Celebrating Women’s HERstory Month
- Judge Joan Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Justice Joan Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a historic trailblazer having spent an entire career dedicated to eliminating gender-based stereotyping in legislation. She has a long list of firsts, including being the first female professor at Columbia to earn tenure (where she had to wear baggy clothes to hide pregnancy). Justice Ginsburg was the first Jewish woman to serve on the Supreme Court, where she upheld the highest standards of legal craft for 27 years. Ginsburg successfully directed the influential Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, arguing six landmark cases that would establish the foundation for our country’s current legal prohibitions against sex discrimination.
Fun fact: Stereotypes aside, she was a self-proclaimed terrible driver.
2. Mamie Elizabeth Till-Mobley
Her son’s murderers were acquitted by an all-white jury…. Today on the streets and in courtrooms we see reflections of the 1950s, which is why we pay tribute to Mamie Elizabeth Till-Mobley, a child of the Great Migration and mother to Emmett. Because of Mamie’s relentless courage, the nation bore witness to her son’s brutal murder by two police officers, sparking a new phase of the Civil Rights movement: “It is only because I have finally understood the past, accepted it, embraced it, that I can fully live in the moment. And hardly a moment goes by when I don’t think about Emmett, and the lessons a son can teach a mother.”
- Chloe Anthony Wofford (Toni Morrison)
The Nobel laureate’s classic debut is back on school library shelves in Missouri but only after swift criticism and a class-action lawsuit. So we’re here (again). Chloe Anthony Wofford, aka Toni Morrison’s, The Bluest Eye is a timeless story about racial oppression, the tyranny wrought against Black girls, and rejection of individual beauty in favor of “blue eyes.” We could expound on Morrison’s many works of literature, but for now, we’ll keep it simple: awarded a number of literary distinctions, including the Pulitzer Prize (the first Black woman to do so), Morrison has a way of capturing the redemptive power of women and community: “Girl, you better act like you know.”
- Frances Oldham Kelsey
When newspapers ran shocking pictures in 1962 of children with shortened and missing limbs, thalidomide was banned in the United States. The drug had been prescribed to expectant mothers for morning sickness but was dangerous to developing embryos. As a result, more than 10,000 children, mostly in Germany and Great Britain, were born with deformities. Two years prior, during her first month at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Frances Oldham Kelsey refused to approve the release of thalidomide in the U.S., preventing the same tragedy from happening here. President John F. Kennedy awarded Kelsey the highest honor given to a civilian in the United States, making her the second woman to ever receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. And thanks much, in part, to Kelsey’s subsequent 45-year government career, the FDA now has more comprehensive drug regulation laws.
- Fawzia Koofi
Fawzia Koofi was the Vice President of Afghanistan’s National Assembly, until the recent takeover by the Taliban regime. Koofi, a single parent whose advocacy on behalf of the rights of Afghan women made her the target of several assassinations attempts, was considered for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2020. She served for many years as a child protection officer for UNICEF, protecting children from violence exploitation and abuse. Like many, and unlike many less fortunate, she was able to flee the country for her safety just before the Taliban takeover. Koofi continues her advocacy and calls to provide humanitarian aid to Afghanistan and to help the women who still live there under Taliban rule. Her bravery in the face of danger is a beacon that reminds people worldwide of the decades of struggle and hardship for women in Afghanistan.
- Marie Curie
Marie Curie was a physicist, chemist, and all-around remarkable woman whose contributions like the discovery of Radium and other key elements help us out every day, especially when getting X-rays. Her discoveries broke new ground and opened the door for advances in engineering, biology, and medicine. She was the first woman to receive a doctor of science degree in France, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first person to win two Nobel Prizes, and the first Nobel Laureate whose child also won a Nobel Prize. What a legacy considering that going to a University was not an option for women in Russia when she was pursuing her education! Her life offers insights into the role of women in science and serves as an example of what can happen when the scientific community improves the educational programs and career opportunities for ALL.
- Eleanor Roosevelt
Eleanor Roosevelt was not only the longest-running First Lady (1933-1945) and wife to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, she was also one of the most ambitious and outspoken women to ever live in the White House. Eleanor Roosevelt was a delegate to the United Nations General Assembly, chair of the U.N.’s Human Rights Commission, and Chair of the President’s Commission on the Status of Women. She advocated for human and women’s rights and redefined the role of the first lady. Not satisfied with the standard subjugation, staying in the background, and only handling domestic matters, she gave press conferences and spoke out for children’s causes and women’s issues while working on behalf of the League of Women Voters. She is remembered as a humanitarian who dedicated her life to fighting for political and social change.
- Frida Kahlo
Considered one of Mexico’s greatest artists, Frida Kahlo is most well-known for her self-portraits. Kahlo, who suffered from polio as a child, also nearly died in a bus accident as a teenager. She began to focus heavily on painting while recovering in a body cast. She had 30 operations. Kahlo once said, “I paint myself because I am often alone and I am the subject I know best.” She is celebrated in Mexico and around the world for the passion and pain exhibited in her art. She is also honored for her depictions of Mexican and Indigenous culture and of the female experience and form.
