Some notable women from American history

Bean and I weren’t invited to participate in the Right Wing News “20 greatest Americans” survey (see my previous post for more info on that).

If I had been, I definitely would have included Alice Paul on my list. Alice Paul was a suffragist – possibly the most famous suffragist in the world in her heyday, although today she’s not remembered very much compared to Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. But Paul was probably the single most important activist working for the 19th Amendment; while Stanton and Anthony concentrated on getting women the vote at the state level, Paul focused unerringly on the grand prize of a constitutional amendment emancipating all women, nationwide.

Paul is also a hero of mine because of her considerable courage. To shame President Wilson and other Democrats into supporting suffrage, she staged protest after protest, including hunger strikes – actions that might seem extreme, but that kept the issue in the front pages and on the minds of American voters. She was arrested three times, held without any contact to friends, family or even a lawyer; she was isolated, force-fed rancid, worm-ridden food, sometimes beaten. But she was never deterred.

Intellectually, Paul is also an important foremother to modern feminist thought. While other suffragists argued that women deserved the vote because of women’s special feminine nature – women were inherently more honest, would vote unselfishly and thus clean up government, etc etc – Paul insisted that women deserved the vote because women were equal as human beings, not better or worse.

My second choice would probably have been Ella Baker - a woman who, despite being virtually unknown to the larger American public, may have the most important person in the civil rights movement. While Martin Luther King Jr. was out being a spokesman for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Baker stayed out of the limelight and organized the SCLC – despite the sexism that made many male civil rights leaders object to a woman in charge.

Although her backstage work was essential to the SCLC’s success, Baker objected to the “top-down” approach to activism the SCLC practiced; Baker felt that grass-roots organizing to build stronger communities was a better long-term strategy. Baker went on to be a vital organizer of the SNCC.

A few other women I would have had to consider including on my list (in no particular order):

  • Betty Friedan. I’m not sure that it’s possible to point to any single figure and say “she was the most responsible for starting the modern feminist movement” – but if there is such a figure, it would be Betty Friedan. Friedan not only wrote the book that kick-started the second wave, The Feminine Mystique, she co-founded NOW and NARAL.

  • Charlotte Perkins Gilman. There’s been a recent wave of feminist books pointing out that economic equality between men and women is probably impossible until the institution of motherhood is re-examined. What few of those books point out is that it was all said by Gilman over a century ago – and that’s just a tiny portion of Gilman’s work. Most famous now for her short story The Yellow Wallpaper, Gilman – as a suffragist, lecturer, novelist, and social scientist – may have been the most important female intellectual in American history.
  • Do you personally know anyone who died in childbirth? A century ago, most Americans would have answered “yes”; now, most say “no.” That’s an astonishing change – and the person most responsible for it was Margaret Sanger. Every American who has ever had heterosexual sex should thank Margaret Sanger – her work in favor of birth control made sex safer, enabling women to control their reproductive health more than ever before. Sanger was involved on every level – health policy, political campaigning, lawsuits, even securing funding to help develop the pill – and her work revolutionized American reproductive life. Towards the end of her life, Sanger concentrated more on international reproductive health, and continuing her work remains vital today.
  • Kate Mullaney, who organized the first women’s labor union in US history.
  • Jane Addams What can you say about someone for whom helping to found the ACLU was the least of her accomplishments? In the first third of the 20th century, there was virtually no progressive movement that Addams didn’t play an important role in.
  • Harriet Tubman. Anti-slavery activist, women’s rights activist, smuggler of slaves to freedom, spy for the North during the civil war, builder of housing for the elderly… It’s hard to believe how much Tubman did in only a single lifetime.
  • Victoria Woodhull - one of the nation’s first female stock brokers, the very first female candidate for the US Presidency (she ran in 1872; her vice-presidential candidate was Frederick Douglass), and an important suffragist.
  • Frances Wright was at least a century ahead of her time. While other white anti-slavery activists were too-often arguing that blacks were of course not equal but should be freed anyway, Wright argued for absolute equality – including sexual equality and mixing between the races, a position that made her widely hated. Wright was also involved in the Workingman’s movement of the 19th century and the women’s movement.
  • And some better-known folks who would honor any list: Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Of course, there are many, many more notable women in American history… (and much more to be said about the few women listed here), but these are the women who came to mind first for me.

