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Celebrating Notable Women in U.S. History

“Slavery was Legal. Colonialism was Legal. Jim Crow was Legal. Apartheid was Legal. Legality is a matter of Power, NOT Justice”

Western Center on Law & Poverty for over 55 years, has advocated in every branch of government, from courts to the Legislature, on behalf of Californians experiencing poverty. . Through the lens of economic and racial justice, Western Center litigates, educates, and advocates around health care, housing, and public benefits policies and administration. As advocates we recognize that some of the most powerful gatekeepers, bridgebuilders, and architects of resistance in the communities we work with are women.

Women, especially women of color, are routinely erased from public memory and historical narratives of resistance. It’s undeniable that the contributions of women of color to historical resistance movements are often overlooked or minimized. While their invaluable efforts powered the abolitionists, suffrage, labor, and civil rights movements, mainstream narratives have frequently sidelined their stories in favor of highlighting male leaders. This Women’s History Month, we choose to recognize and celebrate the pivotal role women of color have played in shaping our collective history and fighting for justice:

Sojourner Truth was an evangelist, abolitionist, women’s rights activist and author who was born into slavery before escaping to freedom in 1826. After gaining her freedom, SoujournerTruth helped enslaved people escape to freedom and traveled the country to organize for abolitionism and equal rights for all. After the Civil War, she became involved with the Freedmen’s Bureau, helping the formerly enslaved find jobs and build new lives. While in Washington, DC, she lobbied against segregation, and in the mid-1860s, when a streetcar conductor tried to violently block her from riding, she ensured his arrest and won her subsequent case. In the late 1860s, she collected thousands of signatures on a petition to provide formerly enslaved people with land, though Congress never took action.

Mary Ellen Pleasant was posthumously regarded as the mother of California’s civil rights movement.  She helped to lead the abolitionist movement during the Gold-Rush era and played a key role in helping to finance John Brown’s 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry in Virginia, a revolt by enslaved Black slaves and white abolitionists.. Pleasant also gave shelter, jobs, and money to enslaved people running to freedom through the Underground Railroad. In 1866, a street car conductor in San Francisco refused to let her board because she was Black. Pleasant sued and the case went all the way to the California Supreme Court. In a historic decision, the court ruled that segregation on streetcars was illegal in California.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett was a prominent journalist, activist, and researcher, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In her lifetime, she battled sexism, racism, and violence. She was a researcher, writer, and journalist. Wells-Barnett was one of the first journalists to write about the conditions of African Americans throughout the South. After the lynching of one of her friends, she dedicated her career to exposing white terrorism. Wells was a skilled investigator and worked to uncover the truth behind several cases of Black men being lynched. She published her findings in a pamphlet and wrote several columns in local newspapers. Wells-Barnett traveled internationally to bring much needed attention to lynching. Often ridiculed and  ostracized by whit suffragettes  founded the National Association of Colored Women’s Club, to promote suffrage for Black women.

Grace Lee Boggs was a Chinese American civil rights and labor activist. Her support for causes such as the Black Power movement, feminism, and the environment spanned over 70 years. During the 1950s, Boggs moved to Detroit and began editing the radical newspaper Correspondence, which supported worker-centered revolution. Throughout her life, Grace Lee Boggs maintained the core belief that if people worked together, they could accomplish positive social change.

Dolores Huerta was the co-founder of the United Farm Workers Association and is one of the most influential labor activists of the 20th century. A leader of the Chicano civil rights movement, despite racism and sexism, she helped organize the 1965 Delano strike of 5,000 farmworkers and was the lead negotiator in the workers’ contract that followed.

Fannie Lou Hamer was a voting rights activist and civil rights leader. She was instrumental in organizing Mississippi Freedom Summer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Hamer organized voter registration drives, including the “Freedom Ballot Campaign”, a mock election, in 1963, and the “Freedom Summer” initiative in 1964. Later she became the Vice-Chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, attending the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in that capacity.

Mae Mallory was an activist during the Civil Rights Movement and a leader in the Black Power movement. Mallory was bestknown as an advocate of desegregation and Black armed self-defense.

Sarah Deer, a member of the Muscogee Creek tribe, is a lawyer, professor at the University of Kansas, and advocate who has worked for victims rights and sexual violence prevention for decades. She was an instrumental activist in the 2013 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women’s Act, which expanded tribal jurisdiction to prosecute non-Native perpetrators of domestic and sexual violence.

The CROWN Coalition was founded in 2019 by Western Center on Law & Poverty, National Urban League, Color Of Change, and Dove to create a respectful and open world for natural hair through research, national campaigning and political lobbying. Western Center and partners worked to pass the first CROWN Act (SB 188) in the country, prohibiting discrimination based on hair style and texture by extending protection under the FEHA and the California Education Code. Today, twenty-four states across the country have passed the CROWN (“Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair”) Act in response to Black people, especially women regularly face discrimination in schools and the workplace based on the texture and style of their hair. Hair is often a reflection of one’s personal identity and serves as a signifier of culture and ancestry. The CROWN Act impacts racial discrimination, pay equity, and just cause protections for people of various cultural backgrounds, but especially Black people. With over 31.6 million Black people in the U.S. labor force, the CROWN Act could help reduce discrimination for more than 12% of labor force participants (U.S. Census Bureau ACS 2021a). Over 200 years before the CROWN Act, the Tignon laws of the 18th century were laws that, at the request of white women, banned Black women in the Caribbean colonies and Louisiana from exposing their natural hair in public. Their hairdos were seen as a threat to the social stability and status of white women, who protested in a letter that  Black women “who dressed too elegantly” were attracting the attentions of white men. Resembling today’s West African Gele, a tignon is a type of head covering. It is a large piece of fabric wrapped or tied around the head to form a decorative sculpture concealing the hair. Tignons were worn by free and enslaved women of African descent in Louisiana from 1786. These laws regulated appearance and enforced the dress styles for women of color in a society dominated by whiteness. Many Black women continued to wear headwraps or tignons as a sign of rebellion and resistance.

“Next to God we are indebted to women, first for life itself, and then for making it worth living.” —Mary McLeod Bethune