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4 Influential Women in NYC History

Happy Women’s History Month! New York City history has been shaped by countless women leaders, pioneers, and activists. These four women are each an important part of that group, all having dedicated their lives to their communities and bettering the city as a whole.


Jane Jacobs (1916-2006)

Jane Jacobs was an activist, journalist, and author who fought for preservation of NYC landmarks. The Columbia alum moved to the city during the Great Depression and spent the subsequent decades creating opposition in the male-dominated urban planning field. The next time you’re in Washington Square Park, remember to thank Jane; it may not have survived if it weren’t for her.

Watch: Citizen Jane: Battle for the City, a 2017 documentary


Shirley Chisholm (1924-2005)

Shirley Chisholm was a groundbreaker in New York City politics. After holding a seat in the New York State Legislature, Shirley became the first black woman to be elected to the US Congress. In 1969 she began representing the 12th district in the House, pushing legislation to help low-income communities. Shirley went on to run for President and was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. 


Watch: Miniseries Mrs. America premieres on Hulu on April 15, featuring Uzo Aduba as Shirley Chisholm


Lillian Wald (1867-1940)

Lillian Wald was a nurse and humanitarian who advocated for healthcare for all New Yorkers. In 1893, she founded the Henry Street Settlement, where she cared for poor immigrants on the Lower East Side and provided career opportunities for women. She went on to be an active leader of organizations supporting child labor laws, civil rights, women’s sufferage and more. Lillian’s work continues to make an impact today, with many of her organizations still in operation. 


Read: “Lillian Wald”, a biography and collection of primary sources from the Jewish Women’s Archive 

Sylvia Rivera (1951-2002)

Sylvia Rivera, a Latina drag queen, was a gay liberation and transgender rights activist in NYC. In 1970 at 18 years old, she co-founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), an organization dedicated to helping homeless LGBTQ youth and fought against sexual orientation discrimination in New York. Towards the end of her life, she reactivated STAR to advocate for transgender rights in the city and the state. 


Listen: Making Gay History podcast, S1 E1 “Sylvia Rivera, Part I” and S3 E1 “Sylvia Rivera, Part II” 

I encourage you to spend some time this month reflecting on the women who came before you. The links in this article are great starting points for learning about more women who have made history. The next time you’re walking in NYC, see if you can spot any landmarks named after these women, and if you see any new names, look them up to discover their stories.   

Freshman at Marymount Manhattan!
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