I’m a woman
The beauty and power of womanhood is that while it is uniquely ubiquitous, it is somehow still indescribable. Strong, kind, unapologetic, brilliant, brave, relentless – being a woman is a vast, colorful, multi-faceted experience that truly knows no bounds. This Women's History Month, and every day, we are celebrating all women and highlighting diverse changemakers from the great state of Maryland. Here are 22 of those phenomenal women.
- Pauline Woo Tsui (1920–2018)
Anti-discrimination activist Pauline Woo Tsui was born in Nanjing, China on October 2, 1920, during a time when women were considered second-class citizens. World War II forced Tsui to flee her home to escape Japanese occupation which led her to secure passage on a boat sailing from China to the United States. In 1992, she moved to Montgomery County, Maryland. Throughout her career, Tsui was a driving force for the equal treatment of women. She served as manager of the Federal Women’s Program, where she advocated for the rights of 700 women employees. She was co-founder of the Organization of Chinese American Woman, was named to the Advisory Board of the State Department for International Women’s Year, and was considered a pioneer of Chinese women’s rights in the United States.
- Sol del Ande Mendez Eaton (1932–2020)
Sol del Ande Mendez Eaton was perhaps as inspiring athletically as she was with overcoming adversity. Born June 14, 1932, in San Cristobal, Venezuela, Eaton was an all-star professional diver and basketball player. In 1952, she was selected to represent Venezuela in the Olympics in diving, but was unable to compete due to a training incident that resulted in her becoming blind. Eventually, she regained her eyesight after a severe health battle. Eaton spent her adult life in Lanham, Maryland, and held a B.S. in Chemistry from New Mexico State University. She served as a chemist at The National Cancer Institute and as an equal employment officer at other agencies. She also served on and chaired countless Prince George’s County and state-wide commissions that fought for civil rights and migrant workers, against housing and employment discrimination, and she was a leader of the Latinx community.
- Pauli Murray (1910–1985)
Born on November 20, 1910, in Baltimore, Anna Pauline Murray was a civil rights activist, women’s rights activist, author, Episcopal priest, and lawyer. It is important to note that Murray did not conform to society’s gender norms and is highly regarded among LGBTQ+ people. Murray was the first African American woman ordained as an Episcopal priest. Murray holds several degrees, including one from Howard University, graduating top of the class, and was also the first African American to receive a doctorate of judicial science degree from Yale Law School. In 1965, Murray served on the board of directors of the national ACLU and played a key role in turning the organization’s attention to gender inequality and made it a priority. In addition, Murray served on the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women, coauthored a brief with Ruth Bader Ginsburg for the Reed v. Reed case, and wrote the book, States’ Laws on Race and Color, which was called the “bible” of the Civil Rights Movement by Thurgood Marshall.
Carmen Delgado Votaw (1935–2017)
Civil rights pioneer, author, community leader, and public servant are a few of the many hats worn by Carmen Delgado Votaw. Born September 18, 1935, in Humacao, Puerto Rico, Votaw was a fierce defender of civil rights for Latinx people. She was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to co-chair the National Advisory Committee for Women and served as the president of the Interamerican Commission of Women of the Organization of American States. Throughout her career, she traveled to over 80 countries and met with more than 50 heads of state. As the first Latina chief of staff to a member of Congress, she worked to address challenges facing 3.5 million Puerto Ricans living on the island. A resident of Bethesda, Maryland, she was a recipient of the National Hispanic Heritage Award and the National Women’s History Project for Distinguished Lifetime Achievement.
