Happy Women’s History Month! This month is about celebrating the achievements and acknowledging the hardships of women throughout history. To do that, we have compiled a list of eight inspiring, revolutionary, and amazing women to learn about.
Bessie Coleman was the first Black American and Indigenous American female pilot. Known for her nerves of steel, Coleman was nicknamed “Brave Bessie” and “Queen Bessie.”
At the age of 23, Bessie moved to live with her brothers in Chicago. While they served in World War I, she got her nail technician license and began working as a manicurist. When her brothers returned, her oldest brother teased Bessie, saying that she would never be able to fly planes like the French women who served in WWI with him could. Coleman was then on determined to become a pilot.
Since no school in the United States would admit her because she was Black and a woman, Bessie decided to go to school in France on the advice of her friend Robert Abbott, the owner of the “Chicago Defender” newspaper. There was one snafu, though—she didn’t know any French.
After saving up some money, Bessie took French classes for a year before applying to aviation schools in France. She got into Le Caudron Brothers’ School of Aviation in Le Crotoy, France. With all her savings and support from Abbott and another funder, Bessie set off for France. She received her international pilot’s license on June 15, 1921.
Upon returning to the U.S., Coleman gave speeches, flight lessons and performed in shows. She refused to speak or perform anywhere where the audience was segregated. Coleman was famous for her “loop-the-loop” and figure eight tricks.
Coleman’s life was tragically cut short on April 30, 1926 when she fell out of a plane on a test flight. Bessie’s life has been celebrated in many ways. In 1931, the Challenger Pilots’ Association of Chicago began the tradition of flying over Coleman’s grave every year to honor her. In 1977, Bessie Coleman Aviators Club was formed, and in 1995, a stamp was made after her to honor her legacy.
Rosalind Franklin was a British chemist whose research was crucial to understanding the structure of DNA. Franklin’s love for science started at a young age, and at 18, she attended Cambridge, majoring in physical chemistry.
In 1941, Franklin received her B.A. and a scholarship and research grant to continue her research in photochemistry. After finishing the grant, Franklin decided to go for a doctorate. She received her doctorate from Cambridge in 1945.
Soon after receiving her doctorate, Franklin moved to Paris and worked in a lab, beginning her research on x-ray diffraction analysis. Even though she loved France, Franklin decided to return to London in 1950 to begin her research on x-ray diffraction analysis specifically for DNA.
After a few years, despite being two steps away from discovering the correct structure of DNA, Franklin moved her research focus to studying the structure of RNA in viruses. However, her work on DNA laid the foundation for James Watson and Francis Crick to identify the structure of DNA.
Sadly, Franklin died in 1958 at the age of 38 of cancer. However, her work on DNA structure and RNA structure in viruses was groundbreaking. Franklin wasn’t recognized until 1968 for her contribution to discovering the structure of DNA. The others who worked on DNA research received a Nobel Prize for their work in 1962.
Remember Paul Revere? Well, Sybil Ludington is his female counterpart! Although, she was half his age and rode over twice as far as he did.
On the night of April 26, 1777, a messenger brought word to her father that the British were attacking. The messenger was too tired to continue to ride and warn her father’s men, so at 16 years old, Sybil Ludington rode almost 40 miles to warn the militia. By day break, she was able to gather her father’s whole regiment, allowing them to prepare for battle. She was able to warn about 400 men in total.
While Sybil did not have a poem written after her heroic journey, a postal stamp was made in her honor in 1975. There is also a statue of her that sits by Lake Gleneida in Carmel, NY, and there are historical markers tracing her ride through Putnam County, NY.
Wilma Rudolph was one of the fastest women in the world and the first American woman to win three medals in track and field at the same Olympic games. As a child, Rudolph was very sick with polio and scarlet fever. The doctors told her she would never walk again. Yet, with the support and care of her family and 21 siblings, Rudolph began playing sports at the age of 11.
In high school, Rudolph ran and competed at a collegiate level. In the 1956 Olympics, at the age of 16, Rudolf won a bronze medal. Four years later, she won three gold medals and broke at least three world records. These achievements earned her the title of the fastest woman in the world.
Wilma Rudolph received many accolades for her accomplishments. In 1961, she was awarded the Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year award. In 1983, she was inducted into the Olympic Hall of Fame. In 1990, she was the first woman to receive the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Silver Anniversary Award. In 1977, her life was made into a television movie.
After retiring from sports, Rudolph worked in education and at community centers. She also started an organization to help amateur track and field stars.
Sophie Scholl was a critical member of the White Rose, a Nazi resistance group formed during World War II. The group distributed pamphlets and used graffiti to expose Nazi crimes and politics. They also called for resistance from others against the Nazis.
When the Nazis first came to power, Sophie and her siblings were avid supporters and members of the Hitler Youth programs. Scholl joined the League of German Girls and quickly became an important member. However, her father adamantly opposed his children’s involvement in the groups and facilitated frequent conversations among the family about the dangers of Nazism.
Despite her father’s frequent warnings, it wasn’t until 1937 when her brother was arrested for belonging to a youth group other than the Nazi groups that Sophie began to question the system. In 1941, after being required to join the National Labor Service, and due to a severe dislike of war, Sophie began to question the Nazi ideology even more.
In 1942, Scholl moved to Munich to study biology and philosophy. Her oldest brother, Hans, who had served in the army and saw up close the atrocities committed by the Nazi army, was also studying at the same university. He had already decided to resist the system, founding The White Rose with one of his friends.
