By Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz
You’ve heard of Susan B. Anthony, but how about Angelina Grimke? Surely you know Rosa Parks, but does Jo Ann Gibson Robinson ring a bell?
Women’s History Month, celebrated in March, presents an opportunity for families to dig beyond the famous names to discover lesser-known, remarkable women who broke molds, blazed trails and, through actions big and small, helped shape the course of history.
Despite strides to include women in the general historical discourse, many women’s voices remain unheard and their contributions overlooked in mainstream accounts. That does a disservice to today’s girls, who may not realize their vast heritage of inspiring women and how the steady drip of individual efforts can help usher in a tidal wave of change, said Ida E. Jones, national director of the Association of Black Women Historians.
“Your penny in helps make the dollar, and the dollar helps make the millions,” Jones said. “So many women did their part to contribute that penny, and it makes a difference.”
Check out the names below. Have you heard of these women? Do you know what they did? Try matching their names to their accomplishments.
NAMES TO MATCH
Rosalie Edge (1877-1962)
Angelina and Sarah Grimke (1792-1873; 1805-1879)
Clara Lemlich (1886-1982)
Margaret Chung (1889-1959)
Jo Ann Gibson Robinson (1912-1992)
Pura Belpre (circa 1899-1982)
Harriet Jacobs (1813-1897)
Martha Gellhorn (1908-1998)
A. When anti-Jewish pogroms drove her and her family from their native Ukraine, this headstrong teenager found work in a New York garment shop and became a leader in the fight for better working conditions. Infuriated by the long hours, low wages and unsafe conditions, she gave a rousing speech in Yiddish at a 1909 union meeting that is believed to have incited some 20,000 women to walk off their jobs. It was the largest strike by women workers in the U.S. up to that time. Two years later in 1911, a tragic fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory killed 146 garment workers and inspired workplace reforms. Her activism continued through the rest of her life, including in the nursing home where she spent her last years, organizing the orderlies.
B. Born into a wealthy, slave-owning South Carolina family, these sisters renounced plantation life after witnessing the cruelty of slavery firsthand and became staunch abolitionists. After moving to Philadelphia and becoming Quakers, they became the first women to serve as agents for the American Anti-Slavery Society, giving anti-slavery lectures throughout New England that also advocated racial equality, a radical concept at the time. Criticized by abolitionists who believed women should not be speaking publicly on political issues, the sisters became early pioneers of women’s rights, and one famously published “Letters on the Equality of the Sexes” in 1837 asking that men “take their feet from off our necks.”
C. Her autobiography “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” printed in 1861, was one of the first open discussions about sexual harassment endured by slave women. Born into slavery in North Carolina, she resisted the advances of her master for years, even as he fathered children by other female slaves. She bore two children by another man, and when her master sought to make them plantation slaves, she escaped and went into hiding above a storeroom in her grandmother’s house so he couldn’t take them. She spent seven years holed up in a space just 9 feet long, 7 feet wide and 3 feet high, before secretly boarding a boat and fleeing north to be reunited with her children, who had moved north after being purchased and freed by their father.
D. A fiery environmental activist, this New York socialite and suffragist used her political savvy to expose and fight against corrupt conservationists who picked which lands and species to save based on personal interest and profit motives. In 1930 she founded the Emergency Conservation Committee to reform the National Association of Audubon Societies, whose directors had been renting wildlife sanctuary to game harvesters. (The organization, since reformed, is now the National Audubon Society.) In the midst of the Great Depression, she helped create the Olympic and Kings Canyon National Parks and established the world’s first preserve for birds of prey, Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Pennsylvania, of which she was president until her death.
E. As the first Latina librarian in the New York Public Library system, this former garment worker was passionate about preserving and disseminating folklore of her native Puerto Rico and advocating for Spanish-speaking communities. She instituted bilingual story hours, bought Spanish-language books and implemented programs based on traditional holidays such as Three Kings Day. Her first children’s book, “Perez and Martina,” a love story between a cockroach and a mouse, published in 1932, was among the earliest books published in English by a Puerto Rican writer in the U.S. Annual awards in her name are given to a Hispanic writer and an illustrator who best portray the Latino cultural experience in children’s literature.
F. During World War II, this Chinese-American physician “adopted” thousands of military men whom she treated as her sons, sending them letters and gifts while they fought overseas and hosting dinner parties at her San Francisco home, where they rubbed elbows with her politician and celebrity friends. Known affectionately as “Mom” and a strident supporter of the Allied cause, she used her fictive kinship network to recruit pilots for the Flying Tigers and lobby for the creation of WAVES, the U.S. women’s naval reserve. She also experimented with her gender presentation, adopting feminine and masculine personas.
G. This St. Louis native moved to Paris with dreams of writing novels, but as the menace of Nazi Germany spread across Europe she threw herself into reporting on World War II. Female reporters weren’t allowed on the frontlines of battle, but that didn’t stop her. She snuck onto a hospital ship to witness the D-Day invasion and charmed her way into flying in an Allied air mission over Germany. She was interviewing survivors at the concentration camp in Dachau when Germany surrendered. A short marriage to Ernest Hemingway ended because he didn’t want her to keep covering wars. Her reporting from Vietnam, the Middle East and Central America earned her praise as one of the greatest war correspondents of the 20th century.
H. As president of the Women’s Political Council, this civil rights activist was pivotal in organizing the Montgomery bus boycotts following Rosa Parks’ arrest for refusing to give up her seat. An English professor at Alabama State College, she stayed up all night in the college’s duplicating room mimeographing 35,000 leaflets calling for a bus boycott and mapping out the distribution routes for the notices. Ninety percent of black riders stayed off the bus on the boycott day. She also was actively involved in the Montgomery Improvement Association, established in 1955 to continue the boycott, which lasted for 381 days, but stayed out of the limelight to protect her university job.
Answer key — and where you can learn more
1-D: “Rosalie Edge, Hawk of Mercy: The Activist Who Saved Nature from the Conservationists” by Dyana Furmansky (University of Georgia Press, $28.95).
2-B: “The Grimke Sisters From South Carolina: Pioneers for Women’s Rights and Abolition” by Gerda Lerner (University of North Carolina Press, $29.95) (Sarah wrote “Letters on the Equality of the Sexes.”)
3-A: Jewish Women’s Archive: jwa.org/encyclopedia (and type “Clara Lemlich” in the search field)
4-F: “Doctor Mom Chung of the Fair-Haired Bastards: The Life of a Wartime Celebrity” by Judy Tzu-Chun Wu (University of California Press, $24.95).
5-H: “The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It: The Memoir of Jo Ann Gibson Robinson” (University of Tennessee Press, $18.95).
6-E: Center of Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College/City University of New York: centropr.org/prwriters/belpre.html
8-G: “Women Heroes of World War II,” by Kathryn Atwood (Chicago Review Press, $19.95).
Additional sources for this story: gilderlehrman.org; rosaparksfacts.com; hnn.us.
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