Harriet Tubman. Susan B. Anthony. Amelia Earhart.
These are women whose stories you know. But what about Bessie Stringfield, Milicent Patrick or Claudette Colvin?
Researchers have estimated that women’s stories make up just 0.5 percent of recorded history. For Women’s History Month, we wanted to highlight the lives and legacies of women whose names and stories you may not have learned about in school — but who nonetheless left indelible marks on society.
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Nicknamed “Tiger Girl” and “Crazy Mabel,” Mabel Stark was among the most celebrated animal trainers in a field dominated by men in the early 20th century. She performed with tigers until she was nearly 80, her 5-foot-3, 100-pound body covered with more than 700 stitches from being bitten, gouged and clawed (though she never blamed her tigers for the maulings). [Read her story]
Nicknamed the “Motorcycle Queen of Miami,” Bessie Stringfield was a dispatch rider for the United States Army in the 1940s — at a time when motorcycle riding was considered “unladylike.” When other women were relegated to housework, Stringfield revved and roared through Florida’s palm-tree-lined streets on her Harley-Davidson, sharing stories with friends of being chased off the road in the Jim Crow South and doing carnival stunts on the Wall of Death. Today, hundreds of women motorcyclists make an annual cross-country trek in her honor. [Read her story]
Seventeen-year-old Jackie Mitchell struck out baseball giants Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in an exhibition game against the Yankees in 1931 — a feat that, to this day, leaves many critics skeptical. Mitchell was the only female pitcher signed to a professional baseball team at the time. But after the upset against the Yankees, it is believed that the baseball commissioner voided her contract, perhaps embarrassed by the episode. It would be another nine years before the creation of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. [Read her story]
When she first signed up for the New York City Marathon in 1975 — five years after its inception — Michiko “Miki” Gorman was an unlikely candidate to win. She was already 40, considered old for an elite runner, and had given birth to a daughter at the start of the year. She came in second that year, but raced again in 1976 and won, becoming the first woman ever to do so. She won again the next year. [Read her story]
In 1995, Alison Hargreaves became the first woman to conquer Mount Everest alone, without bottled oxygen or the help of Sherpas. When she reached the peak — 29,029 feet high — she sent a radio message to her son and daughter: “To Tom and Kate, my dear children, I am on the highest point of the world, and I love you dearly.” Her homeland, Britain, rejoiced. But the celebration did not last long. She died three months later, while descending from the summit of K2 in Pakistan. [Read her story]
In her top hat and tuxedo, Gladys Bentley belted gender-bending original blues numbers and lewd parodies of popular songs, eventually becoming 1920s Harlem royalty. By the early 1930s, Bentley was Harlem’s most famous lesbian figure and among the best-known black entertainers in the United States. She was also the first prominent performer of her era to embrace a transgender identity. Her rise to fame demonstrated how liberated the Prohibition culture of the Harlem Renaissance had become. [Read her story]
In 1952, Milicent Patrick was hired by Universal Pictures as a makeup designer for the film “Creature From the Black Lagoon,” where she thought up the movie’s monster, a sea creature called Gill Man who falls in love with a human. Jealous of her acclaim, Patrick’s boss fired her and had her name removed from the credits, replaced with his own. Her work has inspired horror and science-fiction directors over the decades, and most recently, influenced the creature in the 2017 Oscar-winning movie “The Shape of Water.” [Read her story]
Marian Anderson became the first black singer to perform at the Metropolitan Opera in 1955 — fulfilling a childhood dream. It did not matter that, at 57 years old, she was past her vocal prime. As The Times noted in a review of her performance at the time, which was met with a standing ovation: “Men as well as women were dabbing at their eyes.” She went on to sing at the inauguration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1957 and of John F. Kennedy in 1961. [Read her story]
On her first day on the job, the taxi driver Gertrude Jeannette, believed to be the first woman to drive a cab in New York City, got in an accident — on purpose. She had pulled up to the Waldorf Astoria hotel looking for a fare, but was cut off by other taxis. “In those days (the 1940s), they didn’t allow black drivers to work downtown; you had to work uptown,” she later recalled. As cabbies hurled insults at her, she remained calmly in the taxi line — until another cab cut in front of her. She rear-ended him, tearing his bumper, to which the man screamed: “A woman driver! A woman driver!” [Read her story]
Bessie Coleman wanted to fly, but no aviation school in the United States would admit her. So she taught herself French, moved to France and became the first black woman to earn a pilot’s license, in 1921. The daughter of sharecroppers, who were also of Native American descent, she was inspired by stories of the Wright brothers and World War I pilots. [Read her story]
Isabella Goodwin, New York City’s first female police detective, went undercover in 1912 to expose a bank robber who went by Eddie (The Boob) Kinsman. With that, Goodwin became known as “the best known woman sleuth in the United States.” By the 1920s, she was helping to oversee the newly created Women’s Bureau, which handled cases involving sex workers, runaways, truants and victims of domestic violence. Today, women detectives make up around 2 percent of New York City’s 36,500-member police force. [Read her story]
Karen Sparck Jones
Karen Sparck Jones, a pioneer of computer science who established the basis for search engines like Google, once said: “Computing is too important to be left to men.” When most scientists were trying to make people use code to talk to computers, Sparck Jones taught computers to understand human language instead. [Read her story]
Mary Allen Wilkes
Mary Allen Wilkes, one of the country’s first computer programmers, wrote the software for the world’s first personal computer (also known as LINC) in the 1960s. In the early days of coding, more than one in four programmers in the United States were women — and Wilkes was one of the best. She spent years poring over lines of code (many of which were handwritten because keyboards and screens were still uncommon) and writing LINC’s operating system that would let a user control the computer in real time. [Read her story]
The Equality Crusaders
It was on a day after school in 1955, when Claudette Colvin and her friends were asked to vacate their seats on a bus for a white passenger. While her classmates got up, Colvin, 15, refused and was escorted off by policemen — becoming the first person to be arrested for challenging Montgomery’s bus segregation laws. Though she resisted unfair treatment on that Alabama bus nine months before Rosa Parks, Colvin was deemed an unsuitable face for the movement by civil rights leaders. The Montgomery Bus Boycott lasted over a year and was taken to the United States Supreme Court in the case of Browder v. Gayle — where the court ruled Alabama’s bus segregation unconstitutional. [Read her story]
The passage of the first anti-discrimination act in the United States can be attributed, in part, to the work of Elizabeth Peratrovich, who in the 1940s fought for equal rights for the indigenous peoples of Alaska. Peratrovich and her husband, both Tlingit natives living in segregated Alaska, worked with local government to usher in legislation that outlawed discrimination based on race. In 1945, their anti-discrimination bill was signed into law and entitled all Alaskans to “full and equal enjoyment” of public establishments. [Read her story]
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