This entry posted in Feminism, sexism, etc. Bookmark the permalink. 

36 Responses to Some notable women from American history

  1. Pingback: carveBlog

  2. 1
    max says:

    Have posted a brief evaluation of Margaret Sanger’s work on my own blog:

  3. Pingback: Sappho's Breathing

  4. 2
    obeah says:

    anthony: That would be Aimee Semple McPherson. Aimee Simple McPherson was, I believe, Dennis Miller’s pet name for Dr. Laura at one point. :-)

  5. 3
    obeah says:

    I’d like to add Rosa Parks (cliche, I know) and Fannie Lou Hamer.

  6. 4
    Elayne Riggs says:

    Edwina Dumm. First American woman editorial cartoonist. Figured I’d throw that in, since I’ve been remiss in getting my “Women in Comics History” page together…

  7. 5
    PDM says:

    Truth, Goldman, Anthony and Wardhull are no-brainers.

    Chrissie Hynde is a choice of mine.

  8. 6
    John Isbell says:

    Hi bean: Betty Friedan and Harriet Tubman. I just knew that Friedan was a modern feminist, Tubman I knew what Amp wrote. I don’t think she’s unknown.
    I’d heard Bessie Smith was knifed, IIRC off my liner notes. Thanks for the truth, folks. I was thinking in rabble’s link that Albee came off badly but Hammond was OK, until this, about her grave: “John Hammond contributed $50.” Janis Joplin raised the money to give her a marked grave. Go Janis. Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.

  9. 7
    Kevin Moore says:

    Hey, did anyone mention Nina Simone? We can’t forget her.

  10. 8
    Jimmy Ho says:

    Well, then, how about Angela Davis? She’s had quite a big influence among European radicals, though non communists would feel uncomfortable because of her affiliation with the Party, but I am not sure about her popularity in the USA.

  11. 9
    J.K. Whitley says:

    For a superb selection of books on politics, history, and military history, check out the RareHistoryBooks.Com web page at
    You’ll also find a superb archive of articles on the New World Order [which is impacting and changing all of us ncreasingly] from the ‘New World Order Intelligence Update’, at They are also mirrored at and at Well worth reading!

  12. 10
    Kevin Moore says:

    Hey—where did all these women come from? I never read about them in American history class! ;)

    Just for the record: I was very sarcastic about Madonna. I still fail to see how her example is, er, “empowering”.

    …my love/hate relationship with her….

    That I can get behind.

    I also second Mother Jones. And add Ma Rainey.

  13. 11
    anthony says:

    Emma Smith, Catherine Booth, Mary Baker Eddy, Ellen G White, Aimee Simple McPherson, Ann Lee.

    Founders, Co Founders, Theologians and Major Workers of the LDS, Salvation Army, Christian Scientists, Seventh Day Adventists,Pentecostals and Shakers, responisble for souls as well as bodies.

    About Sanger, she was a hero, but not to the chinese. Its like the famous five here in canada, who fought for the emancpation for women and the destruction of the “yellow peril” (a term emily murphy used to tile one of her books) with equal fevour.

  14. 12
    Ampersand says:

    Thanks for the correction on CPG’s name, Mr. Ripley. I always make that mistake.

  15. 13
    rabble says:

    Concerning Bessie Smith’s death, I heard a report on NPR interviewing a jazz historian who interviewed (if I remember correctly) the doctor who was there at the scene. The story that she was driven to the white hospital and refused treatment is a myth. A decent recounting of what happened can be found here.

  16. 14
    Coalition of the Witty says:

    I would add two other very important women to the list: Florence Kelley and Francis Perkins.

    Florence Kelley who brought us a short-lived end to child labor in Illinois (successfully repealed through the efforts of the Illinois Association of Manufacturers), The National Consumer’s League (which worked towards the minimum wage and limitations of working hours), and was also instrumental in the formation of the NAACP. Kelley also recruited Francis Perkins.

    Francis Perkins brought us a forty-hour workweek, the minimum wage, an end to child labor (through her work on the Fair Labor Standards Act), and most of the New Deal including the Civilian Conservation Corps, the National Labor Relations Act, and Social Security.

