Women in History Whose Names You May Not Have Learned in Grade School

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Abolitionist and suffragist Lucy Stone said, “I believe that the influence of woman will save the country before every other power.” In honor of Women’s History Month, here are five female activists who fought for equal rights and who are not often found in school history books. 

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was a poet, activist and abolitionist. She was raised by her abolitionist uncle in Baltimore, Maryland, a “slave state,” where she lived as a free Black woman. Harper authored “Forest Leaves,” her first collection of poetry, in 1846.

Harper was known for weaving writing and advocacy together. Harper’s “Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects” depicted the brutality of slavery and conveyed the deep suffering of Black people in works such as, “Eliza Harris,” “The Slave Auction” and “The Slave Mother.” Harper’s “The Two Offers,” was the first short story published by a Black woman in America. 

In her famous speech “We Are All Bound Up Together” at the 1866 National Women’s Rights Convention, Harper spoke of the “double burden of racism and sexism” Black women endured and advocated for the importance of intersectionality. In her speech she said, “We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity, and society cannot trample on the weakest and feeblest of its members without receiving the curse in its own soul.” 

We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity, and society cannot trample on the weakest and feeblest of its members without receiving the curse in its own soul.” — Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

Mabel Ping-Hua Lee

Born in Guangzhou, China, Dr. Mabel Ping-Hua Lee immigrated with her family to New York City in 1905. Lee quickly became involved in the women’s suffrage movement. By 1912, she led 10,000 people in a suffragist parade atop a horse. 

The same year, Lee matriculated to Barnard College, where she penned many feminist essays, including “The Meaning of Woman Suffrage,” which argued women’s rights were central to a functioning democracy. She also spoke at the Women’s Political Union’s Suffrage Shop in support of equal opportunities for Chinese women. Though the 19th amendment was passed in 1917, the Chinese Exclusion Act prevented Chinese women from becoming citizens and from voting until 1943. 

Lee would go on to become the first Chinese woman to obtain a doctoral degree in the United States. She also earned a Master’s in Educational Administration and a PhD in Economics from Columbia University. She spent her life fighting for equity for the Chinese American community. 

Betty Friedan 

Often referred to as the “mother” of “second wave feminism, Betty Friedan graduated from Smith College. She later went on to become a journalist and then a freelance writer after marrying and having children. Friedan polled more than 200 Smith alumnae in 1957 to learn about their experiences as mothers and housewives, eventually identifying “the problem that has no name:” the unhappiness of housewives.

Friedan’s research determined that while culture told women they should find immeasurable happiness in housework, marriage and childcare, many women were actually deeply dissatisfied. In 1960, Friedan wrote “Women Are People Too!” for Good Housekeeping. In it, Friedan asked, “Who knows what women can be when they finally are free to become themselves?” This article was the precursor to “The Feminine Mystique,” released in 1963

Friedan founded several feminist organizations, including the National Organization of Women and NARAL Pro-Choice. Though Friedan undoubtedly advanced feminism, she was criticized for not being inclusive and intersectional enough. 

Fannie Lou Hamer

Fannie Lou Hamer was one of the most impactful civil rights leaders in American history. In 1961, while in the hospital for a minor procedure, a white doctor gave Hamer a nonconsensual hysterectomy.  The very common “forced sterilization” of women of color—without their permission or knowledge—were termed “Mississippi appendectomies,” a clear indicator of the prevalence and violent extent of racist eugenics in America. 

Hamer subsequently became centrally involved in civil rights work. The following year, Hamer attempted to register to vote. Though she was allowed to take a highly unethical literary test, she did not pass. On the ride home with other organizers, police stopped the group and arrested the driver because the “bus was too yellow.” Her boss (a white plantation owner) fired and evicted her for attempting to register to vote. Following a lunch counter sit-in, police beat Hamer so violently that her eyes, limbs and organs were permanently damaged

Though President Lyndon Johnson tried to silence her, Hamer courageously testified about the brutality of racism at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. Her speech aired to massive national audience. In her speech, Hamer asked, “Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?” The fight for racial equality and equality became Fannie Lou’s lifelong mission.

In her famous speech [at the Democratic National Convention], Hamer asked, “Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave?”

Dolores Huerta 

Dolores Huerta experienced racial violence at an early age. In her 20s, Huerta became a labor activist registering voters and advocating for economic equity. She went on to found the Agricultural Workers Association where she continued to help push voter registration.

Huerta collaborated with César Chávez to form the National Farm Workers Association (which later became the United Farm Workers’ Union) to improve the wages and conditions for farm workers in the United States. Huerta originate the phrase “Sí se puede!” meaning “Yes, we can.” President Barack Obama later used the slogan as his presidential campaign slogan. 

Huerta worked tirelessly for the rights of farm workers leading boycotts, advocating for legislation on behalf of agricultural workers and lobbying for representation and women’s rights. In 2012, Huerta received the Presidential Medal of Freedom

What women in history inspires you the most? What are some traits she possesses that you would like to embody?

Image via Chaunté Vaughn, Darling Issue 15

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