Unpacking the Contributions of Women of Color in Women’s History

Women's history hasn't always included the voices or contributions of women of color. This Women's History Month, learn about these changemakers.

portrait of Kim-Ling Sun
by Kim-Ling Sun

Published on February 17, 2022 · Updated on February 28, 2022

Edited by Giselle M. Cancio
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Unpacking the Contributions of Women of Color in Women’s History


Because women's history has not always been inclusive, it is important to highlight the stories of women of color. Black, Native American, Asian American, and Latina voices are all part of the fabric of American society.

Women of all backgrounds bring a wealth of culture and traditions that enrich our point of view if we take the time to listen. What we can learn from the lives of changemakers of color may help us understand the broader picture of what it means to be a woman in America.

Why the 19th Amendment Didn't Allow Women of Color to Vote

On Aug. 18, 1920, the 19th Amendment was ratified, and some women were granted the right to vote in the U.S. The amendment states that "the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex." White women suffragists gained their right to vote, but Black Americans were still kept from the polls.

However, Black Americans were not the only ones excluded from the vote. Other groups, including Asian Americans, could not vote because laws made them ineligible for naturalization due to their race. It took another 23 years before they were granted the right to vote.

Native Americans were not granted the right to citizenship until 1924, and they were not guaranteed the right to vote until the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Women of Color Were Crucial to Women's Suffrage

Although they were often excluded from high-profile suffrage organizations, women of color played a significant role in the American suffrage movement. Unfortunately, those in charge often refused to work with minority women and perpetuated discrimination to push their own political agenda.

In 2019, the Washington Post spoke with historian Sally Roesch Wagner, who noted that the first female political voices in the U.S. were those of Indigenous women. American suffragists learned from Iroquois women and were inspired by the political power they maintained in their tribes. These women predated the colonists, as well as those traditionally celebrated as the founders of the suffrage movement.

The suffrage movement's origins were tied to the abolition movement. As the fight for women's suffrage grew, white suffragists formed the National American Woman Suffrage Association. However, they adopted rules and policies that explicitly excluded the minority women who initiated the fight for a political voice and equal treatment.

Black Women Who Transformed History

Maya Angelou


Award-winning poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou is perhaps best known for her book "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings." She wrote about the impact of racism and sexual assault on Black bodies and women. As a leader in the Black community and the Black feminist movement, she also worked with activists like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. during the civil rights movement.

Coretta Scott King

Coretta Scott King, the wife of Martin Luther King, Jr., was a notable leader in several pivotal movements in the 1960s. Though many of her husband's colleagues were resistant to her increased involvement in the civil rights movement, she proved her determination as an activist. King made great contributions to the women's rights movement by advancing the voices of Black women. In 1968, she founded The King Center, which educates future leaders and inspires social change.

Janet Mock

Director, producer, author, and activist Janet Mock challenges others to rethink the definition of femininity. In her New York Times bestseller, "Redefining Realness," Mock discusses what it means to be a multiracial transgender person in the U.S. and how that fits with the American conception of womanhood. Her courageous prose continues to help shape a new wave of the feminist movement, pushing for those still on the margins.

Native American Women Who Transformed History

LaDonna Harris

A member of the Comanche tribe and a Native American activist, LaDonna Harris founded Americans for Indian Opportunity in 1970. President Lyndon B. Johnson also appointed her to serve on the National Council on Indian Opportunity. In 1980, she was the Vice Presidential candidate for the Citizens Party, running alongside environmentalist Barry Commoner. Most recently, Harris was an honorary co-chair for the 2017 Women's March on Washington. She fights to give voice to those without agency in all her endeavors.

Joy Harjo

Appointed in 2019 as the first Native American Poet Laureate of the United States, writer and activist Joy Harjo works to reveal truths about the human condition. In her most recent book, "Poet Warrior: A Memoir," she illustrates the struggle of Native American women, detailing stories from her life as a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. Harjo calls on all of us to make a difference in the world.

Maria Tallchief

Fighting for visibility in an almost all-white profession, Maria Tallchief was the first famous Native American ballerina. After being turned away from one professional ballet company after another, she found her home at the New York City Ballet. There, she was accepted for her unique talent. She then became the muse for famous choreographer George Balanchine. Maria Tallchief opened doors for future Native American dancers by showing them they deserve to take center stage.

Asian American Women Who Transformed History

Grace Lee Boggs

Grace Lee Boggs was a prominent socialist activist, feminist, and writer. She was active during the civil rights movement with her husband, James Boggs. Born to Chinese immigrants, she constantly strived to improve the lives of all historically excluded communities in the U.S. Boggs became involved in many grassroots movements and advocated for tenant and worker rights throughout her life. She also worked closely with Malcolm X and other notable Black leaders in the movement to improve the lives of minority women.

Yuri Kochiyama

Yuri Kochiyama is most famous for her activism during the civil rights movement and her work with leaders like Malcolm X. Forced into a Japanese internment camp as a child, she later fought for reparations for Japanese Americans in her adulthood. Kochiyama was also involved in many other causes, including desegregating schools. Throughout her career, she fought for the rights of Asian, Black, Latino/a, and Native American people.

Patsy Takemoto Mink

In 1964, Patsy Takemoto Mink became the first Japanese American and the first woman of color appointed to the U.S. House of Representatives. She joined Congress when women were expected to stay home and be homemakers. Because of the discrimination she faced in her professional life, she was one of the principal sponsors and authors of Title IX — legislation that prohibited gender discrimination in education.

Latinas Who Transformed History

Dolores Huerta

Dolores Huerta is one of the most influential labor activists of the 20th century. The famed civil rights leader co-founded the National Farmworkers Association with Cesar Chavez. She originated the rallying cry, "Sí, se puede." She has consistently advocated for women, children, and the working class to receive basic human rights during her lifetime. Huerta served as an honorary co-chair for the Women's March on Washington in 2017.

Rita Moreno

Although most people know Rita Moreno for being the first Latina to win an Oscar, many are unaware of her role as a social activist. She was inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech during the March on Washington, which she attended in person. She has continued to speak out throughout her life, using her stardom to advocate for women's rights. In her 2013 book "Rita Moreno: A Memoir," she delves into breaking through racial and sexual barriers during her career.

Sonia Sotomayor

In 2009, Sonia Sotomayor became the first Latina to be appointed justice to the United States Supreme Court. At that time, she was only the third woman ever to hold that office. Earlier in her career, Sotomayor advocated for more women and minority faculty at the universities she attended. She also fought for affordable housing for low-income individuals. As her career progressed, she brought attention to the need for a greater Latino/a presence in the judicial system. Her autobiography "My Beloved World" chronicles how coming from humble beginnings fueled her desire to fight for the rights of others.

Conclusion

Historically, the part women of color have played in shaping the United States has been broadly dismissed and underacknowledged. However, this country was founded on their backs. These women broke through racial and gender barriers while fighting for basic human rights. Women trailblazers like the ones listed above focussed not only on dismantling the systems that kept them down, but also on the plight of all minorities and oppressed people in America.

Without the contributions of these pioneers, the United States would look very different than it does today.

Despite inclusion efforts, disparities still exist for women in college. Learn why this matters for representation and gender equality. Today, women make up the majority of bachelor's degree-holders — a victory that was only made possible after centuries of battling a sexist education system. This Women's History Month, learn about the accomplishments of 10 women in STEM who changed the course of history.