Wonder Women & Female Firsts
Written by Megan Mullaly
Celebrating the American women that fought for women’s rights and gender equality, as well as female firsts around the globe.
With March being Women’s History Month, it’s the perfect time to get acquainted with the American women that have redefined what it means to be a female in America. Before America was founded as its own nation, women were already challenging the idea of womanhood and fighting for equal rights in this land. Recognize with us some of the women that challenged the idea of a male-dominated America and fought for women’s rights and gender equality throughout its history.
Abigail Adams 1744-1818
Abigail Adams was the wife of the second President of the United States, John Adams, and the mother of the sixth President of the United States, John Quincy Adams. Her husband often sought her advice on political matters, and she had so much impact on early American politics that Abigail Adams is sometimes considered a founder of the United States of America. Adams is one of the earliest and most documented American feminists. She was an advocate for women’s rights and gender equality. She also felt that women should not have to submit to laws that oppressed them and fought for women to seek out an education.
In a famous letter to her husband, she wrote, “Remember the ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.” This foreshadows the relentless battle women have been fighting for gender equality.
“Remember the ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors.... If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.”
Sojourner Truth 1797-1883
Sojourner Truth was born into slavery, but escaped with her daughter when she was 29. Two years later, she went to court to recover her son. Truth won the legal battle against her son’s owner and was the first Black woman to win a custody battle against a slave-owning white man. After escaping to freedom and recovering her son, Truth began working as an abolitionist and women's rights activist. She traveled the United States, giving speeches on the inhumanity of slavery and the inequality women — especially Black women — faced in America, as well as publishing written works on the subject.
Truth’s most popular speech, “Ain’t I a Woman?” detailed the inequalities women faced. While fighting for women’s rights in general, it also heavily emphasized the lack of recognition white women’s rights activists gave to the increased inequality Black women faced. Truth faced retaliation, as she was both Black and a woman. She was often accused of being a man, and in one of these instances she pulled open her shirt and revealed her chest. While Truth faced increased adversity, she navigated it with courage and grace, and ensured Black women were not left out of the women’s rights movement.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton 1815-1902
Elizabeth Cady Stanton followed in Abigail Adams’ footsteps and led the women’s rights movement throughout the mid- to late-1800s. She was raised by a conservative father and a progressive mother who supported the fight for women’s rights. Elizabeth’s father was one of the wealthiest men in the state, and she was able to get a better-than-average education. When her brother died at the age of twenty, she told her grieving father she would try to live up to her brother’s name. To this, her father responded, “Oh my daughter, I wish you were a boy.”
In 1840, Elizabeth married Henry Brewster Stanton. During their wedding, Elizabeth and her husband had the word “obey” taken out of the ceremony. She later wrote, “I obstinately refused to obey one with whom I supposed I was entering into an equal relation.” After getting married, Elizabeth and her husband moved to Boston where she was surrounded by women’s rights activists and progressive male counterparts. Because she had an above-average education, Stanton was able to study law books, and she soon realized gender equality could only be obtained with legal action. In order to take action and gather support, Stanton wrote the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments that detailed women’s oppression — most notably, women’s inability to vote. Stanton also worked to organize a two-day women’s rights convention. It was the first women's rights convention in American history and had 300 people in attendance. These attendees were invited to sign the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments, which went on to be “the single most important factor in spreading news of the women’s rights movement around the country.”
Stanton also worked to fight the excessive consumption of alcohol, which was considered a women’s rights issue because men had control of a family and its finances, even if they were alcoholics. She attended the 1852 temperance convention in New York, but was told by the chairman that women were only there to listen and learn and should not express their opinion on the matter.
Stanton also fought for dress reform and divorce reform. Bloomers (pants worn under knee-length dresses) were brought to New York in 1851 and were adopted by women’s rights activists as they represented the working woman. After two years, activists returned to traditional floor-length dresses, as the controversy took attention away from the fight for gender inequality. Stanton fought for divorce reform by detailing the unfairness of the husband holding complete control of the family and the inability for a woman to file for divorce if she was unhappy in her marriage. She gave speeches around the U.S. and published an essay calling activists to fight the legal system’s strict divorce laws.
Susan B. Anthony 1820-1906
Susan B. Anthony was a women’s rights activist and is well known for her impact on the women’s suffrage movement. She was raised in a family that had a passion for social reform, as her brother worked closely with the anti-slavery movement. When Anthony took a job as Canajoharie Academy’s headmistress for the female department, she took issue with the fact that she was paid much less than her male counterparts. While Anthony didn’t have a great education, she took initiative in educating herself on social reform issues.
Like Elizabeth Stanton, Anthony took part in adopting bloomers. The two of them worked closely within the women’s rights movement. Stanton had seven children and was often trapped at home, while Anthony was unmarried and free to travel the United States. Because of this, Stanton would perfect their ideas and strategy while Anthony traveled the U.S., delivering speeches crafted by Stanton. Anthony also worked to fundraise money for the women’s rights movement, as its biggest hindrance was lack of funding. Because men controlled the family’s finances, if the husband didn’t support his wife’s activism she would be unable to fund the movement.
