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Women’s History Month: The Unsung Purveyors of Herstory

March 22, 2017 | Reproductive Justice
Audre Lorde by Jen Keenan, jenkeenan.com, ig: charming_nyc

Happy Women’s History Month! In celebration, we made a list of ladies who have made enormous contributions – recognized or not – to the advancement of all women. All of these women have pushed buttons and broken rules… after all, as Laurel Thatcher Ulrich once put it, "Well-behaved women seldom make history."

#SheInspiresMe

  1. "Ex-GI Becomes Blond Bombshell:" Christine Jorgensen
  2.  More than a Mother: Alberta King
  3.  Mother of Rock and Roll: Rosetta Tharpe
  4.  Married to Her Job: Savitribai Phule
  5.  Upon Deaf Ears: Juliette Gordon Low
  6.  Long Before Hashtags: Susette La Flesche
  7.  Black Women Matter: Opal Tometi
  8.  America, Take Note - First Woman President: Corazon Aquino
  9.  More Hidden Figures: Wang Zhenyi
  10.  Breaking the Ice for Women Athletes: Madge Syers
  11.  Redefining Feminism: Audre Lorde
  12.  Raising the Bar: Arabella Mansfield
  13.  A Win for Intersectionality: Tammy Baldwin

Illustration by Jen Keenan at jenkeenan.com, ig: @charming_nyc.


“Ex-GI Becomes Blond Bombshell:” Christine Jorgensen

While sex change operations had already occurred in Germany in the 1920s and 30s, Christine Jorgenson became the first person in the U.S. to be widely known for having had sex reassignment surgery… shortly after a stint as a soldier serving in World War II.

George William Jorgensen Jr., like so many males in 1945, was drafted into the U.S. Army not long after graduating from high school. Upon returning to New York after military service, Jorgenson, whose “lack of male physical development” was cause for concern in the army, heard about sex reassignment surgery and began taking estrogen. After traveling to Denmark and undergoing hormone replacement therapy there, Jorgenson took on the first name Christine. She had a series of operations and returned to New York a celebrity, where she was welcomed with the newspaper headline, "Ex-GI Becomes Blond Bombshell."

Christine helped revolutionize ideas of sex, sexuality, and gender. Her legacy as a transgender spokesperson and advocate remains a proud part of LGBT history.

For more information on Christine Jorgensen, click here.

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More than a Mother: Alberta King

Publicly, Alberta King was proudest of her son, Martin Luther King Jr., and his leadership in the fight for civil rights. But in her private life, Alberta herself was a teacher, an organizer, an activist, and a fighter.

In her early adulthood, Alberta was denied a teaching position by the local school board despite having the certification. The reason? Because she was a married woman. Undeterred, Alberta instead committed herself to her community, and coordinated her church’s first choir. She was a member of the NAACP, the YWCA, the Women’s International League for Peace and Justice, and the women’s ministry coalition at the National Baptist Association. Even after the death of her famous son, Alberta remained loyal to her organizations and her community until the day she died, which, incidentally, was the day that she was supposed to preside over Woman’s Day at her church.

Though she’s most popularly remembered for her son’s accomplishments, her son may not have been so passionate if it weren’t for his mother teaching him to have a positive outlook on life and leading by example.

For more information on Alberta King, click here.

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Mother of Rock and Roll: Rosetta Tharpe

While Elvis Presley is often credited with the birth of rock and roll, not many people know that his inspiration drew largely from Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

Tharpe emerged from the gospel world with a desire to attract secular audiences: thus, a rock and roll star was born.

Tharpe’s astounding guitar skills, as well as the fact that she was a black woman, shook racial and gender constructs in the music world. She continued to push boundaries with her recording career, and opened the door for more black and women artists to enter the industry.

She quit performing only after a devastating stroke that left her with one amputated leg. But despite her challenges and fights against stereotypes, racism, and sexism, Tharpe’s legacy remains as the world’s first rock star.

For more information on Rosetta Tharpe, click here.

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Married to her job: Savitribai Phule

Savitribai Phule was married in India at the age of nine. Having received no formal education herself, she was taught to read by her twelve-year-old husband.

