31 Resources and Facts About Women in History for #WomensHistoryMonth
By Gina Rubel with contributions by Leslie Richards
A Brief Chronicle of Women’s History Month
Women’s History Month got its start as a national celebration in 1981 when Congress asked President Ronald Reagan to proclaim the week beginning March 7, 1982 as Women’s History Week. According to the Library of Congress, legislators passed various joint resolutions over the next five years designating a week in March as Women’s History Week.
After being petitioned by the National Women’s History Project, Congress designated March 1987 as Women’s History Month. To add a bit of perspective, we lowered the voting age from 21 to 18 (26th Amendment), launched humans into space, and fought in two World Wars years before women – who comprise nearly 50 percent of the global population, were acknowledged for our contributions to the United States.
Over the next several years, Congress passed additional resolutions asking the president to proclaim March of each year as Women’s History Month. Since 1995, presidents have issued a series of annual proclamations designating the month of March as Women’s History Month. These proclamations were designed to celebrate the contributions women have made to the United States and to recognize the achievements women have made in a variety of fields. Women’s History Month is a vehicle to promote and amplify the work and voices of women who for decades may not have received the respect and acknowledgment they are due.
Our public relations and marketing team compiled the following list of notable women in various fields. As a certified woman-owned business, Furia Rubel is thrilled to celebrate Women’s History Month and pay tribute to the scores of women who have advocated, sacrificed and opened doors with the hopes that all women can experience equality in the workplace.
Women in Law, Politics and Advocates for Social Change
- Arabella (Belle) A. Mansfield became the first female lawyer in the United States. After graduating from Iowa Wesleyan College in 1866, she “read the law” as an apprentice in her brother’s law practice. Although an Iowa state law restricted the bar exam to men over the age of 21, Mansfield took the exam and earned high scores. Shortly after she was admitted to the bar in 1869, Iowa changed its licensing statute, becoming the first state to accept women and minorities into its bar.
- Charlotte E. Ray was the first Black American female lawyer in the United States after graduating from Howard University School of Law in 1872. She was also the first female admitted to the District of Columbia Bar, and the first woman admitted to practice before the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia. Her admission was used as a precedent by women in other states who sought admission to the bar.
- The first woman appointed to the federal bench was Genevieve Rose Cline, appointed in 1928 by President Calvin Coolidge, nearly 140 years after the federal court system was established. The U.S. Courts website provides more information about Women in Federal Courts Today.
- Harriet Tubman escaped from slavery in 1849 and became a famous “conductor” of the Underground Railroad. Tubman risked her life to lead hundreds of slaves to freedom using that secret network of safe houses. Two years ago for our anniversary, my husband and I spent a few days on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland and took a day trip to the Harriet Tubman Museum, a highlight of our trip. If you are ever in Maryland, I highly recommend a visit and bring your tissues.
- Rosa Parks was the most prominent female face of the civil rights movement. In December 1955, she refused to give up her seat in the “colored section” of a bus to a white man and was charged with civil disobedience. She is known as “the mother of the freedom movement.” We know her as a brave, Black and beautiful soul.
- Sandra Day O’Connor is a lawyer and celebrated judge who became the first female justice on the Supreme Court, serving from 1981-2006. She was appointed by President Ronald Reagan. Her biography, Sandra Day O’Connor: How the First Woman on the Supreme Court Became Its Most Influential Justice, is available on Amazon.
- Ruth Bader Ginsburg, well known as RBG, became the second female justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Born in Brooklyn, New York, RBG taught at Rutgers University Law School and then at Columbia University, where she became its first female tenured professor. She served as the director of the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union during the 1970s. She was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in 1980. Named to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1993 by President Bill Clinton, she continued to argue for gender equality in such cases as United States v. Virginia. Sadly, RGB died on September 18, 2020 due to complications from metastatic pancreas cancer.Her death was one of many sad losses in 2020 – especially because it opened the door for an appointment to the highest bench only months before an election.
- Deborah R. Willig, the founder and managing partner of the Philadelphia union-side law firm, Willig, Williams & Davidson, was elected the first female Chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association in 1992. Willig was interviewed by Philadelphia Lawyer magazine 20 years later. She remains one of Pennsylvania’s most celebrated and respected union lawyers who is fiercely dedicated to the rights of workers in America. I chose the Philadelphia Bar Association to highlight for various reasons: 1) it’s the oldest, most established and traditionally the largest bar association in the county; 2) I practiced law in Philadelphia, served on the Board of Governors of the Philadelphia Bar Association, and have known Deb Willig for almost 30 years; 3) Furia Rubel has worked with Deb for more than a decade, and 4) Deb was at the Washington, D.C. celebration following Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s swearing-in.
