November 4, 1942 – Birth of Patricia Bath, African American Medical Scientist and Inventor

Patricia Bath, born on November 4, 1942, in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood, was the first African American to complete a residency in ophthalmology in 1973. In 1976, she co-founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness, which established that “eyesight is a basic human right.” In 1986, she invented the Laserphaco Probe, improving treatment for cataract patients. She patented the device in 1988, becoming the first African American female doctor to receive a medical patent.

While other little girls played nurse, even at age 6, Patricia wanted to be a doctor. She stitched and sewed her dolls, mending them and dreaming of helping people in the same way one day. The fact that she was an African American, a girl, and from a family without money didn’t phase her then, or at any time. Her parents stressed the importance of education and hard work, and encouraged her interest in science by buying her a chemistry set.

At the age of 16, Patricia became one of only a few students to attend a cancer research workshop sponsored by the National Science Foundation. The program head, Dr. Robert Bernard, was so impressed with her discoveries during the project that he incorporated her findings in a scientific paper he presented at a conference.

After graduating from high school in only two years, Patricia headed to Hunter College, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in 1964. She then attended Howard University to pursue a medical degree. She graduated with honors from Howard in 1968, and accepted an internship at Harlem Hospital shortly afterward. The following year, she also began pursuing a fellowship in ophthalmology at Columbia University. Through her studies there, she discovered that African Americans were twice as likely to suffer from blindness than other patients to which she attended, and eight times more likely to develop glaucoma. Her research led to her development of a community ophthalmology system, which increased the amount of eye care given to those who were unable to afford treatment; she convinced her former professors to operateg on patients for free.

In 1975, she moved to California to join the famed Jules Stein Eye Institute; she was the first woman hired there, although at first she was given an office in the basement, next to the lab animals. Patricia demanded an equal workspace upstairs, and got it. Then she continued her quest of trying to restore sight to the blind. She came up with the idea of using lasers in eye surgery, and traveled to Europe in 1986 to study the idea, eventually inventing a new tool called the “Laserphaco Probe.” The U.S. granted her a patent for the device in 1988.

During Patricia’s retirement years, she traveled to Tanzania, visiting a school for the blind, where the kids did not even have braille books. She sent them braille-computer keyboards, calling it “computer vision.”

Bath died on May 30, 2019, at a University of California, San Francisco medical center from cancer-related complications, aged 76. She was granted many honors and awards during her lifetime, including the 1995 NAACP Legal Defense Fund Black Woman Achievement Award, and induction into the American Medical Women’s Association Hall of Fame in 2001.

October 9, 1823 – Birth of Mary Ann Shadd, 1st African-American Publisher in North America & 1st Woman Publisher in Canada

Mary Ann Shadd, the eldest of 13 children, was born in Delaware on this day in history to free African-Americans. Her parents were active in the Underground Railroad and their home frequently served as a refuge for fugitive slaves.

When it became illegal to educate African-American children in the state of Delaware, the Shadd family moved to Pennsylvania, where Mary attended a Quaker Boarding School. In 1840, after being away at school, Mary Ann returned to East Chester and established a school for black children.

In 1848, Frederick Douglass asked readers in his newspaper, “The Northern Star,” to offer their suggestions on what could be done to improve life for African-Americans. Mary Ann, then only 25 years of age, wrote to him to say, “We should do more and talk less.” She expressed frustration that speeches and resolutions had not produced many tangible results. Douglass published her letter in his paper.

Mary Ann Shadd, via Library and Archives Canada, C-029977

When the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 in the United States threatened to return escaped slaves into bondage but also threatened free blacks, Mary Ann and her brother Isaac moved to Windsor, Ontario, across the border from Detroit. This is where Mary Ann’s efforts to create free black settlements in Canada first began.

While in Windsor, she founded a racially integrated school with the support of the American Missionary Association. Public education in Ontario was not open to black students at the time. Mary Ann offered daytime classes for children and youth, and evening classes for adults.

In 1853, Mary Ann Shadd founded an anti-slavery paper, called “The Provincial Freeman.” The paper’s slogan was: “Devoted to antislavery, temperance and general literature.” It was published weekly, and the first issue was published in Toronto, Ontario, on March 24, 1853. She persuaded a black abolitionist man and a male white clergyman to lend their names to the masthead to provide legitimacy that a woman’s name could not.

