August 26, 2017, marked the 97th anniversary of the 19th Amendment’s adoption into the U.S. Constitution. The date now serves as Women’s Equality Day, a time to reflect on the advancement of women’s rights and roles in our society. While extending the right to vote to women should, of course, be celebrated, it’s also important to remember that the 19th Amendment only pertained to white women. Native American women could not vote until 1957, African-American women in some southern states were unable to vote until the 1960s, and rampant voter suppression still restricts people of color from voting in some places.
August 26 is still a day to celebrate women, but of course, our appreciation for women’s contributions and our fight for gender equality should not end with the sunset on that date; we should honor our sisters in change every day. Women of all shapes, sizes, colors, and variations run our resistance and influence our world with strength, dignity, and intelligence, and here are just a few that we should all know.
Mary Church Terrell
African-American Civil Rights Activist
1863 – 1954
Born in Tennessee to former slaves who became small-business owners, Mary Church Terrell grew up to become one of the first African-American women to obtain a college degree. She attended Oberlin College in Ohio and went on to earn a Master’s degree in education.
Equipped with strong values and an advanced degree, she became a writer, educator, and activist. Originally interested in the women’s rights movement, she then discovered how exclusive the mainstream feminism was and focused on the rights of African-American women instead, especially concerning suffrage. The first Black woman appointed to a school board, she later served on a committee that investigated accounts of police brutality against Black people.
She is best remembered as the co-founder and first president of the National Association of Colored Women in 1896 and as a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1909. Her work didn’t end there: in 1949, she became the first African-American admitted to the Washington, D.C. chapter of the American Association of University Women, and the year after, she helped sue a restaurant that turned her away due to her race — thus aggravating a series of cases that culminated in ruling racially-segregated restaurants in Washington, D.C. as unconstitutional.
I cannot help wondering sometimes what I might have become and might have done if I had lived in a country which had not circumscribed and handicapped me on account of my race, but had allowed me to reach any height I was able to attain.
Founder of Planned Parenthood
1879 — 1966
Planned Parenthood’s biography of its founder begins with an acknowledgment of some of her more problematic affiliations and ideas: “Our founder, Margaret Sanger, was a woman of heroic accomplishments, and like all heroes, she was also complex and imperfect.” This characterization of her is accurate. She did give an address to the Ku Klux Klan, endorsed the court decision allowing forced sterilization of those deemed “unfit” to reproduce by the government, and was temporarily affiliated with leaders of the eugenics movement. Birth control itself, for which she was the earliest public advocate, came about in controversial ways, as most testing was done among non-consenting women of color.
Yet, as we acknowledge what she did wrong, we must also celebrate what she did correctly and what she spurred into creation. LIFE magazine named Margaret Sanger one of the 100 most important Americans of the 20th century as she fought to save women’s lives, lift them out of the poverty caused or worsened by raising too many children, increase health and well-being of all families, support and empower women legally and medically, and actually reduce the need for abortions.
She began the conversation in America about women’s right to autonomy over their bodies, including making their own decisions about whether or not to bear children. She fought for a world where all children are wanted and loved and maintained that everyone is entitled to sexual pleasure. She founded her own magazine, The Woman Rebel, through which she educated women about sexual and reproductive health, puberty, and the female body, even when the government forbade her from doing so, refused to send her magazine through the mail, and finally arrested her. (In jail, she is reported to have educated her fellow inmates about birth control.)
Still, with poor women, women of color, and immigrant women in mind, she created access to birth control and fought for civil rights, women’s rights, anti-war, gay rights, AIDS-action, sexual liberation, and grassroots political movements all over America, eventually opening the first Planned Parenthood clinic in 1916.
We can assume that she would be somewhat pleased with the controversy still directed at her organization, now run by Cecile Richards; she expressed a certain acceptance and amusement regarding the reception of her ideas:
They tell me that The Woman Rebel was badly written; that it was crude; that it was emotional and hysterical; that it mixed issues; that it was defiant, and too radical. Well, to all of these indictments I plead guilty…
A Woman’s Duty:
To look the whole world in the face with a go-to-hell look in the eyes; to have an ideal; to speak and act in defiance of convention…
Malak Hifni Nassif (Nassef)
Egyptian Muslim Feminist
1886 — 1918
Malak Hifni Nasif learned the Arabic language and an appreciation for her culture at a young age. When she was 13, she became the first Egyptian woman to publish poetry in a mainstream journal. Reading and writing Arabic works as a child helped her in her future studies in formal education at the ‘Abbas Primary School, from which she graduated in 1901. She continued her education at the Saniyyah Teacher Training College, where she graduated at the top of her class and became the first Egyptian woman to receive a degree from a state college. She worked as a teacher at her own primary school before being forced to quit due to marriage; Egyptian law barred married women from teaching.
