We are in Week Three of our series celebrating amazing women you may not have learned about in History class. Read below and be sure to check out Week One and Week Two.


Flossie Wong-Staal

Flossie Wong-Staal was the first scientist to clone HIV and determine the function of its genes, a vital step in proving that HIV causes AIDS and making HIV testing possible.

Flossie Wong-Staal. Public domain photo/NCI.

Flossie Wong-Staal, the first scientist to clone HIV and determine the function of its genes. Public domain photo/NCI.

Wong-Staal began her research into retroviruses at the National Cancer Institute with Robert Gallo. She and her team of NCI scientists identified HIV as the cause of AIDS (Luc Montagnier and his team of French scientists made the discovery simultaneously). She then cloned HIV and genetically mapped the virus two years later, making HIV tests possible.

She continued her work as chairman of UCSD’s Center for AIDS Research, focusing on a cure for gene therapy and developing a “molecular knife” to repress HIV in stem cells, a protocol that was the second treatment to be funded by the U.S. government.

After retiring from UCSD, she co-founded and joined Immusol, a biopharmaceutical company, as their Chief Scientific Officer, where she worked on improving drugs for Hepatitis C. She has been honored numerous times and was named #32 on a list of “Top 100 Living Geniuses.”


Dolores Huerta

Inspired by her mother to be a feminist and an activist, Dolores Huerta had a desire to fight inequality from an early age. After teaching grammar school, Huerta left and began her lifelong crusade to correct economic injustice.

Dolores Huerta. Art © Sharee Miller.

Feminist and activist Dolores Huerta. Art © Sharee Miller.

“I couldn’t tolerate seeing kids come to class hungry and needing shoes. I thought I could do more by organizing farm workers than by trying to teach their hungry children,” Huerta has said.

Dolores Huerta and César Chávez discovered their common vision of uniting farm workers while working together at the Stockton Chapter of the Community Service Organization, and left to co-found the National Farm Workers Association. Huerta’s organizing skills were vital to the success of the organization. She was essential in securing Aid for Dependent Families and disability insurance for farm workers in California, as well as enacting the Agricultural Labor Relations Act, which allowed farmers to collectively organize and bargain, an unprecedented feat.

Huerta became one of the United Farm Workers’ most visible spokespeople, encouraging successful boycotts and strikes, as well as supporting candidates with grassroots campaigning and nonviolent protest. She is best known for directing the UFW’s national boycott during the Delano grape strike, resulting in the California grape industry agreeing to collective bargaining agreements in 1970. She has been arrested twenty-two times for civil disobedience and nonviolent strikes and boycotts.

Huerta’s activism was not confined to economic injustice. She has lent her voice to feminism, encouraging Latina women to run for office and challenging sexism in the farm workers’ movement, as well as centering race in her conversations about economic inequality.

Huerta founded the Dolores Huerta Foundation to continue her grassroots organizing and develop leadership in local communities, and she has been widely honored for her work, including with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Today, at age eighty-three, Dolores Huerta continues to advocate for the working poor, women, and children, influencing legislation that defends civil rights and increases equality.


Tammy Duckworth

Tammy Duckworth has never shied away from the front lines in combat or in politics. She became a commissioned officer in the US Army Reserve in 1992 and chose to fly helicopters, as it was one of the few combat jobs open to women.

Tammy Duckworth, public domain photo.

Army veteran Tammy Duckworth is the first disabled women to be elected to the House of Representatives. Public domain photo.

While working on her PhD in political science, she was deployed to Iraq, where she lost her right leg near the hip, her left leg below the knee, and shattered her arm when her Black Hawk helicopter was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. She received a purple heart for her service.

She was appointed to serve as the Illinois Director of Veterans’ Affairs, subsequently serving in the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs and founding the Intrepid Foundation to help other veterans with debilitating injuries. In 2013, she became the first disabled woman to be elected to the House of Representatives, and has served as the representative for Illinois’ 8th congressional district ever since.

Duckworth has consistently called for improvement and mandatory funding in veterans’ care, particularly in transitional assistance for those returning to civilian life. During a ceremony in 2011 honoring women veterans, Duckworth said, “I am humbled to be the face of all of my sisters who have worn the uniform.” She is running for Illinois Senator in 2016.


Maya Lin

The daughter of an artist and a poet, Maya Lin is a sculptor, designer, and landscape artist who is best known as the architect of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC.

Maya Lin. Photo © Dax Tran Caffee.

Artist Maya Lin is the architect behind the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC. Photo © Dax Tran Caffee.

Twenty-one-year-old Maya won a public design competition for the memorial while still an undergraduate at Yale, beating out almost 1,500 other submissions. The black reflective masonry wall carved with the names of the nearly 58,000 fallen soldiers was designed to evoke a wound in the earth, symbolizing the gravity of the loss of life. The contest selection was blind, with the submissions being numbered instead of attached to the designers’ names. When it was revealed that the winner was a young Asian American woman, there was a huge controversy. She received a tremendous amount of sexist and racist harassment, and was forced to defend her design in front of Congress, fighting every step of the way to have her vision realized.

