Women's Work: Handout 1
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To facilitate student engagement, these bios are written in the first person based on paraphrased information garnered from a wide number of sources. It is impossible to capture the lives of any of these women in a paragraph. It is our hope that the information below serves to spark student interest in further research. There are full-length biographies available on many of these women.
Ella Baker (1903–1986)
My grandfather was a civil rights activist back in the 1850s, and I carried on the tradition. I taught sharecroppers and immigrant workers about world issues, and I was not afraid to teach about racism in America when few people were talking about it. In the 1940s, I became a leader in the NAACP and traveled around the country trying to recruit new members. After the Montgomery Bus Boycott, I confronted Martin Luther King Jr., urging him to organize the black community and build on the momentum of the boycott. I spent two years organizing King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, despite my disagreement with the SCLC’s policy valuing strong central leadership over grassroots organizing. Recognizing the importance of student voices in the fight for social justice, I also actively sought out student leaders by organizing discussions with students from 56 different colleges in the U.S. After the Greensboro sit-ins, I left SCLC and helped form the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). For years I served SNCC as a quiet leader, incorporating teaching techniques into my organizing work. For my efforts, I was honored with the title “Fundi,” a Swahili word for a person who passes skills and knowledge on to the younger generation.
Daisy Lee Bates (1914–1999)
Growing up in a small Arkansas town, I knew I was a Negro, but I did not really understand what that meant until I was seven-years-old. At that time, I went to buy some meat for my mother at a store and the butcher said brusquely, “N____’s have to wait ‘til I wait on the white people.” The incident had a strong impact on me, but my rage at discrimination turned to horror when I learned later that the parents I had known all my life were in reality friends of my real parents. My mother had been murdered while resisting rape by three white men. “So happy once, now I was like a little sapling which, after a violent storm, puts out only gnarled and twisted branches.” I met my future husband at the age of 15, and we married in 1932. My husband had always dreamed of starting a newspaper, and in 1941, we did just that. It was called the Arkansas State Press, and we used the paper to write about civil rights issues such as police brutality and the rights of black veterans. In 1946, I wrote an article in support of a group of striking workers. I also criticized a local judge in the article, and he had me arrested for it, but I was eventually cleared of the charges. Later in life, our house in Little Rock, Arkansas, was the command post for desegregation in the city. The nine students who desegregated Central High School in Little Rock used my house as the official pick-up and drop-off site on their trips to and from Central High School each school day and I served as their principle advisor/mentor. Starting in 1952, I served as the president of the Arkansas chapter of the NAACP. At the March in Washington in 1963, I was the only woman to speak from the podium. You can read about my life in The Long Shadow of Little Rock (University of Arkansas Press, 1962) (Source: www.galegroup.com)
Gwendolyn Brooks (1917–2000)
I was born in Topeka, Kansas, but my family moved to Chicago when I was a child; that is the city I called home. During my childhood, I had a strong interest in poetry, and it was through writing that I became involved in the Civil Rights Movement. While sit-ins and marches were among the more visible strategies used during the Civil Rights Movement, I used the power of my words to tell stories about the world that I knew growing up; I told the stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary things all around me. My writing style shifted during the Black Arts movement during the 1960s. Read In the Mecca (1968) to distinguish between the different styles of my poetry. I became the first African-American writer to earn the Pulitzer Prize. In addition to continuing my own writing, I used my national recognition to support and promote the work of other poets.
Elaine Brown (1943– )
Born in a poor black neighborhood in Philadelphia, my childhood was extremely hard. My mother fought to enroll me in an experimental school so that I would get a good education. Although the school had a four-year waitlist, my mother persevered until I was admitted. As a result of my mother’s efforts, I was an extremely successful student and was admitted to a very competitive high school for girls. Later in my life, I got involved in the Civil Rights Movement, first as a supporter of nonviolence and later as a member of the Black Panther Party. In 1974, I was the first and only woman to lead the Black Panthers. Under my leadership the Party worked to change the economic and political systems in Oakland, California, and we helped to get the city’s first black mayor elected. I saw the Civil Rights Movement as an international movement and traveled all around the world to share our message. In working toward social justice, I started programs to provide access to better health care, education, and housing for African Americans.