- Kamala Harris is the first female, first Black and first Asian American U.S. Vice President. A former prosecutor and ground-breaking attorney general in California, Harris broke barriers throughout her career. She was the first Black woman to be elected district attorney of San Francisco and served from 2004 to 2010. She served as the attorney general of California from 2011 to 2017, becoming the first woman, first Black and South Asian American to serve as California’s attorney general. Harris is the daughter of an Indian mother and Jamaican father and is the second Black woman and first South Asian American senator in history. It’s hard to believe that all of these firsts took until the 2000s, however, we celebrate these victories and look forward to a more equitable world where women have a seat at every table.
Women in Journalism and Media
- Elizabeth Timothy, in 1739, became the first female in the American colonies to assume the role of publisher and editor of a newspaper, the South Carolina Gazette. She is one of the world’s first female journalists. Elizabeth and her husband Lewis settled in Philadelphia in 1731. At the request of Benjamin Franklin, Lewis became the first editor of the Philadelphische Zeitung, a foreign-language newspaper for the German population around Philadelphia. In partnership with Franklin, Lewis revived the South Carolina Gazette in 1733; however, he died in December of 1739. Since their son was too young to take over the business, Elizabeth took over and went on to make history.
- Sarah Joseph Hale, also known as The Mother of Thanksgiving, began her journalism career at age 40, impoverished and raising five children. She became the first female magazine editor of a nationally recognized publication when she moved to Philadelphia in 1837 as literary editor of Godey’s Lady Book, a monthly magazine devoted to morality issues, literature, and fashions. Hale pushed for Thanksgiving to be declared a national holiday, a cause that was realized in 1864 during Abraham Lincoln’s administration. In a July 1872 editorial column, she rebuked many universities (with the exceptions of Oxford and Cambridge) for not offering advanced degrees to women.
- Cornelia Walter was editor of the Boston Transcript and was known as the first woman to edit a major newspaper in the United States. One of her reporting highlights came on August 3, 1842, during a race riot in Philadelphia, in which she chronicled the plight of the Black citizens who had been victimized and left homeless.
- Jane Cunningham Croly, better known as “Jenny June,” became the first woman to occupy a desk in a city room of a major newspaper, the New York Tribune. She founded the New York Women’s Press Club in 1868 on West 14th Street and served as its first president.
- Dorothy Thompson, foreign affairs writer for the New York Herald Tribune beginning in 1936 is credited with being the first woman to secure a regular presence on the editorial page when her column: “On the Record” made its debut on March 17, 1936. She also was a political columnist who, throughout the 1930s and 40s, urged her fellow Americans to pay attention to the threat that Nazi Germany posed to democracy and to Europe’s Jews. In 1939, “Time” magazine called her “undoubtedly the most influential woman in America” after First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Thompson lost her job because of the press wars of that era. Read: Why Dorothy Thompson Lost Her Job
- Marguerite Higgins, in 1951, became the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for war correspondence for the New York Herald Tribune, when she fought her way to the front lines in Korea despite the objections of General Walton H. Walker, who told her: “This is not the type of war where women ought to be running around the front lines.” After protesting, Gen. Douglas MacArthur rescinded the order the following day. Higgins was the only woman among six reporters honored that year. The Pulitzer jury noted: “She is entitled to special consideration by reason of being a woman, since she had to work under unusual dangers.”
- Gwendolyn L. Ifill was an American journalist, television newscaster, and author. In 1999, she became the first African American woman to host a nationally televised U.S. public affairs program with Washington Week in Review. She was the moderator and managing editor of Washington Week and co-anchor and co-managing editor of the PBS NewsHour, both of which air on PBS. Ifill was a political analyst and moderated the 2004 and 2008 vice-presidential debates. She authored the best-selling book The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama.
Women in Literature
- Harriet Beecher Stowe is a celebrated abolitionist best known for her anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Her 1852 novel sparked national outrage after its publication and played an important cultural role in the development of the U.S. Civil War. Uncle Tom’s Cabin remains an acclaimed selection of American literature and is praised for its impact on American history.
