Being a Black Woman is frequently described as being hit by a double whammy because of social biases encountered by women for being black as well as a part of the black community. The emergence of Black Women’s Movement had its roots in the post-colonial activism and civil rights Struggles of the 1950s,1960s and 1970s. This movement sought to give voice to specific issues that affected women including race, gender, class, sexuality and how they intersect. The struggle to protect black women and girls from violence upon their race and gender still remains. Here are some of the women who have fought and worked hard to change these inequities.
1. Jane Matilda Bolin
Born in 1908, Jane was the first black woman to graduate from Yale Law School, the first black woman to join the New York City Bar Association, the first black woman to join New York City Law Department and the first black woman to serve as a judge in the United States.
As a child born to an interracial couple, Jane was subject to discrimination and denied service at various businesses. At 16 years old, she enrolled at Wellesley College in Massachusetts where she was one of only two black freshmen. Having been socially rejected by the white students, she and the only other black student decided to live off campus together. She graduated from Wellesley in 1928 in the top 20 of her class. When Bolin considered applying to Yale Law School, she was discouraged by a career adviser at Wellesley due to her race and gender, which was one of the many instances of discrimination she experienced during her time at Wellesley. Regardless, she persisted, and she attained a Juris Doctor degree from Yale Law School in 1931.
For twenty years, she was the only black female judge in the country who worked to encourage racially integrated child services, ensuring that probation officers were assigned without regard to race or religion, and publicly funded childcare agencies accepted children without regard to ethnic background. She devoted her career to fighting for children’s rights, taking cases related to juvenile delinquency, child abuse and segregation, wives and children who were in dire need of assistance, adoptions, and child welfare.
Bolin was an activist for children's rights and education. She was a legal advisor to the National Council of Negro Women. She served on the boards of the NAACP, the National Urban League, the City-Wide Citizens' Committee on Harlem, and the Child Welfare League. Bolin also sought to combat racial discrimination from religious groups by helping to open a special school for black boys in New York City. During her career, she also worked with Eleanor Roosevelt to create a program that would intervene to stop young boys committing crimes. For her groundbreaking work, Judge Bolin received honorary degrees from different institutions across the country, including Williams College where her father was the first Black graduate.
After a renowned legal career as a judge and activist, Bolin, 98, passed away on January 8, 2007, in Queens, New York. Judge Jane Bolin has been an icon of hope and empowered women and children throughout her life. “Those gains we have made were never graciously and generously granted. We have had to fight every inch of the way—in the face of sometimes insufferable humiliations,” said Judge Bolin in 1958, highlighting women’s rights. These words will echo forever as her legacy continues.
2. Alice Allison Dunnigan
Born in 1906, Alice was a civil rights activist, journalist and author. Dunnigan was the first African female correspondent to receive White House credentials, and the first black female member of the Senate and House of Representatives press galleries. At the age of 13, she began writing for the Owensboro Enterprise. Her dream was to experience the world through the life of a newspaper reporter. Alice graduated from Knob City High School and upon completing a teaching course at Kentucky Normal and Industrial Institute, she taught Kentucky History in the Todd County School System, which was segregated at the time. Noticing that her class was not aware of the African American contributions to the Commonwealth, she started to prepare Kentucky Fact Sheets as supplements to required text. They were collected and formed into a manuscript in 1939, and finally published in 1982 with the title The Fascinating Story of Black Kentuckians: Their Heritage and Tradition.
Dunnigan reported on Congressional hearings where blacks were referred to as "niggers," was barred from covering a speech by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in a whites-only theater, and was not allowed to sit with the press to cover Senator Robert A.Taft's funeral — she covered the event from a seat in the servant's section. Dunnigan was known for her straight-shooting reporting style. Politicians routinely avoided answering her difficult questions, which often involved race issues.
During her years covering the White House, Dunnigan suffered many of the racial indignities of the time, but also earned a reputation as a hard-hitting reporter. She was barred from entering certain establishments to cover President Eisenhower, and had to sit with the servants to cover Senator Taft's funeral. When she attended formal White House functions, she was mistaken for the wife of a visiting dignitary; no one could imagine a black woman attending such an event on her own. During Eisenhower's two administrations, the president resorted first to not calling on her and later to asking for her questions beforehand because she was known to ask such difficult questions, often about race. No other member of the press corps was required to submit their questions before a press conference, and Dunnigan refused. When Kennedy took office, he welcomed Dunnigan's tough questions and answered them frankly.