- Billie Holiday
Music legend Billie Holiday is remembered for using her soulful voice, songwriting skills, and creativity as a force for good. Widely considered one of the best jazz singers of all time, Billie Holiday courageously vocalized the injustices she witnessed. One of her most notable songs “Strange Fruit,” told the story of lynchings of Black folks in the South. Radio stations and concert venues banned the song. She even received a warning from the Federal Bureau of Narcotics to never sing the song again. Holiday refused and kept singing. She struggled with addiction stemming from the grief and the pain of the sexual abuse she suffered as a child. Despite personal problems and being incarcerated for her drug addiction, Holiday remained a major star in the jazz world, an advocate for justice, and a figure of strength in the resistance of inequality and white supremacy.
- Yuri Kochiyama
A Japanese-American born in San Pedro, California in 1921, Yuri was a champion of civil rights causes in the Black, Latino, Native American and Asian-American communities. After Pearl Harbor, her family, along with tens of thousands of others, were forced to relocate into internment camps. After the war and her family’s release, she and her new husband moved to New York, where she began holding weekly open houses for community activists in the family’s apartment. A friend and student of Malcolm X, she was tragically immortalized in a famous photo cradling his head in her hands just after he had been assassinated. Throughout the course of her 93-year-long life, Kochiyama’s hard-fought leadership helped to win reparations for Japanese-Americans who were interned during the war.
- Shirley Chisholm
A simultaneous destroyer of both the glass ceiling and racial discrimination, Shirley Chisholm was the first Black woman elected to Congress. Chisholm was also the first woman to seek the Democratic Presidential nomination. Born to Barbadian and Guyanese parents in Brooklyn, NY, she quickly became a fierce leader in her community through her commitment to education and women’s rights. In 1964, Chisholm began her elected career as the second Black woman elected to the NY State Legislature. She would later retire from Congress in 1983 and co-found the National Political Congress of Black Women. Chisholm’s speech, “For the Equal Rights Amendment”, given in 1970, is listed as number 91 in American Rhetoric’s Top 100 Speeches of the 20th Century. “This is what it comes down to: artificial distinctions between persons must be wiped out of the law. Legal discrimination between the sexes is, in almost every instance, founded on outmoded views of society and the pre-scientific beliefs about psychology and physiology. It is time to sweep away these relics of the past and set future generations free of them.”
- Congresswoman Maxine “Reclaiming My Time” Waters
Congresswoman Maxine Waters was born in St. Louis, Missouri and began working at the young age of 13 in the factories and segregated restaurants of the American 1950s. She was the fifth of 13 children raised by a single mother. During her 40 years in public service she became a political fixture and voice of the oppressed on critical issues such as police brutality, apartheid, anti-predatory lending, and anti-war movements. Often seen as the voice of reason, Congresswoman Waters in 2019 became the first Black woman to Chair the House Financial Services Committee where she spearheaded the effort to seek Trump’s financial records from banks during his subsequent impeachment in the House. Today, she continues her fight for transparency in finance through her work to expand financial access for underserved communities through HR 7003, which was introduced in March of this year.
- Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor was born in Bronx, NY in 1954. A graduate of Princeton University, she would go on to receive the highest academic honors and later graduate from Yale Law School. After serving as editor of the Yale Law Journal she quickly became a fixture in the Assistant District Attorney’s office in New York County (Manhattan). She would go on to be nominated by President George H.W. Bush to the U.S District Court, South District of New York, followed by over a decade on the Second Circuit of U.S Court of Appeals. Justice Sotomayor would then be nominated by President Barack Obama to the Supreme Court in 2009 as the first Latina and third woman appointed to the Supreme Court. Despite recent attacks against reproductive rights from conservatives, Justice Sotomayer has stepped up and issued scathing rebukes and is quoted as saying “The Court should not be so content to ignore its constitutional obligations to protect not only the rights of women, but also the sanctity of its precedents and of the rule of law. I dissent”
- Dr. Kizzmekia S. Corbett
A native of North Carolina, Dr. Kizzemekia Corbett received a Ph.D. in microbiology and immunology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Early on in life she was heavily involved in science-related organizations and activities, often spending summer breaks at research labs. Her hard work and dedication led to her rise to prominence as arguably one of the most influential scientists of our time through her research on the Coronavirus vaccine. A proponent of diversity on the White House Coronavirus Task Force, she has been an advocate against the alarming numbers of African Americans who are disproportionately dying from the virus. “I have grown to become invested in the health and wellness of all people,” she told an audience of several hundred people. “But especially those who are oftentimes excluded from access and opportunities that afford them equal health and also at the end of the day, equal wealth.”
- Dolores Huerta
Community organizer, civil rights activist, and farmworker advocate Dolores Clara Fernandez Huerta co-founded the National Farm Workers Association, which later became the United Farm Workers of America (UFW), to advocate for equitable farm workers’ working conditions. Between the 1960s and the 1970s, Huerta coordinated successful produce boycotts which were pivotal to the passage of the landmark Agricultural Labor Relations Act in 1975. This would be the first law to give agricultural laborers the right to select, join, and participate in unions. Since then, Huerta joined the U.S. Commission on Agricultural Workers, founded the Dolores Huerta Foundation, earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. “Every moment is an organizing opportunity, every person a potential activist, every minute a chance to change the world.”