- Louisa May Alcott worked to support her family through financial difficulties at an early age, and managed to write “Little Women,” one of the most famous novels in American history. Her other famous writings include “Little Men” and “Jo’s Boys.” Alcott wrote her most acclaimed novel at Orchard House (c. 1650) in 1868. This home in Concord, Massachusetts is an historic site which is usually open to the public (except for a global pandemic).
- Kate Chopin is often cited as one of the forerunners of American feminist writing. Perhaps best known for her 1897 novel The Awakening, Chopin’s female characters defied the norms of her era. She vividly documents the repressive nature of a cultural climate that denied women’s intellectual pursuits and yearnings for roles beyond the narrow confines of wife and mother. Well ahead of its time, The Awakening shocked audiences and was not well received. Today, The Awakening is said to be one of the five top favorite novels in literature courses all over America.
- Pearl S. Buck is a well-known author, fierce advocate for women’s rights, civil rights, equal rights, anti-racism (before the term was coined), and was dedicated to supporting the welfare of Asian and Amerasian children. It was her early life and experiences in China that formed the basis of much of her writing, including her first novel, East Wind: West Wind. Her second novel, The Good Earth, was completed the next year, 1931, and became a critically acclaimed best-seller. She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the William Dean Howells Medal for Distinguished Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and elected to the membership of the Academy. Her award-winning story was turned into a Broadway play in 1937 and adapted into a film. Notably, Pearl S. Buck is one of the first American women to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. I can go on and on about her incredible contributions to American society and history; however, I want to share facts that are much less known. Pearl was a family friend to my husband’s grandmother, Julia Davis Lee. The two women were in a book club together in Pennsylvania. My husband’s childhood babysitter Martha, and a close family friend, was married at the Pearl S. Buck Estate in Bucks County before it became an official museum. She dressed in Pearl’s bedroom and said her nuptials in the garden. My father-in-law, Walter Rubel, was active with the Pearl S. Buck Foundation and introduced me to the organization years ago. At that time, my husband and I decided to become child sponsors to two sisters in the Philippines. We remain a sponsor to the youngest daughter and had the chance to meet them in 2017. There are so many great things about Pearl and her legacy foundation, Pearl S. Buck International, that I encourage you to check out their website and get involved.
- Maya Angelou is an acclaimed American poet, storyteller, activist, and autobiographer. She was a civil rights activist who worked for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. She served on presidential committees for Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. Among her awards are the National Medal of Arts and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the U.S., which was bestowed by President Barack Obama. Her most famous work, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), describes how Angelou was first cuddled then raped by her mother’s boyfriend when she was just seven years old. It is the first of Angelou’s six autobiographies. Angelou was also a prolific and widely read poet, and her poetry has often been lauded more for its depictions of Black beauty, the strength of women, and the human spirit; criticizing the Vietnam War; demanding social justice for all—than for its poetic virtue. One source of Angelou’s fame in the early 1990s was President Bill Clinton’s invitation to write and read an inaugural poem, “On the Pulse of Morning,” which begins “A Rock, a River, a Tree” and calls for peace, racial and religious harmony, and social justice for people of different origins, incomes, genders, and sexual orientations.
- Amanda Gorman is by far the youngest woman on this list and the most recent to stun a nation if not a world with her prolific and emotion-eliciting delivery of the presidential inaugural poem, “The Hill We Climb,” for President Joe Biden on January 20, 2021. She is a cum laude graduate of Harvard University, and by the age of 22, has written for the New York Times and is in the process of completing three books. If Maya Angelou were alive today, I am sure she would stand resolute and exclaim, “bravo.” I admit that I cried listening to Gorman deliver the inaugural poem for the first time. I listened to it again, and again, and again. Her words struck a deep chord across the globe, so I quote:
“When day comes we step out of the shade,
aflame and unafraid,
the new dawn blooms as we free it.
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it.
If only we’re brave enough to be it.”
Women in Science and Technology
- Amelia Earhart was the first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. She received the U.S. Distinguished Flying Cross for her accomplishments. She and her navigator, Fred Noonan, disappeared in 1937 over the central Pacific Ocean while attempting to fly around the globe.
