Women in History
National History Day is proud to present Herstory: Women in American History, a publication from National History Day®, sponsored by HISTORY® as part of its History/Herstory campaign. This resource encourages teachers to integrate the story of women into American history. With the one hundredth anniversary of suffrage, it is tempting to see the story of American women as the fight to achieve the vote, but this work includes the stories of women from colonial America through recent history.
The resource contains 20 bell-ringer activities – short activities, based on primary sources that can be incorporated into American history and civics classrooms.
Women were more than a part of American history – their story is American history.
The women selected for this resource represent a range of accomplishments and diverse backgrounds. We hope these activities can be easily integrated into classrooms and will provide an inspiration for students to pursue NHD projects pertaining to women’s history.
The free PDF of the resource is available now.
Download the book as a PDF.
Marian Anderson (1897-1993) discovered the power of her voice at a young age. The Philadelphia native possessed a unique contralto range that helped her become an internationally acclaimed talent. Despite being denied entry into several conservatories because of her race, Anderson’s private training with top vocal instructors led her to performances from New York’s Carnegie Hall to Paris. She entertained several European monarchs and was the first African American to sing at the White House when she accepted an invitation from Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt in 1936. Throughout her career she dealt with segregation in America, and in 1939 the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow her to perform at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. A national backlash to this decision, spearheaded by Eleanor Roosevelt’s resignation from the DAR in protest, led to Anderson singing for 75,000 people on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday 1939. After this key moment for civil rights, she continued her groundbreaking career, along the way becoming the first African American to perform at the New York Metropolitan Opera in 1955. In 1963, she sang at the March on Washington and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Fun Fact: No color photographs exist from the Easter Sunday concert. However, Marian Anderson wore a stunning orange jacket. That jacket is now in the Smithsonian Institution’s collection. Read more about it here.
Clara Barton (1821-1912) grew up in North Oxford, Massachusetts. She began her career as a teacher at age 15. She moved to Washington, D.C. to work as a clerk at the U.S. Patent Office. As the Civil War broke out, she collected supplies for soldiers. In 1862, the U.S. Army granted her permission to bring food and medical supplies to field hospitals on the front without government support, earning her the nickname, “Angel of the Battlefield.” In 1864, General Benjamin Butler appointed her superintendent of the nurses. Following the war, she established the Bureau of Records of Missing Men of the Armies of the United States, locating over 22,000 missing men and reuniting them with families. In 1869 she traveled to Geneva, Switzerland as member of the the International Committee of the Red Cross. She returned to the United States and founded the American Red Cross in 1881. She remained president of the organization until 1904.
Fun Fact: The original intent of the Red Cross was to serve as a neutral aid provider during armed conflicts. However, Clara Barton believed the American Red Cross should also provide aid to natural disaster victims. In 1884, at the Third International Red Cross Conference, the Geneva Treaty was amended to allow the Red Cross to provide aid to natural disaster victims. This amendment was became known as the “American Amendment.” Learn more about the Geneva Treaty and Clara Barton’s role here.
Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955) was born in South Carolina to parents who were former slaves. From childhood Bethune realized that education held the key for African American advancement. In 1904, she founded the Daytona Literary and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls. Her school grew rapidly, and in the 1920s merged with the all-male Cookman Institute; Mary McLeod Bethune served as the first president of the new Bethune-Cookman College. Bethune worked tirelessly for civil rights, women’s rights, and social justice. She served on commissions under Presidents Coolidge and Hoover, and in 1936 Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed her the Director of the Division of Negro Affairs, part of the National Youth Administration, a New Deal program designed to help young people find jobs. Bethune became the first African American woman to serve as head of a federal agency and used her position to persistently lobby for African American issues. She founded the National Council for Negro Women in 1935, co-founded the United Negro College Fund in 1944, and attended the founding conference of the United Nations in 1949. Before her death in 1955, Bethune wrote a last will and testament that expressed her hope for a “world of Peace, Progress, Brotherhood, and Love.”
Fun Fact: Mary McLeod Bethune started the Daytona Literary and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls in 1904 with $1.50 and five students. She made all the desks herself and students used elderberry juice as ink. This little school grew to become what is now Bethune-Cookman University. To learn more, check out this video.
