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/ 03.04.22 /
Celebrating Women’s History Month
In March we celebrate the vital role of women in American history. This year, Working for Women highlighted four women who worked tirelessly to lift themselves from poverty and then turn to help other women. Some names may be familiar, others may be new to you. All of these women helped pave the way for the work we do today.
Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955)
Mary Jane McLeod Bethune, a daughter of former slaves, rose to prominence as one of the twentieth century’s most influential educators, civil and women’s rights leaders, businesswomen, and philanthropists. She worked to worked to establish programs that would fight to end segregated education, to improve healthcare for black children, and to help women use the ballot to advance equality. She is regarded as one of the twentieth century’s most influential black educators and civil rights advocates.
Born in Maysville, South Carolina, on July 10, 1875, Mary grew up as a slave’s daughter. She was one of the youngest of Samuel and Patsy McLeod’s seventeen children. Her mother worked for her previous owner after the Civil War until she was able to purchase the land they worked on. Mary’s inspiration to learn and teach came from an early life experience. While helping her Mother deliver wash to a customer, Mary picked up a book at their house. As she opened it, a white child took it away from her, saying she didn’t know how to read. It was at this point that Mary decided that the only difference between white and colored people was the ability to read and write. This became her lifelong mission.
After the war, there were many efforts launched to educate African Americans and Mary was able to attend a boarding school in North Carolina, graduating in 1894. She went on to further her education at Dwight Moody’s Institute for Home and Foreign Missions in Chicago, Illinois. She planned to be a missionary but, without a church to sponsor her, she decided to return to South Carolina and become an educator. She married fellow teacher, Albertus Bethune, and gave birth to a son in 1899.
Mary and her family moved to Palatka, Florida, where she sold insurance and worked at a church. Not long after, her marriage ended and, determined to support her son after her divorce, Mary opened her own boarding school. The Daytona Beach Literary and Industrial School for Training Negro Girls was comparable to the boarding school where Mary had once studied. By 1929 the boarding school merged with the all-male Cookman Institute and became Bethune-Cookman College, today known as Bethune-Cookman University.
After women were granted the right to vote in 1920, Mary became a champion for racial and gender equality, joining a number of activist organizations and directing voter registration drives. She was sworn in as president of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs in 1924, and subsequently became the founding president of the National Council of Negro Women in 1935. In 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt commissioned her to the position of Director of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration. She was also a leader of FDR’s unofficial “black cabinet.” She became the vice president of the NAACP in 1940 and held that position for the remainder of her life. In 1945, she was the only woman of color at the founding conference of the United Nations.
As if these amazing efforts weren’t enough, Mary regularly wrote for leading African American newspapers and was a businesswoman who co-owned a Daytona, Florida resort and co-founded the Central Life Insurance Company of Tampa.
After her death in 1955, she received editorial tributes in newspapers across the United States:
The Oklahoma City Black Dispatch stated she was, “Exhibit No. 1 for all who have faith in America and the democratic process.”
The Atlanta Daily World said her life was, “One of the most dramatic careers ever enacted at any time upon the stage of human activity.”
The Pittsburgh Courier wrote, “In any race or nation she would have been an outstanding personality and made a noteworthy contribution because her chief attribute was her indomitable soul.”
Christian Century suggested, “the story of her life should be taught to every school child for generations to come.”
The New York Times noted she was, “one of the most potent factors in the growth of interracial goodwill in America.”
The Washington Post said: “So great were her dynamism and force that it was almost impossible to resist her… Not only her own people, but all America has been enriched and ennobled by her courageous, ebullient spirit.”
Her hometown newspaper, the Daytona Beach Evening News printed, “To some she seemed unreal, something that could not be…. What right had she to greatness? The lesson of Mrs. Bethune’s life is that genius knows no racial barriers.”
Source: Michals, Debra. ” Mary McLeod Bethune.” National Women’s History Museum. 2015. www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/mary-mcleod-bethune.
