In a speech last year in Kansas City, President Barack Obama said he received a letter from a nine-year-old girl that included a list of possible women to put on America’s paper bills and coins, “which I thought was a pretty good idea.” In March of this year, Barbara Ortiz Howard and Susan Ades Stone started a campaign called Women on 20s to demand that the government replace former President Andrew Jackson’s image on the $20 bill with a woman from history.
Now, the Obama administration is following through, although not in the way that the two women and the many followers they galvanized had hoped. Last week, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew announced that in 2020—the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote—a woman will appear on the $10 note, not the $20 bill.
Lew explained that the $10 bill was already scheduled to be redesigned to deal with counterfeiting threats. The new currency will feature state-of-the-art security and composition features and will include a tactile element for the visually impaired. Lew hinted that Alexander Hamilton, the nation’s first Treasury Secretary, will not disappear from the $10 note. Whatever woman is selected will be on some of the bills, while Hamilton will remain on others.
“We’ve been asking for historic change, and this is the first step,” Stone said. Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire introduced a bill in April to put a woman on the $20, shared Stone’s mixed emotions: “While it might not be the $20 bill, make no mistake, this is a historic announcement and a big step forward.”
The new $10 note won’t be the first time a woman has been featured on paper currency. In the 19th century, Martha Washington was featured on a dollar bill. And from 1865 to 1869, Pocahontas was part of a group photo featured on the $20 note.
Lew, who has the final say in the matter, said that he will select “a woman who has played a major role in our history who represents the theme of democracy.” The Treasury Department has created a website for Americans to submit suggestions. Comments can also be submitted on Twitter using the hashtag #TheNew10.
The public can propose both which woman should be chosen and which symbols of democracy should be included in the redesigned bill. “We are asking the American people to tell us what democracy means to them,” Lew said. “Their feedback will shape what the new bill will look like.”
To help in that effort, here are the names and brief biographies of 20 women who fought to make the United States a more humane country. They played key roles in the major movements for social justice throughout the nation’s history. When they first advanced their ideas—from abolishing slavery, to granting women the right to vote, to ending child labor, to protecting consumers from harmful products, to creating old age insurance and the minimum wage—they were considered impractical idealists, utopian dreamers, or dangerous radicals. But now we take these ideas for granted.
Although none of these 20 women were elected to office, they had a great influence on public opinion and public policy. The reformers profiled below exercised influence not only because of the large number of people they mobilized but also because of the moral force of their ideas. They influenced Americans’ attitudes about right and wrong, the treatment of different groups, and the responsibility of society to meet human needs.
The law dictates that U.S. currency cannot feature a living person, so a number of women who belong in this pantheon of great reformers—such as labor activist Dolores Huerta, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and tennis star and women’s rights crusader Billie Jean King—do not yet quality.
The women are listed chronologically by their date of birth.
1. Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906). Anthony was a leading abolitionist and suffragist. She was inspired to fight for women’s rights while campaigning against alcohol. Denied a chance to speak at a temperance convention because she was a woman, she realized that no one would take women in politics seriously unless they had the right to vote. In 1856, she began working as an agent for the American Anti-Slavery Society. After the Civil War, Anthony began to focus more on women’s rights. She helped establish the American Equal Rights Association in 1866 with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, calling for the same rights to be granted to all regardless of race or sex. In 1869, the two suffrage leaders founded The Revolution, a weekly publication that lobbied for women’s rights. The newspaper’s motto was “Men their rights, and nothing more; women their rights, and nothing less.” In 1869, they founded the National Woman Suffrage Association. A tireless campaigner, Anthony gave speeches around the country to convince others to support a woman’s right to vote. In 1872, she voted illegally in the presidential election. She was arrested for the crime, unsuccessfully fought the charges, was fined $100, but refused to pay it. She died before women got the vote through the 19th Amendment in 1920.
2. Harriet Tubman (1822-1913). Born into slavery, Tubman was best known as an abolitionist and leader of the Underground Railroad, but she was also an outspoken advocate for granting women the right to vote. She is most well-known for being a conductor on the Underground Railroad. The physical violence she suffered early in life caused permanent physical injuries. In 1849, fearing that she, along with the other slaves on the plantation, was to be sold, Tubman resolved to run away. She set out one night on foot. With some assistance from a friendly white woman, Tubman was on her way. She followed the North Star by night, making her way to Philadelphia, where she found work and saved her money. Rather than remaining in the safety of the North, Tubman made it her mission to rescue her family and others living in slavery. The following year she returned to Maryland and escorted her sister and her sister’s two children to freedom. By 1856, Tubman’s capture would have brought a $40,000 reward from the South. On one occasion, she overheard some men reading her wanted poster, which stated that she was illiterate. She promptly pulled out a book and feigned reading it. The ploy was enough to fool the men. During a 10-year span she made 19 trips into the South and escorted over 300 slaves to freedom. She helped create an elaborate secret network of safe houses—the Underground Railroad—organized for that purpose. As she once proudly pointed out to fellow abolitionist Frederick Douglass, in all of her journeys she “never lost a single passenger.”
3. Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902). Stanton was an abolitionist and leading figure of the early woman’s rights movement. In 1840, she married abolitionist reformer Henry Stanton and, in a symbol of their commitment to women’s rights, omitted the word “obey” from their marriage oath. They attended the World’s Anti-Slavery Convention in London, where she joined other women in objecting to their exclusion from the assembly. On returning to the United States, they settled in Seneca Falls, New York. In July 1848, she helped organize the first major women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls. She drafted the “Declaration of Sentiments” and took the lead in proposing that women be granted the right to vote. Along with Susan B. Anthony, whom she met in the early 1850s, Stanton was one of the leaders in promoting women’s rights in general (such as divorce) and the right to vote in particular. The duo formed the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) in 1869. Stanton was the NWSA’s first president—a position she held until 1890, when it merged with another suffrage group to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Stanton served as the president of the new organization for two years. As a part of her work on behalf of women’s rights, Stanton traveled around the country, calling for an amendment to the Constitution giving women the right to vote. She stirred controversy (even within the women’s suffrage movement) by arguing that the Bible and organized religion played in denying women their full rights. With her daughter, Harriet Stanton Blatch, she published a two-volume critique, The Woman’s Bible, published in 1895 and 1898.
In 1893, as a result of Kelley’s research and organizing work, the Illinois legislature passed the first factory law limiting work for women to eight hours a day and prohibiting the employment of children under the age of 14. That year, Illinois Governor John Altgeld appointed her the state’s first chief factory inspector, a position she used to expose abusive working conditions, especially for children. In 1899, she moved to New York City, where she led the National Consumers League and lived at the Henry Street Settlement. She turned the NCL into a powerful group that changed public awareness of oppressive working and living conditions and influenced many of the most important pieces of social and workers’ rights legislation in the first third of the 20th century. In 1904, she helped organize the National Child Labor Committee to push for state laws to protect children. In 1912, the group’s organizing efforts persuaded Congress to create the Federal Children’s Bureau. Kelley successfully lobbied for the creation of the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics so that reformers would have adequate information about the condition of workers. In 1908 she gathered sociological and medical evidence for Muller v. Oregon and in 1917 gathered similar information for Bunting v. Oregon to make the case for an eight-hour workday. Kelley believed that women with her class privilege had a moral duty to advocate for laws to protect workers, women and children from the often brutal conditions of unregulated capitalism. “We that are strong,” she wrote as a young woman, “let us bear the infirmities of the weak.”
5. Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860–1935). Gilman was a pathbreaking feminist, humanist, and socialist whose lectures, novels, short stories, magazine articles, and nonfiction books challenged the dominant ideas about women’s role in society and helped shape the movement for women’s suffrage and women’s rights. By the late 1800s, Gilman was the most important feminist thinker in the United States. She combined economic and sociological writings with fiction and utopian thinking, giving her a broad appeal. Gilman grew up in a poor family in Providence, Rhode Island. Her father abandoned his wife, who had to depend on family charity and was forced to move frequently. As a girl, Gilman wrote stories in her diary that typically involved a young woman who—often through some magical device—overcomes the limits of her life. With an older woman as her guide, she achieves personal salvation and overcomes evil in society. These themes—of independent women surmounting social boundaries, not simply as individuals but as part of a broader social reconstruction—appear in Gilman’s influential writings throughout her life. After attending her first suffrage convention in 1886, she began writing a column on suffrage. She addressed the 1896 conference of the National American Woman Suffrage Association in Washington and testified for suffrage before Congress. She called women “subcitizens” and their disenfranchisement “arbitrary, unjust, unwise.” Her semi-autobiographical short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892) described a woman who suffers a mental breakdown resulting from a “rest cure”—prescribed by her physician husband—of complete long-term isolation in her bedroom. The story was a powerful statement about the restrictions domestic life placed on women and had a significant influence in women’s circles.
