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12 Influential Women in American History You Should Know

Elaine Partnow has been offering living history portraits of notable women longer than almost anyone else around. To date, she’s presented close to four hundred venues ranging from New Orleans to Seattle to Guadalajara to Wuxi, China! Over 50,000 people have enjoyed her humorous and memorable performances that serve to both inform and entertain. All her programs include costuming and props, as well as audience participation.

Below is a list of a few influential women in American history that Elaine Partnow writes about in her books.

1. Abzug, Bella

One of the most influential American women of the 20th century and the second Jewish woman elected to the U.S. Congress, Abzug’s deep ties to Judaism emmanated from her extended family of Russian immigrants. Never afraid to take controversial positions, she was a fierce advocate of peace and woman’s rights and became a prominent national speaker against poverty, racisim, and violence in America. In 1970, she was elected to Congress on a woman’s rights/peace platform. Her first vote was for the Equal Rights Amendment; she served two terms. She was a co-founder of the National Women’s Political Caucus, the Women’s Strike for Peace, and the Coalition for a Democratic Alternative. Born Bella Savitsky on July 24, 1920, she died in 1998.

Abzug, Bella

Image courtesy

Bibliographical References

  • Bella!, Mel Ziegler, ed., 1972
  • The Journey Home, How Jewish Women Shaped Modern America by Joyce Antler, 1997

2. Susan B. Anthony

Born February 15, 1820 in the State of Massachusetts, she was a pioneer of the woman suffrage movement in the United States. She helped form the National American Woman Suffrage Association and was its president for eight years (1892-1900). Born into a Quaker family, Ms. Anthony was an activist in other areas as well–she was an ardent Abolitionist, as was her father, and an agent for the American Anti-slavery Society. She also worked as a teacher and an editor (The Revolution, a liberal weekly published in New York). She worked closely with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and another suffragist, Matilda Joslyn Gage: together the three women compiled and published The History of Woman Suffrage. She died on March 13, 1906 in Rochester, New York, where she had defied the Constitution by leading a group of women to the polls to vote in 1872: she was arrested, tried and convicted, but she refused to pay the fine.

Susan B. Anthony

Image courtesy

Bibliographical References

  • –w/Stanton, Elizabeth Cady & Gage, Matilda, History of Woman Suffrage, 1881
  • Stevens, Doris, Jailed for Freedom, 1920

3. Katherine Lee Bates

Born August 12, 1859 in Massachusetts, she was an author and educator and is mainly remembered for the lyrics of the national hymn, “America the Beautiful.” She wrote many stories and plays for children. America the Beautiful and Other Poems was published in 1911. She died on March 28, 1929.

4. Mart McLeod Bethune

Born on July 10, 1875, Bethune was an educator whose parents had been slaves. Still, she managed to graduate from the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago and went on to open the Daytona Educational and Industrial Training Center for Negro Girls, where she charged fifty cents a week (to those who could afford it). Located in Daytona, Florida, the school was later merged with a men’s school and became the Bethune-Cookman College, still operating today. She served as its president and later went on to become the Director of the Division of Negro Affairs under the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt. She died on May 18, 1955. Founder of Bethune-Cookman College, 1904; co-founder of Natl. Assn. of Colored Women; Spingarn Medal, 1935.

5. Rachel Carson

Born May 27, 1907 in Springdale, Pennsylvania, Carson was a science writer and biologist well known for her writings on environmental pollution and the natural history of the sea. A deep interest in wildlife from her childhood led Ms. Carson to a long career with the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, later the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In 1951 she published The Sea Around Us, which won the National Book Award. Her prophetic and influential Silent Spring (1962) created a worldwide awareness of the dangers of environmental pollution. Presidential Medal of Freedom, 1980.

Bibliographical References

  • –, The Sea Around Us, 1951
  • –, The Edge of the Sea, 1955
  • –, The Silent Spring, 1962

6. Julia Ward Howe

Born May 27, 1819 in New York City, she was an author and lecturer best known for her “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” first printed in 1862 in the Atlantic Monthly, a magazine still being published. She composed songs for children in addition to her travel books, biographies, dramas and verse, and was an activist for equal educational, professional and business opportunities for women. She died October 17, 1910. Words from the “Battle Hymn of the Republic:”

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible, swift sword;
His truth is marching on! (1862)

7. Florynce Kennedy

Born in 1916, she became a lawyer who specialized in fighting for civil rights, especially those of black people and of all women. She kept on speaking out for equal right and the ERA until her death, in 2000.

Bibliographical References

  • — , “Institutionalized Oppression vs. the Female,” Sisterhood Is Powerful, Morgan, Robin, ed., 1970

8. Emma Lazarus

Born July 22, 1849, the writer is best known for her sonnet “The New Colossus,” inscribed on a bronze plaque inside the Statue of Liberty, which was dedicated in 1886. She was a well-respected poet, dramatist and translator who devoted much of her brief life to Jewish causes. She died on November 19, 1887 in New York, the city of her birth. “The New Colossus” closes with the lines:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

9. Eleanor Roosevelt

Born October 11, 1884 in New York City, she is one of the most admired women in the world today. Not only did she serve as First Lady in the White House during Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s twelve years in office, she also served as a United Nations diplomat (1945-53, 1961-2) and was an international humanitarian. Her uncle was President Theodore Roosevelt; Franklin, whom she married in 1905, was her distant cousin. While at the White House she instituted press conferences for women correspondents for the first time. She had a regular radio show and wrote a daily newspaper column, “My Day,” that was well-syndicated. Having been very active politically before moving into the White House, she resumed that role after her husband’s death in 1945. She traveled the world many times over and met with most of its leaders. Her pet causes were equal rights for everyone and child welfare. She died in 1962.