After becoming literate, she worked to improve women’s rights in British-colonized India. She trained to become the first Indian woman teacher, and eventually opened up the first Indian school for girls. Part of her message was to end the discrimination of people based on caste, gender, and patriarchy – a move especially bold because of India’s status as a colonized country.

For more information on Indian women activists, click here.

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Upon Deaf Ears: Juliette Gordon Low

Girl Scouts of the USA, the quintessential American institution for young women in the early 1900s, was founded by a woman who did not have a very typical American experience herself. In her teens, Gordon Low began to lose her sense of hearing. By adulthood, she was almost completely deaf.

Deafness, however, didn’t stop her from joining the Girl Guides, an organization inspired by the Boy Scouts. She formed multiple Girl Guides and taught girls tangible skills to become self-sufficient; she also taught girls that they were valuable and could be useful to their country. She eventually got permission from the founder of Boy Scouts to rename her groups Girls Scouts, and she was able to convince influential women like Eleanor Roosevelt to become patrons. However, she still funded the Girl Scouts mostly by herself.  

Juliette Gordon Low defied financial difficulties, deafness, and opposition from Boy Scout supporters to create an organization that focused on the empowerment of young girls.

For more information on influential deaf women, click here.

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Long Before Hashtags: Susette La Flesche

More than a century before thousands gathered at Standing Rock to show their support for #NoDAPL, Native American progressives were fighting in much smaller numbers for indigenous rights. Susette La Flesche, also known as Inshata Theumba, was such a well-known member of the Omaha tribe in Nebraska that she ultimately was inducted into the Nebraska Hall of Fame.

In her youth, Susette became interested in politics, and subsequently learned English. She traveled with her father to Oklahoma to investigate conditions after the Ponca tribe’s forced reassignment from Nebraska. The move had killed almost a third of the tribe. La Flesche served as interpreter for the Ponca chief, Chief Standing Bear, after his arrest, and testified as to the conditions on the reservation in the indigenous territory. After the trial, La Fleshe went on a speaking tour with Standing Bear, both as his interpreter and as a speaker in her own right.

La Flesche is one example of the many brave indigenous women and men who have been fighting for indigenous rights long before it was popular.

For more information on influential Native American women, visit click here.

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Black Women Matter: Opal Tometi

In the wake of the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, the award-winning movement Black Lives Matter was formed in opposition to institutionalized anti-black racism. A key player in the formation of Black Lives Matter was Opal Tometi, a Nigerian-American writer and activist. Tometi is also currently involved in the Black Alliance of Just Immigration (BAJI), the country’s number one organization for black immigrant rights. While working for BAJI, Opal organized the first black-led rally for immigrant rights in Washington, D.C.

She is also a key thinker and speaker for the Pan African Network in Defense of Migrant Rights, Black Immigration Network, the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women, and for victims of domestic violence.

Opal is a true example of *intersectional feminism. She leads by example in dismantling oppressive systems of power, her organization inspires young black women to fight for their rights, and she challenges and expands the definition of “feminist” every day.

For more information about Opal Tometi, click here.

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America, Take Note – First Woman President: Corazon Aquino

Over thirty years ago, former housewife Maria Corazon “Cory” Aquino was elected the first female president of the Philippines.

Following her husband’s assassination, Aquino assumed a leadership role in activism against the political opposition. She was convinced by the one million signatures urging her to run for president to begin her campaign. She fought skeptics and chauvinists (sound familiar?) who scoffed that she was “just a woman,” and warned that her presidency would ruin the country. But against all odds, Aquino secured the position and led an administration that established a revolutionary government, the restoration of economic health, and human rights and civil liberties.

Her presidency was controversial for different reasons, but her tumultuous time in office was not the end of her political activism. After handing over the presidency, Aquino continued to travel the world and give speeches on democracy and women empowerment. She supported several charities, particularly those that focused on the poor and the homeless. Until the end, Corazon Aquino was a revolutionary and a philanthropist, and would go on to be remembered for her kindness as much as her groundbreaking presidency.