Shirley Chisolm (1924– )
I was born in Brooklyn, New York, and raised by my grandparents in the Barbados. I returned to New York to attend high school. After I completed college, I became a nursery school teacher and eventually became the director of the school. In 1968, I began a new career by getting myself elected to Congress. I was the first black woman to serve in the House of Representatives. During my time in Congress, I fought hard for the rights of women, workers, and children. After three years in Congress, I decided to run for president. Although I did not win the race, I was the first black woman to make an attempt at it. After the presidential election, I stayed in Congress for 11 more years. I retired to Williamsville, New York, and took a leadership role in the National Political Congress of Black Women. Throughout my life, I fought for civil rights in America. Through my work as a teacher and as a politician, I was driven to improve the rights of black Americans, women, and children. My career as an activist is memorialized in my biography, which shares its title with my personal slogan, “Unbought and Unbossed.”
Septima Clark (1898–1987)
From the very beginning of my life, my parents made sure that I understood how important school was. My mother not only pushed me to work hard in school, but she also demonstrated to me what real courage is. I remember sitting on our front porch watching my mother sternly warn a policeman to stay off our property—“I’m a little bit of leather, but I’m well put together, so you don’t come in here,” she told him. What courage! Her actions then gave me the confidence I needed when I later found myself faced with the hate and anger of members of the Ku Klux Klan. My activist life focused on increasing the educational opportunities for black citizens. I helped establish “Citizenship Schools,” so African Americans would receive the education they needed in order to vote. I saw the right to vote as a key part of American citizenship. I worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and continued to struggle for civil rights even after I lost my job as a teacher because of my NAACP membership. Ironically, much later in life I ended up serving two terms on the same Charleston County School Board that had once fired me! Despite several heart attacks, I never really retired. When a fire killed four children who had been left home alone by their working mother in 1978, I was upset by the refusal of the city of Charleston to respond by funding a daycare center. I approached other women, rented a room with the money we raised, and paid a teacher. The daycare center that grew out of that experience is named after me.
Jessie de la Cruz (1919– )
I was born in 1919 and spent my childhood traveling with my family throughout California, going wherever we could find work. As a child, I experienced harsh working conditions and the death of family members; I also saw that the government and landowners treated Mexicans and poor people of all races unfairly. That is why I joined the United Farm Workers of America (UFW). I helped to win the ban of el cortito, the short-handle hoe that crippled many workers. I sought ways for farmworkers to buy their own farmland, and became the owner of a cooperative farm myself. I have served as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention, testified before the Senate, and met with the Pope. Author Gary Soto wrote a story for young people about my life called Jessie de La Cruz: A Profile of a United Farm Worker (2000, Persea Books).
Angela Y. Davis (1944– )
I was born in 1944 in Birmingham, Alabama. My parents were members of the Communist Party, and they got me interested as well. When I was 16, I studied in Germany for two years and Paris for one year. I returned to the U.S. to go to college, and it was during my college years that I became very involved with the Communist Party and the Black Panther Party. My membership in these two organizations meant that I received a lot of attention from the police and the FBI. My membership in these groups also lost me my teaching job at the University of California. In 1970, I was placed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List on false charges, and was the subject of an intense police search that drove me underground and culminated in one of the most famous trials in recent history. A massive international “Free Angela Davis” campaign led to my acquittal in 1972. Today, I am a professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, active in the fight to reform the U.S. prison system, a promoter of multicultural coalitions and global strategies, and a speaker on civil rights.
Virginia Foster Durr (1903–1999)
As a child, I grew up in a strongly segregated neighborhood, and even attended Ku Klux Klan parades with my father. My bigoted beliefs were challenged when I attended Wellesley College. Due to financial problems, I had to drop out of college and return to Birmingham, Alabama. While back at home, I met my future husband and eventually moved with him to Washington, D.C. In the nation’s capital I got more involved in the Civil Rights Movement. In 1938, I became a founding member of the Southern Conference on Human Welfare. On the second day of our opening convention in Birmingham, Alabama, we went head to head with the Birmingham Chief of Police, Eugene “Bull” Connor, who threatened to arrest anyone who crossed racial lines by sitting on the “wrong” side of the meeting hall. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was in attendance and responded by placing her chair directly on top of the line separating African Americans from whites. One of the civil rights issues that I was most passionate about was the poll tax—a system that required blacks and many women to pay a tax before they could vote in any election. I joined many others in the fight against the poll tax, and this work eventually brought about the Voting Rights Act of 1965. I was an activist all my life, in fact: “The problem is, once you open a gate, there’s another and another gate beyond each one. It makes you think you want to live forever to continue the work...”