Shirley Chisholm (1924-2005) was born in New York City to immigrant parents. After high school, Chisholm attended Brooklyn College and began a career in education after graduation. After finishing her masters in early childhood education in 1952, she worked for the New York City Division of Day Care before being elected to the New York State Legislature in 1964. After a court-ordered redistricting changed the congressional boundaries in Brooklyn, Chisholm ran for the new seat and was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1968. She was the first African American Congresswoman. While in Congress Chisholm protested against the Vietnam War and advocated for programs to help the poor, women, children and minorities, causes that she would fight for throughout her seven terms in the House. In 1971 Chisholm became a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus. In 1972, she declared her candidacy for the Democratic nomination for presidency. Although she received assassination threats and ran a small campaign, Chisholm received 152 delegate votes (10% of the total) but ultimately lost to George McGovern. In 1977 Chisholm helped establish the Congressional Women’s Caucus. After leaving Congress in 1983, Chisholm taught at Mount Holyoke and was nominated to serve as the ambassador to Jamaica by President William J. Clinton, although she declined due to poor health. Chisholm died in 2005 in Florida and was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2015.
Fun Fact: After her election to Congress in 1968, Representative Chisholm worked as a census worker in her Brooklyn neighborhood in 1970. Learn more about Representative Chisholm during the 1970s census here.
Dorothea Lynde Dix (1802-1887) was born in Hampden, Maine, to a poor family. At age 12 she went to live with her grandmother in Boston. When she was only 14, Dix founded a school in Worcester, Massachusetts. After a 20-year career as a teacher and writer, in 1841 Dix visited a jail in East Cambridge, Massachusetts, and was appalled by the conditions. Many of the prisoners were mentally ill, and they were treated terribly by being ill-fed and abused. Dix took it upon herself to report these condition to the Massachusetts Legislature in 1843, documenting the poor conditions faced by hundreds of mentally ill men and women. Her action led to the successful passage of a bill to reform the way the state treated prisoners and people with mental illness. Dix canvassed the country working for prison reform and improved conditions for the mentally ill. Eventually her crusade became international. She even lobbied the pope in person about conditions in Italy. During the Civil War Dix served without pay as superintendent of nurses for the Union Army in the U.S. Sanitary Commission. She died on July 17, 1887, in a Trenton, New Jersey, hospital that she had founded.
Fun Fact: The Bangor Mental Health Institute was renamed the Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center in her honor in 2005. Dix grew up nearby in Hampden, Maine. In 1843, there were 13 mental hospitals in the country; by 1880 there were 123, and Dorothea Dix played a direct role in founding 32 of them. Learn more here and here.
Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-1977) was born Fannie Lou Townsend on October 6, 1917, in Montgomery County, Mississippi. She later moved to Sunflower County where she began sharecropping at the age of six. She married Perry Hammer in 1944 and moved to a plantation in Ruleville, Mississippi. Due to her eighth grade education, she was asked by the plantation owner to serve as the timekeeper, which she did for 18 years. Hamer traveled, unsuccessfully, to Indianola to attempt to vote in 1962. Upon returning to the plantation, she lost her job, forcing her family to find somewhere else to live and work. In 1963, Hamer was named field secretary of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). That fall, while traveling back from a training session, she was arrested and brutally beaten in jail. Through her tireless efforts, Hamer was appointed vice-chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). The following year, the 1965 Voting Rights Act was passed. This pivotal legislation would not have been possible were it not for the efforts of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.
Fun Fact: El-Hajj Malik El Shabazz (Malcolm X) introduced Fannie Lou Hamer at the Williams Institutional CME Church in Harlem, New York on December 20, 1964. Even though Fannie Lou Hamer was part of SNCC, which is often associated with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., she was motivated to hear multiple perspectives to solving the problem of racial injustice in the United States. You can find audio of Malcolm X’s speech in the audio book Malcolm X Speaks, edited by George Breiman. Read Fannie Lou Hamer's speech here.
Dolores Huerta (born 1930) began her career as a community organizer while attending the University of Pacific’s Delta College in Stockton, California, where she served in a leadership position for the Stockton Community Service Organization (CSO). In 1959, Huerta co-founded the Agricultural Workers Association (AWA), comprised mostly of Filipino, Chicano, and Black workers. This group became instrumental during the 1965 grape strike in California. One year later, Huerta and César Chávez joined forces to organize the United Farm Workers (UFW). This group secured the Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975, which provided farm workers in California the right to collectively organize and bargain for better working conditions and higher wages. Huerta continued her work as the founder and president of the Dolores Huerta Foundation fighting for issues gender equality and social justice. In 2012, President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States.
