Here are 15 women you should read up on for this year’s National Women’s History Month:
1) This Women’s History Month, make sure to read up on the life of Lucy Stone—a passionate pioneer of the abolitionist movement and the women’s rights movement until her death in 1893. Her parents were both committed abolitionists, so she was taught anti-slavery values from a young age. However, she wasn’t afraid to go against her parent’s wishes, which she proved by pursuing higher education at the age of 16 (which she was discouraged to do, in contrast to her brothers). She graduated with honors from Oberlin College in 1847, becoming the first woman in Massachusetts to ever earn a bachelor’s degree.
Afterward, she worked with William Lloyd Garrison as part of the American Anti-Slavery Society, where she also got to hone her public speaking skills. She quickly became an outspoken activist and was even heckled and condemned by local organizations. In 1850, she organized the first national Women’s Rights Conventions, and her speech made headlines. Throughout the next few years, she founded and led other associations dedicated to fighting for women’s rights, including the American Equal Rights Association. As a prominent leader, she butted heads with fellow suffragists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton because of her support for the 15th amendment allowing black men to vote.
2) Madam C.J. Walker was one of the first American women to become a self-made millionaire through her line of African American hair products. She was born on a cotton plantation in 1867, to parents who’d been recently freed from enslavement. Walker was the first in her family to be free-born. She became an orphan at the age of seven and began picking cotton with other family members in 1877. At the age of 14, she married a man in order to escape the oppressive working conditions and abuse she was facing at home. She moved to St. Louis with her daughter and began working to send her daughter to public school. She began attending night school herself, and soon met her future husband—a man who worked in advertising and would later help promote her business.
During the 1890s, Walker developed a scalp disorder that caused her to lose a lot of hair. In response, she began experimenting with natural remedies. In 1905, she was hired as a commission agent by Annie Turnbo Malone, a successful Black hair product entrepreneur. Then, her husband began creating advertisements for a hair care treatment for African Americans that she was working on. This is when she used the name “Madam C.J. Walker”, because it was more recognizable. A year later, she began promoting her products and the “Walker Method”: her own formula for pomade and heated combs throughout the South and Southeast. Her business began to grow, and she opened a factory and beauty school in Pittsburgh in 1908. Two years later, she transferred her business operations and her “Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company” had earned profits equivalent to millions of dollars in modern time. Years later, she moved to Harlem, New York, and became involved with the culture of the Harlem Renaissance. She founded philanthropies including educational scholarships and donations to elderly homes, the NAACP, and the National Conference on Lynching to improve the lives of African Americans. In 1913, she donated the largest amount of money by an African American to the Indianapolis YMCA. Later, she died of hypertension. The Walker Building, an arts center that Walker had begun work on, is now a National Historic Landmark.
3) Mary McLeod Bethune was one of the most prominent black educators, civil rights leaders and women’s rights leaders from the late 19th century, and the first half of the 20th century. She grew up in poverty, to formerly enslaved parents. She was the only child in her family of 19 to go to school when a missionary opened a school for African American children nearby. She pursued higher education and returned to the South afterward to begin her career as a teacher. She spent over a decade as a teacher—she believed that education was a key component to racial advancement. So, she founded the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Negro Girls in Florida, which grew to over 250 students over the next few years. The institute later merged with the Cookman Institute for Men to become the Bethune-Cookman College in 1923—one of the only schools nationwide where African American students could obtain a college degree.
At the same time, Bethune spent time as the president of the Florida chapter of the National Association of Colored Women. She was even involved in politics—she worked on child welfare with President Calvin Coolidge, and was appointed to a committee on child health for President Herbert Hoover. In ‘35, she became a special adviser on minority affairs for President Franklin D. Roosevelt. That same year, she founded the National Council of Negro Women to work on issues Black women were facing at the time. The next year, she became the director of the Division of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration, helping young people find employment under President Roosevelt.
She left her college in ‘42 and dedicated a lot of her time to social justice issues. She served as the representative for the NAACP on the founding of the United Nations and was later appointed by President Harry Truman as an official delegate to a presidential inauguration in Liberia for a committee on national defense. Today, she’s remembered for all her work towards improving the lives of women and African Americans.
