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  • Notable Figures

    This group of women are just a few who have devoted their lives and talents to producing art, pursuing truth, and reflecting the human condition decade after decade. 

    View The History Channel: Women's History Month 2024 for more notable women in history.

    photo of Toni Morrison

    Morrison was the first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Her work displays the dignity and richness of African American culture by chronicling its history and celebrating its uniquely brilliant ethos through the use of language, folk forms, and narrative traditions. Her work includes some of the most engaging contributions to American literature of the twentieth century.

    Toni Morrison was born Chloe Anthony Wofford in Lorain, Ohio. She was the second of four children born to George Wofford and Ramah Willis Wofford. Both parents had strong southern roots. Morrison’s father was from Georgia and had vivid memories of racial violence in his childhood, while her mother’s parents were part of the migration of African Americans from Alabama, via Kentucky, who sought to find a better life in the North. Morrison’s father’s occupations, including car washing, steel-mill welding, road construction, and shipyard work, typified the eclectic labor lifestyle of African American men living during the Great Depression of the late 1920s and 1930s. Her mother worked at home and sang in church.

    Morrison’s parents taught her much about understanding racism and growing up in a predominantly White America (Dawes, 2022). Read more about Toni Morrison from EBSCO

    Reference: Image from Encyclopædia Britannica and Text from EBSCO, Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, 2022, Research Starters

    photo of Jovita Idar

    As a Mexican American journalist, activist, and suffragist, Jovita Idár often faced dangerous situations. However, she never backed down from a challenge. She single-handedly protected her newspaper headquarters when the Texas Rangers came to shut it down and crossed the border to serve as a nurse during the Mexican Revolution. Idár bravely fought the injustices in her time.

    Jovita Idár was born in 1885 in Laredo, Texas. One of eight children, Idár’s parents were Jovita and Nicasio Idár. Her father Nicasio was a newspaper editor and a civil rights advocate. From an early age, Idár was exposed to journalism and political activism. She attended a Methodist school in Texas called the Holding Institute where she earned a teaching certificate in 1903. Idár immediately began teaching, but soon resigned due to the segregation and poor conditions for Mexican American students. During this time, the Mexican American community in Texas also frequently faced violence and lynching. Idár started working for her father’s newspaper La Crónica, where two of her brothers were already working. The paper was a source of news and activism for Mexican American rights. she often wrote articles speaking about racism and supporting the revolution in Mexico. In 1911, Idár and her family organized the First Mexican Congress to unify Mexicans across the border to fight injustice. The congress discussed many issues including education and lack of economic resources (by Kerri Lee Alexander, NWHM Fellow, 2018-2020). Read more from the National Women’s History Museum

    photo of Gerda Lerner

    Gerda Lerner was the single most influential figure in the development of women’s and gender history since the 1960s.  Over 50 years, a field that encompassed a handful of brave and potentially marginal historians became one with thousands; and expanded from Lerner’s development of an MA program at Sarah Lawrence College to the presence of women’s-history faculty in the great majority of US colleges and universities.

    She was born Gerda Hedwig Kronstein to a wealthy Jewish family in Vienna in 1920.  Her family was typical of the Jewish bourgeoisie in central Europe but also most unconventional, in the way that their class status allowed.  (Her autobiography, Fireweed, offers a vivid picture of her family and household.) Her father Robert was an ambitious young army officer who married a woman with a substantial dowry, which he used to establish a profitable pharmacy and pharmaceutical factory.  Her mother Ilona soon became a bohemian, an advocate of sexual freedom, vegetarianism and yoga, which “scandalized” Robert’s mother.  She became determined to “save” her granddaughters from Ilona’s influence. Read more about Gerda Lerner

    Reference: Image from National Women's History Alliance and text from Gerda Lerner website

    photo of Maya Angelou

    Angelou, best known for her rhythmic, gospel-inspired poetry and candid autobiographical works, namely I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), professed a philosophy that spoke to women, especially Black women, facing seemingly insurmountable obstacles and challenges in life: “You may encounter many defeats but you must not be defeated.”

    Maya Angelou was born Marguerite Annie Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri, to Vivian Baxter and Bailey Johnson. Following her parents’ divorce when she was three years old, Angelou and her brother were sent to live with their paternal grandmother, Annie Henderson, in Stamps, a poor rural section of Arkansas. Angelou’s grandmother, whom she called Momma, was the stable force in Angelou’s early life. Annie was a strong, religious woman who made sure that the family went to church regularly. Religion and spiritual music were important factors in the Johnson family life. Angelou also enjoyed a close relationship with her brother, Bailey, who gave her the name Maya.