Malak and her husband moved away, and she began writing under a male pseudonym when she learned that her husband was secretly already married to his cousin and that the pair had a child. His deception and values galvanized her to think and write about Egyptian women’s social status. She wrote extensively on marriage: she opposed polygamy, advocated for a woman’s right to divorce her husband, and called for sixteen to be the minimum age for a woman to marry. She also wrote against mandatory unveiling, a cause that was picking up traction in her society, because she felt that male political leaders banning the veil was an act of oppression and control over women rather than one of liberation as they so claimed. She advocated for women to be educated, especially about Islam, and then be allowed to decide for themselves whether or not to wear a veil.
As an educated woman, she saw education as the solution to her society’s problems. She was the first woman invited to lecture publicly and to write on topics that influenced the cultural and political climate of Egypt.
[Polygamy is] a woman’s greatest enemy.
“The Human Computer”
At the age of ten, Katherine Johnson was a high school freshman in a world where African-Americans usually stopped attending school past the eighth grade. She graduated high school at 14 and from college at 18, going on to be one of three Black students chosen to integrate West Virginia’s graduate schools. She studied mathematics at West Virginia State College and graduated with the highest honors.
She went on to teach at the school until 1953 when she started work for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics — what is now NASA. Her job was originally temporary and in an all-Black computing department, but her work proved so vital that within two weeks, she was chosen to lead a project in the Flight Research Division, and her job was made permanent.
Her help in 1960’s “Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout for Placing a Satellite Over a Selected Earth Position,” a report calculating how to send a satellite into space with a specific landing location in mind, led her to be the first woman in the Flight Research Division to be credited as an author of a research report.
Equipped with incredible math skills, Johnson was the one to calculate the trajectory for Alan Shepard, the first American in space, and Friendship 7, the first mission that orbited the Earth. Nicknamed “the human computer,” supervisors preferred her to their technology and requested that she check the computers’ calculations. Her supervisor asked engineers to “get the girl” when they were unsure of the Friendship 7 mission’s potential for success; “if she says they’re good,” he said, “then I’m ready to go.” Johnson later helped ensure the success of the Apollo Moon Landing program and the inception of the Space Shuttle program.
It’s fitting that she was born on August 26 — Women’s Equality Day.
The women did what they were told to do. They didn’t ask questions or take the task any further. I asked questions; I wanted to know why. They got used to me asking questions and being the only woman there.
I didn’t have time for [not feeling equal]. My dad taught us, ‘you are as good as anybody in this town, but you’re no better.’ I don’t have a feeling of inferiority. Never had. I’m as good as anybody, but no better.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court
Born at the height of the Great Depression, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was raised to believe in the power of hard work and a solid education. Ginsburg suffered tremendous hardship throughout her life, starting most notably with the death of her mother to cancer the day before her high school graduation. However, she persevered in the face of adversity and went on to Cornell University, where she graduated at the top of her class. She got married, had two children, and enrolled at Harvard Law.
During her first year of law school, her husband was diagnosed with testicular cancer. She cared for him, kept him on track with his education, raised their children, and suffered through intense sexism as one of only nine female law students in her class of 500. Even Harvard Law administrators looked down upon and berated her. Still, she persisted until moving to New York City to work at a law firm and finish her last year of law school at Columbia University. She graduated first in her class.
Still, she struggled to find a job due to rampant gender discrimination. Male employers refused to hire her based on her sex or would hire her only if she accepted a much lower salary than a man would make. She studied abroad and worked in various law firms until taking a job as a professor at Rutgers University Law School in 1963 (where she had to hide a pregnancy to avoid sexism and maternity discrimination) and then becoming the first female professor at Columbia to earn tenure.
During the 1970s, she directed the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, fighting against gender discrimination against both men and women and winning six monumental cases before the Supreme Court. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter appointed her to the U.S. Court of Appeals for Washington, D.C., on which she served for 13 years until Bill Clinton appointed her to the Supreme Court.