A remembrance of Mary Ann Shadd in the New York Times points out:

Her progressive approach and unorthodox outlook alienated some people. She criticized abolitionists who did not fight for full equality and instead supported segregated schools and communities. She also denounced refugee associations that gathered funds to support fugitive slaves but turned a blind eye to free blacks who were forced to live in poverty.”

The paper ran for four years, before financial challenges forced the paper to fold.

After the demise of the “Freeman,” Mary Ann Shadd Cary (she had married Toronto businessman Thomas F. Cary in 1856) was hired by Martin Delany as perhaps the only woman to recruit Black soldiers during the Civil War. She then settled in Washington, D.C., founding a school for the children of freed slaves, believing that education offered them more opportunities.

In 1869, she embarked on her second career, becoming the first woman to enter Howard University’s law school, graduating in 1870.  She was the first African-American woman to obtain a law degree and among the first women in the United States to do so.

She fought alongside Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton for women’s suffrage, testifying before the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives in January 1874 and becoming the first African-American woman to cast a vote in a national election.

After a lifetime of achievements and firsts, Shadd Cary died on June 5, 1893. Mary Ann Shadd Cary has been designated a Person of National Historic Significance in Canada, one of her many posthumous honors.

August 19, 1981 – Sandra Day O’Connor Nominated to the Supreme Court

Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States, was born in El Paso, Texas on March 26, 1930. At sixteen, she was admitted to Stanford University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in economics. In 1950 she was admitted to Stanford Law, completing the course in just two years instead of the usual three. She graduated third in her class, with one of the students ahead of her being fellow future justice, William H. Rehnquist. As Oyez reports:

Despite her impeccable qualifications, Sandra Day O’Connor struggled to find employment in the legal field due to a heavy bias against women as attorneys. She began her legal career working for the county attorney of San Mateo for free, after turning down a paid position as a legal secretary. Once she proved herself as an asset, she got a job as the deputy county attorney.”

Moving to Arizona with her husband, in 1965 she began working as the Assistant Attorney General. In 1969, she was appointed to the Arizona State Senate to fill a vacated seat. In 1970, she kept that seat when she was elected to the State Senate for a full term as a Republican. She was reelected to that position twice, even serving as the first female majority leader in any state senate.

In 1975 she won the election for a seat in the Superior Court of Maricopa County, and was appointed to the Arizona Supreme Court of Appeals four years later. She worked in the state supreme court for only two years before President Ronald Reagan nominated her on this day in 1981 to become the first female justice to serve on the United States Supreme Court. She was unanimously approved by the Senate.

As she later told NPR:

I was working in my office on the Arizona Court of Appeals. I was at the court in my chambers when the telephone rang. And it was the White House calling for me, and I was told that the president was waiting to speak to me. That was quite a shock, but I accepted the phone call, and it was President Reagan, and he said, ‘Sandra?’ ‘Yes, Mr. President?’ ‘Sandra, I’d like to announce your nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court tomorrow. Is that all right with you?’ Well, now, that’s kind of a shock, wouldn’t you say?”

Sandra Day O’Connor is sworn in as an associate justice by Chief Justice Warren Burger on Sept. 25, 1981. Holding two family Bibles is husband John Jay O’Connor.
Michael Evans/AP

Two years after O’Connor joined the Court, The New York Times published an editorial which mentioned the “nine men” of the “SCOTUS,” or Supreme Court of the United States. O’Connor responded with a letter to the editor reminding the Times that the Court was no longer composed of nine men and referred to herself as FWOTSC (First Woman On The Supreme Court).

Over the course of her two decades on the court, the conservative justice became known as a somewhat unpredictable voter. She was known for being a majority builder whenever possible, but also for being a swing vote in the divisive cases. In cases lacking a consensus, she wrote as narrow a decision as possible. She retired from the bench in 2006 to care for her husband, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

On August 12, 2009, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.

August 13, 1818 – Birth of Women’s Rights Activist Lucy Stone

Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony often worked together, along with a third feminist less well known, Lucy Stone.

Lucy Stone, born on this day in history, August 13, 1818, was also a prominent suffragist and abolitionist. In 1847 she became the first woman from Massachusetts to earn a college degree, as she did in 1847 at age 29 from Oberlin College in Ohio.

In October of 1850, Stone organized the first national women’s rights convention, in Worcester, Mass., attracting a broad cross-section of attendees. (Per Time Magazine, while the more famous Seneca Falls Convention had been held two years earlier, it is considered to have been more regional.) Susan B. Anthony later credited a newspaper article about the meeting that Susan B. Anthony with inspiring her to join the women’s rights movement.