4) Margaret Sanger was born into an Irish working-class family in New York in 1879. She watched her mother suffer from several miscarriages, and she believed they led to her bad health and eventual early death. The family continued to live in poverty. Sanger later moved to Greenwich Village in New York City with her husband—an area known for its radical politics. Sanger befriended people like Upton Sinclair and anarchist Emma Goldman, and she eventually joined the Women’s Committee of the New York Socialist Party and the Liberal Club. She participated in a number of strikes supporting the industrial worker’s union. In 1912, she began writing a newspaper column called “What Every Girl Should Know” to educate women about sex. She also worked as a nurse, treating women who’d undergone back-alley abortions. After this, she fought to raise awareness about birth control and make contraceptives available. Later, she wrote a publication called “The Women’s Rebel”, promoting women’s rights to birth control. This got her in trouble, however, since it was illegal to send out information on contraception. Instead of facing punishment, she fled to England. There she researched other forms of birth control, like the diaphragm, which she later smuggled to the U.S.
Once back in the U.S., she opened America’s first birth control clinic in 1916. She spent time in jail for spreading information on contraception helping women use diaphragms. Her court case later made history by allowing doctors to prescribe contraception to women for medical reasons. In 1921, she established the American Birth Control League. Two years later, she opened the first legal birth control clinic in the U.S., called the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau. She became victorious again when her committee got the U.S. Court of Appeals to allow for birth control devices to be imported to the country. However, she faced a lot of controversy for her association with eugenics—a branch of science that wanted to better humanity through selective mating. Her main principle throughout her career was that “every child should be a wanted child”. She established the International Planned Parenthood Federation in 1952 and promoted her work in Europe and Asia. One of her later research projects went on to create the world’s first oral contraceptive, Enovid, in 1960. Many women’s health clinics today honor Sanger’s name.
5) Writer and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston was a prominent figure of New York City’s Harlem Renaissance until her death in the ‘60s. She was born to two formerly enslaved parents in 1891, but she lived with several different relatives through the years due to family problems. She began working multiple jobs to finance her associate’s degree from Howard University. In the ‘20s, she moved to Harlem, New York, and quickly became friends with artists like Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen. Through the publishing of several literary works, she earned a scholarship to Barnard College where she studied anthropology.
Her literary works were especially powerful because of her accurate accounts of the African American experience. Her short story, “Sweat”, drew a lot of attention, as did her essay “How it Feels to be Colored Me”—which wrote about her childhood and experience moving to an all-white neighborhood. She went on to publish many African American stories and tales. She later traveled to Haiti and wrote her most famous work “Their Eyes Were Watching God”, which tells the story of a woman’s self-reliance. She received a lot of criticism from African American men in the literary industry, some of whom claimed she had a writing technique that appealed to white readers. She went on to write an autobiography and several plays. Despite strong evidence that this accusation was false, she was charged with molesting a 10-year old boy in 1948. She was further criticized for her comments on the supreme court decision in Brown v. Board of Education. These both hurt her reputation greatly, and she died poor and alone in Florida. Today, new talents have revived public interest in Hurston’s works.
6) Chien-Shiung Wu, otherwise known as the “First Lady of Physics”, was a nuclear physicist that greatly contributed to the Manhattan Project and the Wu experiment. She was born in China in 1912, to a family that encouraged her to pursue a career in STEM. She graduated with a B.S. degree in physics in 1934. She began teaching at other universities and conducting experimental research. She later attended U.C. Berkeley to obtain a graduate’s degree, which focused on uranium fission products. Afterward, she taught at different universities in the U.S., including Smith College and Princeton University—where she was the first woman instructor ever hired. In ‘44, she joined the Manhattan Project at Columbia University, where she helped solve problems and discover how to enrich uranium ore to produce large amounts of uranium as fuel for a bomb.