    Angelou and her brother lived with their grandmother and Uncle Willie in the rear of the Johnson store, which Annie had owned for twenty-five years. Because the store was the center of activity for the local Black community, Angelou saw firsthand the indignities that Black residents suffered as a result of the prejudices of White people in Stamps. Read more about Maya Angelou on EBSCO

    picture of Gloria Steinem

    From her humble Ohio childhood, Gloria Steinem grew up to become an acclaimed journalist, trailblazing feminist, and one of the most visible, passionate leaders and spokeswomen of the women’s rights movement in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

    Steinem was born on March 25, 1934 in Toledo, Ohio, the second child and daughter of Leo and Ruth Steinem. Her father worked as a traveling salesman. In 1944, her parents divorced, leaving a young Steinem to take care of her mentally ill mother in Toledo. After graduating high school, her sister came to care for their mother, and Steinem attended Smith College in Massachusetts where she studied government. She graduated magna cum laude in 1956 and earned the Chester Bowles Fellowship, which enabled her to spend two years studying and researching in India. Her time abroad inspired an interest in grassroots activism, which would later manifest itself in her work with the women’s liberation movement and the Equal Rights Amendment.

    Steinem started her professional career as a journalist in New York, writing freelance pieces for various publications. Getting plum assignments was tough for women in the late 1950s and 1960s, when men ran the newsrooms and women were largely relegated to secretarial and behind-the-scenes research roles. Read more about Gloria Steinman from the National Women’s History Museum

    Reference: Photo was provided from EBSCO and text from the National Women's History Museum

    photo of Lillian Hellman

    Playwright. Lillian Hellman (HEHL-muhn) was born on June 20, 1905, in New Orleans, Louisiana, the only child of Max Bernard Hellman, the self-educated son of German Jewish immigrants, and Julia Newhouse, a member of a wealthy Jewish family from Demopolis, Alabama, who later relocated to New York City. While Max was attempting to set up a shoe-manufacturing business in New Orleans, he took his wife and child to live with his two unmarried sisters, Hannah and Jenny, who ran a boardinghouse at the edge of the exclusive Garden District. Read more about Lillian Hellman on EBSCO.

    Reference: Image and text from EBSCO

    photo of Betty Soskin

    Betty Soskin (Betty Charbonnet) grew up in a Cajun-Creole, African American family that settled in Oakland, California after the “Great Flood” that devastated New Orleans in 1927. Her parents joined her maternal grandfather, George Allen, who had resettled in Oakland at the end of World War I. The Allen family followed the pattern set by the black railroad workers who discovered the West Coast while serving as sleeping car porters, waiters, and chefs for the Southern Pacific and Santa Fe railroads: they settled at the western end of their run where life might be less impacted by southern hostility.

    Betty graduated from Castlemont High School in Oakland during the World’s Fair at Treasure Island. She can recall ferry boats crossing the San Francisco Bay prior to the bridges that now span it, and she remembers when the Oakland International Airport consisted of two small hangars. Betty remembers Amelia Earhart’s departure and tragic loss as if it happened yesterday. She also remembers the ammunition ship explosion at Port Chicago on July 17, 1944.

    Betty worked in a segregated Union hall, Boilermaker’s A-36, during World War II as a file clerk. In 1945 she and her husband, Mel Reid, founded one of the first black-owned music stores -- Reid’s Records closed in the fall of 2019. Betty has held positions as staff to a Berkeley city council member and as a field representative serving West Contra Costa County for two members of the California State Assembly: former Assemblywoman Dion Aroner and Senator Loni Hancock.

    In the early 2000s Betty participated in scoping meetings with the City of Richmond and the National Park Service (NPS) to develop the general management plan for Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park. She worked with the NPS on a grant funded by PG&E to uncover untold stories of African-Americans on the Home Front during WWII, which led to a temporary position working with the NPS at the age of 84. In 2007, Betty became a permanent NPS employee and has been leading public programs and sharing her personal remembrances and observations at the park visitor center. Read more about Betty Soskin at the National Park Service.

    Reference: Image and text from the National Park Service.

    photo of Willa Cather

    Author. The life of Willa Cather (KATH-uhr) is filled with small surprises. Though she became identified in the minds of her readers with Nebraska, the setting for much of her fiction, she actually lived the first nine years of her life at Willowshade, her family’s home in rural western Virginia. Then too, although many biographies report the year of her birth as 1874 and her tombstone reads 1876, her actual year of birth was 1873. S. S. McClure, founder of McClure’s magazine, suggested the first alteration when he hired Cather as one of his editors in 1906, while she herself chose 1876 on publication of Youth and the Bright Medusa in 1920. Though almost every picture ever taken of Cather shows a round-faced, kindly looking Midwestern farm woman in middy-blouse and tie, she actually lived half of her life in New York, first in Greenwich Village and later on Park Avenue. Her plain, almost masculine appearance served her well, both in the male world of journalism and later as adjunct to her distinctively American fiction. In later life, she would wear bright, sometimes almost garish colors and prints. Read more about Willa Cather on EBSCO.