Daguerreotype of Lucy Stone, circa 1840–1860

Most notably, when Stone married Henry Blackwell (the brother of Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman in the nation to graduate from medical school), she kept her maiden name, an unheard of practice at the time. As Elizabeth Cady Stanton said, she was “the first woman in the nation to protest against the marriage laws at the altar, and to manifest sufficient self respect to keep her own name, to represent her individual existence through life.” Women who kept their names came to be called “Maiden Namers” and Lucy Stoners.

Stone also drew national attention for dressing in baggy trousers under a skirt that became known as “Bloomers” after Amelia Bloomer copied the idea from Stone and wrote about it in the temperance newspaper The Lily.

Stone also travelled throughout the country lecturing on abolition and women’s rights. From 1854 through 1858, Stone lectured on women’s rights in Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, Washington, D.C., Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and Ontario. Elizabeth Cady Stanton would later write that “Lucy Stone was the first speaker who really stirred the nation’s heart on the subject of woman’s wrongs.” As a history of Lucy Stone in Time Magazine reports:

Her speeches drew crowds of hundreds, but they were not always civil; she got used to men hurling books, rotten vegetables and cold water at her.”

The birth of her daughter in September 1857, however, began to reduce the level of her activism. Stone hired a nursemaid to help care for her daughter, who was in poor health for several years, but she didn’t trust her ability to provide proper care when Stone was absent. Stone eventually withdrew from most public work to stay at home with her child. She made only two public appearances during the Civil War (1861—1865): to attend the founding convention of the Women’s Loyal National League and the celebration of the thirtieth anniversary of the American Anti-Slavery Society, both in 1863. Stone began to increase her reform activities back to a normal level after the Civil War ended.

Stone eventually broke with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony over the matter of abolition. The latter two rejected the idea of giving black men citizenship and the right to vote, arguing that would give the “lower stratas of manhood” the vote over white women.

In fact, many in the women’s suffrage movement shared racist attitudes or at the very least, did not want to risk winning support for their movement by aligning with those seeking rights for blacks. On one occasion Anthony even asked Douglass not to attend a gathering in Atlanta, Georgia because, as she later recalled: “I did not want anything to get in the way of bringing the Southern white women into our suffrage association.”

Stanton and Stone also disagreed on the matter of divorce. Stanton was a fierce advocate of a woman’s right to divorce, while Stone believed in “marriage for life.”

Lucy Stone in old age

Thus, when Stanton and Anthony wrote the series History of Woman Suffrage, (online here) Stone refused to cooperate with them. As a result, she is hardly mentioned in the six volumes long considered a definitive account of the 19th century women’s rights movement. The text was used as the standard scholarly resource on 19th-century U.S. feminism for much of the 20th century, causing Stone’s extensive contribution to be overlooked in many histories of women’s causes.

Lucy Stone died on October 18, 1893 at the age of 75. At her funeral three days later, 1,100 people crowded the church, and hundreds more stood silently outside. Mourners lined the streets for a sight of the funeral procession, and front-page banner headlines ran in news accounts. Stone’s death was the most widely reported of any American woman’s up to that time.

According to her wishes, her body was cremated, making her the first person cremated in Massachusetts. Even in death, she was defying norms and setting new precedents.

June 15, 1877 – Death of Caroline Norton, English Women’s Rights Activist

Caroline Norton, nee Sheridan, was born in London in 1808, and in 1827 married George Norton, a barrister and M.P. According to a history of the fight for women’s rights at the time, her husband was jealous, possessive, and given to violent fits of drunkenness during which George was abusive.

Caroline left him in 1836, trying to subsist on her earnings as an author. George successfully sued for these in court as his own, since husbands had control over their wive’s money. Caroline exacted a condign form of revenge, as reported by a biography by Jane Gray Perkins. Running up bills in her husband’s name, Caroline told the creditors that if they wished to be paid, they could sue her husband.

Caroline Norton (1808-1877)

Not long after their separation, Norton abducted their sons, hiding them with relatives in Scotland and later in Yorkshire, refusing to tell Caroline where they were. Norton accused Caroline of being involved in an ongoing affair with her close friend, Lord Melbourne, who was the Whig Prime Minister. Norton then tried unsuccessfully to blackmail Melbourne, and when that scheme failed, took the Prime Minister to court.