Fannie Lou Hamer (1917–1977)
Born October 6, 1917, in Montgomery County, Mississippi, I was the granddaughter of an enslaved African American, the daughter of two sharecroppers, and the youngest of 20 children. When I was six, I began to help my parents work in the cotton fields, and when I was 12 I had to drop out of school to work with them full time. In 1962, I went with 17 other people to register to vote. On our way back, we were stopped by police and put in jail—the police told us that we were being arrested because our bus was the wrong color. When I finally arrived back home, the man who owned my family’s land told me that I could not stay in our house if I insisted on voting, so I left. I immediately joined two national civil rights groups working to register blacks to vote. During my work in the Civil Rights Movement, I was arrested multiple times and beaten by police once. In 1964, I helped to organize the Mississippi Freedom Summer, a broad campaign to get blacks registered to vote. That same year I helped found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in an effort to increase awareness of voting discrimination. When I spoke out to describe the conditions in Mississippi and to protest the refusal of the Democratic Party to seat us, President Lyndon Johnson scheduled an emergency press conference to divert media attention. But my speech was broadcast later that evening on national television, and now the world knew of our struggles. In 1968, I founded Freedom Farms Corporation, a land cooperative that provided poor farmers with land they farmed and lived on, and eventually purchased themselves. In the last decade of my life, I received a lot of recognition. When the National Council of Negro Women started the Fannie Lou Hamer Day Care Center in 1970, I became the chair of the board of directors.
Lorraine Hansberry (1930–1965)
As a child, I lived in an all-white community, where my parents and I faced racism often. When I was 20, I moved to New York City to take writing classes. There I met Langston Hughes and took a course from W. E. B. DuBois. I participated in the Civil Rights Movement by writing plays and painting, all focused on my experiences with discrimination in the United States. My most famous work is called A Raisin in the Sun, which won numerous awards and was the first drama by a black woman to appear on Broadway. In addition to my work in the theatre, I fought for social justice by fundraising, lecturing, and speaking on writers’ panels in support of the Civil Rights Movement. Sadly, I was diagnosed with cancer and died at the age of 34, before my career had fully developed.
Dorothy Height (1912- )
I was born in Richmond, Va., in 1912. My mother was a nurse in a hospital for African Americans and my father was a building contractor. When I was 4, we joined the great migration of blacks to the North, settling in a multiethnic neighborhood of mostly recent European immigrants in Rankin, Pennsylvania. When a new principal arrived in 1928 at the nearly all-white Rankin High School, he forbade me, as a black student who usually led the singing at school assemblies, from ever doing so again. At the first assembly after the edict, when the accompanist began the Rankin alma mater, the students refused to sing. The pianist began twice more; still the students were silent. Finally, the exasperated principal motioned me to the stage. The student body of mostly white teenagers in pre-Depression America, rose en masse, and a chorus split the air, which surprised me. I have continued to speak out and organize for justice ever since. I have served as a longtime Y.W.C.A. executive and as the president of the National Council of Negro Women. In the early days of the Civil Rights Movement, I was one of the only women in the leadership circles and I have been an adviser to presidents from Eisenhower to Clinton. In 1994 I was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and in 2003 the Congressional Gold Medal. (Excerpted from book review by Gioia Diliberto.)
Dolores Huerta (1930– )
I was born in New Mexico during the beginning of the Great Depression. My mother was an inspiration to me; she was an example of unwavering strength, independence, and ambition. After graduating college, I took a job as a teacher in a farm workers’ community. Every day in my classroom I saw the terrible effects of poverty on my students and their families. Seeing these families hardships, I decided that I needed to join the fight to improve the lives of workers by helping them organize, registering voters, and encouraging them to participate in the democratic process. In 1962, together with César Chávez, I organized the United Farm Workers Union. We organized nonviolent protests and boycotts throughout the West. I also worked to convince Congress to pass laws that would protect the rights of workers, which they finally did with the Agricultural Labor Relations Act. Speaking out against the desperately low pay and unsanitary working conditions, my work also helped to establish health plans and benefits for farm workers. Today, I am still a leader with the United Farm Workers and other groups fighting for the rights of workers.