  17. 15
    emjaybee says:

    Frances Perkins was also the first female Cabinet member, under Roosevelt.

    One of her motivations for activism was witnessing the horrible Triangle factory fire of 1911, when over a hundred workers (mostly women) died in a sweatshop because of inadequate safety laws/enforcement…

  18. 16
    kevin says:

    I would second Mother Jones, and add Rosalin Franklin

    Frankly, though, I think Mother Jones just may be the greatest American no one has ever heard of.

  19. 17
    carla says:

    whew; thanks, campers! It gave me some momentary chills to read all of these contributions/nominations. And Adam, thanks for the Emma Goldman link–she definitely belongs on this list, not least because she was at least as active as Sanger in the birth control movement.

    And how about Bella Abzug?

  20. 18
    bean says:

    John, I’m curious as to which 2 were ones you knew. Perhaps I have spent too much time learning feminist/women’s history, but I’m surprised any of those names would be considered “lesser-known” — so I guess I’m curious as to which names were known, and which were not.

  21. 19
    Amy S. says:

    Actually, Bessie Smith was badly injured in a car accident. Word at the time of her death was that she bled to death because she was driven to a Black hospital rather than a nearby White hospital, and thus “murdered” because of segregation. Some later historians, though, believe that she’d been too badly injured to be saved in any case.

  22. 20
    John Isbell says:

    Bessie Smith, Empress of the Blues. Then of course Billie and Ella, but they’re not lesser-known. If you don’t know Bessie, why not listen to some – incredible voice. Dylan has a song about her. “Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer”, “Nobody in Town Bakes a Sweet Jelly Roll Like Mine.” She was murdered. Mahalia Jackson is pretty cool too.
    I knew two names from Amp’s lesser-known list. It’s nice to hear about the others and their achievements.

  23. 21
    Martin Wisse says:

    Lucy Parsons:

    “Born in Texas, 1853, probably as a slave, Lucy Parsons was an African,Native and Mexican- American anarchist labor activist who fought against the injustices of poverty, racism, capitalism and the state her entire life. After moving to Chicago with her husband, Albert, in 1873, she began organizing workers and led thousands of them out on strike protesting poor working conditions, long hours and a buses of capitalism. After Albert, along with seven other anarchists, were eventually imprisoned or hung by the state for their beliefs in anarchism, Lucy Parsons achieved international fame in their defense and as a powerful orator and activist in her own right. The impact of Lucy Parsons on the history of the American anarchist and labor movements has served as an inspiration spanning now three centuries of social movements.”

    From the Lucy Parsons Project.

  24. 22
    Mr Ripley says:

    You’re thinking of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, BD. Not Gilmore. She’s been on my mind lately, as a consequence of a post at the blog “Making Light” about Rebecca Harding Davis in a comment upon which I classify RHD with other great female writers who were “recovered” thanks to the efforts of 1970s feminists –Gilman, Catherine Maria Sedgwick, and Zora Neale Hurston.

    I’d like to nominate Zora, along with Helen Keller, whose name is universally known but whose suffragist, antiracist, socialist activism is not, and Natalie Zemon Davis, who shifted the focus of historiography from the world of kings and generals to that of everyday life in remote ages and is a heroine to generations of women historians.

    I’m learning a lot from all of these nominations. Now Amy’s got me thinking about whether there’s any blues musicians whom I’d rank up there . . .

  25. 23
    Janis says:

    Ida B. Wells. She blows me away, even in mild contemplation. That woman … *phew*

  26. 24
    JDC says:

    I remember when the “Dictionary of Cultural Literacy” came out. It had an entry for “sodomy” but not for “Sojourner Truth”.

  27. 26
    Sharoney says:

    I second Ida B. Wells and nominate Lucy Stone, whom Anthony and Stanton did their best to write out of suffragist history because (besides jealousy–Stone was an even earlier and more vocal proponent of votes for women than either of them, and was known early on as an outstanding orator) Stone disagreed with them on the issue of emancipation for slaves. Stone supported it, while Anthony and Stanton did not; they feared that the campaign to abolish slavery would eclipse the suffragist movement. Stanton/Anthony also scorned Stone’s appealing to mainstream women as selling out, and they resented the success of Stone’s publication the Woman’s Journal, which began publication shortly before their own The Revolution folded. The Woman’s Journal remained in print for sixty-one years before folding in 1931, eleven years after women were enfranchised.