The trial lasted nine days, and in the end the jury threw out Norton’s claim, siding with Lord Melbourne. However, the resulting publicity almost brought down the government. The scandal eventually died away, but Caroline’s reputation was ruined and her friendship with Lord Melbourne destroyed. Norton continued to prevent Caroline from seeing her three sons, and blocked her from receiving a divorce. According to English law in 1836, children were the legal property of their father, and there was little Caroline could do to regain custody.

Having no other recourse, Caroline became involved in advocating the passage of laws promoting social justice, especially those granting rights to married and divorced women.

When Parliament debated the subject of divorce reform in 1855, Caroline submitted to the members a detailed account of her own marriage, and described the difficulties faced by women as the result of existing laws.

Primarily because of Caroline’s intense campaigning, which included a letter to Queen Victoria, Parliament passed the Custody of Infants Act 1839, the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857, and the Married Women’s Property Act 1870.

Under the Custody of Children Act, legally separated or divorced wives – provided they had not been found guilty of criminal conversation – were granted the right to custody of their children up to the age of seven, and periodic access thereafter. However, because women needed to petition in the Court of Chancery, in practice few women had the financial means to petition for their rights. [Per the UK Parliament, the Infant Custody Act of 1873 changed the direction of the 1839 Act by indicating that the correct principle for deciding custody was the needs of the child rather than the rights of either parent. The Act therefore allowed mothers to petition for custody or access to children below the age of 16, but not in all circumstances.]

The Matrimonial Causes Act reformed the law on divorce, making divorce more affordable, and established a model of marriage based on contract.

The Married Women’s Property Act 1870 allowed married women to inherit property and take court action on their own behalf. The Act granted married women in the UK, for the first time, a separate legal identity from their husband.

While Caroline fought to extend women’s legal rights, she had no interest in the 19th-century women’s movement for women’s suffrage. She even stated in 1838 in a newspaper article,

The natural position of woman is inferiority to man. Amen! That is a thing of God’s appointing, not of man’s devising. I believe it sincerely, as part of my religion. I never pretended to the wild and ridiculous doctrine of equality.”

Caroline finally became free of George Norton with his death in 1875. She married an old friend, Scottish historical writer and politician Sir W. Stirling Maxwell in March 1877. Caroline died in London three months later.

April 28, 1993 – Secretary of Defense Les Aspin Issues Directive Allowing Women to Fly Fighter Aircraft in Combat

Leslie Aspin Jr. (1938 – 1995) served as a United States Representative from Wisconsin from 1971 to 1993, and as the United States Secretary of Defense under President Bill Clinton from January 21, 1993 to February 3, 1994.

Aspin had an interest in defense matters, and by 1985 when he became chairman of the Armed Services Committee, he was recognized as a leading defense authority.

Les Aspin, official Department of Defense photo

He was a controversial figure even in his own party however. In 1987 he supported the Reagan administration’s policies on the MX missile and aid to the Nicaraguan Contras. He again broke with many Democrats in January 1991 when he issued a paper supporting the Bush administration’s intention to use military force to drive the Iraqis from Kuwait. The accuracy of his prediction that the United States could win a quick military victory with light casualties added to his reputation as a military expert.

On April 28 1993, this day in history, Aspin announced a revised policy on the assignment of women in the armed forces: The services were to allow women to compete for assignments in combat aircraft; the Navy was to open additional ships to women and draft a proposal for Congress to remove existing legislative barriers to the assignment of women to combat vessels; and the Army and Marine Corps were to look for opportunities for women to serve in such components as field artillery and air defense.

Within three days Major Jackie Parker became the first female fighter pilot when she transferred from the Air Force to the 138th Fighter Squadron, a unit of the 174th Attack Wing of the New York Air Guard.

Major Jackie Parker

Her career did not go well, however. She was accused on inappropriate behavior toward her male colleagues and incompetency in the air. She in turn accused other members of her unit of sexual misconduct and gender discrimination. The New York Times reported that after an investigation of charges, two of her former commanding officers at the 174th Tactical Fighter Wing, based in Syracuse, were relieved of duty.

February 7, 1971 – Swiss Women Get the Right to Vote

An article in National Geographic by Robert Krulwich reports that men began voting in Switzerland in 1291. Women had to wait another seven centuries for that right.