- Katharine Johnson was a mathematician, physicist and a pioneering woman in STEM whose NASA career was popularized in the film, Hidden Figures. Born in 1918 to a schoolteacher and a handyman, Johnson showed early aptitude for mathematics, requiring her teachers to add new math classes to the curriculum. At age 18, she graduated summa cum laude from West Virginia State with degrees in mathematics and French. She began her professional life at Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory at a time when women, and especially women of color, were relegated to the “computational pool.” For those of us accustomed to using our smart phones to calculate the tip at a restaurant, it may be difficult to imagine the level of computational firepower required to perform the complex manual calculations that launched the space program, and Johnson was central to this effort. Her knowledge of analytic geometry moved her out of the pool and gave her a seat at the table. In her work as an aerospace technologist, Johnson calculated the trajectory for the May 5, 1961 space flight of Alan Shepard, the first American in space. Her long career was recognized by many awards including the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the construction of a 40,000-square-foot building at Langley Research Center dedicated to her and named “Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility.” She died at the age of 101 in 2020.
- Margaret Mead was an American cultural anthropologist, author and speaker in the mass media during the 1960s and 1970s. She was born in Philadelphia and lived just up the street from Furia Rubel’s headquarters in Doylestown, Pennsylvania (Bucks County). In fact, the Margaret Mead House, while not open to the public, is a beautiful Victorian that I pass at least three times per week. One of her best-known quotes is one of my favorites: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
- While women in the field of veterinary medicine make up more than 50% of the professionals in 2021, the industry’s first woman entered the field in 1903. It wasn’t until 1996 when Mary Beth Leininger became the first female president of the American Veterinary Medical Association. In fact, some called her the First Lady of Veterinary Medicine.
- Shirley D. Johnston, in 1998, became the founding Dean of Western University of Health Science’s new College of Veterinary Medicine, the first female dean to head a college of veterinary medicine. Ten years later, she noted: “Gender issues that the profession still struggles with include salary differences between men and women, the paucity of women leaders as deans and department heads in our colleges, and the importance of striking a gender balance in our admission and graduation processes. I believe that our profession will be strongest if it looks like the populations we serve, with similar representation of men and women and full participation by people of color. Being a woman has affected my veterinary career in many ways, most of them positive, but it has not defined nor limited my career.” Read: The History of Women in Veterinary Medicine in the U.S.
- Rachel Louise Carson is a Pennsylvania native, marine biologist, and writer on nature and science. She authored the 1951 bestseller The Sea Around Us. Other notable publications include Under the Sea Wind, and her best known work, Silent Spring, which, according to The New York Times, “Touched off a major controversy on the effects of pesticide.” Her writings and teaching are accredited to have launched the movement to end the use of the poisonous gas, Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), which is an insecticide used in agriculture. The U.S. banned the use of DDT in 1972, but some countries still use the chemical. Her research and advocacy also spurred the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and gave scientific credence to a burgeoning environmental movement. She was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Honor by Jimmy Carter. The Audubon Society has since created The Rachel Carson Award which honors American women whose work has greatly advanced conservation locally and globally.
Other Women Notables
- As a public relations agency, we’d be remiss if we didn’t include a trailblazer in corporate communications. Inez Kaiser was the first African American woman to own a public relations agency and the first African American-owned business in Kansas City. She was the first African American to join the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) and was named the National Minority Advocate of the Year in 1997, Teacher of the Year (Missouri State Teachers Association) and Business Woman of the Year in Kansas City.
- The first U.S. women’s team participated in the Olympics in 1976. One of the players is the mother of our very own Jennifer Simpson Carr. Juliene Brazinski Simpson broke barriers as an athlete, in an Olympic Silver Medalist, and is a highly regarded women’s basketball coach. She shares her story in the On Record PR podcast, The Roles of Teamwork and Mentors in Life & Sports.
- As legal marketing experts, we’d be remiss if we didn’t end Women’s History Month with a nod to some of the women who have led the Legal Marketing Association, including one of its founders and first president in 1986, Sally Schmidt. In 1994, Schmidt was inducted as a Fellow into the inaugural class of the College of Law Practice Management. In 2007, she was inducted into the Legal Marketing Association’s first Hall of Fame and was the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award. Since her year as president, 25 additional women have led the association, including the 2021 president, Kelly MacKinnon who shared Life Lessons and Leadership From USA Women’s Field Hockey Athlete and Legal Marketing Leader on On Record PR and 2020 president, Jill Huse who talked with us about gamification and coaching in law firm business development. We tip our hats to all LMA past presidents and thank you for making this a woman-friendly industry.
While this post shares 31 resources for the 31 days of March, we hope you will consider sharing with us your favorite resources about Women’s History all year long. Just Tweet us at @FuriaRubel.