After leaving that project, she taught at Columbia University and was the most prominent experimentalist focused on beta decay and weak interaction physics. One of her experiments, which she worked on with two male theoretical physicists, contradicted the law of parity, which held that two physical systems are mirror images that behave in identical ways. However, while her male co-workers won a Nobel Prize for this conclusion in 1957, Wu was excluded (which she recognized was due to gender difference). She was later awarded many medals, grants, and honors for her contributions to physics-related research. She was named “Scientist of the Year”, and was even the first living scientist to have an asteroid named after her. She’s a strong and inspiring role model for women in STEM.
7) Billie Holiday, also known as “Lady Day”, was one of the most influential jazz singers of the time. She spent the majority of her childhood in Maryland, with her mother. She began skipping school after facing some problems at home, and was promptly sent to the House of Good Shepherd—an institution for “troubled” African American girls—in 1925, at the age of nine. She returned home the next year, however, after being sexually assaulted. Holiday turned to music to find peace through these troubling times. She later moved to New York with her mother and began working at a house of prostitution in the city. Five years later, she began singing at local clubs, and she renamed herself Billie after film star Billie Dove (she was born Eleanora Fagan).
At 18, she was discovered by producer John Hammond, and she began recording singles. She quickly became recognized for her expressive and melancholy voice, as well as her distinctive phrasing. She worked alongside Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and saxophonist Lester Young who was part of Count Basie’s orchestra. In ‘37, Holiday joined Basie’s orchestra and began touring with them. She then worked with Artie Shaw’s orchestra, becoming one of the first African American women vocalists to work with a white orchestra. However, she ended up quitting because of criticism she received as a black woman with a unique musical style.
She began recording by herself, which is when she released some of her most famous songs like “God Bless The Child” and “Strange Fruit”, which spoke on the lynching of black people in the South. “Strange Fruit” had been rejected by previous record labels and was even banned by some radio stations after its release. After her marriage, she battled substance abuse through smoking opium and drinking heavily. In ‘39, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, which has now disbanded, warned her to never sing the song again—however, she did not listen and continued to perform it. The widely-known racist, FBN commission Harry Aslinger, made it his mission to take Holiday down for her drug and alcohol addiction all the way until her death in ‘59. Despite her addiction, she continued releasing music and performing, and she remained a major star in the world of jazz music. She was later arrested for the possession of narcotics, which later served as an obstacle in her career—she couldn’t play in certain clubs anymore. She continued performing through her challenging lifestyle until she died due to alcohol and drug-related problems in ‘59. She was later inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Diana Ross even portrayed Holiday in her autobiography film “Lady Sings With the Blues”. Today, she’s still considered one of the best jazz artists of all time.
8) Eva Perón took advantage of her position as First Lady in Argentina to become a leading political figure who promoted different social justice movements. She grew up with the dream of becoming an actress, and it was later fulfilled in 1937—when she got her first film role in “Segundos Afuera”. By this time, she’d been living in Buenos Aires for three years, since she’d turned 15. At 20, she started her own radio production business which she called “The Company of the Theater of the Air”. In 1945, she married a colonel and government official who became president of Argentina the following year. As the first lady, she began fighting for women’s suffrage and to improve the conditions of the poor. She quickly became an influential figure and was adored by citizens countrywide. In ‘51, her husband asked her to run as Vice President, but she faced opposition from the army. In the end, however, she turned down the post due to personal health issues, which caused her death the next year.
9) British chemist Rosalind Franklin found key insights into DNA structure—a model that would go on to win a Nobel Prize. She was born into a Jewish family in England, and she displayed intelligence and interest in science from an early age. In 1938, she studied chemistry at Cambridge University, and she graduated three years later. She went on to study the porosity of coal, which became the foundation for her 1945 Ph.D. thesis. Later on, she worked with crystallographer Jacques Mering who taught her X-ray diffraction, which later led to her discovery of the structure of DNA. Franklin also used this to create images of crystallized solids in a complex matter. In 1951, she worked at the biophysics unit of the King’s College, where her director John Randall began using her X-ray diffraction techniques on DNA fibers. Studying DNA structure with a fellow student, she used her X-ray diffraction techniques to create a picture of the wet form of DNA (called Photograph 51)—which later served as critical in identifying the structure of DNA.
