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7 Influential Women to Celebrate This Women's History Month

Graphic by Federica Merante

March is Women’s History Month in the United States. Women’s History Month actually began as Women’s History Week back in 1982. But, in 1987, after petitions from the National Women’s History Project, Congress designated March 1987 as Women’s History Month. In the years after, Congress requested that March of each year be Women’s History Month.

Now, we celebrate women’s contributions to the United States, recognizing specific achievements made over the course of American history. Here are seven women who have made incredible contributions to history.

1. Angela Davis

Angela Davis became known for her involvement in a political murder case in the 1970s. David joined the Black Panthers and an all-Black branch of the Communist Party.

Davis was charged with capital crimes in connection to an armed courtroom takeover that had taken place in August 1970. Davis was accused because a gun used in the takeover was registered in her name. Davis was charged with aggravated kidnapping and first-degree murder because her gun had been used. She eluded the FBI for two months and in 1971 became America’s most famous “political prisoner” as she awaited trial. Defense committees supported her with chants of “Free Angela” and charged Nixon’s America with terrorizing, imprisoning, and attempting to kill organizations of antiracist, antisexist, anti-capitalist and anti-war activists. In 1972, Davis was acquitted of all charges and continued resisting structural inequity and injustice.

2. Dolores Huerta

Dolores Huerta earned an associate teaching degree from the University of the Pacific’s Delta College. Throughout the 1950s, Huerta briefly taught school. However, after seeing many hungry farm-children attending school, she determined that if she organized farmers and farm workers, she could better support the hungry children.

Huerta co-founded the Stockton chapter of the Community Service Organization (CSO) in 1955. The CSO led voter registration drives and fought in support of economic improvements for Hispanics. Around this time, she also founded the Agricultural Workers Association.

Although she faced ethnic and gender bias, Huerta helped to organize the strike of 5,000 grape workers in an event known as the 1965 Delano strike. Huerta was the head negotiator in the contract that followed the strike. Huerta advocated for safer working conditions for farmers, which included the elimination of harmful pesticides. She also advocated for unemployment and healthcare benefits for farmworkers and became the driving force behind the nationwide table-grape boycotts leading to a successful union contract. Huerta led another boycott of grapes in 1973. This boycott resulted in the California California Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975. This act permitted farmworkers to create unions and negotiate and bargain for better wages and safer working conditions.

Huerta also worked throughout the 1970s and 1980s as a lobbyist to improve the legislative representation of workers. Additionally, through the 1990s and 2000s, Hurta worked to ensure that more Latinx folk and women would hold political office.

In 2012, Huerta was bestowed with the Presidential Medal of Honor.

3. Sylvia Rivera

Throughout her life, Sylvia Rivera fought against the exclusion of transgender people, particularly trans people of color, from the gay rights movement.

In 1963, Rivera met Marsha P. Johnson and the two were actively involved in the Stonewall Inn uprising on June 28, 1969. The Stonewall Inn uprising occurred when patrons of the Stonewall Inn—a gay bar in Greenwich Village in lower Manhattan—rejected a police raid. Rivera resisted arrest and led protests against the raid. The uprising set a new tone for the gay rights movement and increased vibility of the movement. While the first pride parades started in 1970, Rivera and other trans people were discriminated against and were not encouraged to attend. Rivera participated in the Gay Pride Parade in 1973, but she was not allowed to speak even though she had done so much work and advocacy for the community.

Throughout the 1970s, Rivera frequently confronted gay rights leaders who failed to include trans people in their advocacy work. For instance, the Gay Activist Alliance (GAA), which had formed in response to Stonewall, often rejected the significant role trans people had played in the uprising. Around 1971, Rivera and Johnson started the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR). STAR became a space to organize and discuss the difficulties faced by the trans community in New York City. Additionally, they established STAR House, a short-lived building that provided a home for trans individuals who needed it. Later on, Rivera started Transy House, a similar concept to STAR House, in 1997.

Rivera was finally honored in the 25th Anniversary Stonewall Inn march in 1994.

4. Ida B. Wells

Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Ida B. Wells was a prominent journalist, activist and researcher. She took a stand against sexism, racism and violence. Wells also used her journalistic skills to highlight the experiences of Black people throughout the South.

Wells was born into slavery during the Civil War. In 1879, Wells was informed that a yellow fever epidemic had claimed the lives of her parents and her infant brother leaving her to raise her siblings. To support the family and keep everyone together, Wells took a job as a teacher. She eventually moved the family from Mississippi to Tennessee where she continued to work as an educator.

Wells became vocal about white mob violence after the lynching of one of her friends. She became skeptical about the reasons Black men were being lynched and was determined to investigate a handful of cases. She then published her findings in a pamphlet as well as several columns in local newspapers. Her piece about a lynching from 1892 enraged locals. The locals burned her dress and forced her to leave Tennessee so she moved to Illinois. In 1893, Wells joined other Black leaders to boycott the World’s Columbian Exposition. The exposition committee was accused of locking out Black individuals and portraying the Black community negatively.