Prasanna Nair (1913–2014)
Prasanna Nair was born in India in 1913 and completed her medical training at Lady Hardinge Medical College in Delhi. In 1960, she moved to Maryland where she began her medical residency in pediatrics at the University of Maryland Medical Center. Much of Nair’s medical contributions came from her work with infants and mothers with HIV/AIDS or those dealing with substance abuse. In 1970, Nair founded the Special Parent Infant Care and Enrichment (SPICE) clinic. The SPICE clinic cares for infants of mothers with HIV the University of Maryland and those with drug dependencies to treatment programs. This project not only serves children from families with low income, but also provides very important research and experience to the field of pediatric medicine. She also co-founded the Following Urban Teens: Unique and Resilient at Every Step (FUTURES) project which is currently assessing the effects of early childhood experiences such as substance exposure, environmental adversity, placement stability, and other factors related to resilience on adolescent development. December 6 has been designated as Prasanna Nair Day in Baltimore.
Harriet Tubman (1822–1913)
Often referred to as “Moses,” the heroine Harriet Tubman was born in March of 1822 in Dorchester County, Maryland. Best known as a conductor of the Underground Railroad, Tubman was an abolitionist, political activist, and war veteran who went on thirteen missions to rescue seventy people who were enslaved. Among her many accomplishments, Tubman served as a scout, nurse, and spy for the Union Army, and she is one of the most recognized icons of freedom and courage in American history. A 125-mile self-guided driving tour called the Harriet Tubman Underground Railway Byway is available to the public to view over 30 essential sites of the Underground Railroad including The Tubman Museum & Educational Center, home of the iconic Harriet Tubman mural.
Sharon Brackett (1962–2021)
Businesswoman and transgender rights advocate, Sharon Brackett was a game-changer for Maryland. Born in Batavia, New York in 1962, Brackett received her engineering degree from Syracuse University. She eventually moved to Locust Point, a neighborhood in Baltimore where she continued her trans and LBGTQ+ activism. Brackett and other advocates pushed Howard County to take up a bill that added gender identity and expression to its anti-discrimination laws. In 2015, the Howard County Economic Development Authority named her as CEO and president of Tiresias Technologies, as engineer-in-residence at the 3D Maryland Innovation + Prototyping Lab, in Columbia. In 2018, she became the first trans woman to be elected to a public office in the State of Maryland, to her District’s Democratic Central Committee.
Fannie W. Birckhead (1935–2022)
A lifelong resident of Snow Hill, Maryland, Fannie W. Birckhead, born on February 28, 1935, was an enthusiastic volunteer and civic and community organizer for a wide variety of local groups. She was one of the Black residents who brought a federal lawsuit, with support from the ACLU, challenging the all-white Worcester County Commission. Despite the County's years-long fight to suppress the rights of Black voters, through perseverance the plaintiffs won their case, resulting in the historic election of the first Black County Commissioner. In 1998, she served as interim mayor for Snow Hill, making her the first Black woman mayor anywhere on the Eastern Shore. Ms. Birckhead also became Judge Birckhead, winning the election as the County's first Black Orphan's Court Judge, and the first Black person in the County's history to win election to office county-wide. Birckhead was a true hometown hero.
Verda Mae Freeman Welcome (1907–1990)
Born on March 18, 1907, in Lake Lure, North Carolina, Verda Mae Freeman Welcome was the second Black woman to be elected to a state senate in the United States. Welcome was a community activist, politician, civil rights advocate, and educator who taught in Baltimore City Public Schools for eleven years. In 1959, she was the first Black woman elected to the Maryland House of Delegates. Welcome was awarded honorary degrees from Howard University and the University of Maryland.
Rachel Louise Carson (1907–1964)
Rachel Carson is considered by many to be among the most prolific writers of the Twentieth Century. Born May 27, 1907, in Springdale, Pennsylvania, she began her career as a marine biologist with the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries before becoming a full-time writer in the 1950s and moving to Silver Spring, Maryland. Carson wrote 24 books, with her most popular being Silent Spring. Published in 1962, the book was extremely controversial, as Carson warned against the indiscriminate use of chemicals upsetting the balance of nature. Even though Silent Spring was strongly opposed by chemical companies and conservationists, it inspired a grassroots environmental movement that led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. She was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Jimmy Carter.