Finally on February 7, 1971, this day in history, and 53 years after Germany, 52 after Austria, 27 after France and 26 after Italy, Swiss women were granted the right to vote and stand for election. The Swiss Parliament website noted that “Women’s associations in Switzerland had had to pressure the Federal Council and work tirelessly to obtain a majority vote among the People and the cantons.”

In 1928 Swiss suffragettes used a model of a snail to protest at the slow pace of political emancipation, via UK Independent

In 1968, the Federal Council of Switzerland had considered signing the European Convention on Human Rights, without accepting the clause concerning women’s political rights. In the face of massive protests from women’s associations, the Swiss government organized a new vote on women’s suffrage, which saw women finally victorious. At the start of the 1971 winter session, the first female members of parliament took their seats, each being welcomed with a rose.

Krulwich writes:

The Swiss move very slowly. That’s their way. For centuries, husbands had legal authority over their wives’ savings. ‘In the 1970s, I had a bank account in my son’s name. I tried to go and buy something, and they told me I needed the signature of my man,’ a woman told London’s Independent. She was furious. But that was the law. It wasn’t changed until a national referendum in 1985, and the vote that time was a squeaker: a 4 percent plurality.”

January 4, 2007 – Nancy Pelosi Becomes First Woman Elected Speaker of U.S. House of Representatives

Nancy D’Alesandro Pelosi was born on March 26, 1940. She is the highest-ranking female elected official in U.S. history; she held the elected position of Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives from 2007 to 2011 and was re-elected to this position in 2019.

Official portrait of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, photographed January 11, 2019 in the Office of the Speaker in the United States Capitol.

Pelosi, a Democrat, was first elected to Congress from California in 1987. She now represents the 12th congressional district (consisting of four-fifths of the city and county of San Francisco); she originally represented the 5th district before the districts were redrawn.

During Pelosi’s first speakership, she was instrumental in the passage of many landmark bills of the Obama administration, including the Affordable Care Act, the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and the 2010 Tax Relief Act.

Pelosi lost the speakership in January 2011 after the Democratic Party lost control of the House of Representatives in the 2010 elections. However, she retained her role as leader of the House Democratic Caucus and returned to the role of House minority leader. In the 2018 midterm elections, the Democrats won back control of the House. Pelosi was again elected speaker, becoming the first former speaker to return to the post since Sam Rayburn in 1955.

January 2, 1898 – Birth of Sadie Mossell Alexander – 1st African-American to Earn a Ph.D. in Economics and Celebrated Civil Rights Attorney

Sadie Mossell was born on this date, January 2, 1898 in Philadelphia and attended high school in Washington, D.C. She returned to Philadelphia to attend the University of Pennsylvania, graduating in 1918. She earned her master’s degree in economics from there in 1919. Awarded the Francis Sergeant Pepper fellowship, she was able to continue her studies and in 1921 became the second African-American woman in the United States to earn a Ph.D. (The first black woman, Georgiana Simpson, got the degree a day earlier at the University of Chicago.)

Sadie Tanner Mossell receiving Ph.D at the Univ of Pennsylvania

Finding it difficult to get work in Philadelphia, Mossell worked in Durham, North Carolina for two years.

In 1923, Mossell married Raymond Pace Alexander, who graduated from Harvard Law School that year. The two had been classmates at Penn. She returned with him to Philadelphia, and entered law school. She was the first African-American woman admitted to the University of Pennsylvania Law School. In 1927, she was its first African-American woman graduate; her father had been the first black man to graduate from the school. She then became the first black woman to be admitted to the Pennsylvania Bar.

Alexander also had difficulty finding a job in Philadelphia, but ultimately opened his own law practice with a focus on representing black people. Mossell Alexander joined her husband’s law practice, specializing in estate and family law. [Ironically, another lawyer in the firm objected to her hiring, insisting that he would not work with a woman lawyer. Her husband prevailed upon the recalcitrant lawyer, and she took her place at the firm where she would remain for the next thirty-two years. She practiced there until the firm’s demise in 1959, after which she created her own firm. See Kenneth Walter Mack, in “A Social History of Everyday Practice: Sadie T.M. Alexander and the Incorporation of Black Women into the American Legal Profession, pp. 1925-1960,” p. 1424 [87 Cornell L. Rev. 1405 (2002)]

Raymond Pace Alexander in 1943

In court, she also experienced prejudice on account of her gender even more than her race. She later reported that many of her male opponents put up as many roadblocks to her success as they could. One judge refused to invite her into his chambers during conferences, forcing her to stand awkwardly in the doorway with her notes and papers as they conferred. Mack reports many other incidences in which Mossell Alexander was made to suffer for her gender, her race, and even her clothes: “As she was quickly discovering, issues of body, dress, and appearance that were obscured when the bar was composed of men only, suddenly became visible and took on both symbolic and practical import when women entered the profession.” (Mack, 1434) Nevertheless, she persisted, and both her practice and her reputation grew.