After divorcing her husband in 1894, she moved with her daughter to Pasadena, California, where she became active in several feminist and reformist organizations such as The Pacific Coast Woman’s Press Association, the Woman’s Alliance, the Economic Club, the Ebell Society, the Parents Association, and the State Council of Women. In many books, including Women and Economics (1898), The Home (1903), Human Work (1904) and The Man-Made World (1911), she argued that women would be equal to men only when they were economically independent, and she encouraged women to work outside the home and for men and women to share housework. She believed that housekeeping, cooking and childcare should be professionalized. Girls and boys, she thought, should be raised with the same clothes, toys, and expectations. Between 1909 and 1916 Gilman wrote and published The Forerunner, a socialist magazine devoted to women’s emancipation and radical social change. There she published many of her own essays, articles, and stories and serialized seven of her novels. In her utopian novel Herland (1915), the author visits an island community of women organized around the principle of New Motherhood, where cooperation in all spheres of life has replaced male domination, competition, and war. Some of Gilman’s fellow feminists tried to put her ideas into action. For example, in 1915, after a lobbying campaign by the Feminist Alliance, New York City’s school system changed its policies and permitted women to continue teaching after they married and even after they had children. She was among the prominent women (led by Jane Addams) who founded the Woman’s Peace Party to protest against World War I.
6. Jane Addams (1860–1935). The founder of the settlement house movement and of the American social work profession, Addams was an important Progressive Era urban reformer, a founder of the NAACP, a champion of women’s suffrage, an anti-war crusader, and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Addams carved out a new way for women to become influential in public affairs. In 1889 she and her college friend, Ellen Gates Starr (1859–1940), founded Hull House in one Chicago’s immigrant slum neighborhoods, inspired by similar efforts she had seen in England. Initially, the Hull House women took care of children, nursed the sick, and offered kindergarten classes and evening classes for immigrant adults. They then added an art gallery, public kitchen, gym, swimming pool, coffee house, cooperative boarding club for girls, book bindery, art studio, music school, drama group, circulating library and employment bureau. Hull House soon became a hub of social activism. Addams and other residents sponsored legislation to abolish child labor, establish juvenile courts, limit the hours of working women, recognize labor unions, make school attendance compulsory, and ensure safe conditions in the factories and slum housing. The Progressive Party adopted many of these reforms as part of its platform in 1912. At the party’s national convention, Addams seconded the nomination of Theodore Roosevelt for president and campaigned actively on his behalf. She advocated woman’s suffrage because she believed that women’s votes would provide the margin necessary to pass social legislation she favored. In her autobiography, Twenty Years at Hull-House (1910), she argued that society should both respect the values and traditions of immigrants and help the newcomers adjust to American institutions. Hull House became the inspiration for hundreds of other settlement houses in cities across the country and helped establish the fields of both social work and community organizing. Addams served as the first female president of the National Conference of Social Work and established the National Federation of Settlements. She compiled her talks on ending war in Newer Ideals of Peace, published in 1907. After World War I began, Addams became chair of the Women’s Peace Party and served as president of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom from 1919 to 1929. For her efforts, she shared the 1931 Nobel Peace Prize.
7. Ida B. Wells (1862-1931). Wells was an African-American journalist and activist who led an anti-lynching crusade in the United States in the 1890s. She was born a slave in Holly Springs, Mississippi, six months before the Emancipation Proclamation. After Emancipation, her father, a carpenter, got involved with the Freedman’s Aid Society and helped start Shaw University, a school for the newly freed slaves in Holly Springs, serving on its first board of trustees. Ida attended that school (which later changed its name to Rust College) until she was 16, when her parents and some of her brothers and sisters died in a yellow fever epidemic. To support her surviving brothers and sisters, Wells lied about her age and found a job as a teacher for $25 a month. In 1880, she and her two younger sisters moved to Memphis to live with an aunt. In Memphis she taught at a black school and took summer courses at Fisk University in Nashville. In May 1884, Wells purchased a first-class train ticket from Memphis to Nashville. The train’s conductor ordered her to move to the car for African Americans. She refused and was forcibly removed from the train. She sued the railroad and won a $500 settlement in a circuit court, but that decision was overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court in 1887. Outraged by her treatment and by the court ruling, Wells began to write about issues of racial injustice for the Negro Press Association. She soon became editor of a weekly, Evening Star, and then of Living Way, at first writing under a pseudonym, “Iola.” Black newspapers around the country reprinted her articles. Wells eventually became an owner of Memphis’ Free Speech and Headlight, a black newspaper. She also worked as a teacher in Memphis’ public schools, but was fired in 1891 for criticizing the school district’s system of racial segregation. In 1892, her friend Thomas Moss and two other African-American men were lynched in Memphis. From that moment on, Wells dedicated her life to campaigning against lynching. In her editorials, she urged African Americans to leave Memphis.