Wilma Mankiller (1945-2010)
Wilma Mankiller led a remarkable life as a Native American activist, social worker, community developer, the first woman elected to serve as Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation and the first woman elected as chief of a major Native tribe. She was a role model for young women on the reservation and continues to inspire all women who seek to challenge the status quo.
Born on tribal land, in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, Wilma was the sixth of eleven children. Her last name, Mankiller, derives from the high military rank achieved by a Cherokee ancestor. While living on the reservation in her ancestral home, her family had no electricity, indoor plumbing, or telephones. At 11 years old, her family was relocated to San Francisco, California as part of a Bureau of Indian Affairs’ relocation policy, a move Wilma referred to as, “my own little Trail of Tears.” While this relocation was meant to separate the tribe, instead it seeded a fierce determination in Wilma to retain her Cherokee identity.
In California, Wilma studied sociology and went to work as a social worker. She was married and had two children. Inspired by the civil rights and social justice movements of the 60s, she became active in the Native American Rights movement in California, including participating in the infamous occupation of Alcatraz Island. She served as the director of Oakland’s Native American Youth Center where she would gain experience about tribal sovereignty and treaty rights.
By 1977, Wilma divorced her husband and returned to her tribal home in Tahlequah with her two daughters. She was a single mother, living out of her car and struggling to find a job. She secured a position with the Cherokee Nation as their economic stimulus coordinator, and later founded the Cherokee Nation’s Community Development Department. Her first project succeeded in helping 200 families with no running water and high unemployment, work together to construct a 16-mile waterline over a 14-month period. You can learn more about this project in the full-length feature film, “The Cherokee Word for Water.”
In 1983 she won the election for deputy principal Cherokee chief and when the principal chief went on to become head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, in 1985, Mankiller succeeded him as principal chief. She ran and won this position two years later. Even though at first Wilma met resistance running for a tribal position, by 1992 she received 82% of the vote.
In her tenure as Principal chief she revitalized the Nation’s tribal government, and advocated relentlessly to create jobs, break down social and economic barriers, improve access to healthcare, and address the roots of both rural and urban poverty.
Her work earned national recognition as the Ms. Magazine Woman of the Year in 1987. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993, and in 1998 she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, from President Bill Clinton.
A trailblazer, activist, role model, leader and woman, Wilma Mankiller led an inspirational life and her transformative leadership continues to inspire us today.
“Prior to my election,” said Mankiller, “young Cherokee girls would never have thought that they might grow up and become chief.” She wrote, “Women in leadership roles can help restore balance and wholeness to our communities.”
Source: Brando, Elizabeth “Wilma Mankiller.” National Women’s History Museum. 2021. www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/wilma-mankiller
Dolores Huerta (1930-)
Dolores Clara Fernandez Huerta has been on a lifelong journey to correct economic injustice. Her achievements were sparked by being raised by a single mother whose independence and entrepreneurial spirit were an example for Dolores of what was possible.
Dolores was born on April 10, 1930, the second of three children of a New Mexican farmworker and miner, Alicia and Juan Fernandez. At age three, her parents divorced, and she moved with her mother and siblings to a farming community in Stockton, California. Dolores’ mother struggled to support her family by working two jobs – in a restaurant, and as a factory worker. Eventually, she was able to acquire a small hotel and restaurant, and worked hard to improve their economic situation as well as provide her children access to extracurricular activities such as music lessons and scouting. Alicia always encouraged her children to get involved in their community and seek to improve themselves.
After Dolores graduated high school, she was married, had two children and divorced. She explored a few jobs that were not satisfying, and eventually went on to earn a college degree and work as a schoolteacher in the early 1950s. But teaching too many hungry farm students led her in another direction. She decided she could do more for these children by helping their parents earn more equitable working conditions.