Fun Fact: Before Barack Obama’s 2008 “Yes We Can” slogan, Huerta originated the United Farm Workers’ rallying cry of “Si se puede” in 1972. The union later trademarked the phrase. Learn more about the rise of the United Farm Workers union here.
Anne Marbury Hutchinson (1951-1643) was a Puritan immigrant to the Massachusetts Bay Colony from England. Her family, including her husband and 11 children, left their home in 1634 in support of their minister, John Cotton, who had assumed a position in the Church of Boston. Upon arriving, Hutchinson quickly gained a reputation as a “a woman of haughty and fierce carriage, of a nimble wit and active spirit, and a very voluble tongue, more bold than a man.” In the next three years, Hutchinson challenged two Puritan precepts. First, she was concerned with local ministers’ emphasis on a “covenant of works” opposed to a “covenant of grace” in their sermons. Secondly, she challenged the Puritan mores for women in attracting both men and women to her local religious gatherings in which she was critical of these ministers. By 1637, the Antinomian Controversy, sometimes referred to the Free Grace Controversy, erupted. Hutchinson was tried in civil and religious courts, banished from Boston, and excommunicated from the Puritan church. She relocated her family to Portsmouth (modern-day Rhode Island). In 1643, her family was massacred in an attack by the Siwanoy natives in New Netherland.
Fun Fact: The bronze statue of Anne Hutchinson located at the Massachusetts State House in Boston was commissioned in 1920 by women’s groups energized by the Nineteenth Amendment. It was not officially dedicated until 2005 on Boston’s 375th anniversary. Learn more here.
Juliette Gordon Low (1860-1927) was nicknamed “Daisy” as an infant and the moniker stuck; her friends and family used it her whole life. Low’s childhood was marred by the outbreak of the Civil War; her mother’s family fought for the Union while her father served as a Confederate soldier. She enjoyed adventures in the Georgia countryside and her love of nature, wildlife, and sports shaped the organization she founded. A series of childhood ear infections and a botched operation left her with significant hearing loss. She married William Low in 1886 and set up homes in Georgia and England. Searching for purpose after her husband’s 1905 death, a chance 1911 meeting with Sir Robert Baden-Powell in London changed her life. Baden-Powell, the founder of Boy Scouts, recommended that Low become involved with the Girl Guides, the female equivalent of his organization. After working with female troops in England and Scotland, Low returned to Georgia to replicate the organization in America. On March 12, 1912, Low hosted the inaugural meeting of Girl Scouts of the USA. Low spent the rest of her life leading the organization, stressing leadership, community involvement, and outdoor activities. The Girl Scouts thrive today, boasting 2.6 million participants in 92 countries and an alumnae network of over 50 million women.
Fun Fact: Juliette Gordon Low has received numerous posthumous honors including the commissioning of a World War II Liberty Ship in her name in 1944 and the release of a three cent stamp with her likeness by the U.S. Postal Service in 1948. President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012. Find a complete list of her honors here.
Patsy Takemoto Mink (1927-2002) was born in Hawaii. She studied in Pennsylvania and Nebraska before moving back to Hawaii to earn her undergraduate degree and eventually received her J.D. from the University of Chicago in 1951. She moved back to Hawaii with her husband, John Francis Mink, and founded the Oahu Young Democrats in 1954. In the 1950s, Mink served as both a member of the territorial house of representatives and Hawaii Senate. After Hawaii achieved statehood in 1959, Mink unsuccessfully ran for the U.S. House of Representatives. Mink campaigned for the second representative seat in 1964 and won, making her the first woman of color and first Asian American woman to be elected to Congress. Mink is best known for her support of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society legislation, as well as her advocacy for women’s issues and equal rights. Mink worked tirelessly to earn support for the critical Title IX Amendment from her comprehensive education bill called Women’s Education Equity Act. Mink took a break from Congress after an unsuccessful bid for the Senate, but returned to Congress in 1990 and served until her death in September 2002.