Bibliographical References

  • –, This is My Story, 1937
  • –, If You Ask Me, 1946
  • –, Tomorrow Is Now, 1953
  • –, It Seems to Me, 1954
  • Lash, Joseph P., Eleanor: The Years Alone, 1972
  • Morgan, Edward P., ed., This I Believe, 1953

10. Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Born November 12, 1815 in the state of New York, she led the way in formulating the first organized demands for woman’s suffrage in 1848. Her father was a U.S. congressman and later a judge, and she studied law in his office. That’s where she learned of the discriminatory laws under which women lived. It was she who helped obtain property rights for married women in her home state. She began her association with Susan B. Anthony, who managed the business affairs of the movement, in 1850; Elizabeth did most of the writing. Together they edited a women’s rights newspaper, The Revolution, and, with Matilda Gage, the first three volumes of The History of Woman Suffrage. She was president of National Woman Suffrage Association (1869-1890). She wrote an excellent autobiography, Eighty Years and More, before she died in 1902 on October 26 in New York. A fascinating story about Elizabeth Cady Stanton (learned from a participant at a performance; I’d never heard before it before: in a nutshell, when she was five or six and she heard her lawyer father reluctantly concurring that a man had the right to indenture his children to an “owner” for a price. She took a scissors to his law books and cut out the law!

Bibliographical References

  • –, w/Anthony Susan B. & Gage, Matilda, History of Woman Suffrage, 1881
  • –, The Woman’s Bible, 1895
  • –, Eighty Years and More, 1898
  • Stanton, Theodore & Blatch, Harriot Stanton, eds., Elizabeth Cady Stanton, 1922

11. Sojourner Truth

Probably born in 1797 in Ulster, New York, her legal name was Isabella Van Wagener–but it was a slave name; she made up her own name in 1843. After she was freed in 1827, she supported herself by doing domestic work, and managed to rescue one of her children who had been illegally sold. She never learned to read or write, but she’d always had visions and heard voices speaking to her: she believed it was God who spoke to her, and she was a passionate evangelist who worked and preached in the streets of New York City. In addition to her missionary work, she also spoke out for black people and for women’s rights. By then she supported herself by selling The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, her life’s story, which she told to friends in the suffrage movement who wrote it down for her. She helped integrate street cars in Washington D.C. and was received at the White House by President Abraham Lincoln in 1864. She died in Battle Creek, Michigan on November 26, 1883.

Bibliographical References

  • –, Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave, 1850
  • Stanton, Elizabeth Cady, Anthony, Susan B., & Gage, Matilda, History of Woman Suffrage, 1881
  • Bernard, Jacqueline, Journey Toward Freedom: The Story of Sojourner Truth, 1967

12. Mae West

Born in 1892, reportedly, she lived until 1983. Best known as a comic vamp actor in film, West was also a playwright, a scenarist, a stage producer, and an author. She believed in a liberated attitude toward men and women and the relations between them, and was willing to risk jail to put her ideas, in the context of fun and entertainment, on stage.

Bibliographical References

  • – Belle of the Nineties, 1934
  • – Every Day’s a Holiday, 1938
  • – Go West Young Man, 1936
  • – Goin’ to Town, 1935
  • – I’m No Angel, 1933
  • – Klondike Annie, 1936
  • – My Little Chickadee, with W. C. Fields, 1940
  • – Eells, George, and Stanley Musgrove, Mae West, 1982
  • – Juska, Jon, The Films of Mae West, 1973
  • – Weintraub, Joseph, The Wit and Wisdom of Mae West, 1967

13. Sarah Winnemucca

Born around 1844, she was a member of the Paiute Indian tribe and was raised in what is now the state of Nevada. Her Indian name was Thoc-me-tony, which means Shell-Flower. Sarah learned English and Spanish while working on a ranch in the San Joaquin Valley; she also knew three Indian tongues. This enabled her to become an interpreter for Indian agents and for the military. She also worked as a guide, a scout and a teacher. Her tribe was treated very badly and was moved from one reservation to another. Finally, they were exiled to the Yakima Reservation in Washington Territory. Sarah became an eloquent speaker and toured the country, fighting for the welfare of her people. She wrote a book called Life Among the Paiutes. Although she became a Christian, she never lost her beliefs in the great “Spirit Father” of her tribal people. She spent her last years in Montana, where she died of consumption before her fiftieth year. White men often called her “the Princess,” and the Paiutes, “Mother”; at her death she was called “the most famous Indian woman of the Pacific Coast”. Her father was known as Old Chief Winnemucca, and her grandfather, a well-known chief, was nicknamed Captain Truckee.

Bibliographical References

  • Brimlow, George, F., “The Life of Sarah Winnemucca: The Formative Years,” Oregon Historical Society Quarterly. June, 1952
  • Canfield, Gae Whitney, Sarah Winnemucca of the Northern Paiutes. 1983 (University of Oklahoma Press, Norman)
  • Hopkins, Sarah Winnemucca, Life Among the Paiutes: Their Wrongs and Claims. Mrs. Horace Mann, ed., 1969 (Chalfant Press, Bishop, California)
  • Stewart, Patricia, “Sarah Winnemucca,” Nevada Historical Society Quarterly. 14, no. 4, Winter, 1971

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