International women’s day on March 8, 2018 is particularly special in light of the recent #MeToo and #TimesUP movements. As we celebrate international women’s day to commemorate the many generations of women who have advanced women’s rights, I wanted to highlight five African American women whom I admire for their strength, courage and fortitude.
When I think of a woman who displayed enormous resilience and fortitude in unfathomable times. I can’t help but honor Harriet Tubman for her heroic and humanitarian efforts in advancing freedom for slaves. Born into slavery, she escaped in 1849 and later led hundreds of other slaves to freedom through the Underground Railroad with help from abolitionists. Tubman devoted her entire life for racial equality and women’s rights. After slavery ended, she continued with efforts on suffrage for women. In honor of her life, the U.S. Treasury announced in 2016 that Tubman would replace Andrew Jackson in the center of the new $20 bill.
As a lawyer, I stand on the shoulders of Charlotte E. Ray. In 1872 Charlotte Ray became the first woman admitted to the Bar in the District of Columbia, as well as the first African-American woman to be a member of the formal bar anywhere in the U.S. She opened a solo practice in Washington, DC specializing in real estate law, but according to historians, she was not able to obtain sufficient legal business and had to give up the active practice of law. Ray remained involved in the suffrage cause and returned to her first career, teaching, in New York in 1879. Today women lawyers make up 36% of lawyers, according to the American Bar Association’s report in January, 2017.
Dorothy I. Height was a fierce civil rights and women’s rights leader who was president of the National Council of Negro Women for 40 years and fought alongside of Martin Luther King. She counseled presidents on civil and women’s rights issues including Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon B. Johnson to President Barack Obama. Height was one of the original organizers of the March on Washington but did not receive the opportunity to speak due to her gender. She would later help found the National Women’s Political Caucus with Gloria Steinem, Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm (D. NY), Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton and others. National Women’s Political Caucus founded in 1971 called for action “against sexism, racism, institutional violence and poverty” and recruits and trains progressive women candidates to run for public office through today. In 2018, there are the largest numbers of women running for elective offices in American history.
Former Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm (D. N.Y.) was the first black woman elected to the U.S. Congress in 1968. She served until 1983. And in 1972 she became the first woman to run as a candidate for president in the Democratic party and the first African American to run for president in a major party, thus paving the way for Barack Obama. She ran on a campaign of “unbought and unbossed”. Despite being a political trailblazer, Chisholm would later say that, “When I ran for the Congress, when I ran for president, I met more discrimination as a woman than for being black.” Chisholm knew her efforts were not in vain but a “catalyst for change”.
Rosa Parks never held a political office. In her own right, she was a fierce women’s and civil rights activist. She is often referred to as the “mother of the freedom movement.” She was far more than the Black woman who refused to give up her seat on a bus designated for whites only section in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955. Her actions started the 381-bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama and helped to launch nationwide efforts to end discrimination in public facilities. On November 13, 1956, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower Mississippi court’s ruling that stated racial discrimination laws in public accommodations are unconstitutional. Parks’ small but mighty gesture of refusing to give up her seat on a bus led to one of the largest and most successful boycott movements against racial segregation. At her death in 2005, Rosa Parks was the first woman to lie in honor in the Capitol Rotunda.
Today women are still using their efforts as catalysts for change for gender and racial equality.
Debbie Hines is a lawyer and political and legal commentator. She addresses issues on women and race in law and politics. She holds a Juris Doctorate from George Washington University Law School and a BA in history from the University of Pennsylvania.