Yuri Kochiyama (1922– )
I was born in a small town on the California coast in 1922. My parents were first-generation Japanese immigrants. The bombing of Pearl Harbor, which brought the United States into World War II, changed my life. During the war, my family, as well as many other Japanese families, were forcibly removed from our homes and imprisoned in internment camps. We were held there for two years during the war. Most of the people being held in these camps were U.S. citizens, but their Japanese ancestry made them the targets of racism. The time that I spent in the internment camp opened my eyes to the similarities between the discrimination that I was experiencing and the discrimination that I had seen against blacks in the U.S. Once I was released from the camp, I dedicated my life to eliminating racism, fighting for civil rights, and protesting inequality. In 1960, I moved to Harlem, New York, with my husband. Three years later, I met Malcolm X and joined his group, the Organization for Afro-American Unity, which worked for racial justice and human rights. I was with Malcolm X when he was shot and killed. Today, I tour the country to speak with youth about racial justice and human rights. My advice to young people is: “Don’t become too narrow. Live fully. Meet all kinds of people. You’ll learn something from everyone. Follow what you feel in your heart.”
Audre Lorde (1934–1992)
I was born in New York City to immigrant parents from the West Indies. My childhood was spent living in Harlem in the Depression, listening to my mother’s stories of the West Indies. The skill that my mother had with words got me interested in writing, and I quickly developed a love of poetry. I published my first poem in Seventeen magazine while still in high school. I attended Hunter College and Columbia University in New York City, then became a librarian in New York public schools and an active member of the gay rights community in Greenwich Village. I soon became a professor of poetry at Tougaloo College in Mississippi and used my teaching and writing to encourage my students to pursue social justice. My writing career included the publication of six books of poetry and many individual essays, and I co-founded the Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press. When asked to describe myself, I said I am a “Black lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.” I documented my 14-year battle against cancer in The Cancer Journals and A Burst of Light. In the latter I wrote: “The struggle with cancer now informs all my days, but it is only another face of that continuing battle for self-determination and survival that black women fight daily, often in triumph.’’ (www.lambda.net/~maximum/lorde.html)
Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo
This is the collective name used to represent 14 working-class mothers, ages 40–70, who defied a ban on public gatherings instituted by the military rulers of Argentina in the year 1977. We were the mothers of a whole generation of working young people and students, popular militants who had been kidnapped by the military. For years, we demonstrated every Thursday at 3:30 in the afternoon, assembling at the historic Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires to demand to know the fate of our loved ones. We would arrive dressed in black, wearing white handkerchiefs embroidered with the names of our missing relatives. Some of us, including our founder, Azucena Villaflor de Vicenti, disappeared as a result. Today, the group continues to protest for human rights throughout the world.
Winona LaDuke (1959– )
Born in 1959, I grew up in Los Angeles, California. My family and I are Anishinabe from the Makwa Dodaem (Bear Clan) of the Mississippi Band of the White Earth reservation in northern Minnesota. Both of my parents inspired in me a commitment to activism. While I was in college at Harvard, I became involved in Native American environmental issues. At the age of 18, I spoke before the United Nations about Indian issues and quickly became a voice for American Indian economic and environmental concerns throughout the United States and internationally. After graduating from Harvard, I moved to the White Earth reservation in Minnesota. I started my life there as a teacher, but soon became involved in a lawsuit to recover lands originally held by the Anishinabe people and taken illegally by the U.S. government. I ran for office with Ralph Nader as candidate for vice-president in the 1996 and 2000 presidential campaigns. At present, I am actively involved in Native American environmental work throughout the United States.
Viola Liuzzo (1925–1965)
I was born in Pennsylvania on April 11, 1925. I joined the NAACP as one of the few white members and was soon immersed in the civil rights struggle. I was a housewife, medical technician, and a civil rights worker who came to Alabama to participate in the march from Selma to Montgomery and to help with voter registration in 1965. Following the demonstration, I offered to drive a group of protesters back to the airport in Montgomery. As we made our way to the airport, I stopped at a local gas station. While I was filling my car with gas, a car of white men from the Selma area pulled over and began harassing us. They eventually drove away, and we continued on our way. After I had dropped most of the marchers off, three members of the KKK drove up alongside my car and started shooting. In spite of strong evidence of their involvement, the men who killed me were acquitted of murder. It was only after President Lyndon Johnson stepped in that they were convicted of any crime at all.
