After publishing my first “Forgotten Women in History” blog, a number of readers let me know that they found the stories of these amazing women as fascinating as I did. The New York Times continues to make amends for ignoring the accomplishments of women by publishing some of their stories. Here are a few more:
Rosanell Eaton (1921–2018): Robert D. McFadden describes Rosanell Eaton as a “resolute African-American woman who was hailed by President Barack Obama as a beacon of civil rights.” Called out by Obama as an “obscure civil rights pioneer,” her story is one of courage and perseverance. At the age of twenty-one, she went to the county courthouse in North Carolina where she lived to register to vote. When three white men stopped her at the courthouse door and told her she could not register unless she could recite from memory the preamble to the Constitution, she did so flawlessly. These types of “literacy tests” were often used to turn away black voters, not unlike the challenges faced today in many states, but the men conceded that Eaton passed the test and let her in. She cast her ballot in 1942, becoming one of the state’s first black voters since Reconstruction. She continued her work fighting against racial discrimination until her death in December 2018 at the age of ninety-seven.
Madeline Pollard (1867–?): In a review of Patricia Miller’s new book Bringing Down the Colonel: A Sex Scandal of the Guilded Age, and the “Powerless” Woman Who Took on Washington, Gail Collins of the New York Times notes that Madeline Pollard was a #MeToo pioneer in 1893. In a story with clear parallels to Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein, and Brett Kavanaugh, Pollard sued Kentucky congressman William Breckinridge, a powerful politician from a prominent family who was thirty years her senior, for seducing her as a teenager and leaving her a “ruined woman.” Miller contends that Pollard’s sole motivation for the lawsuit was to challenge the hypocrisy of a system that did not hold powerful men accountable—and she won! In her prescient testimony to an all-male jury, she basically said “time’s up”—and they agreed with her—although we know progress since then has been slow.
Shirley Chisholm (1924–2005): It is fitting that we reflect on the accomplishments of Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to the United States Congress in 1968—fifty years ago—as the largest number of women of color ever to be elected prepare to be sworn in to Congress in 2019. Born in 1924 to a factory worker from Guyana and a seamstress from Barbados, Chisholm taught school and was active in Democratic Party politics before running for and winning national office in 1968. She unsuccessfully sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972 and is still a powerful role model today.
Jackie Mitchell (1913–1987): In 1931, at the age of seventeen, Jackie Mitchell took the pitching mound for an otherwise all-male minor league team in Tennessee and struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in an exhibition game against the Yankees. Talya Minsberg of the New York Times writes that while Mitchell had been signed to a contract just the week before with the Chattanooga Lookouts as the only female pitcher for a professional team, the baseball commissioner voided her contract after the game, “perhaps embarrassed by the episode.” While many contended that the strikeouts had been rigged, Mitchell denied this to her dying day. In an interview shortly before her death, she said, “Hell, better hitters than them couldn’t hit me. Why should they’ve been any different?”
As a new year begins, it’s important to keep talking about the strong and impactful women from the past and present who have changed the world for the better. Are there any unknown women from history who have inspired you?
Photo of Rosanell Eaton courtesy of A Jones (CC BY-ND 2.0)