Since March is Women’s History Month, I want to shine the spotlight on five unsung heroines who don’t get a lot of attention in our history books. Have you heard about the success stories of Patricia Roberts Harris, Mae Jemison, Constance Baker Motley, Madame C.J. Walker or Ida B. Wells? Many of these extraordinary ladies were breaking down stereotypes before the terms “glass ceiling” or “feminist” were even coined:
- Patricia Roberts Harris (1924-1985) was the first African-American woman to hold a cabinet position, serve as U.S. ambassador and head a law school. She was a politician, lawyer and educator. In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson appointed her ambassador to Luxembourg. In 1969, she became dean of the Howard University law school and President Jimmy Carter named her secretary of Housing and Urban Development in 1977.
- Mae Jemison (born in 1956) was the first African-American woman to be a U.S. astronaut. In 1988, she became the fifth black astronaut and the first black female astronaut in NASA history. She was the science mission specialist on the Endeavour mission in 1992. She is a chemical engineer, scientist, physician, and a promoter of science education for minorities and girls. In 1999, she founded a medical technology company in Houston, TX.
- Constance Baker Motley (1921-2005) became the first African-American female federal judge in 1966. As a Civil Rights attorney, for the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund, she helped draft the complaint for the Brown v. Board of Education lawsuit that led to the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that separate schools for black and white students are unconstitutional. In 1964, she became the first black woman elected to the New York State Senate. One year later, she was elected as the first female president of the borough of Manhattan.
- Madam C.J. Walker (1867-1919) was born on a cotton plantation to recently freed slaves. In the 1890s, she developed a scalp disorder, lost most of her hair and began to experiment with home remedies. In 1907, she and her husband traveled in the South and Southeastern U.S. selling her hair pomade formula, hair care products, and the “Walker Method” for African-American hair care. The next year, she opened a factory and beauty school. At the time of her death, the Madame C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company was worth over $1 million. She was the first American woman to become a self-made millionaire.
- Ida B. Wells (1862-1931) was an African-American journalist who crusaded against lynching in the 1890s. Born a slave in July 1862, she and all slaves were freed about six months after her birth by President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. She wrote articles for black newspapers and periodicals and eventually became a newspaper publisher. In 1893, she published a personal examination of lynchings in America. In 1898, she led an anti-lynching demonstration in Washington, DC. She was a founding member of the NAACP and she fought for voting rights for women.