In June 1942, Hans and his friends began creating and distributing the White Rose leaflets around Munich, calling for action against the Nazi party. When Sophie learned about her brother’s involvement in the group, she asked to join them. Soon, the group consisted of Hans and Sophie Scholl, fellow students and friends Alexander Schmorell, Willi Graf, Christoph Probst, and a professor at the University of Munich, Kurt Huber.
Despite being small, the White Rose had a large impact. They were able to distribute thousands of copies of their pamphlets all throughout Germany, hoping to trick the Nazis into believing The White Rose was a country-wide operation. All in all, they were able to create six pamphlets before getting arrested.
In 1943, Sophie was seen by a Nazi supporter distributing the sixth pamphlet. Hans and Sophie were immediately arrested, and soon after all the White Rose members were arrested. All of the members of The White Rose were executed. On the back of her indictment the day before she was killed, Sophie wrote “freiheit” meaning “freedom.”
Even in death, their message was distributed across the country. In June of 1943, their sixth pamphlet was found, smuggled out of Germany and reprinted by the United Kingdom. The leaflets were then dropped all over Germany by Allied planes in July of 1943. In president-day Germany, many schools, streets and awards are named after The White Rose and its members.
Phillis Wheatley was one of the most well-known American poets in the 18th century. Although an enslaved person, she was the first African American and second woman to publish a book of poems.
In 1761, Wheatley was kidnapped from her home in West Africa and transported to Boston where she was purchased into slavery by John and Susanna Wheatley. Phillis was quite frail and only seven years-old, so the couple taught her to read and write as part of her “domestic duties.” Phillis Wheatley began writing, and by 18 years old, she had already written 28 poems.
With help from Susanna Wheatley, Phillis Wheatley tried to publish her poems in Boston newspapers, but she was denied because they refused to publish works written by an African person. She turned to London to publish. Accompanied by one of the Wheatley sons, Phillis traveled to London and published her collection: “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral” in 1773. This was the only collection she was able to publish in her lifetime.
When Phillis was manumitted in 1774 she found it increasingly difficult to find work and publishers due to racism. She worked as a scrubwoman to support her family. However, she continued to write poems and in total completed 145 poems. Her poetry was read by abolitionists, enslavers, religious people and other notables in America. It even received international attention. Wheatley’s poetry in part supported the cause for the abolition movement as it helped make the case for the humanity of Black and African people, and thus the inhumanity of slavery.
Molly Williams was the first female firefighter on record. While not much is known about her, it is clear that she was an enslaved woman who worked in a Manhattan firehouse. She worked either as a cook or was there to tend to her enslaver when he volunteered.
In 1818, Molly was at Oceanus Engine Co. 11 firehouse when a blizzard hit New York City, and all the male firefighters in the firehouse became sick with the influenza. A fire call came in, and Molly was the only person well enough in the firehouse to fight it. She carried the pumper out into the blizzard and helped other crews fight the fire. Because of her hard work, she was nicknamed: “Volunteer No. 11.”
Dr. Jane Wright
Dr. Jane Wright was instrumental in creating innovative techniques for administering chemotherapy treatment for patients with cancer. Dr. Wright followed in the footsteps of her father who was a notable person in the medical field also doing groundbreaking research on chemotherapy.
At the time that Dr. Wright was working on chemotherapy treatments, it was mostly experimental. She and her father began researching anti-cancer chemicals. Their treatments worked on many patients who participated in the leukemia and lymphatic cancers trials. Not only was their research successful, but it also led to Dr. Jane Cooke’s work in 1951 that established an effective treatment for breast cancer and laid the groundwork for using chemotherapy to treat tumors.
Dr. Jane Wright had a very successful career. Some of what she accomplished included: head of the Cancer Research Foundation, director of cancer chemotherapy research at NYU Medical Center and member of the President’s Commission on Heart Disease, Cancer and Stroke appointed by President Johnson. Eventually, Dr. Jane Wright became the highest-ranking Black woman at a nationally recognized medical institution. In 1971, she became the first female president of the New York Cancer Society.
Thank you for learning with us! To learn more, read our first article in this series: “6 Amazing Black Americans We Should All Know About.”
Learn More: Book Recommendations from the Pratt Library
The Enoch Pratt Free Library created a list of book recommendations for Women’s History Month, and here are the reccomendations for kids’ books. (Plus a few from the fiction and nonfiction suggestions that we love!) All books are available at the Pratt Library.
Books for Children
- “What Will My Story Be?” By Nidhi Chanani
- “Standing on Her Shoulders: A Celebration of Women” By Monisa Clark-Robinson
- “She Persisted in Science: Brilliant Women Who Made a Difference” By Chelsea Clinton
- “A True Wonder: The Comic Book Hero Who Changed Everything” By Kirsten W. Larson
- “A Kind of Spark” By Elle McNicoll
- “This Book is Feminist: An Intersectional Primer For Next-Gen Changemakers” By Jamia Wilson
Books for Adults
- “The Tobacco Wives” By Adele Myers
- “The Diamond Eye” By Kate Quinn
- “The Devil’s Half Acre: The Untold Story of How One Woman Liberated the South’s Most Notorious Slave Jail” By Kristen Green
- “Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts” By Rebecca Hall
- “Carbon Queen: The Remarkable Life of Nanoscience Pioneer Mildred Dresselhaus” By Maia Weinstock
- “Wings of Gold: The Story of the First Women Naval Aviators” By Beverly Weintraub