Fun Fact: Patsy Mink received the highest civilian honor in 2014, the Medal of Freedom, 12 years after her death. Learn more here.
Annie Oakley (1860-1926) was born Phoebe Ann Moses in Ohio. After her father died, Annie was sent to work for a family as their servant but was treated cruelly and ran away. She reunited with her mother and soon became the breadwinner of the family by shooting game and selling it to the grocery store. Annie paid off her mother’s mortgage and began entering shooting contests. At age 15, she defeated marksman Frank Butler in a contest. Butler made a living performing in a circus and convinced Oakley to join him. The two married one year later and Annie gained fame on the vaudeville circuit. In 1885, she joined “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s Wild West Show and performed with them for the next 17 years. In her act, she shot playing cards from thirty paces, corks off bottles, dimes thrown into the air, and she even shot cigarettes out of her husband’s mouth. On a European tour, she performed for Queen Victoria and Crown Prince Wilhelm. A train accident in 1901 left Oakley partially paralyzed but she returned to the show circuit after she recovered. Annie retired in 1913 and died on November 3, 1926. Her husband of 50 years died 18 days later.
Fun Fact: In 1903, William Randolph Hearst’s newspaper in Chicago ran a story claiming Annie Oakley had been arrested for stealing in order to pay for her drug addiction. It turns out it was a woman impersonating Oakley but the story had already been published by over 50 newspapers across the country. Oakley spent six years bringing libel suits against the papers who ran the story, winning or settling 54, including one against Hearst. Learn more here.
Alice Paul (1885-1977) was raised by Quaker parents in New Jersey. Following her 1905 graduation from Swarthmore College, she traveled to England and engaged with a group of military suffragists led by Emmeline Pankhurst. Paul joined their group, was arrested several times and participated in hunger strikes in prison. She returned to study at the University of Pennsylvania (where she eventually earned a Ph.D.) and joined the National American Women’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Along with Lucy Burns, she organized the 1913 Women’s Suffrage March that preceded President Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration. Later she broke ties with NAWSA and formed the National Woman’s Party (NWP) in 1916. She and other suffragettes continued to be arrested and engage in hunger strikes. In 1919, the Nineteenth Amendment was passed by the U.S. Congress with the support of President Wilson. It became law on August 18, 1920, when ratified by the state of Tennessee. She spent the remainder of her life working for the Equal Rights Amendment, often called the Alice Paul Amendment.
Fun Fact: In celebration of the one hundredth anniversary of women’s suffrage, Alice Paul and other suffragist leaders will be featured on the new $10 bills that will be issued by the U.S. Treasury Department in 2020. Learn more about this and other women featured on currency here.
Frances Perkins (1880-1965) was born in Boston and graduated from Mount Holyoke College. After graduation, Perkins accepted a teaching job in Lake Forest, Illinois. While in Chicago, Perkins worked at Chicago Commons and Hull House, two of the oldest settlement houses in the country. Working with the poor and unemployed convinced Perkins that she had found her vocation. In 1907, Perkins accepted a position with the Philadelphia Research and Protective Association where she worked to protect newly arriving immigrant girls, as well as black women from the South, from entering prostitution. She enrolled at Columbia University in 1909 as a Master’s Degree candidate in sociology and economics. In 1910, she worked directly with reformer Florence Kelley, who founded the National Consumers League, focusing on sanitary conditions of bakeries, child-labor laws, and fire protection in factories. Late she worked in New York government positions for Al Smith, the first woman to be appointed to an administrative position in New York, and for Franklin D. Roosevelt as New York’s state industrialist commissioner. In 1932, as the newly elected president, Roosevelt asked Perkins to serve in his cabinet as Secretary of Labor, making her the first woman to serve in a presidential cabinet. Perkins was a forceful advocate in New Deal legislation, promoting public works programs, Social Security, and the Fair Labor Standards Act. Later, Perkins served on the United States Civil Service Commission. She finished out her career writing and teaching at Cornell University.
Fun Fact: When Baron von Trapp, a heroic Austrian navy captain and father to the von Trapp family singers, refused to join the naval forces of the Third Reich, the family found themselves in danger. While entering the United States at Ellis Island in 1939, the immigration authorities detained the family. Gertrude Ely, a von Trapp family friend, sent a letter to her friend Frances Perkins on behalf of the family. In three short days, Perkins signed the pertinent documents to release the family for safe passage. The family’s story is depicted in the musical, The Sound of Music. Learn more here.