Ginsburg continued to make waves in the gender equality movement. In 1994, she won the United States v. Virginia case, ruling that women could not be denied admission to the Virginia Military Institute. In 2008, she dissented in the Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. case that, due to a statute of limitations, denied a woman relief from being underpaid due to sex discrimination in her workplace. She read her dissent and called for Congress to make a law based on her words, and worked with President Barack Obama to pass the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 — the first piece of legislation he signed.
On top of her accomplishments and unyielding, unapologetic advocacy for women’s rights, Oyez reminds us that, at the age of 84, “Ginsburg works with a personal trainer in the Supreme Court’s exercise room, and notably, can lift more than both Justices, Breyer and Kagan. Ginsburg had not missed a day of oral arguments, not even when she was undergoing chemotherapy for pancreatic cancer, after surgery for colon cancer, or the day after her husband passed away in 2010. Justice Ginsburg has proven time and again that she is a force to be reckoned with…”
My mother told me to be a lady. And for her, that meant be your own person, be independent.
I said on the equality side of it, that it is essential to a woman’s equality with man that she be the decision-maker, that her choice be controlling.
Feminism … I think the simplest explanation, and one that captures the idea, is a song that Marlo Thomas sang, ‘Free to be You and Me.’ Free to be, if you were a girl—doctor, lawyer, Indian chief. Anything you want to be. And if you’re a boy, and you like teaching, you like nursing, you would like to have a doll, that’s OK too. That notion that we should each be free to develop our own talents, whatever they may be, and not be held back by artificial barriers—manmade barriers, certainly not heaven sent.
I'm not surprised Trump pardoned racial profiler Arpaio. White Nationalists, KKK, & Duke celebrated Trump's election b/c he is one of them!
— Maxine Waters (@RepMaxineWaters) August 26, 2017
Trump disrespects minorities, lifts up white nationalists, demeans women & every day finds a way to undermine civil rights. He is deplorable
— Maxine Waters (@RepMaxineWaters) August 26, 2017
After making her opinions known, Waters was met with intense controversy. Former Fox News contributor Stacey Dash even referred to her as a “corrupt media buffoon,” but, interestingly, not even in regards to her words about Arpaio. Instead, Dash called her out for her Black Girls Rock! 2017 acceptance speech, which preached about not letting others shake one’s self-esteem.
As seems to be her style, Waters went unfazed by Dash’s criticisms. Hardship and hard words don’t stop Waters; one of 13 children raised by a single mother, she began working at age 13 in factories and Black-only restaurants until she was able to attend California State University. Upon graduation, she worked as a teacher and volunteer coordinator with the Head Start program, which helps low-income families provide their children with early education and other services to facilitate healthy development.
Waters, currently the representative of California’s 43rd Congressional District, is “one of the most powerful women in American politics today” as she advocates for women, children, people of color, and the poor. According to her campaign site, “During 14 years in the California State Assembly, she rose to the powerful position of Democratic Caucus Chair. She was responsible for some of the boldest legislation California has ever seen: the largest divestment of state pension funds from South Africa; landmark affirmative action legislation; the nation’s first statewide Child Abuse Prevention Training Program; the prohibition of police strip searches for nonviolent misdemeanors; and the introduction of the nation’s first plant closure law.”
With the DNC, she helped create the National Development and Voting Rights Institute to dismantle racist voter ID laws. As unrest grew in her district, she fought to bring policymakers to her area and aid her constituents, amassing millions for the economy, infrastructure, housing, small business expansion, and programs for job training and life skills for the underprivileged in her community. She fights for the environment and for developing nations, created a Center for Women Veterans, and co-founded the Black Women’s Forum as well as founded Project Build, initiatives that serve the underserved.
She came into the general public eye after both a tweet regarding Trump’s behavior towards women and a sassy response to Bill O’Reilly’s attack on her hairstyle prompted young Black women to share stories of discrimination Black women face in the workplace. These events are representative of her unapologetic nature throughout Trump’s presidency: she threw up her hands in frustration back in January when reporters mentioned James Comey, saying that he “has no credibility,” and refused to attend Trump’s inauguration later that month.
“I’m gonna take off the gloves and I’m gonna put my career on the line.”