Wells spent her life informing foreign audiences about lynching. She openly confronted white women who ignored lynching and, because of her position, she often faced ridicule from women’s suffrage organizations in the U.S. Even still, Wells remained an active part of women’s rights movements and was a founder of the National Association of Colored Women’s Club. The National Association of Colored Women’s Club was created to address issues dealing with civil rights and women’s suffrage.

5. Shirley Chisholm

In 1968, Shirley Chisholm became the first Black woman in Congress. In 1972, she became the first woman and the first Black person to seek a nomination from one of the two major political parties for president of the United States.

Chisholm earned a master’s degree from Columbia University in early childhood education in 1951. By 1960, she had become a consultant to the New York City Division of Day Care. Chisholm was a member of local chapters of the League of Women Voters, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Urban League, as well as the Democratic Party club in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn.

In 1964, Chisholm ran for State Legislature. She became the second Black person to become part of the State Legislature. A few years later, in 1968, she then ran for and won a seat in Congress. During her time there, she introduced over 50 pieces of legislation and promoted racial and gender equality, the difficulties of the poor, and ending the Vietnam War. In 1971 Chisholm became a co-founder of the National Women's Political Caucus. Then, in 1977, she became the first Black woman and second woman ever to serve on the powerful House Rules Committee. However, Chisholm’s quest for the Democratic Party presidential nomination was blocked when, in 1972, she was not permitted to participate in televised primary speeches. Still, she garnered 10% of the total vote.

In 1983, Chisholm retired from Congress. She took on a role teaching at Mount Holyoke College and co-founded the National Political Congress of Black Women. She moved to Florida in 1991 and, because of her declining health, rejected the nomination to become U.S. Ambassador to Jamaica. Chisholm said, “I want to be remembered as a woman … who dared to be a catalyst of change.”

6. Patsy Mink

When Hawaii became a state in 1959, Patsy Mink knew she wanted to run for a position in government. Although her first attempt was unsuccessful she eventually won a seat in the Hawaii State Senate and became the first woman of color elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. She would also become the first Asian-American woman to serve in Congress and the first Asian-American to run for U.S. President.

Mink graduated from the University of Hawaii in 1948 with majors in zoology and chemistry. Post-grad, she applied to medical schools but was not accepted to any. Instead, Mink applied to law school and was accepted at the University of Chicago Law School. Mink graduated from law school in 1951. The next year, Mink and her husband moved back to Hawaii where she registered for the bar exam to be able to practice law in the territory. However, even after she passed the bar exam, Mink wasn’t able to find a job because of her interracial marriage. So, Mink started her own practice and in 1954, founded the Oahu Young Democrats.

She became the first Japanese-American woman to practice law in Hawaii. Then in 1964, Mink won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, making her the first Asian-American woman to serve in Congress. During her time in Congress, Mink fought for gender and racial equality, affordable childcare, bilingual education and became a supporter of Title IX. The Title IX law states “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

Mink passed away in 2002 due to pneumonia, but she will be remembered for her integrity, honesty, determination and tenacity.

7. Corazon Aquino

Corazon “Cory” Aquino was the first female president of the Philippines. With the support of the People Power Revolution, Aquino successfully ran a peaceful movement and became TIME Magazine’s Person of the Year in 1986. At the time, the only other woman who received that honor was Queen Elizabeth II in 1952.

Aquino pursued graduate education at the College of Mount St. Vincent in New York City where she obtained a degree in French. She then returned to the Philippines to obtain a law degree at Far Eastern University, but while in school she met her husband, Benigno, and left law school to raise their family.

Benigno was a prominent figure in politics and was the youngest governor in the history of the Philippines. Shortly after, he became the youngest member of the Senate. He was known for opposing the views of President Ferdinand Marcos in his quest for the presidency. However, Marcos abolished the Philippine Constitution and remained in power. Marcos had Benigno arrested and sentenced to death.

Although Aquino did not want Benigno to remain active in politics while he was in prison, she decided to campaign on his behalf. Although Benigno won the election, he remained in prison. Later, U.S. President Jimmy Carter requested that Benigno and family be released into medical exile in the United States. The family moved to Boston and lived there for three years. After regaining his health, Benigno decided to return to the Philippines to face Marcos, but as soon as Benigno stepped off the plane in the Philippines, he was assassinated.

Corazon Aquino became a widow at age 50. When she returned to the Philippines, she was greeted by people saddened by Benigno’s death. People began an anti-Marcos political campaign to protest Marcos’ administration. Aquino participated in nonviolent and peaceful demonstrations against Marcos through the “People Power Revolution.” Initially, Aquino did not initially want to run, the Revolution encouraged her to run against Marcos for president.

On February 7, 1986, the election polls closed, and Aquino was believed to be the winner. However, when the official count declared Marcos the winner, Aquino and many citizens of the Philippines protested the decision. They believed Aquino had won and was being cheated. Aquino and faith leaders encouraged peaceful protests and after weeks of political unrest, Marcos retreated to the U.S. for exile. Aquino was sworn in as the first female president of the Philippines on February 25, 1986. She served one term and during her time, she restored the Constitution. Following her presidency, she continued to speak out against homelessness and violence in the Philippines.

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