Despite the controversy, the memorial has become on of the most iconic and beloved American monuments, with the American Institute of Architects naming the memorial on their list of America’s Favorite Architecture. Lin has gone on to design other sculptures, such as the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, the Museum for African Art in New York, and the Wave Field at the University of Michigan; she also served on the selection jury of the World Trade Center Site Memorial competition.

Maya Lin said, “My work originates from a simple desire to make people aware of their surroundings and this can include not just the physical but the psychological world that we live in.”


Cecilia Chung

Cecilia Chung is a nationally-recognized advocate for LGBT rights, HIV/AIDS awareness, and health-related issues in the queer community.

Cecilia Chung. Photo © <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/skinnylawyer/5969151694/">InSapphoWeTrust</a>, licensed Creative Commons usage.

Cecilia Chung speaking at the 6th Annual California Transgender Leadership Summit. Photo © InSapphoWeTrust, licensed Creative Commons usage.

After graduating with a degree in international management, Chung left her conservative financial job after beginning her transition. Difficulties with money and family led to a period of homelessness. A victim of sexual and physical violence, she struggled to get regular healthcare and to be treated in emergency situations; it was during this period that she contracted HIV.

With the help of her family and strong friendships, Chung was drawn to trans advocacy work. She has worked tirelessly, campaigning for greater access to fair medical care for trans and queer people in San Francisco and against HIV/AIDS stigma. She has worked as an HIV counselor at the UCSF AIDS Health Project, the Asian Pacific Islander American Health Forum, and as the Deputy Director at the Transgender Law Center. She is the first trans woman and the first Asian person to be elected leader of the Board of Directors for the San Francisco Pride Celebration, and the first trans woman and person openly living with HIV to chair the San Francisco Human Rights Commission.

Chung’s contributions to her community are tremendous. She founded the SF TEAM, which provides mentorship and advocacy events for the transgender community in San Francisco, and the annual Trans March. As San Francisco Health Commissioner, she trained the Department of Public Health on understanding trans issues and made San Francisco the first city in the country to pay for gender reassignment surgery for uninsured transgender patients.


Ursula Burns

Ursula Burns, Chair and CEO of Xerox, is the first black American woman to head a Fortune 500 company.

Ursula Burns, public domain photo.

Ursula Burns, the first black American woman to head a Fortune 500 company. Public domain photo/U.S. Government Printing Office.

The daughter of Panamanian immigrants, Ursula Burns started working at Xerox in 1980 as an intern, joining their product development team after completing her MS in mechanical engineering from Colombia University. Her career took an unexpected turn when a senior executive offered Burns a position as his executive assistant. It was through this position that she met soon-to-be CEO Anne Mulcahy, with whom she developed a close partnership. Nine years later she succeeded Mulcahy as CEO. Burns has served on many professional and community boards, and was the Vice Chairwoman of the Executive Committee of The Business Council. In 2010, President Obama appointed Burns to the President’s Export Council.

Rated the 22nd most powerful woman in the world by Forbes in 2014, Burns has been exceptionally visible during her tenure and is a founding board director of Change the Equation, which focuses on improving the U.S.’s education in STEM fields. Discussing her career path, Burns jokes about her reputation as an ambitious and impatient person: “We’ve coined a phrase at Xerox, that ‘impatience is a virtue.’”


Alice Walker

“No person is your friend (or kin) who demands your silence, or denies your right to grow and be perceived as fully blossomed as you were intended.” —Alice Walker

Alice Walker. Photo © Steve Rhodes, licensed Creative Commons usage.

Author and activist Alice Walker. Photo © Steve Rhodes, licensed Creative Commons usage.

Inspired by stories her grandfather told her, Alice Walker began writing at age 8. Living under the shadow of Jim Crow, Walker’s parents worked as sharecroppers and dairy farmers, resisting landlords who expected their children to work as well. Walker’s mother in particular supported her education, enrolling her in first grade at age four. After a terrible eye injury, Walker turned to reading and writing poetry, cultivating a talent for patience and observation.

Walker became involved in the Civil Rights Movement in college, inspired in part by one of her professors, activist Howard Zinn. She returned to the South to participate in voter registration drives and campaign for welfare rights and children’s programs. Walker published her first book of poetry while she was a senior in college, and resumed her writing career in the 70s as an editor for Ms. magazine. The author of several novels, she is best known for her 1982 novel The Color Purple, which won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Her work continued to focus on the struggles of black people, particularly women, and their fight against a violent, racist, and sexist society.

A prominent activist, Walker coined the word “womanism,” meant to unite women of color and give black women representation in the face of exclusionary white feminism. She has been a voice for queer rights as well, stemming from her brief romance with singer-songwriter Tracy Chapman. She is also a fierce anti-war protester, and participated in the Gaza flotilla, and was arrested during an anti-Iraq war rally outside the White House.


Go on to read Week Four >>