10 American women we owe everything to.
Even slavery, religious oppression and complete isolation due to deafness and blindness couldn’t stop these 10 remarkable American women from standing up and speaking for what they believed in. Each of these female political activists changed the course of history as advocates of equal rights for all, including women, racial minorities, immigrants, LGBT people, the poor and the disabled. As founders and key players of some of the nation’s most enduring movements and organizations, these activists broke through the social, economic and religious restrictions of their time to amplify the voices of those who had previously been ignored.
Abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth was born into slavery with the name Isabella Baumfree in New York in 1797. After escaping to freedom with her infant daughter and then going to court to recover her son, she became the first black woman to win a case against a white man. Truth helped recruit black troops for the Union Army during the Civil War and tried unsuccessfully to secure land grants for former slaves from the federal government. She joined the Northampton Association of Education and Industry, which was founded by abolitionists and focused on women’s rights, religious tolerance and pacifism, and gave a famous speech at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in 1851 entitled “Ain’t I a Woman?”
“I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man. I have plowed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any man do more than that? I have heard much about the sexes being equal. I can carry as much as any man, and can eat as much too, if I can get it. I am as strong as any man that is now.”
Susan B. Anthony
After taking a prominent role in anti-slavery movements during the lead-up to the Civil War, Susan B. Anthony attended a Women’s Rights Convention in Massachusetts that changed the course of her life, leading her to become a crucial figure in the fight for women’s suffrage. Working closely with fellow activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Anthony published the women’s rights weekly journal The Revolution, which had a motto that read “The true republic – men, their rights and nothing more; women, their rights and nothing less.”
Anthony was arrested for voting in the 1872 Presidential Election and convicted despite pointing out in her arguments that the privileges of American citizenship contained no gender qualification, giving women the right to vote; she was fined rather than imprisoned. Along with Stanton, Anthony went on to found the National Woman Suffrage Association.
“It was we, the people; not we, the white male citizens; nor yet we, the male citizens; but we, the whole people, who formed the Union.”
Elizabeth Cady Stanton
More radical than Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton aimed to take women’s rights beyond suffrage, freeing half the population of the religious and social restrictions placed upon them due to gender. Stanton’s Declaration of Sentiments, which she presented at the first women’s rights convention in 1848, is credited with launching the women’s rights and suffrage movements in the United States. The Declaration of Sentiments was based on the United States Declaration of Independence, and according to Frederick Douglass, who helped pass the resolutions contained within it, the document was the “grand basis for attaining the civil, social, political, and religious rights of women.”
“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal.”
After watching her mother endure 18 pregnancies in 22 years and die at age 50 of cervical cancer, Margaret Sanger became a pioneer birth control activist, sex educator and nurse. Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in the United States in 1916, leading to her arrest for distributing information on contraceptives; five years later she founded the American Birth Control League and opened the first birth control clinic staffed by all-female doctors as well as a clinic in Harlem with an all-African American staff. The American Birth Control League later became Planned Parenthood of America.
“No woman can call herself free who does not own and control her body. No woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother.”
The first American woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Jane Addams was a social and political activist, community organizer and one of the most prominent reformers of the Progressive Era. Addams co-founded the first settlement house in America, where middle-class volunteer “settlement workers” would assist and live alongside low-income neighbors in an effort to relieve the tensions of the economic class structure. Residents at the house studied the problems that plague poor urban areas including overcrowding, drug use, infant mortality and literacy.
An outspoken pacifist during World War I and tireless defender of immigrants’ rights, Addams was elected national chairman of the Women’s Peace Party and president of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.
“The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.”
Despite the limitations of being both deaf and blind, Helen Keller managed to achieve much more in her lifetime than most of us who have all of our senses intact. The first deafblind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree, Keller was an outspoken anti-war activist, an advocate for people with disabilities, a member of the Socialist Party of America and a campaigner for women’s suffrage and labor rights. Though best known for her remarkable ability to communicate – often giving speeches and lectures – Keller was also a founder of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and actively campaigned in support of the working class.
“The few own the many because they possess the means of livelihood of all… The country is governed for the richest, for the corporations, the bankers, the land speculators, and for the exploiters of labor. The majority of mankind are working people. So long as their fair demands – the ownership and control of their livelihoods – are set at naught, we can have neither men’s rights nor women’s rights. The majority of mankind is ground down by industrial oppression in order that the small remnant may live in ease.”
Called “The First Lady of Civil Rights” by the United States Congress, Rosa Parks was an African-American civil rights activist who famously refused to give up her seat in the “colored section” of a public bus to a white passenger, when the white section was full. At the time, parks was secretary of the NAACP and had recently attended a Tennessee training school for activists in workers’ rights and equality. Her arrest cost her her job, but led to a lifetime of involvement in the modern Civil Rights Movement, leading her to collaborate with other leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal, and was the first woman to lie in honor at the Capitol Rotunda after her death.
“I would like to be known as a person who is concerned about freedom and equality and justice and prosperity for all people.”
Once women’s suffrage was won, the fight was hardly over. Betty Friedan‘s 1963 nonfiction book The Feminine Mystique is widely credited for reigniting American feminism in the 20th century, with many a housewife seeing her own domestic and social repression reflected all too clearly within its pages when it was excerpted in McCall’s and Ladies’ Home Journal. It became a bestseller, helping to launch the women’s movement of the 1960s and 70s. Betty Friedan served as the first president of the National Organization for Women (NOW), and founded the National Women’s Political Caucus along with Gloria Steinem. Under Friedan’s leadership, NOW lobbied for enforcement of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Pay Act of 1963. She also organized the national Women’s Strike for Equality, and led a march of 50,000 women in New York City.
“The problem that has no name – which is simply the fact that American women are kept from growing to their full human capacities – is taking a far greater toll on the physical and mental health of our country than any known disease.”
Perhaps the best known American activist for women’s rights, Gloria Steinem has been a prominent political figure since the early days of the modern women’s movement in the 1960s. A writer, journalist and activist, Steinem co-founded Ms. Magazine as well as Choice USA, the Coalition of Labor Union Women, the National Women’s Political Caucus and the Women’s Media Center. Her first article for Esquire magazine, which focused on the choice that many women have to make between a career and marriage, preceded Freidan’s book, The Feminine Mystique by a year. She actively campaigned for the Equal Rights Amendment, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee on its behalf, and earned national fame as a feminist leader after publishing the article “After Black Power, Women’s Liberation” in 1969. Steinem is also active in civil rights, animal rights and LGBT rights.
“There is no simple reform. It really is a revolution. Sex and race because they are easy and visible differences have been the primary ways of organizing human beings into superior and inferior groups and into the cheap labor in which this system still depends. We are talking about a society in which there will be no roles other than those chosen or those earned. We are really talking about humanism.”
Labor leader and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta co-founded the National Farmworkers Association, which later became United Farm Workers (UFW). An avid campaigner for workers, immigrants and women’s rights, Huerta is a recipient of the United States Presidential Eleanor Roosevelt Award for Human Rights and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In addition to her work as an organizer and advocate, Huerta has helped to pass a number of California and federal laws including the 1960 bill to permit people to take the California driver’s examination in Spanish, and 1963 legislation to extend Aid to Families with Dependent Children to California farmworkers. Huerta stood beside Robert F. Kennedy as he delivered a victory statement to his supporters just after winning the California Democratic presidential primary election, moments before he was assassinated.
“Walk the street with us into history. Get off the sidewalk.”