4 Influential Women in American History

Because the month of March is International Women’s Day month, I wanted to talk about several influential women in American history who I wish were better known and taught in today’s time. 

A physician and researcher, Jane Cooke Wright is credited as having been among the cancer researchers to discovering chemotherapy. She was the daughter and granddaughter of African American physicians. In 1964, she was the only woman among seven physicians who helped to found the American Society of Clinical Oncology. In 1971, she was the first woman elected president of the New York Cancer Society. Wright was appointed as Associate Dean and Head of the Cancer Chemotherapy Department at New York Medical College in 1967, and apparently, the highest-ranked African American physician at a prominent medical college at the time, and certainly the highest-ranked African American woman physician. She was appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson to serve on the National Cancer Advisory Board, (also known as the National Cancer Advisory Council) from 1966 to 1970 and the President’s Commission on Heart Disease, Cancer, and Stroke from 1964 to 1965.

Mamie Till Bradley was the mother of Emmett Till – the Chicago 14-year-old boy who was lynched while visiting family in Mississippi in August 1955. Photos of his corpse rocked the globe, but we wouldn’t have seen any of those images if his mother hadn’t insisted on an open-casket funeral for him. She was an everyday black woman who had been confronted with this horrific tragedy and made a crucial decision that helped to set off this movement. She had to go through so many hurdles, calling on politicians to help her re-claim his body; they were ready to just quickly bury her son to cover the whole thing up, but she wanted to expose the brutality. Emmett Till’s death and those images were a spark that finally set the civil rights movement ablaze. In spite of death threats, Mamie Till-Bradley then went on a speaking tour to raise awareness about her son’s death. Even after they are denied justice and Till’s killers were acquitted, she continued to be an activist.

Mary Ware Dennett was an artist, suffragist, birth-control reformer, and anti-war advocate. She began her reform career at the National American Woman Suffrage Association where she served as literature coordinator and wrote a number of influential essays for the movement. In 1915, she founded the first birth control organization in the United States, the National Birth Control League (later renamed the Voluntary Parenthood League). She and Margaret Sanger were the leaders of the birth-control reform movement in the 1920s, but her vision of legalizing birth control for everyone who wanted to use it was much more expansive than Sanger’s. Sanger wanted to ensure that birth control remained under the control of physicians and thought medicalizing it was the best path for social acceptance. She successfully overturned Dennett’s vision — birth control as a fundamental right — and today, we know Sanger and not Dennett as a “reproductive rights leader.” But it is interesting to think about how our understanding of contraception and reproductive rights might be different had Dennett prevailed.

Maggie Lena Walker played an important role in making Richmond the cradle of black capitalism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Walker is best known as the first black woman bank president in the United States. She organized and led the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank from its founding in 1903 to her death in 1934. The bank was part of her vision for the Independent Order of St. Luke, a secret society founded in the 1850s by a free woman of color. The IOSL and St. Luke Bank formed the foundation of a financial powerhouse that, at its height in the 1920s, provided financial services to 100,000 members and others in more than 20 states. Before the Great Depression, the IOSL was arguably the largest employer of professional, white-collar black women in the country. Walker battled public misfortune and private pain in a life lived in the public eye. In 2017, the city of Richmond dedicated a memorial statue of Walker on Broad Street. Walker’s memory endures as a devoted crusader for black economic and political rights, especially for black women.


I’d like to thank time.com for some of the information I used in this story. 

For AMR News, I’m Abby Dufour

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Abby Dufour

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