At the same time, Sadie Alexander involved herself in a series of public service activities.

In 1928 she was the first African-American woman appointed as Assistant City Solicitor for the City of Philadelphia, serving to 1930. She was reappointed from 1934 to 1938. From 1943 to 1947 she was the first woman to serve as secretary of the National Bar Association.

Credit: Afro Newspaper / Gado / Getty Images

Beginning in the 1930s, she spoke about unfair labor practices directed at African Americans. She advocated interracial labor alliances, public sector job creation, and policies to redistribute national income. She believed such policies would also benefit white workers, who might then be less likely to direct their economic frustrations on racial minorities. (See Nina Banks, “The Black Worker, Economic Justice and the Speeches of Sadie T.M. Alexander,” Review of Social Economy, June 2008, pp. 139-161).

In 1946 she was appointed to the President’s Committee on Civil Rights established by Harry Truman. Mack, (op. cit., 1406) contends “[t]he Committee’s report, ‘To Secure These Rights,’ was one of the most important documents of the post-World War II civil rights movement.”

She was the first African-American woman appointed as Assistant City Solicitor for the City of Philadelphia. In 1952 she was appointed to Philadelphia’s Commission on Human Relations, becoming its chair in 1962. She also participated in national compaigns against housing dis- crimination and police brutality in the city and joined Martin Luther King, Jr. in the historic 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march. She was President of John F. Kennedy Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (1963). In 1981 President Jimmy Carter named her chairwoman of the White House Conference on Aging.

Sadie Alexander c. 1982

[Her husband broke a number of records as well. He gained national prestige from the successful pursuit of civil rights cases, and began to speak around the country. He was appointed by the governor to a judicial vacancy and on January 5, 1959, he was sworn in, the first black judge to sit on the Court of Common Pleas. In the election later that year, he won a full ten-year term on the court.]

In 1976, Mossell Alexander she joined the firm of Atkinson, Myers, and Archie as a general counsel, where she stayed until her retirement.

Mossell Alexander died on November 1, 1989 at age 91 from pneumonia as a complication from Alzheimer’s disease

November 18, 1945 – Birth of Wilma Mankiller, 1st Woman Elected Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation

Wilma Pearl Mankiller was born in Oklahoma on this day in 1945 of mixed parents (her father was Cherokee and her mother was Dutch-Irish). She was an activist, social worker, community developer and the first woman elected to serve as Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation.

Wilma Mankiller

Wilma did not grow up in Oklahoma; in 1956 the federal government moved her family to San Francisco as part of the Bureau of Indian Affairs relocation program. The family did not want to leave but had no choice. Wilma, mocked at school for her name and her background, kept running away, until finally her parents sent her to live on a farm with her maternal grandfather. She married at 18, had two children, and started college. She also got involved in Native American politics, to the displeasure of her husband. They divorced, and she took her daughters with her back to Oklahoma. She built a home on her ancestral land and went to work for the Cherokee Nation government.

In 1979, Wilma survived a near-fatal auto accident requiring seventeen operations and donated kidneys. Eighteen months later she returned to work at a job developing projects to help rural Cherokee communities. She showed respect for the residents, letting them define their own needs, and only advising them how to go about meeting them.

Wilma Mankiller

In 1983, Cherokee Chief Ross Swimmer asked Wilma to run with him as his Deputy Chief in the election for leadership of the Cherokee Nation. They won, and when Chief Swimmer left in 1985 to work in Washington, Wilma became the first female Principle Chief of the modern Cherokee Nation, the second largest tribe in the United States. Two years later she ran on her own and succeeded against stiff opposition. She said:

“Prior to my election, young Cherokee girls would never have thought that they might grow up to be chief.”

She accomplished a great deal, including her 1990 signing of an unprecedented Cherokee Nation self-determination agreement with the federal government. This agreement gave the Nation control of its funding, programs and services from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Sadly, she suffered an early death at age 64 in 2010. But Wilma showed, in her own words:

“Women can help turn the world right side up. We bring a more collaborative approach to government.”