We are in the final week of Women’s History Month and we hope you have enjoyed learning about amazing women who have made their mark on history! If you have missed any part of the series, we suggest starting at the beginning of Because of Her: Seal Celebrates Women, and don’t miss Rory Dicker’s piece Why Don’t We Learn About Feminism?
In addition, we want to hear from you! Who is your favorite unsung female historical hero, either included in our list or not?
African American activist Ella Baker has been called the most influential woman of the Civil Rights Movement and one of the most important African American leaders of the 20th century.
Born in Norfolk, Virginia in 1903, Ella Baker grew up listening to her grandmother’s stories of life under slavery and developed a keen sense of justice from an early age. She graduated as class valedictorian from Shaw University and joined the editorial staff of the American West Indian News, and then the Negro National News. She joined many social activist groups, and became director of the Young Negroes’ Cooperative League, focusing on developing black economic power. It was then that she began working with the NAACP; she joined the NY branch to work on school desegregation and police brutality issues, and was named the director of branches for the organization in 1943, making her the highest ranked woman in the organization. She also helped Martin Luther King Jr. organize the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
After the Greensboro sit-ins, where a group of black college students refused to leave a lunch counter after being denied service, Baker met with student organizers and the sit-in leaders at her alma mater, and founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Baker felt that the young, passionate activists–especially the young women activists–emerging from the Civil Rights Movement could be a tremendous resource and asset to the long-term success of anti-racist organizing with the right support. The SNCC became one of the foremost advocacy groups for human rights in the country and was instrumental in helping to organize the 1961 Freedom Rides, black voter registration drives, and encouraging young activists everywhere.
Ella Baker’s influence was such that she was given the nickname “Fundi” by her students: a Swahili word meaning a person who teaches a craft to the next generation. Baker continued to enable others to fight for justice until her death in 1986.
Madam C. J. Walker
The first of her family to be born into freedom after the Emancipation Proclamation, Madam C. J. Walker was an African American entrepreneur, philanthropist, and the first female self-made millionaire in American history.
Inspired by her knowledge of hair care, Walker became a commission agent for Annie Turbo Malone, but quickly began training women as “beauty culturists,” teaching them the art of the sale in order. She launched her own line of products, starting with “Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower,” a scalp conditioner she had invented for her own hair health needs. She traveled for a year and a half selling and demonstrating her products door-to-door throughout the South; her daughter was put in charge of the mail order side of the business while her husband traveled the East Coast and the South to expand her business.
With her initial profits, Walker founded Leila College in Pittsburgh to train beauticians with a focus on black hair care, and in 1910 she opened her first factory and salon in Indianapolis. Her business soon expanded internationally to Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, Panama, and Costa Rica.
Walker grabbed national headlines with her financial success, shocking the country when she contributed $1000 to help fund a “colored” YMCA in Indianapolis. After moving to her New York offices and leaving the day-to-day operations to her factory forelady, she continued to expand her philanthropy, joining the NAACP and donating heavily to anti-lynching activism and legislation and encouraging her agents and other black businesswomen by funding clubs and organizations.
The company Sundial, which specializes in textured hair products, has a line of beauty products based on Walker’s original line, which is named after her to honor her often-overlooked contributions to black beauty culture.
“There is no royal flower-strewn path to success,” Walker once commented. “And if there is, I have not found it for if I have accomplished anything in life it is because I have been willing to work hard.”