Source: Wikimedia Commons. Photo by Phil Konstantin
Wilma Mankiller (please, no jokes about her name; according to Wikipedia, it “refers to a traditional Cherokee military rank; it is Asgaya-dihi in the Cherokee language. Alternative spellings are Outacity or Outacite.”) was principal chief of the Cherokee Nation (beginning in 1985), and was the first woman to hold such a position in a major tribal government. She was also an activist for Native Americans, an interest that work began in 1969 with the Native American occupation of Alcatraz Island. She founded the Cherokee Nation Community Development Department is credited with improving health care, education and tribal governance for the Cherokee Nation.
She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993 and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Bill Clinton in 1998.
Patricia Roberts Harris began her career as a lawyer and political adviser, even working as a director at IBM for a time. She also served as United States Ambassador to Luxembourg under President Lyndon B. Johnson, and was the first African-American woman to represent the United States as an ambassador. In 1977, she became the first African American woman named to a presidential cabinet (under President Jimmy Carter) and was the first woman to be part of the line of succession to the Presidency. She was 13th in line.
Dorothea Dix was an American activist on behalf of the poor and insane who, through a program of lobbying state legislatures and Congress, created the first generation of American mental asylums.
She was made aware of the need for reform during a visit to Britain where she met reformers who were making great inroads on behalf of those suffering from mental illness. After returning to America, Dorthea conducted a statewide investigation of care for the insane poor in Massachusetts. In most cases, towns contracted with local individuals to care for mentally ill people who could not care for themselves and lacked family/friends to do so. Unregulated and underfunded, this system resulted in widespread abuse.
In 1845, she successfully she convinced the New Jersey legislature to authorize an asylum for the mentally ill, and many more states followed suit after a personal visit from Dorthea. She continued investigations in various northern states until the Civil War broke out and she was appointed Superintendent of Army Nurses by the Union Army, a position in which she served (often ) until August 1865. After the war ended, she focused her attention on crusading for the imprisoned, poor and mentally ill in the south.
Born in England, Elizabeth Blackwell’s family moved to the United States in 1832 when she was 11. Six years later, the family had a run of bad luck and Elizabeth, her mother and sister were forced to open a school to provide income. In 1847, she was accepted to Genevea Medical College in New York, voted in unanimously by the all-male student body. She graduated in 1849, becoming the first woman to achieve a medical degree in the United States. She’s also the first woman on the UK Medical Register.
In the 1860s, she created the Women’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary, the first medical school for women in the United States. She returned to England at the end of her life, where she continued to teach at the London School of Medicine for Women.
Belva Ann Lockwood was a suffragist and one of the first female lawyers in the United States.
Belva believed she should have the same right to practice law as her male counterparts, so she drafted an anti-discrimination bill that would give her the same access to the bar as male colleagues. She spent five years lobbying Congress in favor of this bill. It was passed in 1879 and signed into law by President Hayes. Because it allowed all qualified women attorneys to practice in any federal court, Belva was sworn in as the first woman member of the U.S. Supreme Court bar.
Following in Victoria Woodhull’s footsteps, Belva ran for president in 1884 and 1888 on the ticket of the National Equal Rights Party (founded by Victoria) and was the first woman to appear on official ballots (Victoria’s votes were write-ins and cannot be traced). she is thought to have received around 4,100 votes.
Ann Petry wanted to be a novelist from the moment a teacher praised her writing in high school, but as happens to so many of us, her parents wanted her to do something more practical. So she studied pharmacy (her father’s profession) and worked in the family business for many years. But she wrote and published short stories on the side.
While working in an after-school program in Harlem, Ann saw for the first time how sheltered her life had been and what most African Americans in the early 20th century had to go through. This inspired her to write The Street, her first novel, which was so wildly popular she became the first black woman writer with book sales topping a million copies. She went on to write several additional novels.
Euphemia Lofton Haynes was a principal and deputy superintendent in charge of Washington’s “colored schools” (the schools for African Americans) before she earned her Ph.D. in Mathematics at The Catholic University in Washington, D.C., in 1943, which made her the first African American Woman to earn a Ph.D. in Mathematics.
The title of her dissertation was “The Determination of Sets of Independent Conditions Characterizing Certain Special Cases of Symmetric Correspondences.”
Dr. Haynes taught in the public schools of Washington, D.C., for 47 years and was the first woman to chair the local school board. She established the mathematics department at Miner Teachers College, where she was also a professor, and was chair of the Division of Mathematics and Business Education at the District of Columbia Teachers College. In 1959, she retired, but served as head of the city’s Board of Education, and was central to the integration of Washington, D.C. public schools.
While she was a graduate student and junior researcher in radio astronomy at Cambridge University in England, Jocelyn Bell Burnell made a discovery that changed science. In 1967, she was given the mind-numbing task of analyzing three miles of printed data from a radio telescope she helped assemble. That’s when she noticed recurring signals, later called pulsars. These were given off by the rotation of small stars leftover from huge stars that went supernova.
Her discovery was important because it proved that once supernova happened, the stars didn’t disappear, but rather left behind dense rotating stars.
Despite Jocelyn’s contribution, the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to her supervisor, Anthony Hewish, and another Cambridge radio astronomer, Martin Ryle.
In case you don’t remember, Victoria, the poor daughter of a con-man and a religious zealot, was a suffragist in the mid-1800s. She was the:
First woman to run a stock brokerage on Wall Street
First woman to testify before Congress
One of the first women to run a weekly newspaper
First female presidential candidate (1872)
Why isn’t she in our history books? Three main reasons I can tell:
She royally angered her former friends Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. They literally wrote the 900+ page book on the women’s suffrage movement, reducing Victoria’s role to an actual footnote. This, then, undermined her importance to future historians.
Not long after her death, a woman named Emanie Sachs published a scathing biography of Victoria that painted her as a harlot and trickster – not the kind of woman anyone would want in the historical record.
She was a woman. (Look at our history. That had to be part of it.)
Victoria Woodhull is the subject of my novel Madame Presidentess, which will be published July 25.