International Women’s Day started as a way to promote equality for women more than a century ago, and that effort eventually led to March becoming recognized as National Women’s History Month. Our culture and skill sets have made impacts near and far, and organizations such as the Michigan Women’s Historical Society strive to celebrate women every day.
Whether their name is famous across the globe or their legacy endures quietly, here are 10 women from the mitten state worth celebrating during Women’s History Month:
1. Rosa Parks
Rosa Parks stood, or rather sat, in 1955 for the dignity and rights of African American women everywhere. After death threats following her involvement in the Bus Boycott, she moved to Detroit in 1957. Parks joined the fight for civil rights here in Michigan as well, and from 1965-1988 she served as secretary to Representative Jon Conyers. While in his office, she dealt directly with constituents and fought for affordable housing, among other rights. When she died in October of 2005, she became the first woman to ever lie in state at the Capitol Rotunda.
2. Serena Williams
I’ve lived in Michigan my whole life, yet this Women’s History Month was the first time I realized that Serena Williams was born in Saginaw. In fairness, she and her similarly famous sister, Venus, were not here very long before moving to places where tennis coaches could further improve their abilities. Serena is most famous for being the #1 ranked female tennis player in the world for 186 consecutive weeks, however she also deserves recognition for her philanthropy. She helped to build schools in Africa, as well as fund college scholarships for underprivileged students in the United States.
3. Andra Rush
Andra Rush started Rush Trucking in 1984 with a small loan and a few trucks. Today Rush Trucking transports goods for Fortune 100 companies. Rush, one of only a few Native American woman owners of a major business, is a 2017 National Women’s History Month honoree. Her business created over 1,000 Michigan jobs, and she serves on US Manufacturing Council advisory committee to the US Secretary of Commerce. She also was given the honor to sit with Michele Obama during the President’s State of the Union address in 2014.
4. Merze Tate
Merze Tate was a trailblazer in higher education for African American women. She grew up in a small town outside of Mt. Pleasant but became a world traveler. She was the first African American to graduate from Western Michigan University, the first female to attend Oxford University in England, and the first to earn a Ph.D in government from Harvard. Despite her educational excellence, the state of Michigan barred her from teaching here due to the color of her skin. She taught in Indianapolis and was a frequent White House guest.
5. Edna Ferber
The story of Edna Ferber fascinated me during my Women’s History Month research. Edna grew up in Kalamazoo, the daughter of an Jewish shopkeeper. She graduated from Lawrence University and found work as a journalist, but she really left her mark as a prolific writer. Ferber penned over 35 novels, most notably Showboat. She won a Pulitzer Prize for her book, So Big, in 1925, and musicals adapted from her works have won Oscar and Tony Awards.
6. Edelmira Lopez
Edelmira Lopez’ impact on the Lansing community has been tremendous. Lopez founded Cristo Rey Church in Lansing in 1961, after realizing the need for religious services for Latinos. She expanded these efforts to the Cristo Rey Community Center, which provides assistance with food, housing, legal services, job training and more. Lopez also fought for the rights of farm workers and was a supporter of Cesar Chavez.
7. Cynthia Yao
I’m a huge kid at heart and adore the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum, whose existence and excellence are due to the vision of Cynthia Yao. The museum has received international recognition and housed acclaimed exhibits. Yao was the first Asian American woman to create a hands-on science center in the United States, and her museum expertise is sought across the United States, Europe and Asia.
8. Cora Reynolds Anderson
Cora Reynolds Anderson was the first woman and only Native American elected to Michigan House of Representatives. She accomplished this only four short years after women received the right to vote. As a state representative, she worked towards improved health care, especially in the fight against tuberculosis. A building bearing her name houses the state representative offices to this day.
9. Clarissa M. Young
Clarissa Young was the first female promoted to sergeant (and later captain) in Michigan, in 1951. Although she grew up in the small town of Shepherd, her beliefs in community policing impacted the entire state. She advocated that police should work together with other social organizations to better the community. In 1968, she co-founded the Women Police of Michigan, an organization that combats sexual and gender discrimination in the law enforcement profession.
10. Harriet Quimby
Harriet Quimby is one of the most fascinating Michigan women to earn recognition during Women’s History Month. Born in the small town of Arcadia, she was the first woman in the country to gain a pilot’s license. Unfortunately tragedy overshadowed her biggest achievement. In 1912, she was the first woman to fly across English Channel, but this great feat happened the day after the Titanic sank. However, a Michigan historical marker highlighting her achievement stands near her childhood home in Arcadia Township.
These are just a taste of the nearly 300 women whose biographies are on display at the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame. March 2017 marks the final celebration of Women’s History Month at the Society’s current location on Malcolm X St. This spring they will move to the Meridian Mall, which will afford more room for displays and exhibits. This will allow even more people to celebrate the many women who have made Michigan, and the world, a better place to live.
How do you plan to celebrate Women’s History Month? Share your personal memories of awesome Michigan women in the comments!