Rigoberta Menchu Tum (1959– )
I was born to a poor peasant Mayan family in Guatemala in 1959. During my childhood, I helped with the family farmwork and traveled with my family to wherever there was work. At a young age, I became involved in social activism work through the Catholic Church. The labor-reform work that my family was performing got a lot of attention from military officials, and my brother, father, and mother were all tortured and killed by these groups. Following the deaths of my family members, I became even more strongly committed to civil rights. I engaged in efforts to educate the Indian peasant population in resistance to massive military oppression. This work eventually forced me into exile in Mexico. Even then I did not give up. Instead, I continued working to organize resistance in Guatemala from outside of the country. I am now widely known as a leading advocate of Indian rights and ethnocultural reconciliation, not only in Guatemala but throughout the Western Hemisphere. My life story, as told to Elisabeth Burgos Debray, I, Rigoberta Menchú, is really a story of the lives of many indigenous people in Guatemala. In 1992, I was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. (www.nobel.se/peace/)
Wilma Mankiller (1945– )
I was born in 1945 in Mankiller Flats near Tahlequah, Oklahoma, but during my childhood my family was moved to California as part of the Bureau of Indian Affairs Relocation program. My interest and commitment to civil rights ignited in 1969 when I learned about the American Indian Movement’s occupation of Alcatraz Island. In 1974, I became the first woman chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and the first female in modern history to lead a major Native American tribe. As a leader in the Cherokee community, I started an organization to work on community development projects in the Native American community. In 1986 I was honored as the American Indian Woman of the Year. Grassroots activism has been at the center of my work in civil rights and continues to shape my work today.
Pauli Murray (1910–1985)
Shortly after I was born in Baltimore, Maryland, I was orphaned and moved to North Carolina to live with my grandparents. Although I never knew my parents, it was as if I had three mothers, each trying to teach me their values: “stern devotion to duty; capacity for hard work; industry; and above all honor and courage in all things.” I closely observed the women of my family and did extremely well in school. After I graduated from college, I tried to attend law school but was denied at the University of North Carolina because I was black. Later, I was denied acceptance to Harvard Law School because I was a woman. I eventually enrolled at Howard University Law School and graduated in 1944. Seeing how racism and discrimination played into my life, I became an active member of the Civil Rights Movement. From sit-ins to integrate Washington, D.C. lunch counters in the 1940s to my work in creating the National Organization for Women (NOW) in the early 1970s, I took challenges head-on, but rarely sought public attention for my work, though I am remembered for having coined the phrase “Jane and Jim Crow.” Much of my efforts focused on international civil rights issues, including the effort to liberate many African nations and to get the U.N. to address issues in the African global community. Through my work as a civil rights lawyer, a professor, and an activist, I worked toward social justice in the United States.
Diane Nash (1938– )
Born in 1938, I grew up in Chicago in an African-American, middle-class Catholic family. During my college career in Nashville, I was exposed to a more visible form of racism than I had known in Chicago. As I became familiar with the system of segregation in Nashville, I became interested in the problems of discrimination that all black Americans faced and the possible solution through social change. The segregated restaurants, theaters, water fountains, and other facilities in Nashville disturbed me tremendously. In response to the discrimination that I saw around me, I became a leader of the sit-in movement. As a leader in the civil rights community in Nashville, I often was a target of whites’ hatred, but I remained strongly committed to nonviolent protest, like the famous Freedom Rides of 1961. Today, I am an educator and an activist who remains involved in organizations working for racial justice and reconciliation and for peace. (www.africanpubs.com/Apps/bios/1145NashDiane.asp?pic=none)
Antonia Pantoja (1922–2002)
I was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1922. I attended school and went to college in Puerto Rico and worked as a schoolteacher for two years. My experiences as a teacher reinforced my commitment to equality in education. I moved to New York City in November 1944, where I got a job as a welder in a factory making lamps for children. It did not take long for me to be introduced to the racism and discrimination against Puerto Ricans in the U.S. I also noticed that there was a great need to educate the Puerto Rican community to get them involved in the political process. In an attempt to achieve these goals, I became an activist in the factory, providing information to other workers about their rights and how to organize a union. In order to prepare myself for a leadership role in the Civil Rights Movement, I went back to college in the U.S., where I was an active participant in numerous Latino student organizations. One of my greatest contributions to the Puerto Rican community in the U.S. was in 1958 when I joined a group of other young leaders in creating the Puerto Rican Forum, Inc., which led to the creation of ASPIRA, an advocacy group that works to educate people on how to rebuild their communities. Throughout my life, I fought both for the rights of workers, Puerto Ricans, and children.