After the end of the Civil War, Anthony began to focus on women’s right to vote. She traveled the U.S., giving lectures on the importance of granting women the right to vote and recruiting women for the women’s rights movement. In 1872, Anthony registered to vote and cast a ballot in the election. She was later arrested for illegally voting, and her trial kickstarted a national debate. The news reached women around the U.S. and garnered more support for the suffrage movement than ever before. Anthony continued to fight for women’s rights for the rest of her life; but the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote, wasn’t passed until 13 years after her death.
Because men controlled the family’s finances, if the husband didn’t support his wife’s activism she would be unable to fund the movement.
Margaret Sanger 1879-1966
Margaret Sanger was a sex educator and birth control activist who established the organizations that have developed into Planned Parenthood. She was born in 1879 and was raised by her father, a women’s rights activist. Sanger married in 1902 and had three children. In 1911, the family’s house in the suburbs of New York City burnt down, and they moved downtown where Sanger and her husband got involved in local politics. Sanger’s political activism led her to write “What Every Mother Should Know” and “What Every Girl Should Know,” which were columns on sex education included in the New York Call. The columns got straight to the point, and this blunt discussion of sex outraged readers.
While writing for the New York Call, Margaret Sanger also worked as a nurse for low-class, immigrant women. During this time, she treated women that incurred injuries from self-induced abortions. Sex education had been outlawed, and when women asked how to avoid unwanted pregnancies, male doctors would simply respond, “Abstinence.” While Sanger didn’t support abortions, she recognized that the need for abortion would cease to exist if women were given the proper information. In order to combat the censorship of sex education, Sanger began a campaign to fight government censorship and launched a newsletter, The Woman Rebel, to provide women with information and promote contraceptives. Sanger sent the newsletter through the U.S. Postal Service and was charged with violation of postal obscenity laws.
Instead of standing trial, Sanger fled to England where she spent a year refining her stance on sex education and contraception, citing overpopulation as a main concern of censoring educational information. When Sanger returned to the United States, she brought a European form of contraception with her, even though they were against the law. Sanger also opened a family planning and birth control clinic, which she was arrested for nine days later. She was able to post bail and returned to the clinic, but was arrested again and charged for running a public nuisance. Her arrest sparked a nationwide fight for sex education and contraception that led to the New York Court of Appeals deciding that doctors could lawfully prescribe female patients contraception.
After being released, Sanger opened the American Birth Control League and established the Clinical Research Bureau, the first legal birth control clinic in the United States. For the majority of the following two decades, Sanger traveled the world to give lectures on the importance of sex education and contraception. In 1937, Sanger oversaw the merger of the American Birth Control League and the Clinical Research Bureau. The new program became known as the Birth Control Federation of America, but the name was changed to Planned Parenthood Federation of America due to conservative pressure opposed to the term “birth control.” Sanger went on to help found the International Planned Parenthood Federation and served as president until she was 80 years old. She also encouraged philanthropists to donate to the development of a birth control pill. This would lead to the first FDA-approved, commercially produced birth control pill. Margaret Sanger continued to fight for women’s rights and publish her writings on the importance of sex education and contraception until her death in 1966.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg 1933-2020
Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a U.S. Supreme Court Justice from 1993 until her death in September of 2020. She was born in 1933 to Nathan Bader, an immigrant from Ukraine, and Celia Bader, the daughter of Polish immigrants. Celia often took Ruth to the library to kickstart her education and this early action led Ginsburg to graduate from high school at only 15 years old. She went on to earn a bachelor of arts degree in government from Cornell University and was the highest-ranking female in her class. Ginsburg gave birth to her first child in 1955, but instead of being a stay-at-home mom, she enrolled in Harvard Law School a year later. She was one of nine women in a class of 500 students, and classes were held in a building with no female bathrooms. The dean hosted a dinner for the female students where he asked, “Why are you at Harvard Law School, taking the place of a man?” Ginsburg mumbled that her husband was also in law school and “it was important for a wife to understand her husband’s work.” Her husband was offered a job in New York City, and when Ginsburg asked to complete her third year at Columbia Law School, the same dean denied her request. She transferred to Columbia Law School and went on to graduate first in her class.
Afterward, she worked with the Columbia Law School Project on International Procedure in Sweden. While in Sweden, Ginsburg realized just how unfairly women were treated in the United States. Women in Sweden weren’t expected to be stay-at-home mothers and it was normal for them to have a job, unlike in the United States. Swedish women had questioned why they were expected to be the primary caretaker of children, keep the house clean, and keep their husbands fed.
When Ginsburg returned to the United States in 1964, she began her legal career and focused on furthering women’s rights and gender equality. In 1980, she was nominated and became a judge of the United States Supreme Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit; and in 1993, she was nominated and became a justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. While serving as a Supreme Court justice, Ginsburg defended her position as a women’s rights advocate. She was an influential voice in issues such as United States v. Virginia that declared state-funded schools must admit students regardless of gender. Ginsburg was also influential in the decision to allow women to sign a mortgage or open a bank account without a male co-signer, pushed for equal pay and protection of pregnant women in the workplace, and preserved women’s right to choose through the protection of Roe v. Wade.
