7 Women of Color Who Fought for Gender EqualityAugust 20, 2015
August 26 is Women’s Equality Day. The date commemorates a historic step for women’s equality: the passage of the 19th Amendment, which secured women’s right to vote, on August 26, 1920. Women’s Equality Day is a time to celebrate the women who fought for the right to participate in the democratic process, but it’s also a day to acknowledge that the amendment didn’t further the equality of all women.
Women of color routinely faced racism within the women’s suffrage movement. After the passage of the 19th Amendment, state laws and racial discrimination continued to keep women of color from voting. It wasn’t until 1956 that any Native Americans could vote in Utah, and black women remained effectively disenfranchised until the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Even today we continue to see passage of a variety of laws that threaten to prevent women, especially women of color, from voting.
Of course women of color haven’t remained silent in the face of these setbacks. Although they have often been the leading voices and innovators in the fight for equality, history has a tendency to erase their legacy and voices. So in honor of Women’s Equality Day, here are seven amazing women of color who have helped fight for — and win — greater equality for women.
1. Sojourner Truth (1796–1883)
Famous for her 1851 speech “Ain’t I a Woman?,” Sojourner Truth was a strong abolitionist and women’s rights advocate. Today her speech still resonates and continues to encapsulate the intersection of race and womanhood.
2. Ida B. Wells (1862–1931)
Ida B. Wells was a prolific investigative journalist and suffragist who campaigned tirelessly for anti-lynching legislation. Her activism began in 1884 when she refused to give up her train car seat, leading to a successful lawsuit against the train company. Motivated in part by racism within the women’s suffrage movement, Wells went on to found and co-found a variety of civil rights organizations, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Association of Colored Women, and the Alpha Suffrage Club.
3. Dorothy Height (1912–2010)
Known as the “godmother of civil rights,” Dorothy Height was renowned for her work on the desegregation of schools, equal pay for women, and voting rights and for advising American leaders, from Lyndon B. Johnson to Eleanor Roosevelt. She focused especially on helping advance black women’s equality and served as president of the National Council of Negro Women for 40 years. In 2010, AAUW posthumously honored her as a Woman of Distinction.
4. Patsy Mink (1927–2002)
Title IX is instrumental in preventing sex discrimination in education — and we have Patsy Mink to thank for it. Mink was the first woman of color and first Asian American elected to Congress. As one of the co-authors of Title IX, Mink improved the academic and athletic experiences of young women for generations to come.
5. Dolores Huerta (born 1930)
Co-founder of the United Farm Workers, Dolores Huerta is one of the most prominent feminist community organizers of our time, advocating for Latino rights. She is most famous for organizing the 1965 Delano Grape Strike with Cesar Chavez. One of few women in the movement, Huerta famously called out sexist remarks made by male leaders. Today, she continues to advocate for workers’ rights as the president of the Dolores Huerta Foundation.
6. Wilma Mankiller (1945–2010)
Wilma Mankiller was the first woman to hold the position of chief of the Cherokee Nation. By her second term, Mankiller had supported multiple measures to improve the lives of the Cherokee people in employment, education, and infant health. Even after leaving office in 1995, Mankiller continued to be a strong social justice advocate and stressed the power of Cherokee values in solving problems. To recognize Mankiller’s important work for women’s issues, AAUW honored her with an AAUW Achievement Award in 1993.
7. Vanzetta Penn McPherson (born 1947)
Vanzetta McPherson, who grew up in Montgomery, Alabama, was an active participant in the civil rights movement. With help from an AAUW Fellowship, McPherson attended Columbia Law School. She returned to Alabama, where she established a private practice and later became a magistrate judge, dedicated to protecting the rights of working women and African Americans.
While today’s women have a lot to celebrate, the fight for gender equity is far from over. Women face barriers in the form of the gender pay gap, disproportionate rates of sexual violence, glass ceilings in leadership, and more. But if these seven women teach us anything, it’s that passion and dedication pay off. We’re encouraged to continue their work; learn how you can join us in continuing the fight toward women’s equality.
This post was written by AAUW Campus Leadership Programs intern Isabel Geisler.