Jeannette Rankin (1880-1973) was born and raised in Montana. While studying social work at the University of Washington, she joined the woman suffrage movement. Soon after, she became a field secretary for the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). She traveled across the United States, advocating for suffrage. In 1916, she was elected as the first woman in the U.S. House of Representatives. Just three days after being sworn in, she cast one of two votes that would define public memory of her service - a vote against the American declaration of war on Germany in World War I. Rankin introduced a voting rights amendment that passed the House in 1918, and was the only woman in Congress to cast a vote for woman suffrage. She unsuccessfully ran for U.S. Senate in 1918, and spent the next two decades advocating for peace and social welfare. In 1940, she was again elected to the House, and in 1941, cast the only vote against the declaration of war on Japan. She left Congress in 1942, and remained active in anti-war movements and the philosophy of nonviolent protest for the rest of her life. She died in California in 1973.
Fun Fact: Jeanette Rankin is the only person to have voted against both world wars in Congress. At age 89, she led a Vietnam War protest march in Washington, D.C. Learn more here.
Sally Ride (1951-2012) was born and raised in Los Angeles, California. She attended Stanford University, double majoring in physics and English literature. She earned a Master of Science and Doctorate in Physics, and was selected into the astronaut program in 1978. In 1983, she became the first American woman to fly on a space shuttle crew. She flew on the space shuttle Challenger (mission STS-7 in 1983 and STS-41G in 1984). A third mission was cancelled after the January 28, 1986 Challenger explosion. Ride served on the Presidential Commission (known as the Rogers Commission), which investigated the accident. In 1989, Dr. Ride began teaching physics at University of California San Diego and served as the Director of the California Space Institute. She founded Sally Ride Science in 2001 to support girls in STEM studies and careers; the organization targets elementary and middle school students, parents, and teachers. Ride also wrote science-themed children’s books. An inductee to the National Women’s Hall of Fame and the Astronaut Hall of Fame, Sally Ride died July 23, 2012 of pancreatic cancer.
Fun Fact: Sally Ride founded Sally Ride Science, an organization dedicated to the education of girls in science, technology, engineering, and math, in 2001. Re-launched in 2015 at the University of California San Diego, the organization promotes STEM subject for girls, one of many legacies of Dr. Sally Ride. Learn more here.
Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) was born in Litchfield, Connecticut, the daughter of Lyman and Roxanna Beecher. Harriet grew up in a household that held equality and service to others in the highest regard. Her father and all seven of her brothers became ministers, while her sisters, Catherine and Isabella, were champions of women’s education and suffrage. Harriet received a formal education at Sarah Pierce’s Academy, one of the first institutions focused on educating young women. There she discovered her talent for writing. Harriet became a teacher and author, proving to be an outspoken woman in a time when female voices often went unheard. Following in her family’s tradition of service, she became a passionate abolitionist. She published more than thirty works in her lifetime, the most famous of which was Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a novel that exposed the evils of slavery. Through her writings and speaking engagements, Harriet Beecher Stowe effectively helped to open the eyes of the world to the urgent problem of slavery in the United States.
Fun Fact: Stowe wrote several early abolitionist articles for the anti-slavery paper The National Era. Following the popularity of her article “The Freeman’s Dream: A Parable,” the editor of the paper sent her $100 and encouraged her to write more pieces for his publication. Around the same time Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Stowe, seeking to write more for The National Era, found fuel in the heated sectional debate that ultimately led to her writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Learn more here.
Maria Tallchief (1925-2013) was born Elizabeth Marie Tall Chief in Fairfax, Oklahoma. Tallchief’s dance career began at age three in Oklahoma and continued when her mother decided to move the family to Los Angeles to pursue careers in Hollywood. Studying under Ernest Belcher and then Madame Bronislava Nijinska, Tallchief performed her first solo at the Hollywood Bowl when she was 15 years old. After graduating from Beverly Hills High School, Tallchief moved to New York City and joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Despite her obvious talent Tallchief was initially treated poorly by Russian members of the company, and it was suggested that she change her name to Tallchieva to sound more European. Proud of her heritage, Tallchief refused, though she did officially shorten it to one word. In 1948 Tallchief became the first major American prima ballerina, dancing for New York City Ballet under the direction of George Balanchine. Keeping her title for 13 years, Tallchief danced lead roles in Firebird, Orpheus, The Nutcracker, and Swan Lake, among others. After retiring from dance in 1965, Tallchief became an instructor, and founded the Chicago City Ballet in 1981.
