These 12 Women Have Important Stories to Tell

March has finally arrived and you know what that means: it’s Women’s History Month. For the next few weeks, we’re going to recognize the women who have come before us, who we get to live and work alongside and the women who will soon be shaping our world. For Women’s History Month 2019, we want to celebrate hidden women, those women from recent history who have innovated, broken through glass ceilings, made our lives better and who did it all without us truly knowing about their work.

In this spirit, we’re looking at women whose stories are so important that they deserve to be made into movies. It’s not unusual for hidden women’s lives to get made into films. Just look at recent releases like Loving, Hidden Figures, The Post or The Favourite, all of which centered around women whose stories were not known to a wider audience or deserved to be explored on a deeper level through the power of film. Why not spotlight a new group of hidden women whose lives feel movie-worthy?

So, let’s take a look at a handful of the intriguing women whose lives and life’s work has helped shape culture and the modern world — from Mae Jemison, the first black woman to go to space to Hedy Lamarr, the Hollywood actress who helped create what we know to be WiFi to Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman to run a presidential campaign.

A version of this article was originally published in March 2017.

Mae Jemison

While the space program had been around for quite some time, it wasn’t until 1992 that an African-American woman actually went into space. That woman was Mae Jemison. 

Jemison always knew she wanted to go into the sciences. In her time at school, she excelled in the sciences as well as the arts. While studying medicine at Cornell, she lived and worked in Cuba, Kenya and, for a time, worked at a Cambodian refugee camp in Thailand. After earning her M.D., she worked as a general practitioner before moving on to work in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone and Liberia. There, Jemison not only taught medicine but also conducted medical research. 

In 1987, she became the first African-American woman to be admitted to the NASA astronaut training program. She worked on launch support activities, verification of shuttle computer software and becoming a part of the Endeavour mission. While on board the Endeavour, Jemison was a coinvestigator on a variety of bone cell research experiments.

Madam C.J. Walker

Madam C.J. Walker was the first female African-American self-made millionaire. For black women in America, Walker returned a level of dignity, beauty and empowerment to her community.

Walker was born to free slaves but was orphaned by the time she was 7. She moved around in the care of various family members and it wasn’t until she moved to St. Louis with her young daughter to live with her brothers (who worked as barbers) that she found true stability.

In St. Louis, Walker worked as a washerwoman and earned enough money to send her daughter to school. In the 1890s, Walker developed a scalp condition that led her to lose much of her hair. This propelled her toward creating a variety of at-home hair treatments to help improve the condition of black hair. 

Walker was a pioneer in the black hair market, creating specially designed tools and products that would help black women properly care for their hair. She was an innovator and entrepreneur in her time and should be celebrated for her work on behalf of black women everywhere.

Bessie Coleman

Bessie Coleman should be celebrated for how she changed society’s mind about what was possible for a woman. She was the first African-American woman to earn an international pilot’s license, and with it, she became one of the best aviators and showmen in the world. 

Coleman saved up her money from working as a teen to go to Langston University (she left after one year when the money ran out). After working as a manicurist and laundress for a brief time, Coleman decided to change course and pursue aviation. It was unconventional in the 1920s, and for black women, it was a career field that was almost certainly out of reach. 

When Coleman was unable to find a mentor or teacher in Chicago to help her get her pilot’s license, she went to France to earn it unburdened by the weight of race and discrimination. She flew all across Europe, performed in air shows and founded an aviation school. Coleman made it her life’s work to inspire other members of the black community to take up an interest in aviation. 

Ilhan Omar

It may feel like Ilhan Omar is just at the beginning of an extraordinary journey, but trust us when we say that Omar’s story is already worthy of being shared with the world. 

Omar was born in Somalia, where her family was forced to flee the country due to the nation’s ongoing civil war. She and her family settled in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1997 following four years spent in a Kenyan refugee camp. 

Omar loved politics from a young age, participating in various school clubs and events during her teens. She was a community organizer during her college years, a Policy Aide in Minneapolis for a City Council member and in 2016, she was elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives. Her 2016 win made her the first Somali-American Muslim woman to be elected to one of her home state’s highest governing bodies. 

Patsy Mink

Not only was Patsy Mink (pictured bottom left, foreground) the first woman of color to be elected to Congress, but she is also the reason that Title IX, the landmark anti-discrimination bill currently being used to defend the rights of U.S. citizens, exists.

Mink, a third-generation Japanese-American who was born in Hawaii, was always destined for a life in politics. She became student body president in junior high, and it’s reported that as part of her tenure, she implemented various programs to help mix up the cliques at her school. As a self-identified Democrat in college, Mink worked to end segregation at the University of Nebraska and worked to end the university’s racist and segregated conditions.

After earning her J.D. from the University of Chicago, Mink had a successful career in law. In 1965, she became the first Asian-American woman to be elected to Congress. She was also the coauthor of Title IX, which detailed that “no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”

Dolores Huerta

Dolores Huerta is a revolutionary woman who worked on behalf of laborers and children. She was responsible for creating the Agricultural Workers Association (AWA) and was the cofounder of the United Farm Workers (UFW). Huerta achieved this and more while working through discrimination against Mexican-Americans as well as discrimination reserved for laborers and migrant workers. 