3. Wangari Maathai
Born in 1940, Wangari was a Kenyan social, environmental and political activist. She is also the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1977, Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement, an environmental non-governmental organization focused on the planting of trees, environmental conservation, and women's rights. In 1984, she was awarded the Right Livelihood Award for "converting the Kenyan ecological debate into mass action for reforestation". Maathai was an elected member of the Parliament of Kenya and between January 2003 and November 2005 served as assistant minister for environment and natural resources in the government of President Mwai Kibaki. She was an Honorary Councilor of the World Future Council. As an academic and the author of several books, Maathai was not only an activist but also an intellectual who has made significant contributions to thinking about ecology, development, gender, and African cultures and religions.
Upon returning to Kenya, Maathai dropped her forename, preferring to be known by her birth name, Wangarĩ Muta. When she arrived at the university to start her new job, she was informed that it had been given to someone else. Maathai believed this was because of gender and tribal bias. Maathai continued to teach in Nairobi, becoming a senior lecturer in anatomy in 1975, chair of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy in 1976 and associate professor in 1977. She was the first woman in Nairobi appointed to any of these positions. During this time, she campaigned for equal benefits for the women working on the staff of the university, going so far as trying to turn the academic staff association of the university into a union, in order to negotiate for benefits. The courts denied this bid, but many of her demands for equal benefits were later met.
Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977 in response to the environmental concerns raised by rural Kenyan women. In the course of her work through the NCWK, she had the opportunity to partner with the executive director of the Norwegian Forestry Society, Wilhelm Elsrud. Along with the partnership for the Norwegian Forestry Society, the movement had also received "seed money" from the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Women. These funds allowed for the expansion of the movement, for hiring additional employees to oversee the operations, and for continuing to pay a small stipend to the women who planted seedlings throughout the country. It allowed her to refine the operations of the movement, paying a small stipend to the women's husbands and sons who were literate and able to keep accurate records of seedlings planted.
In the latter half of the 1980s, the Kenyan government came down against Maathai and the Green Belt Movement. The single-party regime opposed many of the movement's positions regarding democratic rights. The government invoked a colonial-era law prohibiting groups of more than nine people from meeting without a government license. In 1988, the Green Belt Movement carried out pro-democracy activities such as registering voters for the election and pressing for constitutional reform and freedom of expression. The government carried out electoral fraud in the elections to maintain power, according to Maathai.
In October 1989, Maathai learned of a plan to construct the 60-storey Kenya Times Media Trust Complex in Uhuru Park. The complex was intended to house the headquarters of KANU, the Kenya Times newspaper, a trading center, offices, an auditorium, galleries, shopping malls, and parking space for 2,000 cars. The plan also included a large statue of President Daniel Arap Moi. Despite Maathai's protests, as well as popular protest growing throughout the city, the ground was broken at Uhuru Park for construction of the complex on 15 November 1989. Maathai sought an injunction in the Kenya High Court to halt construction, but the case was thrown out on 11 December. In his first public comments pertaining to the project, President Daniel Arap Moi stated that those who opposed the project had "insects in their heads". On 12 December, in Uhuru Park, during a speech celebrating independence from the British, President Moi suggested Maathai be a proper woman in the African tradition and respect men and be quiet. She was forced by the government to vacate her office, and the Green Belt Movement was moved into her home. The government audited the Green Belt Movement in an apparent attempt to shut it down. Despite the government's efforts, her protests and the media coverage the government's response garnered led foreign investors to cancel the project in January 1990.
In the summer of 1998, Maathai learned of a government plan to privatize large areas of public land in the Karura Forest, just outside Nairobi, and give it to political supporters. Maathai protested this through letters to the government and the press. She went with the Green Belt Movement to Karura Forest, planting trees and protesting the destruction of the forest. On 8 January 1999, a group of protesters including Maathai, six opposition MPs, journalists, international observers, and Green Belt members and supporters returned to the forest to plant a tree in protest. The entry to the forest was guarded by a large group of men. When she tried to plant a tree in an area that had been designated to be cleared for a golf course, the group was attacked. Many of the protesters were injured, including Maathai, four MPs, some of the journalists, and German environmentalists. When she reported the attack to the police, they refused to return with her to the forest to arrest her attackers. However, the attack had been filmed by Maathai's supporters, and the event provoked international outrage.
