Women as the backbone of American history

The heroic shapers and makers of history are always men – or at least, that is what we are led to believe. A quick Google search of “most influential people in history” brings up a Time magazine article from 2013 called “Who’s Biggest? The 100 Most Significant Figures in History.” There are three women listed: Elizabeth I of England, Queen Victoria and Joan of Arc. Women are not intertwined in the historical pageant but instead are separated and pushed aside in favor of their male counterparts. We learn that Watson and Crick discovered the DNA double helix, but not that they stole the research of Rosalind Franklin and then failed to credit her.

To honor Women’s History Month, take some time to learn about these incredible women who shaped American history.

Grace Murray Hopper: Early computer programmer in the U.S. Navy during World War II

Grace Murray Hopper graduated from Yale University in 1934 with a Ph.D. in mathematics. She joined the U.S. Naval Reserve in December 1943 and was assigned to the Bureau of Ships Computation Project at Harvard University. Hopper became just the third person to ever work on Mark I, one of the earliest electromechanical computers. After World War II, Hopper developed the Mark II and Mark III computers while serving in the Navy.

In 1966, her age forced her retirement from the Navy as a commander, which she referred to as “the saddest day of my life.” However, only seven months later, she was recalled to active service during the Vietnam War because of her mathematics and computer skills, where she standardized the Navy’s computer languages. At the age of 79, she retired as a rear admiral and after her death in 1992 Hopper was buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery.

In 1996, the Navy commissioned the U.S.S. Hopper, a guided missile destroyer, and she was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016 by former President Barack Obama. That same year, Yale University renamed Calhoun College as Grace Hopper College.

Patsy Mink: First Woman of Color to serve in the United States House of Representatives

Patsy Mink was born in the territory of Hawaii in 1927 and graduated as valedictorian from high school in 1944. Initially enrolled at the University of Hawaii, Mink decided to transfer to the University of Nebraska after one year. There, she was required to live in a segregated dorm designated for international students and students of color; Mink petitioned to change this policy and, within a year, she garnered enough support and dorms were integrated. After graduating, she was denied admission to ten medical schools because of her gender. Because of this, Mink decided to change her career and applied to the University of Chicago School of Law, where she was one of two women in her class. Despite passing the Hawaii bar exam in 1953, no law firm would hire her because she was a woman in an interracial marriage. Never to be deterred, Mink opened her own practice where she took on women-focused cases such as divorce.

In 1959, Hawaii was admitted as the 50th state of the United States. She ran for election to the United States Congress in 1964 and became the first woman of color to serve. Mink was the primary author of Title IX, which was passed in 1972 and remains in place today. Title IX created opportunities for women in education, particularly in the realm of athletics.

After her death in 2002, Congress renamed Title IX the Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act.

Marsha P. Johnson: Activist who was a prominent figure in the Stonewall Uprising

Marsha P. Johnson was a prominent queer rights activist in New York City in the 1960s and 1970s. She grew up in Linden, New Jersey in a working-class family. After graduating from high school, Johnson moved to New York City where she officially changed her name: the P standing for “Pay It No Mind.”

Johnson engaged with police at the Stonewall Inn uprising in 1969. She helped galvanize the gay rights movement and was one of the organizers for the first Gay Pride Parade. After feeling excluded by gay rights groups because of being transgender and a woman of color, she helped found STAR, “an organization dedicated to sheltering young transgender individuals who were shunned by their families.” She remained an outspoken activist for individuals with HIV and AIDS throughout her life and after her death in 1992, hundreds of people showed up at the church for her funeral.

Johnson remains one of the most revered LGBTQ+ advocates for her courage and determination.