- Marsha P. Johnson
According to the Marsha P. Johnson Institute,“Marsha P. Johnson was an activist, self-identified drag queen, performer, and survivor. She was a prominent figure in the Stonewall uprising of 1969. Marsha went by “BLACK Marsha” before settling on Marsha P. Johnson. The “P” stood for “Pay It No Mind,” which is what Marsha would say in response to questions about her gender. It is the consideration of who “BLACK Marsha” was that inspired The Marsha P. Johnson Institute. So much of our understanding of Marsha came from the accounts of people who did not look like or come from the same place as her. As trans-ness is now more accessible to the world, introducing the Institute to BLACK trans people who are resisting, grappling with survival, and looking for community has become a clear need.”
- Mae C. Jemison
After being accepted into Stanford University at age 16, Mae Carol Jemison went on to earn degrees in chemical engineering, African, and African-American studies, and proceeded to complete a medical degree from Cornell University. During her time in medical school, she traveled the globe, assisting in medical studies, refugee camps and volunteering with Flying Doctors of America. After finishing school, she worked in the Peace Corps as a medical officer and also worked on vaccine research with the CDC. In 1992, at just 36 years of age, Mae Carol Jemison became the first Black female astronaut and also the first Black woman to go into space. Since her retirement from NASA in 1993, she has continued advocating for science and education, eventually founding the Dorothy Jemison Foundation, which seeks to empower students with tools to improve society. Among her many awards and achievements, she is also an author, dancer, actor, and public speaker. Currently, she heads the 100 Year Starship project which aims to achieve interstellar travel within 100 years. Sorry Elon and Jeff, she beat you to it.
- Wangari Maathai
Nobel Peace Prize Winner Wangari Muta Maathai was the first African woman to be awarded the illustrious prize. Born and raised in Kenya, she is recognized “for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.” She was also the first woman from East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate, and was the first female professor in Kenya. In 1977, Wangari Maathai organized the grass-roots NGO called Green Belt Movement, which focused on planting trees to counter corporate deforestation in Africa that threatened the livelihood of the agricultural population. Other areas of focus of the organization are environmental conservation and women’s rights. This movement has spread to other African countries, inspiring many others to seek environmental sustainability in the face of industrialization and post-colonization. Her efforts awarded her the Right Livelihood Award in 1984. In 2003, she was elected to serve as assistant minister for environmental and natural resources for her country and has also been made an Honorary Councilor of the World Future Council. In addition to her scholarly and activist pursuits, she was also an author of several books.
- Katherine Johnson
The name Katherine Johnson is synonymous with breaking barriers. Born in 1918 into segregated West Virginia, Johnson excelled in mathematics. Although African-American students were not offered public schooling past eight-grade, arrangements were made to allow Johnson and her siblings to attend school on the HBCU campus of West Virginia State College. In college, her skills were so advanced that new mathematics courses were added for her at the school. She was selected as one of the first three African-American students (and the only woman) to be allowed to attend West Virginia University. Her career began as a research mathematician and eventually led to her being offered a job at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) as a literal human “computer”, a person who performed and analyzed mathematical calculations, persisting through a working environment that was heavily segregated. After NACA disbanded and was superseded by NASA, Johnson still faced racial and gender discrimination in the workplace. Within NASA, Katherine Johnson worked as an aerospace technologist. In this position, she would go on to calculate the trajectory and launch window for the first American in space, and also plot backup navigation charts for astronauts. Her work helped to verify the accuracy of new technologies that we rely on to this day. During her career, she helped calculate the trajectory for the Apollo 11 and Apollo 13 Moon missions, and she has worked on the Space Shuttle program, the Earth Resources Satellite and the mission to Mars.
- Zenzile Miriam Makeba
Zenzile Miriam Makeba, or “Mama Africa” as you may know her, was born in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1932. She was a singer, songwriter, actress, and civil rights activist, who advocated against apartheid and the white-minority government in South Africa. Miriam’s early life was filled with strife – she spent the first six months of her life in prison after her mother was arrested for selling homemade beer, and she was forced to find employment at the age of six after her father died. Despite suffering through the terrible adversity of racist colonialism in her home country, she discovered her vocal talent early on and went on to sing professionally in the 1950s. Her career took off in the United States. After a massacre in 1960 that affected her family in South Africa, she learned that her passport had been canceled and she was unable to return home. She then became an outspoken critic of apartheid while her career in the U.S. continued to flourish. Throughout the 60s, Miriam became strongly involved in Black-centered political activism, and eventually married Stokely Carmicheal, a prominent figure in the Black Panther Party. Her popularity waned in the U.S. after this and the government even began to monitor, harass, and abuse her and her husband due to their outspoken belief in equality. She was eventually banned from re-entering the country while on vacation and took up residence in Guinea. She did return to South Africa in the 90’s after Nelson Mandela was released from prison and urged her to return. Miriam testified against South Africa’s apartheid at the United Nations twice in her life, held nine passports, and was granted honorary citizenship in 10 different countries.