At that time, there were about 200 lynchings a year and about two-thirds of the victims were black men, although the proportion was even higher in the South. Lynch mobs, which often included a town’s leading citizens, wanted to keep blacks “in their place,” economically and socially. Wells put her life at risk by spending several months traveling through the South to probe lynching incidents and write about them. She published a report, Southern Horrors, which documented her findings. Her writing was part of a wave of investigative “muckraking” reporting that exposed social injustices. She used her paper to denounce the lynching, and to encourage blacks to retaliate by boycotting white-owned businesses and the segregated public transportation system. Angry with Wells’ writings, a white mob invaded her Memphis newspaper office and destroyed its equipment. Fortunately, Wells was in New York City at the time. She was warned that she would be killed if she returned to Memphis. She wrote a lengthy report on lynching for the New York Age, an African-American newspaper. She continued to write and speak out about lynching and agitate for laws to ban the inhumane practice.
In 1894 she traveled to England and started the British Anti-Lynching Society, bringing international attention to the lynching of African Americans in the American South. She moved to Chicago and continued her anti-lynching crusade. In her book, A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynchings in the United States, published in 1895, Wells challenged the “rape myth” used by lynch mobs to justify the murder of African Americans. Instead, she wrote, most lynch victims had challenged white authority or had successfully competed with whites in business or politics. In 1898, she led a protest in Washington, D.C., demanding that President William McKinley support an anti-lynching law. She worked with Jane Addams to defeat an attempt to segregate Chicago’s public schools. She cowrote a pamphlet to protest the exclusion of blacks from the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. In 1909 she was one of the founders of the NAACP, whose first major crusades were against lynching. But she withdrew her membership and criticized the organization for not being militant enough. She often criticized middle-class blacks, including ministers, for not being active enough in helping the poor within the black community. In 1910, inspired by Hull House, Wells helped found and became president of the Negro Fellowship League, which established a settlement house in Chicago to serve the many African Americans arriving from the South. She also participated in the National Equal Rights League, which called on President Woodrow Wilson to end to discriminatory hiring practices for federal government jobs. She founded the first black woman suffrage organization—the Alpha Suffrage Club of Chicago—which sent her as a delegate to the National American Woman Suffrage Association’s parade in Washington, D.C. She refused to join black delegates at the back of the procession and thus integrated the parade by marching with the Illinois delegation.
8. Alice Hamilton (1869–1970). Hamilton was a physician whose patient was America’s working class. She was a brilliant scientist and an untiring reformer who founded the field of occupational medicine, which has helped save tens of millions of workers from unnecessary workplace injuries, diseases, and deaths. Hamilton was a pioneer in the field of toxicology, studying occupational illnesses and the dangerous effects of industrial metals and chemical compounds on the human body. One of the few women of her generation to attend medical school, she received her medical degree in 1893 from the University of Michigan. She studied bacteriology and pathology at universities in Munich and Leipzig from 1895 to 1897. When she returned to the U.S., she continued her postgraduate studies at the Johns Hopkins University Medical School. In 1897 she moved to Chicago, where she became a professor of pathology at the Woman’s Medical School of Northwestern University.
Soon after moving to Chicago, Hamilton became a member and resident of Hull House. Living side by side with the poor residents of that immigrant neighborhood, she became increasingly interested in the problems workers faced, especially occupational injuries and illnesses. Hamilton opened a well-baby clinic for poor families in the Hull House neighborhood. She learned about the daily lives of these families. She observed the strange deaths that blighted them, the prevalence of lead palsy and wrist drop (both the result of lead poisoning), and the significant number of widowed women. Hamilton quickly realized that these problems were not simply medical issues but the result of social and economic conditions. The Industrial Revolution of the late 19th century had led to new dangers in the workplace. In 1907, Hamilton began exploring existing literature from abroad, noticing that industrial medicine (the illnesses caused by certain jobs) was not being studied much in America. She set out to change this, and in 1908 published her first article on the topic. Hamilton combined the new laboratory science of toxicology with “shoe leather epidemiology”—firsthand visits to workplaces to examine conditions and track down examples of workers poisoned by exposure to lead and other toxins. Workers were often too intimidated by their bosses to talk to Hamilton at work, so she visited them at home, where they could speak more openly.
In 1910 Illinois governor Charles Deneen appointed Hamilton to the newly formed Occupational Diseases Commission of Illinois, the first such investigative body in the United States. She published numerous benchmark studies that helped raise awareness of dangers in the workplace. In 1919 she became the first woman appointed to the faculty at Harvard Medical School, serving in its new Department of Industrial Medicine, but she was still discriminated against as a woman, excluded from social activities and the all-male graduation processions. From 1924 to 1930 she served as the only woman member of the League of Nations Health Committee. After her retirement from Harvard in 1935, Hamilton served as a medical consultant to the U.S. Division of Labor Standards, and retained her connections to Harvard as professor emerita. She was the first woman to receive the prestigious Lasker Award in public health. It is an ironic symbol of her pioneering accomplishments that one of her distinctions is having been listed in a book of eminent scientists called Men of Science, published in 1944. She is a giant in the annals of public health not only because of her important research but also because she helped educate and mobilize the public and promoted legislation to protect workers and their communities. In 1900 only 5 percent of American physicians were women. By 1960 that number was still only 6 percent. Today it is about half.
In 1914 she launched a newsletter, the Woman Rebel, with backing from unions and feminists. When the newsletter covered the topic of venereal disease, Sanger went up against the U.S. postal inspector Anthony Comstock, a one-man army against all things sexual. Congress had passed the Comstock Law, which made illegal the delivery or transportation of “obscene, lewd, or lascivious” material and banned contraceptives and information about contraception from the mails. Comstock censored her column, the first of many run-ins. He then seized the first few issues of the Woman Rebel from Sanger’s local post office. She got around him by mailing future issues from different post offices. Thousands of women responded to the newsletter, anxious for information on contraception. Sanger wrote articles on health for the Socialist Party paper, The Call, and wrote several books, including What Every Girl Should Know (1916) and What Every Mother Should Know (1916). In 1916 she set up the nation’s first birth control clinic in Brooklyn, serving mostly immigrant women. Sanger smuggled in diaphragms from the Netherlands and tried to recruit a physician to properly fit them in her patients, but no doctors were willing to face possible imprisonment. Although doctors were allowed to provide men with condoms as protection against venereal disease, they were not allowed to provide women with contraception. Instead, Sanger and her sister, Ethel Byrne, also a nurse, provided the services. In 1917 they were arrested for “creating a public nuisance.” They were convicted, but the judge offered Sanger a suspended sentence if she would agree not to repeat the offense. She refused. Offered a choice of a fine or a jail sentence, she chose the latter and spent 30 days in jail. Sanger appealed and a year later the New York Court of Appeals upheld her conviction. However, the judge ruled that physicians could legally prescribe contraception for general health reasons rather than exclusively for venereal disease. In 1921 she founded the American Birth Control League, which eventually became Planned Parenthood.
To the detriment of her reputation and of the cause of reproductive freedom, Sanger was also attracted to aspects of the eugenics movement. Sanger’s primary focus was on freeing women who lived in poverty from the burden of unwanted pregnancies, but by embracing eugenics, she appeared to be crossing the line in troubling ways. Although many of the eugenics movement’s leaders were racists and anti-Semites who promoted involuntary sterilization in order to help breed a “superior” race, Sanger was not among them. Her embrace of eugenics was intended to stop individuals from passing down mental and physical diseases to their descendants. She believed that reproductive choices should be made on an individual basis. She always repudiated the use of eugenics, including sterilization, for specific racial or ethnic groups. In the 1920s, when anti-immigrant sentiment reached a peak and some scientists sought to justify restricting immigration by claiming that some ethnic groups were mentally and physically inferior, Sanger spoke out against the stereotyping that led to the Immigration Act of 1924. In 1930, with the support of W. E. B. Du Bois, the Urban League, and the Amsterdam News (New York’s leading black newspaper), Sanger opened a family planning clinic in Harlem, staffed by a black doctor and a black social worker. In 1939, encouraged by Du Bois, Reverend Adam Clayton Powell Jr. of Harlem’s powerful Abyssinian Baptist Church, journalist Ida Wells, sociologist E. Franklin Frazier, educator Mary McLeod Bethune, and other black leaders, Sanger expanded her efforts to the rural South, where most African Americans lived. Sanger remained an activist for birth control and women’s rights throughout her life. Planned Parenthood played a key role in the Supreme Court’s 1965 ruling, Griswold v. Connecticut, which established a woman’s right to control over her personal life and made birth control legal for married couples. This paved the way for Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court ruling that recognized a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion.
10. Helen Keller (1880–1968). The bronze statue of Keller that sits in the U.S. Capitol shows the blind girl standing at a water pump. It depicts the moment in 1887 when her teacher, Anne Sullivan, spelled “W-A-T-E-R” into one of her 7-year-old pupil’s hands while water streamed into the other. This was Keller’s awakening, when she made the connection between the word Sullivan spelled and the tangible substance splashing from the pump, whispering “wah-wah,”—her way of saying “water.” This scene, made famous in the play and film The Miracle Worker, has long defined Keller in the public mind as a symbol of courage in the face of overwhelming odds. Less well known (but no less inspiring) is the fact that Keller was a lifelong activist who participated in the great movements for social justice of her time. In her investigations into the causes of blindness, she discovered that poor people were more likely than the rich to be blind, and soon connected the mistreatment of the blind to the oppression of workers, women, and other groups, leading her to embrace feminism, pacifism, and socialism. Keller was born on a plantation in Tuscumbia, Alabama, to Arthur Keller, a former Confederate officer and a conservative newspaper publisher, and Kate Keller, a descendant of John Adams. At 19 months old, she lost her sight and hearing as a result of a fever. She became uncontrollable, prone to tantrums—kicking, biting, and smashing anything within reach. In that era, many blind and deaf people were consigned to an asylum. Some family members suggested that this was where Helen belonged. Instead, her mother contacted the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston, which recommended that a former student, the 20-year-old Sullivan, become Helen’s private tutor. In 1887 Sullivan moved to the Kellers’ home and eventually helped calm Helen’s rages and channel her insatiable curiosity and exceptional intelligence. With Sullivan’s support, Keller learned to read and write Braille, and by the age of 10 she had begun to speak.
In 1894, at 14, Keller began formal schooling—initially at the Wright-Humason School for the Deaf in New York and then at the Cambridge School for Young Ladies. Sullivan accompanied her, spelling into her hand letter-by-letter so she could read the books assigned in her classes. At Radcliffe College (from which she graduated magna cum laude in 1904), Keller was first exposed to the radical ideas that helped her draw connections among different forms of injustice. She began to write about herself and her growing understanding of the world. In a 1901 article entitled “I Must Speak” in the Ladies’ Home Journal, Keller wrote, “Once I believed that blindness, deafness, tuberculosis, and other causes of suffering were necessary, unpreventable. But gradually my reading extended, and I found that those evils are to be laid not at the door of Providence, but at the door of mankind; that they are, in large measure, due to ignorance, stupidity and sin.” She visited slums and learned about the struggles of workers and immigrants to improve their working and living conditions. “I have visited sweatshops, factories, crowded slums,” she wrote, “If I could not see it, I could smell it.” In addition to giving inspirational lectures about blindness, Keller also talked, wrote, and agitated about radical social and political causes, making her analysis explicit in such books as Social Causes of Blindness (1911), The Unemployed (1911), and The Underprivileged (1931).
In 1909 Keller joined the Socialist Party, wrote articles in support of its ideas, campaigned for its candidates, and lent her name to help striking workers. Although she was universally praised for her courage in the face of her physical disabilities, she now found herself criticized for her political views. She was a strong advocate for women’s rights and women’s suffrage, writing in 1916: “Women have discovered that they cannot rely on men’s chivalry to give them justice.” She supported birth control and praised its leading advocate, Margaret Sanger, with whom she had many mutual friends. Keller argued that capitalists wanted workers to have large families to supply cheap labor to factories but forced poor children to live in miserable conditions. “Only by taking the responsibility of birth control into their own hands,” Keller said, “can [women] roll back the awful tide of misery that is sweeping over them and their children.” She donated money to the NAACP—then a young and controversial civil rights organization that focused on opposition to lynching and job and housing discrimination against African Americans—and wrote for its magazine. At an anti-war rally in January 1916, sponsored by the Women’s Peace Party at New York’s Carnegie Hall, Keller said, “Strike against war, for without you no battles can be fought! Strike against manufacturing shrapnel and gas bombs and all other tools of murder! Strike against preparedness that means death and misery to millions of human beings! Be not dumb, obedient slaves in an army of destruction! Be heroes in an army of construction!”
In 1918 she helped found the American Civil Liberties Union, which was initially organized to challenge the U.S. government’s attempts to suppress the ideas of and jail or deport radicals who opposed World War I, including Socialists and members of the Industrial Workers of the World. The following year she wrote a letter, addressed to “Dear Comrade” Eugene Debs, the Socialist labor leader and presidential candidate, in jail for advocating draft resistance during World War I. She wrote, “I want you to know that I should be proud if the Supreme Court convicted me of abhorring war, and doing all in my power to oppose it.” In 1924, while campaigning for Senator Robert La Follette, the Wisconsin radical and anti-war stalwart who was running for president on the Progressive Party ticket, Keller wrote him a note: “I am for you because you stand for liberal and progressive government. I am for you because you believe the people should rule. I am for you because you believe that labor should participate in public life.” After 1924, Keller devoted most of her time and energy to speaking and fundraising for the American Foundation for the Blind. But she continued to agitate for women’s rights. In 1932, she wrote an article for Home magazine, “Great American Women,” praising the early suffragists Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. She also penned a humorous article for the Atlantic Monthly, “Put Your Husband in the Kitchen.” In 1948, Keller visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki, cities destroyed by American atomic bombs at the end of World War II, and spoke out against nuclear war. The FBI kept Keller under surveillance for most of her adult life for her radical views. But Keller never saw a contradiction between her crusade to address the causes of blindness and her efforts to promote economic and social justice. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964.
11. Frances Perkins (1880–1965). Perkins grew up in a comfortable middle-class Republican family in Worcester, Massachusetts. At Mount Holyoke College, she was deeply influenced by an economic history course that required her to visit factories in the nearby industrial city of Holyoke and interview workers about their working conditions. She was also affected by reading How the Other Half Lives, Jacob Riis’s exposé of New York’s slums. In 1902, during her senior year, Perkins attended a campus talk by Florence Kelley, head of the National Consumers League, who became Perkins’s role model and mentor. After graduation, Perkins took a series of teaching positions in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Chicago. In her spare time, she volunteered at settlement houses in each city, including Hull House. One of her duties was to try to collect wages for workers who had been cheated by their employers, a responsibility that took her into the homes of the city’s poorest residents. In 1907, she took a $50-a-month job with the Philadelphia Research and Protection Association. Backed by church and philanthropic groups, the group helped immigrant white girls from Europe and African-American girls from southern states who were then arriving in Philadelphia in great numbers, hoping to find work, but often preyed upon or robbed.
After earning her master’s degree in economics and sociology from Columbia University in 1910, Perkins spent the next two years as head of the New York Consumers League. In that capacity, she conducted studies of unsafe and unsanitary workplaces, such as cellar bakeries, that exploited women and children, forcing them to work in dangerous conditions. She became an expert in workplace dangers and firetraps. Collaborating closely with Kelley, she lobbied the state legislature for a bill limiting the workweek for women and children to 54 hours. She also became active in the women’s suffrage movement, marching in suffrage parades and giving street-corner speeches. On March 25, 1911, Perkins witnessed the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, one of the city’s largest garment factories, which employed immigrant girls in miserable, overcrowded conditions. In total, 146 workers, most of them young immigrant women, died in the fire. In response to the outcry over these deaths, New York Governor John Alden Dix created the Factory Investigating Commission, a pioneering body with broad subpoena powers and teams of investigators. Its leaders, legislators Robert F. Wagner and Al Smith, asked Perkins to lead the investigation. Their work resulted in the first major laws protecting workers from unsafe factory conditions. In 1929, New York Governor Franklin Roosevelt named her the state’s industrial commissioner. In that capacity, she visited the United Kingdom to see if that country’s unemployment insurance and old-age assistance laws could be adopted in the United States. She expanded factory investigations, reduced the workweek for women to 48 hours, and championed state minimum wage and unemployment insurance laws. After FDR’s victory in the 1932 presidential election, he appointed Perkins his Secretary of Labor, the first woman in a Cabinet job. Serving in that position from 1933 to 1945, she helped secure a remarkable array of benefits for American workers, including jobs programs (the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Public Works Administration and its successor the Federal Works Agency, and the National Industrial Recovery Act). Among FDR’s inner circle of advisors, she was the strongest proponent of the landmark National Labor Relations Act, passed in 1935, which gave workers the right to unionize. She led the fight for the 1935 Social Security Act, which established unemployment benefits, pensions for elderly Americans and financial aid for the poorest Americans. She was also the prime mover within the Cabinet for the Fair Labor Standards Act, passed in 1938, which created a federal minimum wage, established a 40-hour work week, guaranteed time-and-a-half for overtime in certain jobs and prohibited most employment of minors in “oppressive child labor.”
12. Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962). Throughout her life Roosevelt fought on behalf of America’s most vulnerable citizens. She became friends with a widening circle of union activists, feminists, civil rights crusaders, and radicals whose ideas she embraced and advocated for both as President Franklin Roosevelt’s wife and adviser and as a political figure in her own right. She came from a long line of privilege and was sent to boarding school in England. When she returned to the U.S., she quickly realized that she preferred volunteering with social reform groups to going to fancy balls. From 1902 to 1903 she volunteered at the Riverton Street Settlement House on the Lower East Side, teaching exercise and dance to children. Unlike her peers, who arrived in carriages, she insisted on taking public transportation, forcing herself to overcome her fears and walk even at night through the Bowery, a low-rent area. She also became immersed in the National Consumers League (NCL), led by Florence Kelley. Through the NCL, she investigated and publicized dreadful working conditions in garment factories. She also met many progressive activists who shaped her political consciousness. In 1905 she married her distant cousin Franklin and became his unofficial guide and conscience regarding the suffering of the poor, workers, African Americans, and women. After World War I, she coordinated the League of Women Voters’ legislative efforts, mobilizing members to lobby for bills. She raised money for the Women’s Trade Union League, worked for bills regulating maximum hours and minimum wages for women workers, and forged friendships with such labor activists as Rose Schneiderman, with whom she walked picket lines. Her involvement with reform movements prepared her to become the most influential and politically progressive first lady in American history after FDR was elected president in 1932.
