In the midst of obstacles and setbacks, a long list of women made history because they knew that adversity leads to prosperity. To mention a few: Jeannette Rankin, the first woman elected to Congress as a member of the House of Representatives in 1917; Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her seat on a bus for a white rider in 1955; Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman to serve on the United States Supreme Court in 1981; and Sally Ride, the first American woman in space in 1983.
Yet for every well-known, recognized, and acknowledged woman of courage, there are four, five, or more equally brave women who go unknown. Some of these impressive women are denied recognition because they don’t comply with the ways women are expected to behave.
But as Laurel Thatcher Ulrich wrote, “Well-behaved women rarely make history.” Let’s talk about a few of them.
The United States of America was founded on the premise that “all men are created equal”, yet people who were not white males have had to fight, and continue to fight, for equality under the law.
Women had to fight for the right to vote and be considered full citizens. You have probably heard of brave women Elizabeth Cady Staton and Lucretia Mott, who organized the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. The meeting, which had 300 attendees, started the women’s rights movement that led to the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, granting women the right to vote.
There are many other suffragettes whose names are not well known. One is Maria W. Stewart, a Black American who fought for both civil rights and women’s rights in the 1800s. In 1832 Stewart became possibly the first woman of any race to give a public speech on political matters. She spoke in favor of abolition and women’s suffrage in front of a crowd of men and women of all races. Another unsung hero is Mabel Ping-Hua Lee, a Chinese-American woman who in 1912, at the young age of 16, organized and led a parade for women’s right to vote in New York City that was attended by almost 10,000 people. Mary Church Terrell is also worth mentioning for her work fighting for civil rights and women’s rights. Terrell helped found the National Association of Colored Women and served as its president from 1896-1901. Terrell thought that it was key to improving the lives of Black Americans that all women be allowed to vote.
Rosa Parks was not the first or the only Black woman to refuse to give up her seat on a segregated bus in Montgomery Alabama. Before her, at least four incredibly brave women also refused to do so: Claudette Colvin (16 years old), Mary Louise Smith (19), Aurelia S. Browder (37), and Susie McDonald (77).
Claudette Colvin was a strong and opinionated young lady who refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus in March of 1955. In response, two police officers boarded the bus, kicked Colvin, and dragged her off the bus. She was taken to an adult jail and charged with disorderly conduct, violating segregation law, and assault and battery.
When Colvin recounts her experience, she acknowledges the terror she felt when she was taken to the jail and police refused to let her make a phone call. Eventually, Colvin’s mother and pastor came to bail her out of jail. This event would change her life: she was ostracized by some people in her community, and praised by others. She was brave and daring in times when being so was extremely dangerous.
The NAACP chose not to make Colvin the face of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, instead turning to Rosa Parks. When asked why she thinks that occurred, Colvin named a number of factors: her young age, her outspokenness, and her darker skin tone.
About a month after Covin’s brave stand, a Black housekeeper who was tired and frustrated at the end of a long day and refused to be forced to stand for the last mile of her bus ride. Mary Louise Smith said: “I am not going to move out of my seat. I am not going to move anywhere. I got the privilege to sit here like anybody else”. She was arrested and had to be bailed out of jail.
Later that year two additional Black women were arrested for refusing to give up their seats on a bus. Thirty-seven-year-old Aurelia S. Browder was not new to the civil rights efforts: she tutored her fellow Black Americans to help them pass the voter registration exam. She and Susie McDonald, a senior citizen, were arrested together for refusing to give up their seats to white patrons.
These women, Colvin, Smith, Browder, and McDonald, were named as plaintiffs in the federal civil suit, Browder v. Gayle. They testified against the laws of Alabama segregation even though, as they very well knew, their involvement could be deadly for them and their loved ones. These women’s bravery won the case, ending segregation on Montgomery city buses, on June 5, 1956.
Do you know any other interesting facts about these incredible women? Can you name other courageous women who we should profile in a future article? Please let me know below or reach out to me via Twitter. For more of my thoughts on investing your time and money, please visit my company’s website, LexION Capital.
Elle Kaplan is the founder and CEO of LexION Capital, a fiduciary wealth management and woman-owned business firm in New York City serving everyone who feels left out by traditional “Wall Street”, including women and the families they love.