International Women’s Day

10 Overlooked Women from Jeannette Rankin to Umm Kulthum

Celebrate International Women’s Day with the stories of forgotten women artists, crusaders, and activists throughout history.

AFP/Getty; AP; Harlingue/Roger Viollet, via Getty; HO, via AP

AFP/Getty; AP; Harlingue/Roger Viollet, via Getty; HO, via AP

Bill Peters/The Denver Post, via Getty

1. Lupe Anguiano, civil rights pioneer, environmental activist

Lupe Anguiano has devoted her life to civil rights, social justice, and protecting the environment. Anguiano’s parents were migrant workers. As a child, her family lived in Colorado for the first half of the year and moved to California from May to December to work on fruit, vegetable, and nut crops there. Despite being constantly uprooted, Anguiano successfully graduated from high school in Ventura, California, and eventually went on to receive a master’s degree from Antioch College. As a national labor organizer for the United Farm Workers and the founder of the National Women’s Employment and Education Model Program, Anguiano helped organize the 1965 grape boycott in Michigan. A former nun, Anguiano began her crusade to help women trapped in welfare get out of the system. In 1973 she moved into the San Antonio housing projects and within six months, she had helped 500 women get jobs in the private sector, thus taking them off welfare. Anguiano was one of the founding members of the National Women’s Political Caucus, along with Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug.

Bettman/Corbis

2. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first American woman to receive a medical degree

Never underestimate the power of a friend. Elizabeth Blackwell initially decided to go into teaching, but after a close friend, who was dying, said she may have suffered less if her doctor had been a woman, she immediately opted to join the medical field. Born in England in 1821 to abolitionists, she moved with her family to the U.S. when she was 11 years old. After deciding to become a doctor, Blackwell consulted with two physicians who claimed it would be impossible for a woman to join their ranks—despite the fact that they though the idea was brilliant. But she wouldn’t take no for answer. The rest is history: Blackwell applied, and the school put it up for a vote. The all-male student body allegedly voted “yes” as a joke, but it didn’t matter. She graduated from Geneva Medical College two years later—becoming the first woman to graduate from an American medical school. Blackwell then worked in clinics in Paris and London before losing sight in one eye—which forced her to give up her dream of being a surgeon. She opened up a practice in New York with her sister, Dr. Emily Blackwell, and together with Dr. Marie Zakrzewska, they opened the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, which would provide training for women doctors and provide medical care for the poor.

Bettman/Corbis

3. Lillian Gilbreth, known as the ‘inventor’ of the modern-day kitchen

There’s more to her than Cheaper by the Dozen. Lillian Gilbreth and her husband, Frank, virtually pioneered the modern-day kitchen, turning managing household chores into a business. As she told a group of businesswomen in 1930, “We considered our time too valuable to be devoted to actual labor in the home. We were executives.” Gilbreth created the Gilbreth Kitchen Practical, the so-called work triangle, which has become the standard kitchen layout. But Gilbreth was a pioneer of so much more. Born in California as Lillian Moller, her father did not believe in higher education for women. She persuaded him to allow her to attend the University of California, Berkeley, where she not only received her bachelor’s degree in 1900 but became the first female commencement speaker. She went on to receive her master’s degree in 1902, married Frank Gilbreth in 1904, and started a family in 1910. When she received her doctorate in psychology from Brown University in 1915, she already had four children (there were eight more to come). But beyond the kitchen, the Gilbreth couple focused on efficiency in the workplace, not just in the home. They each had their interests: Frank worked on the technical aspects of worker efficiency, while Lillian took on the way people manage their time. After Frank Gilbreth’s death in 1924, Lillian Gilbreth did not abandon their work, and in 1926, she became the first woman member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. She did not retire professionally until she reached her 80s.

Corbis

4. Mary Pickford, the sweetheart of the silent-film era

Known as one of the first “America’s sweethearts” on film—despite being born in Canada—Mary Pickford was one of the biggest stars of the silent-film era. In fact, she appeared in more than 40 films in 1909 alone, her first year on film. She continued to star in movies throughout the 1910s, making $150,000 a year at the height of her career—at a time when the average actor made less than $2,000 a year. During this time, at least one journalist referred to her as the most famous and most popular woman in the world. In 1916 she signed a deal with Adolph Zukor and his Famous Players Film Company to become his partner. Zukor granted her full authority over her films, landing her a minimum of $1 million per year. But after her two-year contract ended, she decided to create her own film company, United Artists, with her future husband, Douglas Fairbanks. Other investors in the new company included D.W. Griffith and Charlie Chaplin—one of the only stars to rival her popularity at the time. By 1921 she had achieved what few women at the time had: she was in total control of her film career. But it was the end of an era for silent films, and she acted in her last silent film in 1927. She stayed on the board of United Artists and acted in a number of “talkies,” earning an Oscar for her role in Coquette in 1929. But the end of her life was turbulent, as she battled alcoholism and eventually became a recluse in the 1960s, receiving visitors only by telephone.

Bettman/Corbis

5. Jeannette Rankin, the first female member of Congress

It took a special woman to be elected to U.S. Congress before the 19th Amendment was passed. Born in Montana in 1880, Jeannette Rankin worked in a number of careers after earning a degree in biology. But it wasn’t long before she found her true calling: women’s suffrage. After leading successful campaigns to get women the vote in Washington state and in her home state, she ran for U.S. Congress as a Republican in 1916—and won. Shortly after she arrived in Washington, President Woodrow Wilson asked for a resolution to enter World War I, but Rankin was one of 50 legislators who voted against it, saying “I want to stand behind my country, but I cannot vote for war.” She sought the Senate nomination in 1920 but lost. It was 20 years before she returned to Congress, when she cast the lone dissenting vote against World War II, despite the hissing and booing of legislators who wanted the vote to be unanimous. “As a woman, I cannot go to war and I refuse to send anyone else,” she said. Later in life, she became active against the Vietnam War, later calling the women whose rights she had fought for, worms. “They let their sons go off to war because they’re afraid their husbands will lose their jobs in industry if they protest.” She died in 1973, at the age of 92—but before the U.S. left Vietnam.