Gloria Richardson Dandridge (1922–2021)
Born on May 6, 1922, in Baltimore, Gloria Richardson Dandridge (previously Gloria St. Clair Hayes) is best known as the leader of the Cambridge movement. Along with the Cambridge Nonviolent Action Committee, the movement was a saga of protests, civil rights demonstrations, and struggles on Maryland’s Eastern Shore that led to the desegregation of all schools, recreational areas, and hospitals in the state. The movement was the longest period of martial law in the United States since 1877. Richardson was also one of the signatories to the “Treaty of Cambridge” signed in July 1963 with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.
Billie Holiday (1915–1959)
One of the most significant jazz musicians of all time, Billie Holiday (born Eleanora Fagan) was born on April 7, 1915. There has been great speculation that Holiday was actually born in Baltimore, but it is widely accepted that her mother, Sadie Fagan, left home in Baltimore to have the birth in Philadelphia and returned shortly after. The Nicknamed ‘Lady Day’ Holiday began singing at nightclubs in Harlem before eventually selling out concerts at Carnegie Hall. Holiday made several albums and hit songs including “What a Little Moonlight Can Do”, “Miss Brown to You”, and the haunting “Strange Fruit” which protested the lynching of Black Americans and became anthemic of the Civil Rights Movement. Holiday won four Grammy Awards, was inducted into the National Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and there is a monument in her honor on Pennsylvania Avenue in Baltimore.
Enolia Pettigen McMillan (1904–2006)
Born on October 20, 1904, in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, Enolia McMillian was an established educator, community leader, and civil rights activist. McMillian holds the distinguished honor of being the first female president of the NAACP. She received a master’s degree from Columbia University and authored the thesis, Some Factors Affecting Secondary Education for Negroes in Maryland Counties, which challenged Maryland’s racist school system. In 1990 she was inducted into the Maryland Women's Hall of Fame.
Bessie Louise Moses (1893–1965)
Bessie Louise Moses was a pioneer in the birth control movement. Born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1893, Moses was a Johns Hopkins University obstetrician and gynecologist. Moses organized the first contraceptive clinic in Maryland in 1927, called the Planned Parenthood Clinic where she served as medical director in Baltimore. Moses fought to expand contraceptive services to additional communities and lobbied for the inclusion of contraceptive instruction in medical school curriculum. She was integral in the struggle for legislative reform of the prohibition on sending contraceptive information and materials through the mail. In 1950, Moses was honored with the Lasker Foundation Award for her contributions to legitimizing birth control through public health.
Lillie May Carroll Jackson (1889–1975)
Affectionately known as “Dr. Lillie,” “Ma Jackson,” and the “mother of the civil rights movement,” Lillie May Carroll Jackson was born on May 25, 1889, in Baltimore. As an educator, organizer of the Baltimore branch of the NAACP, and pioneering civil rights activist, Jackson was a powerhouse for Maryland and instrumental in the integration of Baltimore schools after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision. She set in motion the tactic of non-violent resistance to racial segregation used by Martin Luther King, Jr., and others.
Etta Haynie Maddox (1860–1933)
Born January 6, 1860, in Baltimore, Maryland, Henrietta (Etta) Haynie Maddox was a vocalist, lawyer, and suffragist. While she is known for much of her services, she is perhaps most well known as the first woman in Maryland licensed to practice law. That happened in 1902, even though as a woman she was not permitted to take the bar exam or practice law according to Maryland statutes a year prior. Before that, she traveled across the country as a vocalist and became involved in the suffrage movement, and was encourage by colleagues to apply to law school. She was the first woman to attend Baltimore Law School as well as the only woman in her class. Maddox also fought for the rights of other women to take the bar exam and practice law. She wrote the first Maryland suffrage bill introduced to the General Assembly in 1910.
