over forty miles in the pouring rain, double the mileage of Paul Revere’s ride. Maybe we should call Paul Revere the male Syhil Ludington!
Madam C.J. Walker (1867-1919)
Madam C.J. Walker is one of America’s most influential people in the early beauty industry. Originally born as Sarah Breedlove, she was the youngest of five and the first freeborn person in her family. After becoming orphaned at age 7, Walker moved to Mississippi to live with her older sister and brother-in-law where she picked cotton. She married her first husband at 14 years old to escape her harsh working environment and constant mistreatment from her brother-in-law. They had a daughter before her husband passed away two years later. She soon moved to St Louis and remarried.
Walker developed a scalp disorder in the 1890s that caused a lot of hair loss. In response, she started to experiment with hair products and homemade remedies. She improved her condition and realized her talent. Under the brand name Madam C.J. Walker, she created a hair care empire. Walker’s business came at a time when black women had little to no hair care products. With a net worth of over one million dollars, Walker is one of the first women to be called a self-made millionaire. Walker is an inspiration for her business savvy and for removing barriers black women faced to get hair care products.
Bridget ‘Biddy’ Mason (1818-1891)
Bridget ‘Biddy’ Mason could teach Donald Trump a lesson about how to be a successful real estate mogul, and she didn’t even start with a “small loan” of a million dollars. In fact, Mason was born a slave and never learned to read or write. Mason sued for her freedom in the landmark case Mason v. Smith and won. She settled as a freewoman in Los Angeles where she worked hard as a nurse and midwife. She saved her earnings to purchase prime real estate in downtown Los Angeles. She made a fortune of $300,000 (over 7 million dollars today), much of which she donated to philanthropic organizations and to support her family for generations to come.
Henrietta Lacks (1920-1951)
Henrietta Lacks is responsible for many of our recent breakthroughs in modern medicine. Lacks suffered from cervical cancer, which eventually caused her death in 1951 at age 31. While she was alive, doctors removed cancerous cervical cell samples from Lacks without her knowledge. The sample was passed on to a doctor who noticed that these cells lived far longer than most. The doctor isolated these cells and named the strain “HeLa” after Henrietta Lacks. The HeLa strain developed the polio vaccine. The HeLa strain is still in use today and there are currently over ten thousand patents involving the cells.
This would all be wonderful had Lacks known that her cells were being taken. The Lacks family learned about Henrietta’s genetic contribution over twenty years after her death when a researcher contacted the family asking for their blood samples. Most of the family’s inquiries about HeLa cells and publications about their own genetics were ignored until the situation gained publicity in a 1998 BBC documentary. The HeLa strain raises crucial questions about the ethics of using genetic materials without consent. We must also explore how Henrietta Lacks being a woman of color most likely influenced the doctor’s choice to not seek permission. The Lacks family still has limited control over the HeLa strain. We must acknowledge Henrietta Lacks and her family for the uncountable amount of lives their contributions saved.
Nettie Stevens (1861-1912)
Remember in biology class when you learned about X and Y-chromosomes? That lesson was brought to you by the crucial discovery of Nettie Stevens. Stevens served as an invested biology teacher until age 39, when she obtained her dream job in scientific research. Until Nettie Stevens, people thought the mother and environmental factors determined a baby’s sex. Stevens disproved that assumption with by discovering X and Y-chromosomes and how they determine sex (right here is a great place for a reminder that X and Y chromosomes do not determine a baby’s gender). In her 11-year research career, Nettie Stevens made great scientific discoveries than some scientists do in a lifetime.
Ada Lovelace (1815-1852)
You would not be reading this article if not for the computer scientist and mathematician Ada Lovelace. She wrote instructions for the first computer program. Lovelace was one of the few British aristocratic young women to learn math and science as a child. She quickly became fascinated with mathematics. Her biggest contribution was her work for her mentor Charles Babbage translating an article about Babbage’s analytical engine from French to English. Instead of simply translating, she wrote comments three times longer than the actual article. Lovelace gave suggestions in her notes for creating codes that could handle symbols and letters in addition to numbers and theorized a way for the engine to repeat number series; this process is now called “looping.” Her work was published in an English science journal in 1853. At the time, her article received little attention. However in the 1950s, researchers reintroduced her work so the computer science community as well as the public could appreciate her invaluable contributions to computer programing.
Margaret Hamilton (1936-)
America would not have sent a man to the moon without the woman who took him there: Margaret Hamilton. Hamilton wrote the code for the on-board flight software for the Apollo 11. During the most intense moment of the mission, some computer alarms on the spaceship were triggered just moments before it was meant to land on the moon. These emergency alarms would have caused the Apollo 11 to abort landing if not for Hamilton’s on-board software. Her software allowed the team on earth to communicate in real time with the astronauts and alert them of the situation. Hamilton also coined the phrase “software engineering.” Since she started using the term, software engineering has become a well-respected and rigorous field.
Mae Young (1924-2014)
If Mae Young can teach you anything, other than some superb wrestling skills, it is that all women can be tough, rough and fierce. At 5’4, Young dominated the ring. She rose to fame when female wrestling became popular in the 1940s because most of the male wrestlers were drafted to fight in World War II. Young was the first female to be crowned as a national champion by the National Wrestling Alliance. Even as she aged, Young continued to defeat much younger women. At 76 years old, Mae Young won W.W.E. Miss Royal Rumble Bikini Contest. Her last fight in the ring was in 2010 at 86 years old.
Wilma Rudolph (1940-1994)
As a sickly child who needed a brace on their left leg, Wilma Rudolph’s parents probably never thought their daughter would be an Olympic champion. She first competed in the 1956 Summer Olympics at age 16 as the youngest member of the USA Track and Field Team. That summer she took home bronze for the 400-meter sprint. At the next Summer Olympic Games in 1960, Rudolph dominated the track. She won gold and broke the world record in the 100-meter relay, won gold and broke the Olympic record in the 200-meter relay, and ran with the US team that won goal and set the world record in the 400-meter relay. Rudolph’s three wins made her the first American woman to win three track and field gold medals in one Olympic Games. Rudolph continued to serve as an inspiration after her retirement shortly after the 1960 games. In 1977, she published an autobiography that captivated readers. Rudolph joined the ranks of the Olympic Hall of Fame in 1980. The same year she established a foundation to aid amateur athletes. Even after her death in 1994, she motivates athletes everywhere with her inspirational story and insights. “Winning is great, sure, but if you are really going to do something in life, the secret is learning how to lose,” Rudolph once said, “If you can pick up after a crushing defeat, and go on to win again, you are going to be a champion someday.”
Here's one way author Paulette Schuster suggests you can get involved: Join the National Organization of Women (NOW)