Sheila Michaels 1939-2017
Sheila Michaels was an American feminist that popularized the term Ms. as the default title for a woman. She was born in 1939 with the name Sheila Kessler. Around the age of three, Sheila was sent to live with her grandparents, as her mother didn’t want to live with a young child, and took their last name, Michaels. When Sheila was eight years old, she moved back in with her parents and her last name became Kessler once again. In 1957 she attended the College of William and Mary, but was expelled due to the controversial nature of the civil rights-focused articles she wrote for the school newspaper. Around this time, Sheila’s parents also disowned her due to what they deemed “extreme” political activism. They asked her to change her last name back to Michaels, as they no longer want to be associated with their daughter. To make money while advocating for gender equality and civil rights, Sheila worked a number of laborious jobs and drove a taxi for ten years. She took issue with the terms “Miss” and “Mrs.,” as they referred to a woman solely based on her relationship to a man and attempted to popularize the term “Ms.” as the title used to refer to a woman regardless of their marital status. While her attempts to popularize the term were first ignored, a friend suggested that Sheila start a magazine titled “Ms.” The magazine was published in 1972 and quickly grew in popularity. As the magazine circulated, so did the term “Ms.,” and it quickly became the default title used to address a woman regardless of her marital status.
Billie Jean King 1943-
Billie Jean King is a former professional tennis player with 39 Grand Slam titles. King is a women’s rights activist; and in 1973, she won the “Battle of the Sexes,” a match against Bobby Riggs. At the time, King was 29, and Riggs was 55. Riggs had taunted female tennis players by claiming male tennis was superior and that at the age of 55 he would be able to beat any female player. He had originally challenged King to a “battle of the sexes” match, but she refused and Margaret Court took King’s place. Court was ranked number one female player in the world, but Riggs had a quick victory and ended up on the covers of “Sports Illustrated” and “Time”.
Riggs' taunting escalated, and King accepted the “Battle of the Sexes.” It was to be aired on prime time television and the winner would take home $100,00 (about $576,000 today). King stated that she “had to win,” and she defeated Riggs in three straight sets in front of 90 million viewers. King knew that beating Riggs would be a huge win for women, as she stated, “I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn’t win that match. It would ruin the women’s tour and affect all women’s self-esteem.” In 2017, the famous match between King and Riggs was made into a film starring Emma Stone and Steve Carell. It reignited the fight for gender equality, as it came during the heated debate around U.S. soccer’s gender discrimination. Since winning the Battle of the Sexes, King used it to back her fight for gender equality and continues to advocate for it today.
Linda Alvarado 1951-
Linda Alvarado founded Alvarado Construction, one of the most successful construction companies in the United States, in 1976. She graduated from Pomona College in 1973 with a degree in economics; and three years later, she started a company building concrete sidewalks at the age of 24. Alvarado Construction quickly grew and was able to take on larger projects, like building stadiums and aquariums. Alvarado used her business to lift up minority voices and support life within the inner city of Denver.
By the age of 27, she served on her first corporate board and is currently on the board of five different Fortune 1000 companies. As of 2021, Alvarado Construction is one of the largest commercial real estate companies and brings in over $40 million each year. Alvarado is also a co-owner of the Colorado Rockies, and she is the first woman to hold ownership of a major-league team. Alvarado broke into a male-dominated industry, normalized females working in construction, and serves as an inspiration for girls around the world.
Kamala Harris is the first female vice president of the United States. She was born and raised in Oakland, California, by her immigrant parents. Her mother moved to the U.S. from India and her father from British Jamaica. They both attended University of California, where Harris would later attend law school. Harris became the deputy district attorney in Alameda County, California, in 1990; and four years later, she was appointed to California’s Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board and the Medical Assistance Commission. In 2004, Harris ran for district attorney of San Francisco against two male candidates who were both more known than her. She advanced to the general election runoff and posed fierce arguments against the incumbent. In the end, Harris won 56% to 44% and became the first person of color elected as district attorney of San Francisco.
In 2010, Harris ran for attorney general of California. While her male opponent led for most of the race, he conceded after a prolonged period of ballot counting, and Harris became the first woman elected as California’s attorney general. In 2016, Harris ran for U.S. Senate after Barbara Boxer announced that she would not be running for reelection. Harris was endorsed by President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, she led the race for the entirety of the campaign, and ultimately won the seat in the 2016 general election.
In January of 2017, Harris announced her intent to run for president in the 2020 general election. She withdrew from the running in December of 2019, but eight months later she reentered the election as Joe Biden’s running mate. While women have run for vice president in the past, the Biden-Harris victory marks an important turning point in American history: Kamala Harris is the first female vice president, as well as the first African-American and Asian-American vice president.
Throughout American history, women stood up to a male-dominated society in pursuit of gender equality. From fighting for the right to vote to being elected the first female vice president of the United States, women have broken and continue to break the glass ceiling. While the fight for gender equality is far from over, we can recognize and thank the women that have fought to establish themselves in a male-dominated world and redefined what it means to be female.