Fun Fact: Tallchief was a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors in 1996 for her contributions to the arts. Watch a sample of her dancing the lead in Firebird.
Sojourner Truth (Isabella Van Wagenen) (1797-1883) was born into slavery in New York. Truth escaped slavery in 1826 and moved to New York City until 1843 when she adopted the name “Sojourner Truth” in anticipation of her new career: traveling to preach what she saw as God’s truth about women’s status and about slavery. Although illiterate and uneducated, Truth was a skilled public speaker and best known for her impromptu speeches delivered on the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, and other social issues of the day. Resourceful and devoted to her cause, Truth supported herself through sales of her dictated 1850 biography, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, A Northern Slave, as well as portraits of herself known as carte de vistas, which resemble modern baseball cards. Just one year after her biography was published, Truth delivered her most well-known speech, “Ain’t I A Woman,” to a Women’s Rights Convention in Ohio, arguing against the injustice of the overlooked subordinate status of women in American life. During the Civil War, Truth collected food and supplies for U.S. Colored Troop Regiments and continued to fight for racial equality during Reconstruction when she fought for freedmen’s rights. During this time, she never stopped advocating for women’s equality.
Fun Fact: Truth’s “Ain’t I A Woman?” speech was delivered off-the-cuff and thus was only recorded in newspapers of the time. To promote Truth’s status as a former slave, Frances Dana Gage rewrote and published the speech in the style of someone with a southern dialect from that period. Read Gage's 1863 version of the speech here.
Mercy Otis Warren (1728-1814) was a highly educated woman for her time, studying alongside her brother as he prepared to attend Harvard. although she received no formal training. Living in Massachusetts during the Revolutionary period, the family regularly discussed politics, and she slowly became impassioned by the patriot cause. Her first notable work was a poem about the Boston Tea Party. Her male relatives encouraged her literary pursuits, and she was known for comedic plays that mocked Loyalists. Her intellectual prowess earned her the respect of many founding fathers, who hoped her writing would propagate the patriot cause. Warren felt torn between her passions and what society considered proper for a lady. In many ways she conformed to the gender roles of her time, although she advocated for formal education of women. She was portrayed in paintings as highly feminine. Throughout the war, she managed her family's affairs and followed her husband’s militia, while developing deep friendships with both Abigail Adams and Martha Washington. After the war, she wrote a controversial, three volume, History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution.
Fun Fact: Mercy Otis Warren lived most of her life in Plymouth, Massachusetts. She lived in the Winslow Warren House on the corner of North and Main Streets and is buried in the Burial Hill Cemetery. Learn more about these sites from the Massachusetts Historical Society here.
Ida B. Wells (1862-1931) was born to slave parents in Holly Springs, Mississippi, on July 16, 1862, two months before President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. As a young girl, Wells watched her parents work as political activists during Reconstruction. In 1878, tragedy struck as Wells lost both of her parents and a younger brother in a yellow fever epidemic. To support her younger siblings, Wells became a teacher, eventually moving to Memphis, Tennessee. In 1884, Wells found herself in the middle of a heated lawsuit. After purchasing a first-class train ticket, Wells was ordered to move to a segregated car. She refused to give up her seat and was forcibly removed from the train. Wells filed suit against the railroad and won. This victory was short lived, however, as the Tennessee Supreme Court overturned the lower court ruling in 1887. In 1892, Wells became editor and co-owner of The Memphis Free Speech and Headlight. Here, she used her skills as a journalist to champion the causes for African American and women’s rights. Among her most known works were those on behalf of anti-lynching legislation. Until her death in 1931, Ida B. Wells dedicated her life to what she referred to as a “crusade for justice.”
Fun Fact: Ida B. Wells was one of the founders of the NAACP, although she later left the group because she grew skeptical of the white leadership’s ability to enact change. Learn more about her life here.