    Why am I so touchy about Lucy Stone? Besides wanting credit to be given where credit is due, I happen to live next door to the town where Lucy was born, and like her I kept my own name after marriage (a practice unheard of in her time and uncommon in the US until quite recently).

  28. 27
    Ampersand says:

    I definitely should have thought of Stone – I attended Lucy Stone’s alma mattar (sp?), Oberlin College in Ohio.

  29. 28
    bean says:

    I think some of Jane Addams’ accomplishments should be spelled out:

    Anyway, I think those accomplishments are a bit more important than founding the ACLU. YMMV.

  30. 29
    Kevin Moore says:

    I second Goldman, Stone and Addams. I also add Harriet Tubman. And Shirley Chisholm, who lived in my hometown of Amhert, NY.

    Nonetheless, your continued underestimation of the powerful example of Madonna is vexing.

  31. 30
    bean says:

    Kevin — Amp did already include Harriet Tubman (he also included Jane Addams — he just didn’t include her most important accomplisments :-p )

    But, I might just have to agree with you about Madonna. Can’t come right out and say I do agree with you — but that’s cuz of my love/hate relationship with her. :-p

  32. 31
    Amy S. says:

    Bah. Memphis Minnie or Valaida Snow kick Madonna’s ass. :p

  33. 32
    bean says:

    Some others that I would add:

    • Abigail Adams: More than just a First Lady, Adams was “a prolific letter writer, patriot, abolitionist, and early feminist.” As a child, her parents taught her “that it was the duty of the fortunate to help those who were less fortunate–a lesson she remembered all of her life.” She was a staunch supporter of equality for all, and often advocated for equal access to education and government for women. And, of course, there is her famous letter to her husband, decrying that he “not forget the ladies”: I long to hear that you have declared an independency. And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation. Some would say that she ultimately did not have much influence. And, over her husband and the current government, that may be true — but I strongly disagree that she had no influence, for she had a significant amount of influence over the generations of women to come who fought for women’s equality.
    • Sarah and Angelina Grimké: Born to a South Carolina slave-holding family, the Grimké Sisters moved to Philadelphia, converted to Quakerism, and not only became staunch supporters of the abolitionist and feminist movements, but were the first American women to publicly lecture and write against slavery and in favor of women’s rights.
    • Sojourner Truth
    • Carrie Chapman Catt: At least as important to the women’s suffrage movement (and other women’s causes) as Alice Paul. It was under Chapman Catt’s “dynamic leadership, [that] NAWSA won the backing of the House and Senate, as well as state support for the amendment’s ratification.” She also wrote a number of articles decrying the Right Wing’s “Red Scare” attack on women’s peace activists in the 1920’s.
  34. 33
    David Schaich says:

    Has anybody mentioned Mother Jones?

  35. 34
    Nathanael says:

    I have to say that I never knew about LUCY STONE; however, I have to say after reading about her life, women are just as powerful and vocal as men are. She has been the ‘first” for many different aspect in her life; she was for keeping her last name, which we all know her for that. However, the list does not stop there; it goes on and she was even the first women to speak out in public. She may have been the first and we cheer for her for that; however, I will also cheer for those who came after her and not made that chain to break.

    We have so many different role models, of whom we all look up to and who we sometimes want to be like. Because, some times I want to have the courage like ROSA PARKS or HARRIET TUBMAN’s or a never giving up attitude like HELEN KELLER’s. All of these women which are mentioned here in this website, all have different talents and different ways which they help to move the country with. I have another woman in mind and her name is MAYA ANGELOU and she is one of the reason, why I want to pursue this writing career. I have to choose ELLEN G. WHITE also, I know there are a big fued of her being right or wrong; however, I believe these things we will never know, until we ask our Jesus Christ who is the Creator of all living beings.

    Well, all of these women are big out in the open; however, is those who at constant daily lives making a differences are our mothers and mothers before their mothers until all the way back to the first of all “EVE”. I say thank you for loving and taking care of your sons & your daughters and even your spouses.