Thus began her activism in 1955, as one of the founders of the Stockton Chapter of the Community Service Organization (CSO), a grassroots group that worked to end segregation, discrimination, and police brutality, and improve social and economic conditions for farm workers. She then founded the Agricultural Workers Association which set up voter registration drives and pressed local governments for barrio improvements. In the same year, Dolores was introduced to CSO Executive Director César E. Chávez. By 1962, the two resigned from the CSO to launch the National Farm Workers Association. Dolores’ served as vice president from 1962 until 1999.
At age 58, after a lengthy recovery from a life-threatening assault at a protest, Dolores shifted her focus to women’s rights. She travelled the country for two years encouraging Latina’s to run for office. Her campaign resulted in a significant increase in the number of women representatives at the local, state, and federal levels.
Today, Dolores Huerta continues developing leaders and advocating for the working poor, women, and children. As founder and president of the Dolores Huerta Foundation, she continues to travel across the country engaging in campaigns and influencing legislation that supports equality and defends civil rights. She often speaks to students and organizations about issues of social justice and public policy. Dolores has received numerous awards including The Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
When asked how being a pioneer in activism meant spending so much time away from her own children, Dolores responded:
“I think that’s something that all mothers have to deal with, especially single mothers. We work and we have to leave the kids behind. And I think that’s one of the reasons that we, not only as women but as families, we have to advocate for early childhood education for all of our children. To make sure that they’re taken care of but also educated in the process. Because we do need women in civic life. We do need women to run for office, to be in political office. We need a feminist to be at the table when decisions are being made so that the right decisions will be made.”
Source: Michals, Debra. “Dolores Huerta.” National Women’s History Museum. 2015. https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/dolores-huerta
Source: Dolores Huerta Foundation for Community Organizing. https://doloreshuerta.org/doloreshuerta/
Source: Godoy, Maria. “Dolores Huerta: The Civil Rights Icon Who Showed Farmworkers ‘Sí Se Puede’. September 2017.
Madam C.J. Walker (1867-1919)
You may have heard of Madam C.J. Walker thanks to the recent Netflix series “Self Made” staring Academy Award winning actress, Octavia Spencer. Walker was the first African American woman millionaire and first female self-made millionaire in America. She was a groundbreaking entrepreneur who inspired many with her financial independence, business agility, philanthropy, and an impressive resume of accomplishments – despite countless hurdles presented during the times in which she lived.
Born in 1867 to former slaves, Sarah Breedlove was one of six children, and the first in her family to be born free after the Emancipation Proclamation. She faced many hardships in her early life, including being orphaned at age seven, married at 14 to escape an abusive brother-in-law, and widowed with an infant by age 20. She moved from rural Louisiana to St. Louis with her two-year-old daughter to start over, where she worked as a laundress and a cook while attending night school. Walker struggled financially and began to lose hope. She also began to lose her hair from the mounting stress, which led to an unexpected turning point. She started using African-American businesswoman Annie Malone’s “The Great Wonderful Hair Grower,” and soon joined Malone’s team of black women sales agents in 1904.
A year later, and with only $1.25 in savings and three months of formal education, Walker launched “The Walker System” – her own line of hair products and straighteners for African American women. Ultimately, she built a business empire and became a fierce advocate in helping other Black women achieve economic independence. Her company employed over 40,000 African American women and men in the US, Central America, and the Caribbean. She even mandated in her company’s charter that only a woman may run for president, at a time when Black women’s career opportunities were severely restricted.
Madame C.J. Walker broke the cycle of poverty and was committed to help others do the same. As she built her business and grew her wealth, she was also committed to making a social impact. She funded scholarships for women at Tuskegee Institute, contributed to the YMCA and NAACP, and directed two-thirds of future net profits to charity, including to various individuals and schools.
Quote from Madame C.J. Walker: In 1912, Walker addressed an annual gathering of the National Negro Business League (NNBL) from the convention floor, where she declared: “I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. From there, I was promoted to the washtub. From there, I was promoted to the cook kitchen. And from there, I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations. I have built my own factory on my own ground.”
Source: Michals, Debra. “Madam C. J. Walker.” National Women’s History Museum. 2015. www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/madam-cj-walker.