Huerta was the daughter of hardworking parents. Her father, Juan, was a union activist and New Mexico assemblyman, which served as inspiration for Huerta’s own activist and political activities. Huerta pursued music and dance and was even a Girl Scout in her youth, but she endured much racism in that time. Targeted for her Mexican heritage, Huerta only became more determined in her youth to prevail against this ingrained racism and work on behalf of others.

In 1960, Huerta created the AWA. She organized voter registration drives and even worked with U.S. politicians to allow noncitizen migrant workers access to public assistance and pensions and to provide Spanish-language voting ballots and driver’s tests.

Hedy Lamarr

She was a beloved film star during her career peak from the 1930s to the 1950s, but Austrian expat Hedy Lamarr should be remembered most for her technological innovations in the first half of the 20th century.

From a young age, Lamarr was always interested in inventing. She would take apart household items like clocks and try to reassemble them. She would sketch ideas for new machines. This love of creating and innovation only grew and while she became famous for her work in films like Tortilla FlatLady of the Tropics and Samson and Delilah, she was also developing the basic systems like a WWII radio signaling system that would change frequencies at such a rapid pace that messages sent between American forces would be untraceable by Nazi Germany. Her technological innovations during the 1940s would help facilitate the creation of important tech like the internet and WiFi and without her, our would simply not be what we know today.

Ida B. Wells

Ida B. Wells may be a familiar name, but you may not know her story. Wells was born into slavery at the end of the Civil War. In the Reconstruction South, true freedom was an illusion as the Wells family faced setbacks while trying to build a life as freed slaves. Wells’ experiences with this new world would shape her life and her work in bettering the quality of life for her fellow African-Americans. 

Her first brush with the law and activism came when she bought a first-class train ticket from Memphis to Nashville. After boarding the train, she was forced to move from her seat to make room for white passengers. Outraged at the treatment she received, she refused to move from her seat and was forcibly removed from the train. Wells sued the railroad company and won $500 as part of a settlement. 

Wells was compelled to write about her experience and worked as a journalist under the name “Iola.” She eventually became the owner of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight. Wells became a voice against lynching in the South and remained an outspoken activist for the rights of African-Americans throughout her life. 

Anna May Wong

Anna May Wong was the first mainstream Chinese-American film star and the first Asian-American woman to have her own talk show. She began working in silent films at age 17, and that same year, she starred in the first Technicolor film, The Toll of the Sea

Although she was usually cast in stereotypical Asian roles, Wong was able to use her talents as effectively as possible onscreen to soften the potentially racist portrayals of Asian characters she was playing. 

Wong found even greater success in Europe, where she made some of her best films, including Piccadilly, and performed in English-, German- and French-language films. 

Hazel Scott

Hazel Scott’s career in Hollywood was short, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t important. She starred in musical films of the ’30s and ’40s like Rhapsody in Blue, but she broke an important glass ceiling in the early days of television. 

Scott grew up an accomplished musician. She studied classical piano from a Julliard-trained professor and went on to eke out a career performing at New York’s Cafe Society dinner club in the ’30s, earning a weekly salary of $4,000 — an incredibly high sum at the time. 

Scott’s talents took her to Broadway and before long, she got Hollywood’s attention. She had cameos playing the piano in films like Something to Shout About, I Dood It, and The Heat’s On. In 1950, she became the first African-American female television host when the DuMont Network gave her a 15-minute musical variety show. Although she passed away at age 61 in 1981, Scott’s mark on music, film and television is absolutely worth remembering.

Margaret Hamilton

Margaret Hamilton may be one of the most important women of the 20th century. She has earned accolades for her work which has had an impact on tech and science.

After earning a degree in mathematics and philosophy at Earlham College and briefly teaching high school math in Indiana, she and husband James Hamilton moved to Boston, where she accepted a job at MIT. There, she began programming software to predict the weather and even did postgraduate work in meteorology. 

Hamilton went on to work at the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory, which provided support to NASA. During her time there, she developed software that would be used for the guidance and control systems of the in-flight command and lunar modules of the Apollo missions. She is credited as the first person to coin the title “software engineer” to describe her work and has earned a place in history as one of the first software programmers to ever live.

Shirley Chisholm

We’ve heard Shirley Chisholm’s name invoked when speaking of important women in American history, but do you actually know what she accomplished during her lifetime?

Brooklyn native Chisholm began her career in education, first working as a teacher and earn her master’s degree in elementary education from Columbia University. After serving as the director of the Hamilton-Madison Child Care Center and an educational consultant for New York City’s Bureau of Child Welfare, Chisholm set her sights on politics. She ran a Congressional campaign in the late ’60s and won, becoming the first African-American congresswoman in 1968; she held the seat for seven terms. As a congresswoman, she was one of the founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus in 1969.

From there, Chisholm announced her presidential campaign in 1972. In doing this, she was the first African-American woman to run for major party nomination (she ran as a Democrat). Even though was unable to earn the nomination, her campaign, as well as the rest of her career, hold a special, memorable place in American politic.

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