International Women’s Day 2021: A Look at American Trailblazers Who Pressed for Progress
These are the women who fought for change by striking out on their own path.
Monday marks International Women’s Day, an annual commemoration of women, civil awareness, anti-sexism and anti-discrimination.
The day’s campaign theme for 2021 is #ChooseToChallenge, which organizers hope will inspire many to examine and challenge biases and stereotypes, as well as hold up and celebrate women's achievements.
"A challenged world is an alert world," the International Women's Day website says. "We can all choose to challenge and call out gender bias and inequality."
Celebrations for International Women's Day this year have gone virtual in light of the pandemic, and the International Women's Day website notes the many different events occurring in the 47 countries listed as observing the holiday.
In honor of the ongoing fight for equality taking place across the country and the world at large, here's a look at some of the women who blazed a trail when there was no path to follow.
Born to a free man and an enslaved woman, Cathay Williams went on to pose as a man to enlist in the Army, becoming the first black woman to enlist in the military.
On Nov. 15, 1866, Williams used the name William Cathay to enlist. She told her recruiting officer that she was a 22-year-old cook, officials said. She was assigned to the 38th U.S. Infantry and traveled throughout the West with her unit.
She settled in Trinidad, Colo., where she worked as a seamstress and may have also owned a boarding house.
Williams died in 1893 and in 2018, the Private Cathay Williams monument bench was unveiled on the Walk of Honor at the National Infantry Museum.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Lucy Stone
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Lucy Stone were among the many women who fought for the legal right to vote in the U.S.
Stanton and Anthony led one of the two national suffrage organizations established in 1869, while Stone led the other. After years of rivalry, they merged in 1890 as the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), with Anthony as its leading force.
The trio and other suffragists fighting for the right to vote made several attempts to cast ballots in the early 1870's, and then filed lawsuits when they were turned away.
American women were given the right to vote with the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution on Aug. 18, 1920.
From the very beginning of her life, Annie Oakley challenged stereotypes about what it means to be a woman.
Born Phoebe Ann Mosey, Oakley was just 15 years old when on Thanksgiving Day 1875 she won a shooting match against traveling-show marksman Frank E. Butler. She would go on to become one of America's most famous sharpshooters — and marry Butler — while championing equal rights.
"She wouldn't have said she was a feminist, but there's a difference between being avowed and actually doing it," Glenda Riley, professor of history at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., told the Chicago Tribune.
Oakley "campaign[ed] for equal pay for women," Riley said. "She also taught women how to shoot and had a partnership marriage with her husband, Frank Butler, who gave up his career in show business to become her manager."
Amelia Earhart also challenged preconceived notions of femininity and womanhood by becoming the first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean.
She received the U.S. Distinguished Flying Cross for her ground-breaking achievement, going on to set many other records and write best-selling books about her flying experiences.
Earhart was also instrumental in the formation of The Ninety-Nines, an organization for female pilots, was a member of the National Woman's Party and an early supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment.
Margaret Heafield Hamilton and Katherine Johnson
A man may have been the first person to walk on the moon, but it was women who put him there.
Hamilton and Johnson were pioneers in technology and instrumental in NASA's efforts to make it to the moon.
Hamilton was director of the Software Engineering Division of the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory, which developed on-board flight software for the Apollo space program. Johnson conducted technical work at NASA and its predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), for 35 years, calculating the trajectories, launch windows and emergency back-up return paths for many flights.
Her calculations were critical to the success of countless missions, including the early NASA missions of Alan Shepard and John Glenn, and the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the Moon. Johnson also crunched the numbers for a mission to Mars.
The women finally received recognition four decades later when they received the presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.
Sally Ride was the first American woman to travel to space. While studying physics at Stanford University in California, Ride saw an ad in the school newspaper inviting women to apply for the first time to NASA's astronaut program in 1977.
She was one of six women picked.
On June 18, 1983, Ride went on her first space shuttle mission as an astronaut, working the shuttle's robotic arm to help put satellites into space. She flew on the space shuttle again in 1984.
Until her death on July 23, 2012, Ride worked in science. She wrote science books for students and teachers, and encouraged students, especially girls, to study science and math.
Brenda Berkman fought for the right to serve her community as a firefighter and in 1982, was the first woman to be hired by the FDNY.
"In a small way I was trying to challenge the stereotypes and fears that keep us from achieving our greatest potential," Berkman wrote for LeanIn.org. "Prior to 1977 there was a quota for women firefighters in the New York City Fire Department (FDNY) — and that quota was zero. No matter what your physical or mental capabilities, family tradition or firefighting expertise, if you had been born female you were not even allowed to apply to become an FDNY firefighter."
Though the ranks opened to women that year, the FDNY used a physical test that all female applicants failed, including Berkman. She sued on the grounds of gender discrimination and won. As a result, a new test that was based primarily on the job's demands was created. Berkman and 40 other women passed that year.
Sandra Day O’Connor
Sandra Day O'Connor was the first woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court and became one of its most influential justices. She was appointed by President Ronald Reagan and served from 1981-2006.
“I am not a person who carries a lot of tension around,” O’Connor said in an interview not long after she came to the Supreme Court. “I try to do the best job I can and then never look back.”
Shirley Chisholm was the first black woman elected to the United States Congress in 1968. She represented New York's 12th Congressional District for seven terms from 1969 to 1983.
In 1972, Chisholm became the first major-party black candidate to make a bid for the presidency and the first woman to run for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination.
She later said, "When I ran for the Congress, when I ran for president, I met more discrimination as a woman than for being black. Men are men."
Hillary Rodham Clinton
Hillary Rodham Clinton was the first woman to gain the nomination of a major party as its candidate for president in 2016. Clinton graduated from Wellesley College in 1969 and earned a J.D. from Yale Law School in 1973. In 1977, she co-founded Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families.
She was appointed the first female chair of the Legal Services Corporation in 1978 and became the first female partner at Rose Law Firm the following year. As first lady of the United States, Clinton was an advocate for gender equality and healthcare reform.
"If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women's rights and women's rights are human rights, once and for all," she famously said at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing on Sept. 5, 1995.
"As long as discrimination and inequities remain so commonplace everywhere in the world, as long as girls and women are valued less, fed less, fed last, overworked, underpaid, not schooled, subjected to violence in and outside their homes — the potential of the human family to create a peaceful, prosperous world will not be realized," she continued.
Tammy Duckworth was the first disabled female veteran in the U.S Senate, as well as the first woman to give birth while while serving in the U.S. Senate.
After she became pregnant with her second child, Duckworth set out to address the challenges she would face as a sitting senator and new mom.
“You’re not allowed to bring children onto the floor of the Senate at all, so if I have to vote and I’m breastfeeding my child, what do I do, leave her sitting outside?” the Iraq veteran said in an episode of Politico’s "Women Rule" podcast.
Kamala Harris is the United States' first female vice president, the highest-ranking female official in U.S. history, and the first Black American and first South Asian American vice president.
Well before being elected to the second-highest office in the land, Harris was a trailblazer. The Howard University graduate attended the University of California's Hastings College of the Law before beginning her career as a prosecutor. She went on to become the first woman elected as San Francisco's district attorney, the first Black person and first woman to be elected attorney general of the state of California, the second Black woman and the first South Asian American to be elected to the Senate.
That she has often broken glass ceilings and by extension, is an example for others to follow, is not lost on Harris, who once said: "My mother had a saying: 'Kamala, you may be the first to do many things, but make sure you're not the last.'"
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