    Reference: Image and text from EBSCO

    photo of Gertrude Stein

    Writer. By the time Gertrude Stein (GUR-trewd STIN) turned six, she had lived in Allegheny, Pennsylvania; Vienna, Austria; Paris, France; Baltimore, Maryland; and Oakland, California. Stein was the fifth and last child of Amelia Keyser and Daniel Stein, German Jews who were immigrants to the United States and who were married in Baltimore in 1864. Daniel ran a wholesale textile business in partnership with his brothers, with stores in Allegheny and Baltimore. When the brothers quarreled, Daniel took his family to Vienna, where his wife and children lived for three years while Daniel traveled regularly between Europe and the United States on business. Late in 1878, Amelia and the children moved to France, living in Passy, close to Paris, where they resided on Gertrude Stein’s fifth birthday. Shortly after that birthday, the family relocated in Baltimore, where Amelia’s family lived. Stein, already fluent in German and French, began to learn English, which quickly became her primary language. Read more about Gertrude Stein on EBSCO.

    Reference: Image and text from EBSCO.

    photo of marjory stoneman douglas

    Marjory Stoneman Douglas, the “Guardian of the Glades,” led the charge to protect the Everglades and reveal their rich natural heritage to the rest of the world. A talented author and dedicated environmentalist, Douglas shined a spotlight on an American ecological treasure.  

    Marjory Stoneman Douglas was born on April 7, 1890 in Minneapolis, Minnesota to Florence Lillian Trefethen Stoneman, a concert violinist, and Frank Bryant Stoneman, a judge and newspaper editor. When Douglas was six years old, her parents separated and she moved with her mother to Taunton, Massachusetts. She graduated from high school in 1908 and went on to Wellesley College, where she studied English literature. She excelled academically at Wellesley and was elected Class Orator upon her 1912 graduation. 

    After college and while living in Newark, New Jersey, Douglas met newspaperman Kenneth Douglas and the two married a few months later. However, Douglas soon left her husband, as he was forging bank drafts in her name and drinking to excess. In 1915 she moved to Miami to reunite with her father, who in 1908 had founded the Miami News Record (renamed the Miami Herald in 1910). Douglas began working for the Herald as a society reporter and editor. Read more about Marjory Stoneman Douglas from the National Women’s History Museum

    Reference: Image and text from the National Women's History Museum

    photo of  Winona LaDuke

    Winona LaDuke, a Native American activist, economist, and author, has devoted her life to advocating for Indigenous control of their homelands, natural resources, and cultural practices. She combines economic and environmental approaches in her efforts to create a thriving and sustainable community for her own White Earth reservation and Indigenous populations across the country.  

    Winona LaDuke was born in Los Angeles, California on August 18, 1959 to parents Vincent and Betty (Bernstein) LaDuke. Her father, also known as Sun Bear, was Anishinaabe (or Ojibwe) from the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota. He was an actor, writer, and activist. Her mother was an artist and activist. LaDuke is an Anishinaabekwe (Ojibwe) enrolled member of the Mississippi Band Anishinaabeg. Her father brought her to powwows and other tribal functions, events that made a deep impression on the young LaDuke. LaDuke’s parents divorced when she was five and she moved with her mother, who was of Russian Jewish descent, to Ashland, Oregon. LaDuke visited White Earth frequently and, at her mother’s encouragement, spent summers living in Native communities in order to strengthen her connection with her heritage.  

    LaDuke attended Harvard University and graduated in 1982 with a degree in rural economic development. While at Harvard, LaDuke’s interest in Native issues grew. She spent a summer working on a campaign to stop uranium mining on Navajo land in Nevada, and testified before the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland about the exploitation of Indian lands.  

    After Harvard, LaDuke took a position as principal of the reservation high school at the White Earth Ojibwe reservation in Minnesota (Mariana Brandman, NWHM Predoctoral Fellow in Women’s History | 2020-2022). Read more about Winona LaDuke from the National Women's History Museum

    Reference: Image and text provided from the National Women's History Museum.

    photo of Maxine Hong Kingston

    Author Maxine Hong Kingston was born Maxine Hong in 1940 in Stockton, California, to Tom and Ying Lan Hong. The Hongs were first-generation Chinese immigrants. Tom had trained as a scholar and a teacher in China but worked in a laundry and owned a gambling house in Stockton. Ying Lan had trained at the To Keung School of Midwifery in Canton and practiced medicine. Tom and Ying Lan’s first two children died in China; they had five more children after Maxine. 

    Reference: Image and text from EBSCO, Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia.