Southern Women Who Changed Our World for the Better

When I think about Women’s History Month, I think about how to properly honor the women who came before me, who changed my world. After all, women have always been the backbone of our world. Our mothers, aunts, grandmothers, and sisters who birthed us, raised us, and showed us how life is to be lived. Our teachers who invested in us and taught us how to think about the world. Our heroes who paved the way for us, broke barriers, and showed us just how to push back on the status quo. And for those of us in the South, we know that women in our region have been the backbone of movements like slavery abolition and civil rights since the inception of our country.

These women should be celebrated all year long, their histories shared with our children, and their legacies continued. But, we can at least take these 31 days in March to celebrate the many, many women who have come before us and contributed to our society in ways that we may take for granted now. With the exception of a small few, the women who have impacted our society have been underrepresented, overlooked, and worse, not credited for the work they’ve done. While we celebrate this month—and learn how to incorporate uplifting women into our daily lives—I want to keep in mind Southern women who have changed our world for the better in many different sectors, and honor their work by remembering them.  Here are a few we should all celebrate:

 

 Photo by Eric and Jamie Gay,  Eric and Jamie Photography

Photo by Eric and Jamie Gay, Eric and Jamie Photography

1.     Dr. Hadiyah Green – Doctor who found groundbreaking cancer treatment

St. Louis, MO. Attended Alabama A&M University and University of Alabama Birmingham

Dr. Green, after experiencing cancer-related diagnoses and deaths in her family, pursued an education in physics and medicine in order to find a new treatment for cancer that didn’t have all-encompassing side effects for patients. Enter lasers. Dr. Green, while testing her laser treatment, became the very first person to effectively cure cancer in mice using lasers—or nanoparticles. As her research advances, Dr. Green wants to ensure that her treatments are affordable and accessible. She will not sell her treatments to pharmaceutical companies and instead will opt for providing treatment to patients through a non-profit. Learn More

 

 Photo by  Donald Uhrbrock /Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Photo by Donald Uhrbrock/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

2.     Harper Lee – Author of To Kill a Mockingbird and recipient of the 2007 Presidential Medal of Freedom for her literature

Monroeville, AL

Harper Lee, born in 1926 in Monroeville, AL, wrote a novel that would change racial discourse—and high school English classes—forever. With her debut novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, Lee brought to the attention of many Americans the jarring realities of segregation in the South. To this day, Lee’s legacy is celebrated for her insightful writing and Southern roots. Her insight into Alabama politics and racial discourse are still quoted today. Lee died in her hometown of Monroeville in 2016.

 

I think there's just one kind of folks. Folks.

- Harper Lee

 

 

3.     Juliette Gordon Lowe – Founder of the Girl Scouts

Savannah, GA

After a childhood full of curiosity and compassion for others, Juliette Gordon Lowe decided to create an organization focused on helping girls reach their full potential in both leadership and community service. In 1912, after meeting the founder of the Boy Scouts, Gordon Lowe took it upon herself to create the equivalent for young girls in her community. Though the organization started in Savannah, Gordon Lowe knew that her organization would change the lives of girls all over the country. She was right. To this day, the Girls Scouts is known for its sisterhood, inclusive structure, and for its addictive cookies, whose sales always go to benefit local communities. Learn More

 

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4.     Annie Lumpkins – Freedom Rider and Civil Rights Activist

Little Rock, AK

As the star of the famous photograph of a young black woman leaving an Arkansas jail in a beautiful polka dotted dress, Annie Lumpkin was one of the incredible women leading the Civil Rights Movement from behind the scenes. Lumpkin was just 18 when she joined the Freedom Riders in their quest to desegregate public transportation in the South through St. Louis-based group of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). On a stop in Little Rock, she and her four fellow activists were arrested for sitting in a whites-only waiting room. Annie and the others were released from jail and they continued their Freedom Rides throughout the South, though the judge in Little Rock was hesitant to let them go with his impending reelection right around the corner. Learn More

 

 

 

 

 

5.   Julia Tutwiler – Advocate for women’s education and prison reform in Alabama

Tuscaloosa, AL

Raised by a father who believed that women and men were equal, Julia Tutwiler received a modern education in Philadelphia prior to the Civil War. Upon the onset of the war, Tutwiler returned home to Alabama to teach at her father’s school in Hale County. There, she became entrenched in working to fix prison conditions for women in Alabama. In 1879, she organized the Tuscaloosa Benevolent Association which organized “civic-minded” women to reform prisons. After years of statewide activism, Tutwiler successfully advocated for education in prisons, separate facilities for men and women, and the appointment of the state prison inspector. Though prison reform is still so needed in Alabama, Tutwiler worked to get her contemporaries to recognize the humanity of prisoners in one of America’s worst state prison systems. Learn more

 

6.     Lilly Ledbetter – Advocate for equal pay for women, namesake of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act

Jacksonville, AL

Lilly Ledbetter is a hero for women across the country, as her discrimination case laid the groundwork for legislation in America that mandates fair pay for women. Ledbetter grew up in small town Alabama in a family without much to their name. She didn’t let that stop her from chasing her dreams, however. In 1979, she applied for, and secured, a management position at the Goodyear factory. She was the first woman they hired outside of the standard  secretary positions. After almost two decades at Goodyear, she received an anonymous tip that she was being grossly underpaid compared to her male counterparts. So, had the courage to file a complaint and sue. After making it all the way to the Supreme Court, and losing her battle on a small technicality, Ledbetter kept fighting. The Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was the first legislation Barack Obama signed into office in 2009. Though we’ve got a long way to go towards equal pay in America, this Alabamian led the way for women to advocate for themselves and fair compensation for their work. Learn More

 

7.     Fannie Lou Hamer – Founder of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, Civil Rights Activist

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Montgomery County, Mississippi

Born in Mississippi in 1917, Fannie Lou Hamer would go on to become a trailblazer for human rights  in her home state. She spent her life working for civil rights in the South, working with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. In 1964, after seeing the racism that was rampant in the Democratic Party in Mississippi, Hamer was integral in founding the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. This party was intended to be a direct opposition to Mississippi’s all white delegation at the Democratic National Convention that year. She made history on national television at the Convention that year, by using her platform to shed light on her experiences as a black woman and activist in the South. She later went on to run for congress in Mississippi. Though she lost. Hamer helped change the national narrative around civil rights in America in a particularly heated and divided time. Learn More

 “There are two things we should all care about: never to forget where we came from and always praise the bridges that carried us over.”

-Fannie Lou Hamer

 

 

8. Laverne Cox – Actress, Trans Rights Activist

Mobile, AL

 Invision/AP

Invision/AP

An Alabama native, Laverne Cox is the first transgender woman to be on the cover of Time magazine, after she and her fans held the magazine accountable for leaving her off their Time 100 list in 2014. Cox was born in Mobile and attended school at the Alabama School of Fine Arts in Birmingham. In addition to starring on shows like Orange is the New Black and Doubt, Cox is an outspoken activist for trans people, particularly trans women of color. Cox has become a leading figure in the movement and has raised awareness about gendered violence against trans people while being a fundamental source of representation in the media.  Learn More

 

Who are some other Southern women we should uplift this month? Be sure to let us know by emailing us (forewordsouth@gmail.com) or reaching out to us on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram (@forewordsouth)!

 

- M. S.