Discovering Influential Women
Happy Women’s History month! This month is about celebrating the women in our lives and recognizing all the ways women have contributed to and advanced our society. This month’s theme here at LYF is discovery, which is about finding, experiencing, and learning new information. Discovery can broaden your perspective, invoke reflection, or inspire you to try something new. So, in the spirit of discovery, here are some women for you to discover in honor of International Women’s Day (March 8) and Women’s history month.
Shirley Chisholm. (1924-2005)
Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm was the first African American woman in Congress and the first woman and African American to seek the nomination for President of the United States from one of the two major political parties. She was born on November 30, 1924, in Brooklyn, New York. She was the oldest of four daughters and had immigrant parents from Guyana and Barbados. Chisholm graduated from Brooklyn Girls’ High in 1942 and from Brooklyn College cum laude in 1946, where she won prizes on the debate team. Even though professors encouraged her to go into politics, she felt she faced a “double handicap” as both black and a woman.
In 1964, Chisholm ran for and became the second African American in the New York State Legislature and won her seat in 1968. In Congress, she earned the name “Fighting Shirley” and introduced more than 50 pieces of legislation. She championed racial and gender equality, the plight of the poor, and ending the Vietnam War. She was a co-founder of the National Women's Political Caucus in 1971, and in 1977 became the first Black woman to serve on the House Rules Committee.
Chisholm was nominated for president by the Democratic Party in 1972. She was blocked from participating in televised primary debates and after taking legal action, was permitted to make just one speech. Still, students, women, and minorities followed the “Chisholm Trail.” She entered 12 primaries and garnered 152 of the delegates’ votes (10% of the total)—despite an under-financed campaign and contentiousness from the predominantly male Congressional Black Caucus. Her contributions has made history and opened the doors for black women in Congress.
Grace Lee Boggs (1915-2015)
Grace Lee Boggs was one of the nation’s oldest civil rights, labor, feminism, and environmental activists. Her support for these causes lasted over 70 years and she lived to be 100 years old. Boggs was born in Providence, Rhode Island to parents who had immigrated from China. She grew up in Jackson Heights in Queens, New York. Her family were the only Chinese people in the neighborhood. At 16 years old, Boggs attended Barnard College in Manhattan. In 1935, she graduated with her bachelor’s degree in philosophy. She went on to earn her Ph.D. in philosophy from Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. Her involvement in revolutionary activism started after she moved to Chicago.
She became involved with grassroots organizations that advocated for tenants’ and workers’ rights, such as the South Side Tenants Organization and Socialist Workers Party. Boggs became involved with the proposed 1941 March on Washington. During the 1950s, Boggs moved to Detroit and began editing the radical newspaper Correspondence, which supported a worker-centered revolution. She wrote a weekly column in the Michigan Citizen that promoted civic reforms until she was 98. In 2013, Boggs established the James and Grace Lee Boggs School, a community-based charter school with a curriculum focused on Detroit.
Wilma Mankiller (1945-2010)
Wilma Mankiller is honored and recognized as the first female Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation and the first woman elected as chief of a major Native tribe. She was born on November 18, 1945, in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. The surname "Mankiller” refers to a traditional Cherokee military rank, similar to a captain or major. Her home had no electricity, indoor plumbing, or telephones. When she was 11, she and her family moved to San Francisco, California as part of a Bureau of Indian Affairs’ relocation policy. This policy aimed to move indigenous people off federally subsidized lands with the promise of jobs in America’s big cities.
This was a traumatic event for her and her family. The events on Alcatraz and the women’s movement inspired Mankiller to empower the surrounding Native communities in California. She served as director of Oakland’s Native American Youth Center. She supported California’s Pit River Tribe in its legal battle against Pacific Gas and Electric over the rights to millions of acres of tribal land. Mankiller was elected to serve as the Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation in 1985. The population increased from 68,000 to 170,000 during her 10 years as Chief. She was the first woman to be elected chief of a major American Indian tribe. She revitalized the Nation’s tribal government and advocated relentlessly for improved education, healthcare, and housing services. Infant mortality declined, and educational achievement rose in the Cherokee Nation. She was named Ms. Magazine Woman of the Year in 1987. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993 and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998, which is the nation’s highest civilian honor.
Marsha P. Johnson (1945-1992)
Marsha P. Johnson was an African American transgender woman and revolutionary LGBTQ rights activist. She is credited for being an instigator in the Stonewall riots. She was born on August 24, 1945, in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Due to her Christian household, she had a tough childhood. Johnson began in “cross-dressing”, wearing clothes of the opposite gender, at an early age. However, she was quickly reprimanded. She moved to Greenwich Village in New York City after graduating from high school. In New York, she was homeless and prostituted herself to make ends meet. However, Johnson found joy as a drag queen and designed all of her own costumes. She quickly became a prominent fixture in the LGBTQIA+ community.
She would help and mentor homeless and struggling LGBTQIA+ youth, being their “drag mother”. Whenever she was asked what the “P” in her name stood for and when people pried about her gender or sexuality, she answered with “pay it no mind”. On June 28, 1969, at the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street, police officers were violently arresting LGBTQIA+ people on questionable charges. The LGBTQIA+ community was fed up with being targeted by the police and seeing these public arrests incited rioting that spilled over into the neighboring streets and lasted several days. Many eyewitnesses have identified Marsha as one of the main instigators of the uprising and have recognized her as the vanguard of the gay liberation movement in the United States. Due to her being an African American transgender woman, her contributions to the LGBTQIA+ community have been overlooked and not recognized.
Ellen Ochoa (1958 - )
Ellen Ochoa became the world's first Hispanic female astronaut in 1991. She was born on May 10, 1958 in Los Angeles, California. She attended San Diego State University as a first-generation college student. Initially, she was considering majoring in music. However, Ochoa earned a bachelor's degree in physics from San Diego State University and a master's degree and doctorate in electrical engineering from Stanford University. In 1985, Dr. Ochoa applied for the NASA Training Program and was rejected; most applicants initially are. She was working at Sandia Laboratory, but she decided to get a pilot’s license too. In 1987, she applied again to NASA and was turned down. However, she was among the top 100 of the thousands who had applied. In 1990, her third application was accepted. She finished training in 1991, which made her one of 110 astronauts eligible for flight. In April 1993, she was selected for a mission on the Space Shuttle Discovery. The purpose of the mission was to conduct atmospheric and solar studies in order to better understand the effect of solar activity on the Earth’s climate and environment. She went on a total of four space missions but still continues her work at NASA.
Hopefully you discovered some new information about these wonderful and inspirational women. If not, no worries! There is a plethora of illustrious women who were not on this list, that have done wonderful things, and whose stories are waiting to be discovered by you. Check out https://www.womenshistory.org/ to discover more about women’s history. Who are some of the most important women in your life? Do you have a favorite historical female figure? Are there some things a woman invented that you can not live without? (Caller ID!)
About The Author
Jameela Johnson is a Senior at UNLV, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in English in May 2023. After graduation, she plans on pursuing her Juris Doctor degree. In her free time, she enjoys reading fantasy novels, tarot cards, and being a dog mom to an eight-year-old chihuahua named Hazel.