National Women’s History Month began as a movement to bring attention to the amazing women who have shaped the nation. While the achievements of women are becoming more commonly known – even outside of the month of March – the achievements of women of color often get left behind. From surviving slavery to the heights of space, women of color overcame sexism, cultural norms and racism to make the impossible possible.
When people think of slavery and women, landowner isn’t one of the terms that come to mind. However, that is exactly what Bridget “Biddy” Mason became. She was born a slave in Mississippi in 1841 on the plantation of Robert M. Smith. When he converted to Mormonism in 1847, Bridget and her three daughters were taken on the 2.000 mile trek to the Utah territory, during which she served as midwife, nurse maid and herded the cattle. It was after another move to San Bernardino, California that Bridget learned that Mormons did not believe in keeping slaves, not to mention the recently-admitted-to-the-union California was a free state and did not allow slaves. When her owner refused to let her and her daughter go, a lawyer in the black community in Los Angeles helped her petition the court for her ability to win freedom for herself and her daughters in 1856.
She moved to Los Angeles and was able to find work as a midwife and a nurse. Gainful employment and frugality allowed her to save up enough money to buy a plot of land on Spring Street (in what is now downtown Los Angeles) for $250 dollars. She later sold a portion of the lot for $1,500 and built a commercial building and rental spaces on the remaining land. Her real estate dealings helped her amass a fortune of more than $300,000 – most of which she gave to charities and the First African Methodist Episcopal Church, which she cofounded. First AME was LA’s first black church and continues to this day. Biddy died in 1891. Today a memorial of her achievements can be found near the first plot of land she bought, now the center of downtown Los Angeles’ commercial district.
By the time five-year-old Josephine Serrano arrived in Los Angeles from Mexico with her family in 1927, the city was in the midst of the Great Depression. Born in Arizona, Josephine grew up in the Lincoln Heights area in the thirties and forties. During WWII she worked like many women of the time in the jobs the men left behind as they went to war. When they returned, she was 23 and wanting to break away from cultural traditions. So when she found out the Los Angeles Police Department was hiring a few women, she became one of the 200 women to apply. She ended up being one of only nine to make it through training and graduation and became the first female Latina Los Angeles police officer. She served most of her 14 years on the force working in the juvenile jails in Lincoln Heights. When she retired, she moved to Idaho with her husband, where she died in February of this year.
Chien-Shiung Wu took a different route to support the war effort. The Chinese-born American was already in her thirties and teaching physics at both Princeton University in New Jersey and Smith College in Massachusetts. Her work garnered the attention of the U.S. Government during WWII and was invited to work on the Army’s secretive Manhattan Project at Columbia University. Dr. Wu helped developed the process that enabled the enrichment of uranium ore to produce large enough quantities to make the atomic bomb. Later she discovered a principle in physics which overthrew a then widely held belief about the law of symmetry. The discovery earned the Nobel Prize of Physics in 1957, but only Dr. Wu’s two male colleagues were given the credit. She spent the rest of her life lecturing and encouraging women to participate in science. The “First Lady of Physics” died in New York in 1997.
Shirley St. Hill was finishing up her studies in Brooklyn College just as the war was ending. After graduating in 1946, she worked as a teacher while she pursued her masters degree at Columbia University. It was while working in New York that the now married Shirley Chisholm first joined the local Democratic club and became involved in local politics. By 1964, she was elected to represent her Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in the state legislature. Four years later, she decided to run for Congress representing the 12th Congressional district. Her “unbought and unbossed” campaign won her the seat, making her the first African-American woman in Congress.
It was during her second term that Shirley Chisholm decided to run for president, the first black woman to do so. By the time of the Democratic convention in 1972, 14 states had voted for her and she won 151 of the delegates’ votes. While she did not win the nomination, she was the first black woman to be considered as a presidential candidate for a major party. During her 14 years in Congress, she served on the powerful committees for House Rules, Veteran’s Affairs and Education and Labor. She was also the cofounder of the National Women’s Political and Congressional Black Caucuses. She continued to lecture and teach until her death in 2005.
By the time she retired in 1983, Mae C. Jemison had earned a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering and her M.D. and was finishing up her service as a medical officer in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone and Liberia. When she returned to the United States in 1985, Dr. Jemison decided to pursue a lifelong dream and applied to the NASA astronaut program. Her acceptance, delayed by a year due to the 1986 Challenger disaster, happened in 1987, making her one of 15 candidates accepted into the program out of 2000. She was the first African-American woman accepted into the program.
As the first black woman astronaut, she became a science mission specialist responsible for crew-related scientific experiments on the space shuttle. She flew into space for the first time in September 1992 on the Endeavor, making her the first black woman to do so. Her historic flight lasted eight days and conducted experiments on weightlessness and motion sickness. Dr. Jemison left the astronaut corps in 1993, and continues to teach and is the owner of the Jemison Group which researches, develops and markets new technologies.
When asked how she wanted to be remembered, Shirley Chisholm said, “I don’t want to be remembered as the first black woman who went to Congress. And I don’t even want to be remembered as the first woman who happened to be black to make the bid for the presidency. I want to be remembered as a woman who fought for change in the 20th century.”
We will continue to do just that for all women, past, present and future.