Gloria Richardson (1922– )
I was born May 6, 1922, in Baltimore, Maryland. Harriet Tubman had always been one of my role models, and I did everything that I could to follow her courageous lead in fighting for civil rights. As a leader for black rights, I focused on what I believed to be the fundamental problems facing blacks in Cambridge, Maryland: a lack of adequate housing, discrimination in the educational process, lack of equal job opportunity, and poor health. I helped to organize and then lead the Cambridge Nonviolent Action Committee. Eventually my efforts earned me the opportunity to meet with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to share my ideas about desegregation. Although I was criticized by the NAACP, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the media for my direct action and refusal to compromise, I prevailed. Among the most important successes I facilitated were the signing of a treaty that provided for the complete and immediate desegregation of public schools and hospitals in Dorchester County, Maryland; the construction of 200 units of low-rent public housing for blacks; and the adoption of a charter amendment to desegregate places of public accommodation.
Jo Ann Robinson (1912–1992)
Born near Culloden, Georgia, I was the youngest of 12 children. I was educated in the segregated public schools of Macon and then at Fort Valley State College. Following my college graduation, I became a public-school teacher in Macon. After five years of teaching in Macon, I took at job at Alabama State College and was in Montgomery during the bus boycott. In May 1954, more than 18 months before the arrest of Rosa Parks, I wrote to Montgomery’s mayor as the Women’s Political Council (WPC) president. In my letter, I gently threatened a Black boycott of city buses if discrimination did not stop. After Rosa Parks was arrested in December 1955, I played a central role in the start of the protest by producing the leaflets and spreading the word of the boycott among the Black citizens of Montgomery. In 1960, I left Alabama and eventually settled in Los Angeles, where I lived and taught. You can read more about my story in my book, The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It.
Arundhati Roy (1961– )
Born in Kerala, India, to a Christian mother and a Hindu father, I am both an author and political activist. Activism has been a part of my life since childhood. As a young child, I watched my mother work against discriminatory laws in India. When I was 16, I left home and lived on my own in Delhi, India where I made a living by selling empty beer bottles. Eventually, I chose to attend the Delhi School of Architecture. I later moved to Italy, which is where I really started to explore my passion for writing. My most famous book is titled God of Small Things, which is based on a lot of my experiences as a child. Through plays, books, and poetry, I have been, and continue to be, a champion for civil rights.
Vandana Shiva (1952– )
I am a physicist, philosopher, and feminist. I grew up at the foot of the Himalayan Mountains in India, and I was raised in a tradition of commitment to community. When I was a child, my grandfather went on a hunger strike in an effort to convince the government to build a college for girls in our area. Using my experience in activism and my education in the sciences, I am currently active in citizens’ actions against government destruction of the environment in India. In 1991, I founded Navdanya, a national movement to protect the diversity and integrity of living resources, especially native seeds. I am strongly committed to improving the rights of traditional farmers throughout the world. One of my major goals is to help protect local farmers from the globalization movement being led by the World Trade Organization. To learn more about my work, visit www.vshiva.net
Barbara Smith (1946– )
I have been a leading feminist writer and activist since the 1960s. As a lesbian and a feminist, in 1977 I highlighted the need to give an activist’s voice to African-American women’s literature, and more specifically to African-American lesbian literature. With these goals in mind, I co-founded Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, the first U.S. publisher for women of color. My writing has appeared in many publications, including Essence and The Advocate. Most of my work focuses on the connections and relationships between race, gender, and class. I use my literary voice as a tool for activism, working to educate and inform about discrimination in our society. My publications include The Truth That Never Hurts: Writings on Race, Gender, and Freedom. Today I travel around the country speaking at universities about my writing and my perspectives on the state of civil rights in the United States.