After falling out with colleague Maurice Wilkins, he sent Photo 51 without Franklin’s permission to competing scientist James Watson. He and Watson went on to use that photo to create their most famous model of DNA in 1953, which they won a Nobel Prize for. They used Franklin’s knowledge and findings, yet she received no credit for the model. She later went on to publish 17 different papers on viruses, laying out the foundation for structural virology. She later lost her life to ovarian cancer.
10) Mathematician Mary Jackson was an excellent scholar during a time of racial segregation. She attended Hampton, Virginia’s all-Black schools throughout her childhood, and later graduated with dual degrees in mathematics and physical science. After spending time working at different positions, she worked at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the predecessor to NASA. She was known as a “human computer” during her time as a research mathematician there. Although there was presently an executive order prohibiting discrimination in the defense industry, Virginia still enforced segregation in the workplace. At NACA, she had to go to “colored” restrooms and make food requests to a cafeteria attendant to then eat at her desk. After complaining to her supervisor, he encouraged her to take engineering classes, and she became a groundbreaking aeronautical engineer and NASA’s first black female engineer. She continued work with wind tunnels and analyzing data on aircraft flight experiments. Later, she served as the Federal Women’s Program Manager in the Office of Equal Opportunity Programs and as the Affirmative Action Program Manager, where she helped other women and minorities with career advancement. Long after her death, the movie “Hidden Figures” portrayed Jackson’s story on screen.
11) Dolores Huerta is an activist and labor leader who is still working today to improve conditions for farmers, and to fight against discrimination. She was born in New Mexico and experienced many hardships during her childhood. Throughout these challenges, her father became an early role model to her because of his work as a union activist and a New Mexico state legislator. She proved to be an active student through high school, as she was involved in different organizations and even national essay contests. As a student, however, she experienced racism that many other Mexican students—especially those from families who were farmworkers—also had to face. She was treated with suspicion and was even accused of plagiarizing another student’s work because her teacher believed she wouldn’t be capable because of her ethnicity.
Later, she obtained a teaching degree and spent some time as an elementary school teacher, but soon quit because she was discouraged when seeing her students’ poor living conditions. Determined to help, she started the Stockton chapter of the Community Services Organization—which worked to end segregation, discrimination, and police brutality, as well as better the social and economic conditions of farmworkers. It was here that she met Cesar Chavez, a fellow activist. This served as the kickstart to a career in activism. She then started the Agricultural Workers Association, where she set up voter registration drives and pushed politicians to allow non-U.S. citizen migrant workers to receive public assistance and pensions, as well as provide voting ballots in Spanish. She, Chavez, and another activist later came together to found the National Farm Workers Association, and later form the United Farm Workers. Through hard work, they finally improved working conditions for farmworkers by reducing the presence of harmful pesticides and providing healthcare “sí se puede”, which translates to “yes we can”. In ‘75, she helped with the passing of the “1975 Agricultural Labor Relations Act”, the first law that recognized farm workers’ rights to bargain collectively. She continued fighting for farmer’s rights, and in ‘88, she was brutally beaten by San Francisco cops at a rally. She went on to receive multiple honors and awards, including the Eleanor Roosevelt Award and an induction to the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
12) Angela Davis is a master activist, scholar, and writer who advocates for many different social justice issues. She grew up in Alabama, where she had faced severe racism, like the bombing of her black neighbors’ homes by the Ku Klux Klan. Her father was also part of the NAACP, so she grew up knowledgeable of the oppressions of the world. As a teenager, she organized interracial study groups, and later as a graduate student, she became involved with the Black Panthers and the Che-Lumumba Club—a black branch of the Communist party. She had some trouble with her first teaching job at the University of California, Los Angeles, because of her associations with communism—she had been fired and then re-hired after going to court.
