Reforming Their Communities

March 05, 2009

When I worked at the National Women’s History Museum, I had the opportunity to read and write about scores of amazing American women, including several whose community activism created important social reforms in the United States. Here is a glimpse at three of these women I appreciate and admire.

When she volunteered to teach Sunday school class to women in a Massachusetts jail, Dorthea Dix (1808–87) was appalled at their living conditions. She visited and documented conditions at other jails and hospitals and mental institutions in the state and then lobbied the state legislature for more sanitary, humane conditions. She succeeded in her state, and then she worked to reform institutions in every state east of the Mississippi River. Her revolutionary reform methods were put into practice in Europe. Dix also founded several hospitals and schools for the mentally ill.

Native Alaskans experienced blatant discrimination and segregation during the 1930s and 1940. In 1945, the Alaska Territorial Senate met to discuss racial discrimination. Support for “separation of the races” was strong until Elizabeth Wanamaker Peratrovich (1911–58), a representative of the Alaska Native Sisterhood, gave an impassioned speech. The passage of the Alaska Civil Rights Act is often attributed to her strong anti-segregation stance and eloquence. In 1988 the Alaska Legislature established February 16, the anniversary of the signing of the anti-discrimination bill, as the “Annual Elizabeth Peratrovich Day” in her honor.

After decades of working in the fields, Fannie Lou Hamer (1917–77) became a leading civil rights activist in the 1960s. One of her earliest forms of activism was to fight for African American voting rights in Mississippi through several strategic attempts to register to vote. She worked to desegregate her community by sitting in “whites only” restaurants, which led to her jailing and a brutal beating. Later in her activism career, she helped pioneer various political and humanitarian efforts, including the National Women’s Political Caucus and a farm cooperative for African American cotton field laborers.

Who are women you admire for their social activism?

This post is part of a special Women’s History Month series.

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Holly Kearl By:   |   March 05, 2009


  1. Avatar Jo Turner says:

    I love reading about the contributions of women. I hope that you will add more from time to time. They’re very inspiring.

    • Not to worry Jo. We will be able to indulge you throughout Women’s History Month. Stay tuned. Also, be sure to read the weekly Following the Fellows posts about women who have received fellowship or grant monies from AAUW and the career/projects they have taken since then.

  2. Avatar Linda D. Jones says:

    I recently joined A Powerful Noise and their website linked me to AAUW. I was not aware such a powerful and influenced group of women existed. In the near future I will apply for a membership.

  3. What wonderful stories. I admire the women at AAUW. Thank you for keeping us informed!

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