For more information on Corazon Aquino, click here.

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More Hidden Figures: Wang Zhenyi

As our Academy Award-nominated movies are showing us, women scientists have made enormous contributions to physics, astronomy, and mathematics. One of those women was Wang Zhenyi, who focused on lunar eclipses and gravitational physics during her career in China. She educated herself in astronomy, mathematics, geography, and medicine, breaking barriers that barred women’s education and blocked their ability to succeed in their careers.

What’s more, Zhenyi spoke out about sexism in the sciences. She penned several poems that addressed equal opportunity for men and women, challenging the notion that women should only do domestic work and not educate themselves.

Sadly, Zhenyi’s life was cut short at the age of twenty-nine, but she had an impactful legacy, and remains one of the best female scholars of her time.

For more information about Wang Zhenyi and other influential Chinese women, click here.

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Breaking the ice for women athletes: Madge Syers

Just about every renowned American institution started out as a boys’ club, including sports. That all changed thanks to one woman who knew she was just as good of an athlete as any man. Florence Madeline “Madge” Cave Syers made a crack in the ice by entering the formerly all-male World Figure Skating Championships in 1902. She won the silver medal, although many thought she deserved the gold, and sparked the birth of the Ladies’ Championship of the International Skating Union. This separate event was created because the International Skating Union Congress thought women competing against men would prompt judges to favor women whom they found attractive.

Undeterred, Syers entered the 1908 Summer Olympics, which included figure skating for the first time in Olympic history. She received unanimous praise and was the first woman to win Olympic gold in figure skating.

For more information on Madge Syers, click here.

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Redefining Feminism: Audre Lorde

Audre Lorde is an indispensable contributor to *intersectional feminism. She was a Black lesbian feminist who used prose and poetry to criticize the popular values of feminism that benefitted only white heterosexual cis women. She theorized the place of women of color (particularly Black women), the poor, the LGBTQ, the disabled, and the elderly in fights for equality.

She published multiple works that challenged perceptions of age, race, and class, and expanded the definition of “women’s rights” to include these things. She coined the phrase “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” which continues to inspire generations to think of innovative ways of bringing about change. Her works are imperative readings for Women’s Studies, African American Studies, and Gender and Sexuality Studies scholars today.

For more information on Audre Lorde, click here.

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Raising the Bar: Arabella Mansfield

The concept of women’s rights wouldn’t get very far without women in the courtrooms. Arabella Mansfield was the first woman to take and pass the bar exam in the state of… you’ll never guess… Iowa! The bar exam had been restricted to males over the age of 21, but Mansfield took the exam anyway and passed with high scores. She then had to challenge Iowa state law to recognize her achievement. Grudgingly, they did, and Iowa became the first state to admit women and minorities into its bar.

Although she did not actually practice law (she taught it instead), Mansfield played a huge part in the movement for women’s suffrage and equity, and opened the door for other women to study and practice law. Her perseverance and unwillingness to back down led to present day, where four of the sitting Supreme Court justices are women.

For more information on Arabella Mansfield, click here.

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A Win for Intersectionality: Tammy Baldwin

When Tammy Baldwin won her seat in the U.S. Senate in 2012, she became not only the first Wisconsin woman elected to the Senate, but the first openly gay politician elected to the U.S. Senate. Her identity as both a woman and a member of the LGBTQ community was monumental for both the women of Wisconsin and aspiring LGBTQ change-makers.

The only part of Baldwin’s victory to criticize is the fact that it took until less than five years ago to have a major non-heterosexual representative in our government. While other members of Congress have come out about their sexuality after being elected to or leaving office, Baldwin remains the first openly gay politician to be elected to the US Senate. She will hopefully be joined sooner rather than later, because representation truly matters.

For more information on LGBTQ politicians, click here.

*Intersectionality: the idea that multiple facets of one’s identity intersect to determine one’s privilege and opportunities. Some of the “facets of one’s identity” are age, gender, race, physical ability, sexual orientation, gender identity, and religion. In above example, Baldwin’s intersectionality comprises both the fact that she is a woman and that she is gay.

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