Wangarĩ Maathai was awarded the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize for her "contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace." Maathai was the first African woman to win the prestigious award. According to Nobel's will, the Peace Prize shall be awarded to the person who in the preceding year "shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses"
4. Claudette Colvin
Colvin was born 1939 and pioneer of the 1950s civil rights movement and retired nurse aide. In 1955, Colvin was a student at the segregated Booker T. Washington High School in the city. She relied on the city's buses to get to and from school because her family did not own a car. The majority of customers on the bus system were African American, but they were discriminated against by its custom of segregated seating. Colvin was a member of the NAACP Youth Council and had been learning about the civil rights movement in school. On March 2, 1955, she was returning home from school. She sat in the colored section about two seats away from an emergency exit, in a Capitol Heights bus.
She was arrested at the age of 15 in Montgomery, Alabama, for refusing to give up her seat to a white woman on a crowded, segregated bus. This occurred nine months before the more widely known incident in which Rosa Parks, secretary of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), helped spark the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott. Colvin was one of the five plaintiffs in the court case of Browder v. Gayle. Jeanetta Reese later resigned from the case. The case, organized and filed in federal court by civil rights attorney Fred Gray, challenged city bus segregation in Montgomery as unconstitutional. During the court case, Colvin described her arrest: "I kept saying, 'He has no civil right... this is my constitutional right... you have no right to do this.' And I just kept blabbing things out, and I never stopped. That was worse than stealing, you know, talking back to a white person." Browder v. Gayle made its way through the courts. On June 5, 1956, the United States District Court for the Middle District of Alabama issued a ruling declaring the state of Alabama and Montgomery's laws mandating public bus segregation as unconstitutional. State and local officials appealed the case to the United States Supreme Court. The Supreme Court summarily affirmed the District Court decision on November 13, 1956. One month later, the Supreme Court declined to reconsider, and on December 20, 1956, the court ordered Montgomery and the state of Alabama to end bus segregation permanently
Colvin was not the only woman of the Civil Rights Movement who was left out of the history books. In the south, male ministers made up the overwhelming majority of leaders. This was partially a product of the outward face the NAACP was trying to broadcast and partially a product of the women fearing losing their jobs, which were often in the public school system.
5. Anna Arnold Hedgeman
Born in 1899, Anna was a civil rights activist, educator and writer but most profoundly a lifelong advocate for justice and equality. After graduating from high school in 1918, Arnold attended Hamline University, a Methodist institution in Minnesota, and received a bachelor’s degree in English in 1922. She was the first Black graduate of Hamline University. Arnold began her teaching career at Rust College, a historically Black college in Mississippi. During her two years at Rust, she experienced racial discrimination, which ignited her to advocate for the civil rights movement.
On January 1, 1954, Hedgeman became the first Black woman to hold a mayoral cabinet position in the history of New York City. She served under Robert F. Wagner as a mayoral assistant. She was responsible for eight city departments, acting as liaison with the mayor. She also gave speeches, represented the mayor at conferences and conventions, and hosted United Nations’ visitors to the city. Hedgeman stayed in the position until 1958. Growing increasingly frustrated with the city’s lack of response to Black concerns, she accepted a position as a public relations consultant for the Fuller Products Company.
In 1963, Hedgeman recruited more than 40,000 people to join the March on Washington through her position at the National Council of Churches. That day in Washington, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. Along with civil rights organizers, including the Big Six, Hedgeman was one of the lead organizers in the monumental 1963 March in the nation’s capital. She was the only woman on the planning committee for the March. A firm believer in the power of empathy and compassion, Anna Arnold Hedgeman wrote, “Perhaps it is our mission to make clear that hate destroys, and that love can bring wholeness to mankind,” in her memoir, The Trumpet Sounds: A Memoir of Negro Leadership, published in 1964.
Though Hedgeman has yet to become a household name, she has received numerous honors. She received the Frederick Douglass Award from the New York Urban League; the National Human Relations Award from the State Fair Board of Texas; and awards from the Schomberg Collection of Negro Literature and the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations. Hedgeman received citations from the NAACP, the SCLC, the National Council of Negro Women, and United Church Women. Hamline University awarded her an honorary doctorate in 1948. The New York State Conference on Midlife and Older Women awarded her the “pioneer woman” award in 1983.