My favorite part of Women’s History Month is International Women’s Day (March 8). International Women’s Day (IWD) is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating women’s equality. IWD has occurred for well over a century, with the first IWD gathering in 1911 supported by over a million people.
IWD is so special because each year my family and I get to learn about women across different races, ethnicities, countries, and abilities who have changed the course of history for the better, advanced civil rights, and made significant medical and scientific advancements. Each year, I’m overwhelmed by how much there is still to learn about remarkable women and their contributions to society.
Sharing a few of my favorite trailblazers who continue to inspire me to shape our future.
Grace Lee Boggs
Grace Lee Boggs, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, was a prominent writer, intersectional feminist, and activist who worked closely with black civil rights leaders like Malcolm X and her husband, James Boggs, during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. Lee’s activism began in Chicago, where she joined the movement for tenants’ rights, and then the Workers Party. In these associations, as well as in her involvement with the 1941 March on Washington, Lee focused on marginalized groups such as women and people of color. Her community activism stayed largely in Detroit, but her impact reached organizers wide and far. Boggs’s belief that sustainable change is a long game is vital to grassroots activists today fighting to address issues like racism, climate change, and women’s and LGBTQ+ rights.
Miriam Makeba was one of the most visible and outspoken opponents of South Africa’s apartheid regime from the 1960s till its dismantling in the early 1990s. A top international performer, able to sell out prestigious concert halls across the globe, she also served as one of the most audible spokespersons against apartheid. In 1963, after giving one of the first of several addresses to the United Nations special committee on apartheid, South Africa reciprocated by banning her records. Despite her 30-year exile, she continued to work to improve the lives of the women and men in her homeland.
The daughter of famed poet Lord Byron, Ada Lovelace showed her gift for mathematics at an early age. Because she introduced many computer concepts, Lovelace is considered the first computer programmer. At her mother’s insistence, tutors taught her mathematics and science, which were not standard fare for women at the time. While studying advanced mathematics at the University of London, Lovelace described how codes could be created for the device to handle letters and symbols along with numbers. She also theorized a method for the engine to repeat a series of instructions, a process known as looping that computer programs use today. Lovelace also offered up other forward-thinking concepts, thus solidifying her to be considered the first computer programmer.
Co-founder of the United Farm Workers Association (UFWA), Dolores Huerta is one of the most influential labor activists of the 20th century and a leader of the Chicano civil rights movement. She has advocated for immigrant and Latinx rights in the United States. Huerta also served as an honorary co-chair for the Women’s March on Washington. Huerta briefly taught school in the 1950s, but seeing so many hungry farm children coming to school, she thought she could do more to help them by organizing farmers and farm workers. Despite ethnic and gender bias, Huerta organized workers, negotiated contracts, and advocated for safer working conditions including the elimination of harmful pesticides. Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, Huerta worked as a lobbyist to improve workers’ legislative representation. During the 1990s and 2000s, she worked to elect more Latinos and women to political office and has championed women’s issues. The recipient of many honors, Huerta received the Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award in 1998 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012.
Wilma Mankiller, whose great-grandfather survived the deadly forced march of Native Americans westward known as the “Trail of Tears,” rose to lead the Cherokee Nation more than 150 years later as principal chief – the first elected woman chief of a Native nation in modern times. Throughout her reign from 1985-1995, cut short only by her own severe health challenges, she advocated for extensive community development, self help, education and healthcare programs that revitalized the Nation of 300,000 citizens. In 1990, she signed a historic self-determination agreement in which the Bureau of Indian Affairs surrendered direct control over millions of dollars in federal funding to the tribe. Mankiller’s leadership on social and financial issues made her tribe a national role model, and she remained a strong voice worldwide for social justice, native people, and women.
Sylvia Rivera was a Puerto Rican American transgender activist. Most commonly known as one of the inciters of the monumental Stonewall Riots in New York City, she was also a founding member of both the Gay Liberation Front and later the Gay Activists Alliance also in New York City. Along with her friend Marsha Johnson, a Black transwoman activist, she also helped found STAR, a group dedicated to helping homeless trans youth. In addition to being one of the first transyouth shelters, STAR was also one of the first political organizations for transgender rights in the world. Today the Sylvia Rivera Law Project (SRLP) is named in her honor. SRLP is a non-profit organization that engages in policy work and provides trainings and free legal services for transgender, intersex, and gender non-conforming low-income people of color.
Below are some helpful resources to give you more information on ways to learn about and celebrate Women’s History Month.