The lesser-known women behind social progress: How many can you name? (#114)

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Jean Latting
May 23, 2023
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Unsung heroes are all around us. Many were women; in many cases, their work was known but men took the credit.

As Women’s History Month closes out, we wanted to shout out the stories of a few of those women who were not only vital to our history but were also mostly forgotten. The New York Times writes: “Researchers have estimated that women’s stories make up just 0.5 percent of recorded history.”1 Here are just a few to remember.

Ruby Bridges (1954- )

Ruby Bridges integrated schools in Louisiana. For some perspective on how recently that happened, note that she was born in 1954. A Smithsonian publication gave this summary about Bridges:

At six years old, Ruby Bridges was the first African American child to integrate schools in Louisiana. On Ruby's first day, she and her mother, escorted by U.S. Marshals, endured taunts and threats as she approached Johnson Lockett Elementary in New Orleans. Only one white teacher was willing to teach Ruby, and she was the only child in her kindergarten class due to racism. Ruby was unable to eat lunch in the cafeteria or go to recess alone because of the danger of violence toward her. Ruby Bridges never missed a day of school.” 2

Claudette Colvin (1939- )

Nine months before Rosa Parks, Claudette Colvin refused to give up her seat to a White man. Although not the first to do so (most were simply fined), she stood up to the driver and was handcuffed, arrested, and jailed. She was 15. Later she became a plaintiff in the lawsuit that overturned bus segregation laws in Montgomery. A historian explained Colvin’s lack of fame this way:

When asked why she is little known and why everyone thinks only of Rosa Parks, Colvin says the NAACP and all the other black organizations felt Parks would be a good icon because "she was an adult. They didn't think teenagers would be reliable."

She also says Parks had the right hair and the right look. "Her skin texture was the kind that people associate with the middle class," says Colvin. "She fit that profile."3

Mitsuye Endo (1920-2006)

Her lawsuit challenging the order to intern the Japanese during WW II was argued and won before the Supreme Court.4 Born in Sacramento to Japanese immigrants, she worked as a typist at the state Department of Motor Vehicles. By order of President Roosevelt, she and her family were sent to a remote internment camp in California, then to Utah. Ironically, her brother had been drafted in the Army. She was recruited as a plaintiff because she was born in the U.S. and spoke no Japanese. The courts, realizing they had no case, delayed the case as long as possible. Finally, the day before the Supreme Court’s ruling, Roosevelt announced that the camps would be closed. At a special ceremony in Washington DC in 2019, Endo and the three men who lost their case were honored with the Defender of Liberty Award from the Committee for the Republic.

Shulamith Firestone (1945-2012)

This Canadian-born Jewish feminist was born Shulamith Bat Shmuel Ben Ari Feuerstein in 1945. Her manifesto, The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution, posited that pregnancy led inevitably to the subjugation of women. Her proposed solution, ectogenesis, proposed artificial wombs to free women from the tyranny of reproduction. From The Conversation:

Firestone believed the historical origins of women’s oppression lay in the uncontrolled pregnancies undergone by fertile women before effective contraception became widely available. The fact that most women of childbearing age would be caught up in a constant cycle of pregnancy, childbirth and nursing small children, meant that women became dependent upon men for provision of the necessities of life such as food and shelter and excluded from other social functions. This created the first class division among humans – male producers, female reproducers. 5

Margaret Foley (1873-1957)

Labeled “the heckler-in-chief” by the local newspaper, Foley followed politicians throughout the state of Massachusetts, demanding to know their position on women’s right to vote. 6 Born to Irish immigrant parents, Foley did not fit the genteel image of most suffragettes, working in a hat factory and in the Hat Trimmers’ Union. Heckling, pamphleteering, and other outspoken tactics helped her reach working class women who didn’t identify with wealthy women.

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911)

Frances Harper was born to free Black parents who died when she was 3. She was a poet, writer, abolitionist, speaker, and an activist for temperance and women’s suffrage. 7 She funded the Underground Railroad with her earnings from poetry, and taught at Union Seminary, which was led by abolitionist John Brown. She was also a contributor to The Liberator, published by Frederick Douglass. She worked in the Colored Section of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and co-founded the National Association of Colored Women.

Yuri Kochiyama (1921-2014)

Her father died in detention after Pearl Harbor, and she lived in a camp in rural Arkansas. A radical and follower of Malcolm X (she can be seen kneeling over his body at his assassination), Kochiyama remained active with Black nationalist groups. She advocated for political prisoners, for Black-Asian coalitions, nuclear disarmament, an end to the war in Vietnam, Japanese American redress, and Puerto Rican independence, among others. 8

Viola Liuzzo (1925-1965)

Murdered by the Klan on March 26, 1965, Liuzzo had answered the call of Dr. Martin Luther King to assist in the struggle for civil rights. She was a suburban White woman, mother of 5, 39 years old. So many questions: what compelled her to answer the call? To put her life on the line for people she didn’t know? Was she aware of the danger or did she believe the Klan wouldn’t kill a White woman? Or more significant: Why weren’t other suburban White women willing to take risks to help others? In her personal essay, Donna Britt writes:

Her enormous sacrifice suggested there were people in this country far better than the newscasts suggested. And if a white mom with everything to live for would risk death for me, maybe I mattered more than even I had dared to imagine. 9

Lozen (1840-1889)

Lozen was the “Apache Joan of Arc.” 10 A Chihenne Chiricahua Apache medicine woman, she was also a gifted warrior and an ally of Geronimo. With her tribe, she fought the American army over intolerable living conditions for Native peoples. Sick with TB, her life ended in a military arsenal in Alabama. She is buried in an unmarked grave.

Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray (1910-1985)

Another of the best known of the “unknown” heroes was Dr. Murray, an Episcopal priest and co-founder of the National Organization for Women. Her legal arguments formed the basis of the Brown vs Board of Education ruling; Thurgood Marshall called her briefs the bible of the Brown decision. Her work about sex discrimination was cited by a young lawyer named Ruth Bader Ginsburg in arguing successfully in Reed vs Reed in front of the Supreme Court. A historical article reported this about her:

Murray was sainted by the Episcopal Church in 2012, a residential college at Yale was named in her honor in 2017, and she has become an LBGTQ icon, thanks, in part, to the progressive approach to gender fluidity that she personally expressed throughout her life. Despite all this, as she wrote in the essay “The Liberation of Black Women” in 1970: ‘If anyone should ask a Negro woman in America what has been her greatest achievement, her honest answer would be, “I survived!”’11

Susan La Flesche Picotte (1865-1915)

A member of the Omaha tribe, Picotte realized White doctors had no intention of caring for Natives, then went on to became the first Native American woman doctor.12 The Susan La Flesche Picotte Center, the first medical facility built on a reservation without outside help, was named a National Historic Landmark in 1993.

Sylvia Rivera (1952-2002)

Assigned male at birth, Rivera was born in New York to a Puerto Rican mother and Venezuelan father.13 After a difficult childhood, she ran away at 11 and found her community around the Stonewall Inn. Rivera said in an interview that while she did not throw the first Molotov cocktail at the raid, as reported by the press, she did throw the second one. She was involved in movements for Black liberation, peace, and gay rights, although she was largely excluded for being transgender. She and her friend and ally, a transgender Black woman, set up housing for other transgenders. Rivera had frequent bouts with homelessness and substance abuse, but eventually recovered and found her place in the movement. She died of liver cancer at age 50.

Questions to ask yourself

  1. What do these women have in common?
  2. If you were to commit to a cause, which would it be? What keeps you from doing it?

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