Jim Mooney/New York Daily News Archive, via Getty

6. Madam CJ Walker, the first black millionaire in the United States

The first child in her family born into freedom in 1867, Sarah Breedlove, better known as Madam CJ Walker, became the first black millionaire in the United States. Married at 14, a mother at 17, and widowed by 20, Walker worked a series of odd jobs for years, making as little as $1.50 a day. According to her obituary in The New York Times, Walker realized one day while bending over her wash that she was never going to earn enough money to save for old age—and shortly afterward, she said she had a dream to launch a hair ointment. Due to a scalp disease, she began to lose her hair in the 1890s, causing her to experiment with different types of shampoos to curb hair loss. She soon started her own business, with a capital of $1.25. Walker spent the next few years traveling and promoting her product before settling her business in Indiana. She later moved to New York and purchased a $50,000 home in Harlem, which she then gave to her daughter. She also became active with the NAACP’s campaign to make lynching a federal crime, as well as donating to the YMCA and toward black schools and other organizations. Toward the end of her life, she purchased a $250,000 home in upstate New York, where she died in 1919 due to hypertension.

AP

7. Maria Tallchief, the first Native American prima ballerina

“A ballerina takes steps given to her and makes them her own,” said Maria Tallchief, the first Native American prima ballerina. Tallchief was born in the Osage reservation in Oklahoma in 1925, where she took ballet and piano lessons starting at age 3. Her family soon moved to Los Angeles, where she began studying under the Russian ballerina Madame Nijinska. At 15, Tallchief danced her first solo performance at the Hollywood Bowl, and instead of college, she joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, the Russian ballet troupe based in New York. The first Native American to be part of the troupe, she was pressured to change her name to something more European-sounding. She married the ballet dancer George Balanchine, and became the first prima ballerina of the New York City Ballet from 1947 until 1960. She danced with the company until 1965, when she retired, at the top of her performance. With her sister Marjorie, she formed the Chicago City Ballet in 1981 and served as the artistic director from 1981 until 1987. She was honored by the Kennedy Center in 1996, with guests Johnny Cash, Jack Lemmon, Edward Albee, and Benny Carter in attendance.

Harlingue/Roger Viollet, via Getty

8. Colette, a famed writer and the first French female given a state funeral

Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, known simply as Colette, is considered one of the greatest modern French writers. Born in Burgundy in 1873, her father was a politician who challenged her to match wine glass to wine glass while he tried to get supporters at local cafés—when she was just 6 years old. She left village life when she fell in love with the French music critic Henri Gauthier-Villars, known as Willy, whom she later married. Willy encouraged her to write and shipped her novels off to an editor—under his own name. Although she later divorced him—after he became famous for her writing—many claim Willy was a good editor to her. In 1910 she wrote her first critically acclaimed work in her own name titled, Renee, and by 1927, she became known as the “greatest living writer in France.” Her fame only increased with her novel Gigi, the Caroline series, and the play Cheri. She was a member of the Belgian Royal Academy, but was not admitted to the Academie Française, because it was for men only. Upon her death in 1954, she was the first woman given a state funeral in France.

9. Kate Sheppard, one of the first—and fiercest—crusaders for women’s suffrage in New Zealand

The first country to grant women the right to vote was New Zealand—and one of the key players was Kate Sheppard, a suffragette who is honored on the country’s $10 note. At first, Sheppard joined the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, which advocated for suffrage as a means to ban alcohol. But Sheppard quickly realized the importance of suffrage itself and took the campaign on for other reasons. She lobbied Parliament, wrote letters to newspapers, and gathered signatures. In 1893 a 766-foot-long petition was rolled out in front of Parliament—the longest ever—and despite some fierce opposition, the Electoral Act of 1893 was passed. As a result, 65 percent of women voted in the next election. Sheppard didn’t rest on her laurels after suffrage—she took other women’s issues, such as fighting for contraception rights, and eventually becoming the editor of The White Ribbon, the first newspaper in New Zealand to be owned, managed, and published exclusively by women. She died in 1934, one year after the first woman was elected to Parliament.

AFP/Getty

10. Umm Kulthum, extraordinary Egyptian singer.

Called the “Voice of Egypt,” Umm Kulthum has been described by blogger David Shasha as having the cultural importance of Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, and the Beatles—combined. Her exact birth date is unknown, but what is known is that she began to show immense singing talent at a young age. Despite her humble origins, she quickly became recognized by the fashionable elite in Cairo. But she never forgot her roots, and always left her concerts open to the public. Her popularity grew so large that in 1944, King Farouk I of Egypt recognized her with Egypt’s highest honor. In spite of the reward, she distanced herself from the royal family when they opposed her marriage to the king’s uncle. This incident led her to answer a song request during her radio broadcast to trapped a Egyptian legion in Fallujah during the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict—garnering the support of Gamal Abdel Nasser during the bloodless coup. Her “golden years” are generally considered the 1940s and 1950s, although her performance in 1966 of Ibrahim Nagi’s “Al-Atlal” is considered by many to be her magnum opus. She died in 1973, with millions of Egyptians attending her funeral procession.