Ruby Doris Smith Robinson (1942–1967)
I participated in my first sit-in at the age of 17 and worked with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) from its earliest days in 1960 until my death from cancer in October 1967. I succeeded James Forman as SNCC’s executive secretary; becoming the only woman ever to serve in this capacity. I was known for demanding hard work and dedication from everyone around me. I was the creator of SNCC’s “jail no bail” policy and was one of the original Freedom Riders. Because of my attitude and actions, I soon became a legend. Most early SNCC members could recount at least one “Ruby Smith-Robinson” story. For example, when a delegation of SNCC staff were preparing to board a plane for Africa in the fall of 1964, an airline representative told us that the plane was overbooked and asked if we would wait and take a later flight. This angered me so much that without consulting the rest of the group I went and sat down in the jetway and refused to move. We were given seats on that flight. My life is documented in Soon We Will Not Cry: The Liberation of Ruby Smith Robinson (Rowman & Littlefield, 1998). (from The King Papers Project at Stanford, www.stanford.edu/group/King/)
Emma Tenayuca (1916–1999)
I was born in born in San Antonio, Texas in 1916. My family was very large—I was one of 11 children, so I lived with my grandparents when I was young. Through my work as an educator, speaker, and labor organizer, I became known as “La Pasionaria.” From 1934-48, I supported almost every strike in the city, writing leaflets, visiting homes of strikers, and joining them on picket lines. My first knowledge of the plight of workers came from visits to the “Plaza del Zacate,” the Trafalgar Square of San Antonio where socialists and anarchists came to speak. Contact with fired workers led me to join the Communist Party in 1937 and the Workers Alliance (WA) in 1936, an organization of the unemployed founded by Socialists and Communists, 90 percent of whom were pecan shellers and agricultural workers. The WA held demonstrations for jobs, not relief, and demanded that Mexican workers had the right to strike without fear of deportation, and to a minimum wage and hour law. When 12,000 pecan shellers marched out of the factories in 1938, I was unanimously elected strike leader. “What started out as a movement for organization for equal wages turned into a mass movement against starvation, for civil rights, for a minimum wage law, and it changed the character of West Side San Antonio.” As a result of the anti-Mexican, anti-Communist, and anti-union hysteria that pervaded the United States at the height of my work, I was forced to leave Texas to ensure my own safety and well being. I returned to San Antonio years later and worked as a teacher. I dedicated my life to speaking out at a time when neither Mexicans nor women were expected to speak at all.
Ingrid Washinawatok (1957–1999)
I am remembered as an international humanitarian and activist who fought for the rights of Indigenous People. I was a member of the Menominee Nation in Wisconsin, and my father served as a member of the tribal Supreme Court and a leader within our tribe. He was a powerful role model for me, and I worked hard to follow in his activist footsteps. I served as a leader in a number of native civil rights groups, including the Women’s Indigenous Network and the Fund for the Four Directions located in New York City. I fought for the creation of the People’s Permanent Forum at the United Nations, which was established after my death. All of my work was directed at empowering Indigenous Peoples through activism. On a trip to Venezuela to help develop a cultural education system for one of the indigenous groups there, I was kidnapped and killed. It was here that my activism ended, but my activist spirit continues to live on through those who knew me.
Merle Woo (-)
I am a Korean-American activist fighting against discrimination based on race, gender, and sexual orientation. I choose to focus my work on writing and teaching about oppression and racism in an effort to help my students think more carefully about stereotypes and discrimination in the United States. In particular, I have worked to dispel the image of Asian women as submissive and docile. Currently, I am a professor at the University of California-Berkeley, but I have been fired from the university twice for protesting against discriminatory policies at the school. Each time I successfully sued to get my job back. Among the most important themes in my work is the need for collaborative work across issues of social justice, such as race and class disparities and gender inequality.
Dorothy Zellner (-)
My role as an activist started in the women’s rights movement in New Orleans, Louisiana. Later, I brought together the fight for equality for women and the struggle for equality for blacks in the U.S. In the 1960s, I became an active member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. I worked as a co-editor for the SNCC newspaper, Student Voices, which worked to build morale within the organization and provide eyewitness accounts of the racial violence that members encountered in the South. Much of my work focused on recruiting and organizing white students in support of the Civil Rights Movement. As a white, Jewish woman, I committed myself to developing a broader coalition of people fighting for social justice. I recognized the importance of including people of all races, religions, and economic backgrounds into the struggle for equality. Now I am a director for the School of Law at the City University of New York.
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