Take time to celebrate these remarkable women who broke barriers and paved the way for generations to come.  

By Colleen McMillar
January 28, 2021
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Shirley Chisholm was born at a time in America when Black citizens often saw their inalienable rights denied by racial intolerance, with little recourse.

She would go on, however, to accomplish great things.

In 1968, she became the first Black woman to serve in the U.S. Congress and, four years later, the first Black woman to seek the presidency. But in 2004, when asked how she wanted to be preserved for posterity, she would cite neither.

Instead, she said she wanted to be remembered as a woman who dared to be herself, as someone who was "a catalyst for change in America." 

U.S. Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm speaking at the Democratic National Convention in Miami Beach, Florida, July 1972.
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Draw a line forward to January 20 of this year, and it's not hard to make a connection to the earthshaking, glass-ceiling-shattering swearing-in of Kamala Harris as the first Black, Asian, female vice president of the United States.

With Black History Month upon us, it's a good time to remember the many other African American women who overcame long odds to act as catalysts for change in America, helping to pave the way for Harris. 

Here are just a few who also became "firsts," pursuing dreams that seemed out of reach to those not white or male, forging ahead in fields where no one else looked like them. Their ingenuity and persistence have inspired generations.

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Phyllis Wheatley was the first Black woman—and one of the first women— to publish a book of poetry in the American colonies.

Enslaved and brought to Boston at roughly 8 years old, she was educated by the family that purchased her. Within 16 months, according to the National Women’s History Museum, she could read the Bible and Greek and Latin classics.

She was around 20 when her book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral ($7, Amazon) was published in 1773. It includes an attestation signed by 18 white men who assured that Wheatley had been “examined by some of the best judges” in order to determine that she had, indeed, authored the work.

Abolitionists pointed to Wheatley as proof of the humanity of slaves and of the intellectual and creative abilities of Black people.

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Born in 1845, Mary Eliza Mahoney became America’s first Black licensed professional nurse.

She was a teenager when she went to work at the New England Hospital for Women and Children in Roxbury, Massachusetts, initially as a maid, then a cook, and then a washerwoman. Eventually, she was given a chance to perform the duties of a nurse’s aide.

At 33, she was admitted into the hospital’s rigorous professional graduate school for nursing. Forty-two students entered the program in 1878, and Mahoney was one of only four who completed it.

Because of the discrimination she faced in public health facilities, Mahoney became a private traveling nurse, taking care of mostly wealthy white patients on the East Coast. Often, she was forced to push back against her clients’ inclination to see her not only as a nurse but as a household servant.

In 1908, she became co-founder of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses. She also worked to recruit other Black women to her profession.

In 1976, she was selected for the Nursing Hall of Fame and, 17 years later, became a member of the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

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When she graduated from Ohio’s Oberlin College one year after the start of the Civil War, Mary Jane Patterson became the first African American woman in the country to receive a Bachelor of Arts degree.

Patterson put her B.A. to use as an educator. First, she taught at Philadelphia’s Institute for Colored Youth, known for academic excellence even outside that city.

In 1869, Patterson moved to the Preparatory High School for Colored Youth in Washington, D.C., the first public high school for Black children in the nation. It didn’t take long for her to be promoted from teacher to principal. In that role, she established a teacher-training program and set high standards. 

She worked with colleague Mary Church Terrell, an activist for civil rights and women’s suffrage, to form the Colored Women’s League. The organization would later become the National Association of Colored Women.

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Cathay Williams was the first African American female enlistee in the U.S. Army and the only known woman to serve as a Buffalo soldier.

It was during the Civil War, when the Union Army occupied Jefferson City, Missouri, that Williams, born a slave, first encountered Army life. Slaves were designated as “contraband” and could be seized and forced into military support roles. The Union Army made Williams a cook and washerwoman.

After the war ended, Williams enlisted in 1866 by disguising herself as a man, changing her name to William Cathay, and drawing an apparently inattentive military doctor for her physical examination. She joined the Black cavalry troops assigned to the Western frontier and tasked with fighting Native Americans, capturing cattle rustlers, and protecting settlers.

Her ruse was discovered two years later while she fell ill and was hospitalized. The Army promptly discharged her.

A reporter heard rumors of her Army service and tracked her down in Colorado, where she was working as a seamstress. Her story was published by the St. Louis Daily Times on January 2, 1876.

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Maggie Lena Walker was the first Black woman in America to start a bank, but also used her business acumen to accomplish much more.

Born in Richmond, Virginia, nine months before the end of the Civil War, she was only 14 when she became a member of the local council of the Independent Order of St. Luke, an African American mutual aid society that provided sick benefits, burial funds, and financial support for widows and orphans.

Over the years, she held various positions in the organization before taking charge of it in 1899. As the leader of the order, Walker focused its mission on improving the lives of African Americans and helping them work toward economic self-sufficiency.

In 1902, she created a printing department and a newspaper, The St. Luke Herald. The next year, she chartered the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank and then opened a store run by African Americans.

She was an advocate for the rights of Black people, particularly women, and served on the board of the National Association of Colored Women. She also was a board member for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

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Goaded on by her brother, who challenged what African American women could do, Bessie Coleman, became the first Black-Native American woman in the country awarded a pilot’s license.

Her brother had served in the military during World War I and came back from Europe with stories about capable French women flying airplanes.

Coleman, then a manicurist in Chicago, longed for such adventure. 

When she couldn’t find an American pilot to teach her, Coleman studied French, saved her money, solicited donors, and went to France. In 1921, after seven months of flight school there, she received an international pilot’s license. A year later, she was performing aeronautical stunts around the country.

Coleman quickly became famous. Her daredevil maneuvers and flamboyant style earned her the nicknames “Brave Bessie” and “Queen Bess.”

She used that celebrity to challenge segregation, in one case refusing to take part in a show in Texas unless both Black and white spectators were allowed to enter through the same gate.

Coleman died in Jacksonville, Florida, at the age of 34, during a test flight. The plane, piloted by someone else, flipped, and she fell to the ground below before it crashed.

Her body lay in state in Florida and Chicago, with roughly 10,000 people paying their respects. In 2006, she was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame.

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Constance Baker Motley, a trial lawyer for the NAACP, played a crucial role in the fight to end segregation. In a distinguished career, she notched a number of “firsts.”

She was the first Black woman to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court. But it was hardly a one-off. In all, she won nine out of the 10 civil rights cases she brought before Supreme Court justices during her time working for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Motley grew up not far from Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. It wasn’t until she set off for Fisk University in Nashville that she encountered Jim Crow laws. After a little more than a year down South, she transferred to New York University to earn her undergraduate degree.

In 1946, she became the second Black woman to receive a law degree from Columbia University. (Elreta Alexander was the first, in 1945.) Motley would go on to become the first African American woman elected to the New York State Senate in 1964, the first woman of any race elected as a New York borough president in 1965, and the first Black woman appointed to a federal judgeship in 1966.

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