I find it inspiring to learn about women in history who broke barriers and forged new pathways. Often, their accomplishments have been lost or forgotten—or at least were unknown to me. Here are the brief stories of four more amazing women I have recently stumbled across.
Gertrude Jeannette (1914–2018)
Reportedly the first woman to drive a taxi in New York City, Gertrude Jeannette got her license to drive taxis in 1942. Jonathan Wolfe, writing for the New York Times, explains that Black drivers were not allowed to work downtown, so when Jeannette pulled up to the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in Manhattan to try to get her first customer, the other drivers tried to cut her off and hurled insults at her as a Black woman. After intentionally ramming into a Checker cab that had lurched in front of her to cut her off, she drove off from the Waldorf with her first customer.
Jeannette later overcame a childhood stutter and became a Broadway, film, and television actor and playwright. She was barred from working in theaters during the Red Scare of the 1950s because of her association with Paul Robeson, who was on a watch list due to his activism. Jeannette then set up a succession of theater companies in Harlem to make sure the community continued to have top-notch theater. Wolfe explains that she continued to act into her eighties and retired from directing at ninety-eight.
Julia Tuttle (1849–1898)
Known as the “Mother of Miami,” Julia Tuttle is recognized as the only woman to have founded a major American city. Elena Sheppard writes that Tuttle purchased 640 acres on the north side of the Miami River, land from which Native American tribes, most notably the Tequesta, had been ousted during the Seminole Wars. The daughter of a homesteader, she worked with other landowners to attract the building of a railroad in 1896 to the swampy area to encourage development and settlement. In 1896, Miami was incorporated, but Tuttle, being a woman, was not permitted to cast a vote. Tuttle built a hotel, was one of the first directors of the Bank of Bay Biscayne (until forced to resign because she was a woman), and spent her short life developing the fledgling city. Tuttle died in 1898 at the age of forty-nine.
Claudette Colvin (1940–present day)
Claudette Colvin’s role in the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 and the broader civil rights movement has been overlooked. But now, reports Eduardo Medina, she says, “I wanted my grandchildren and great-grandchildren to understand that their grandmother stood up for something very important, and that it changed our lives a lot, changed attitudes.” That is why she filed a petition in October 2021 to have her juvenile arrest record expunged because she felt justice from the court system was sixty-six years past due.
Medina reports that in March 1955, when Colvin was fifteen, she refused to give up her seat in the Whites-only section of a bus in Montgomery. She was promptly arrested and kicked by officers as they dragged her off the bus. She was convicted of violating the city’s segregation law, causing disorderly conduct, and assaulting an officer, and she went on to become the star witness in 1956 in the landmark case that effectively ended bus segregation. Colvin’s arrest came nine months before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, but Parks is the one who became the face of the movement, and Colvin was forgotten.
Medina notes that the current judge handling Colvin’s case to clear her record is Calvin L. Williams, the first Black judge to serve in Alabama’s Fifteen Judicial Circuit Court. Williams notes that history has come full circle when he, a Black judge, can bring justice to a case where justice was so long denied to a Black person.
Alice Guy Blaché (1873–1968)
In 1911, Alice Guy Blaché was recognized as the first female filmmaker in history in an article published in the Moving Picture News. Elizabeth Weitzman reports that “until recently, Guy Blaché was mostly relegated to the footnotes: credited regularly as the first female filmmaker (when credited at all), but overlooked in terms of her impact as an artist and an innovator.” She began making films in 1896, with around one thousand films under her belt by the end of her career. As Weitzman describes, Guy Blaché was “constantly pushing visual and thematic boundaries. She experimented with early synchronized sound, color and special effects. She explored gender, race and class. And she inspired future giants like Sergei Eisenstein.”
Manohla Dargis of the New York Times writes that Guy Blaché was born in France and began her filmmaking career there. She moved to the United States in 1907 to continue her filmmaking and by 1910 had established her own film studio, Solax Company. Her films included gun-toting heroines and many other groundbreaking themes. By the 1920s, the movie industry had become big business and was no longer hospitable to women. She returned to France, but she could not find work there as a filmmaker. She also tried to find her catalog of films, but they were presumed lost, and she was forgotten. “Only now,” writes Dargis, “largely because of the feminist film scholars who are writing women back into history, does her place seems secure.”
By not forgetting these women, we honor those who came before us and make space for new visionaries in the years ahead.
Photo courtesy of Phillip Pessar (CC BY 2.0)