Davis later spent over a year in jail because of her involvement with the Soledad brothers who had been accused of killing a prison guard after other black inmates had been killed by another guard. During one of the brothers’ trials in the ’70s, he made an attempt to escape, and some people in the courtroom had been killed. She was charged with murder for her part in the event, but she was acquitted in ‘72. Since then, she’s been an honorary speaker and professor at universities regarding the criminal justice system and women’s rights. She co-founded the Critical Resistance, an organization trying to end the prison industrial complex. Aside from that, she’s written many famous books including “Women, Race, and Class”, and “Are Prisons Obsolete?”.
13) Benazir Bhutto was the first woman to ever become Prime Minister in an Islamic country, and one of the youngest chief executives in the world, at the age of 35. She was born in Pakistan to a prominent political family. After earning degrees at Oxford University, she returned to Pakistan as her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, had been elected prime minister. Soon after her arrival, however, the Pakistani military seized power and imprisoned him. Because of her connection to him, she was also arrested in Pakistan throughout the years and was even detained for three years before 1984.
Afterward, she moved to London, where she founded an underground organization to resist the Pakistani military dictatorship with her brothers. She returned to Pakistan after the death of one of her brothers and was arrested yet again for participating in anti-government activities. She returned to London afterward and the anti-government demonstrations resumed. She even publicly called for the resignation of then-prime minister Zia Ul Haq, who had her father killed. She was then elected co-chairwoman of the Pakistan People’s Party and was swiftly elected Prime Minister in 1988. Two years into her term, the president dismissed her from office, but she was re-elected in ‘93 after her popular anti-corruption campaigns. As Prime Minister, she built schools, brought electricity to the countryside, and prioritized hunger, housing, and healthcare concerns. Due to intense political rivalries in Pakistan at the time, she was dismissed from office and forced to return to London. There, she continued fighting for democracy in Pakistan. She was later assassinated, which caused riots to erupt throughout the country since she was Pakistan’s most popular democratic leader.
14) Sonia Sotomayor made history as the first-ever Latina Supreme Court Justice when President Barack Obama nominated her in 2009. She was born in New York City to Puerto Rican parents, and she knew from a young age that she wanted to be a judge. Her mother, who later took care of Sotomayor and her siblings as a single parent, pushed her to pursue higher education and become fluent in English. She attended Princeton University and became heavily involved with Puerto Rican groups on campus. After graduating, she went to Yale Law School. Soon after, she worked as an assistant district attorney in Manhattan, prosecuting robbery, assault, murder, police brutality, and child pornography cases. She began working at a private firm in intellectual property litigation and serving on the board of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, the NYC Campaign Finance Board, and the State of New York Mortgage Agency.
In 1992, President George H.W. Bush nominated her for the position of U.S. District Court judge for the Southern District of New York City, making her the court’s youngest judge. In ‘97, President Bill Clinton nominated her for the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals, which she was later confirmed to. At the same time, she was teaching law at New York University and Columbia Law School. In 2009, President Barack Obama nominated her for Supreme Court Justice. In 2015, she was one of the six justices to uphold a component of Obamacare in King v. Burwell. In 2016, her dissent made headlines in Utah v. Edward Joseph Strieff, Jr.—a case relating to civil liberties protected by the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment.
15) Tarana Burke founded the “Me Too” movement in 2006, along with other women activists. Today, it’s still a worldwide movement fighting against sexual harassment, abuse, and assault. As a child and teenager, she’d been raped and sexually assaulted while living in housing projects in Bronx, NY. These experiences sparked a passion in her, and she was motivated to improve the lives of other survivors. As a single mother in Alabama, she began working with the 21st Century Youth Leadership Movement, the National Voting Rights Museum & Institute, and the Black Belt Arts and Cultural Center. She came up with the phrase “Me Too” focusing on the well-being of women of color. She always told survivors, “You’re not alone. This happened to me too”. This shaped her well-known campaign raising awareness about the sexual violence women are subject to through society’s rape culture. In 2017, actress Alyssa Milano used Twitter to share her sexual assault story using #MeToo. Within hours, the hashtag blew up and millions of people were sharing their own sexual assault stories as well. In 2014, Burke was a consultant for the award-winning film “Selma”. She continues to raise awareness through her nationwide public speaking events.