Hiltgunt Margret Zassenhaus (1916–2004)
Hiltgunt Marget Zassenhaus is best known for her work against the Nazis before and during World War II. Zassenhaus was born July 10, 1916, in Hamburg, Germany. Her first act of defiance occurred as a schoolgirl when she refused to salute Hitler and opted to break a classroom window instead. This defiance continued with her work as a philologist, interpreter, and later physician, providing support and aid to people who were in prisons. Instead of abiding by German prison rules, she smuggled in food, medicine, and writing materials for those captured. After the war, she immigrated to Baltimore, where she served an internship and residency at City Hospital before opening a medical office in 1954. Zassenhaus won a Red Cross Medal in 1948 and was a 1974 nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Augusta Theodosia Lewis Chissell (1880–1973)
Augusta Theodosia Lewis Chissell was born in Baltimore around the year 1880. She lived in a three-story brick row home on Druid Hill Avenue. Her activism began with neighbor and future collaborator Margaret Gregory Hawkins when the two formed the DuBois Circle, an African American women’s club that started with a focus on literature and arts but then expanded to political and civic activities. Chissell dedicated her time to improving the lives of women and Black people in Baltimore. She served as the secretary of the Colored Women’s Suffrage Club, a columnist for the Baltimore Afro-American, and one of the founding members of the Baltimore branch of the NAACP.
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825–1911)
Born in Baltimore on September 24, 1825, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was among the first African American women published in the United States. She held various roles in her life including as an abolitionist, suffragist, public speaker, educator, political activist, and poet. By the age of 21, she wrote her first poetry book, Forest Leaves, and by age 67 she had written several collections that would have great commercial success, including Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects, Two Offers, and Iola Leroy, which placed her among the first Black women to publish a novel in America.
Mary Church Terrell (1863–1954)
Born September 23, 1863, in Memphis Tennessee, Mary Church Terrell was one of the first Black women to earn a college degree in the United States. When her family moved to Oberlin, Ohio, Terrell attended Antioch College Laboratory School and later Oberlin College where she opted to take the four-year “gentleman’s course” instead of the expected two-year ladies’ course. This earned her a B.A. in 1884 and M.A. in 1888. Terrell was also a champion for racial equality and women’s suffrage. In 1896, she was the first Black woman in the country appointed to the school board of a major city, serving in D.C. In 1909, Terrell was among the charter members of the NAACP, headquartered in Baltimore. In 1950, at the age of 86, she challenged segregation in public places by protesting the John R. Thompson Restaurant in D.C. She was successful: The Supreme Court ruled that segregated eating facilities were unconstitutional, a breakthrough in the civil rights movement.
Irene Morgan Kirkaldy (1917–2007)
Born in Baltimore on April 9, 1917, Irene Morgan Kirkaldy (previously Irene Amos Morgan) is best known for her bus protest, which is seen as a precursor to the wide-spread Montgomery bus boycotts of 1955. While traveling to Gloucester County, Virginia, to visit her mother, Kirkaldy was arrested in Middlesex County for refusing to give up her seat in the ‘white section’ of an interstate bus. She later consulted with attorneys from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court – Irene Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia. While the landmark 1946 decision ruled the Virginia law unconstitutional, it would not be enforced for decades after.
Elisabeth Gilman (1867–1950)
Born December 25, 1867, in New Haven, Connecticut, Elisabeth Gilman was the founder of what would become the ACLU of Maryland. The daughter of the first president of Johns Hopkins University, the family moved to Baltimore where she eventually earned her degree from the university in 1921. She became active in response to horrific lynchings on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. In 1931, she held the first meeting of the Maryland Civil Liberties Committee to support the legal representation of a Black farm worker named Orphan Jones (aka Eul Lee) who was charged with murder, denied counsel, and threatened with lynching by a white mob. Gilman and the nascent ACLU of Maryland helped secure some due process for Jones, including challenging that there were no Black people in the jury pool, but against the backdrop of Jim Crow policies on the Eastern Shore, he was still executed. Gilman was involved in several causes such as racial equality, workers' rights, and civil liberties. Though no longer with us, the work Gilman started to further the rights of Marylanders lives on.