As First Lady, she devoted considerable time to those hardest hit by poverty, visiting an encampment of World War I veterans (called Bonus Marchers) in Washington, sharecroppers in the South, and people on breadlines in San Francisco and in the slums of Puerto Rico. Her public support for union organizing drives among coal miners, garment workers, textile workers, and tenant farmers (including the racially integrated and left-wing Southern Tenant Farmers Union) lent visibility and credibility to their efforts. She invited union organizers, women activists, and others to the White House and seated them next to FDR so he could hear their concerns. In 1933 she began holding her own press conferences, for women reporters only, in part to preserve their jobs during the Depression. Her influence was such that the president often had her float ideas to journalists and others to see how they would fly politically. She was much bolder than FDR in opposing racism, segregation, and lynching. She became a close friend of Walter White, head of the NAACP and made a point of publicly joining the controversial civil rights organization. In 1939 she resigned in protest from the Daughters of the American Revolution after that organization refused to rent its Constitution Hall to African American opera singer Marian Anderson, who had previously sung at the White House. Instead, Roosevelt worked behind the scenes to arrange for Anderson to sing to 75,000 people at the Lincoln Memorial. In February 1940 she shared the stage with the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins and the Socialist Party’s Norman Thomas at a National Sharecroppers Week forum at a New York hotel. Before and during World War II, she worked with White, Aubrey Williams, A. Philip Randolph, and others to eliminate racial discrimination in the armed forces and in private defense employment.
She developed a strong voice as a public speaker and prolific writer of magazine articles and books and spoke frequently on the radio. Her syndicated column My Day, about her life in the White House, appeared six times a week in some 180 papers around the country. She tried to convince FDR to support the Permanent Court of International Justice, commonly called the World Court, which had been set up after World War I to settle disputes among nations. Privately FDR agreed with the idea, but he considered it politically too risky and allowed the Senate to reject U.S. membership in the court by a seven-vote margin. Starting in 1939, as the Nazis were engaged in genocide against Jews, Eleanor fought for special legislation to admit Jewish refugees, especially children, to the United States, but without FDR’s public support the idea went nowhere. After FDR’s death in 1945, President Harry S. Truman appointed her to the five-person U.S. delegation at the first meeting of the U.N. General Assembly held in London in 1946. She played a pivotal role, addressing the full assembly, without notes, and swaying the vote against forced repatriation of refugees, allowing them to choose where they wished to settle. For three years, Roosevelt lobbied, debated, and maneuvered to get the United Nations to adopt a statement on human rights. In 1948 she chaired the U.N. Human Rights Commission, and under her leadership the General Assembly, meeting in Paris, passed, at 3:00 a.m. on December 10, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, still a landmark document.
13. Alice Paul (1885 – 1977). Paul was the key organizer of the women’s suffrage movement that led to the passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920. Born into a Quaker family, her parents were strong supporters of gender equality and her mother was a member of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. She graduated from Swarthmore College with a degree in biology in 1905. One of her professors, Susan Cunningham, liked to say, “Use thy gumption.” Much of Paul’s political life could be summarized by those words. After Swarthmore, she earned a master’s degree in sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1907 she moved to England to practice social work among the poor at a Quaker-run settlement house in Birmingham. There she met Christabel and Emmeline Pankhurst, a mother-daughter duo who led a militant suffrage movement, Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). They often engaged in violent and destructive action in their bid to be heard. Paul joined their movement and was arrested and imprisoned. Paul took solace in a motto that one of her fellow activists carved into the prison wall: “Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God.” On her return to the U.S. in 1910, she was determined to emulate the model of the English suffrage movement in her own country. While earning her Ph.D. in economics at the University of Pennsylvania (her dissertation examined women’s legal status), she joined the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). At the suggestion of Jane Addams, she was soon appointed head of the committee responsible for working for a federal women’s suffrage amendment. She and her friend Lucy Burns began planning an elaborate parade on the eve of Woodrow Wilson’s presidential inauguration, scheduled for March 4, 1913. About 8,000 college, professional, middle- and working-class women marched with banners and floats down Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol to the White House. The crowd watching the march was estimated at half a million people; many harassed the marchers while the police stood by. Troops were called to restore order and to help the suffragists get to their destination—six hours after the parade started. The melee generated headlines, making the issue of women’s suffrage a topic of conversation around the country. But Paul’s ideals and tactics clashed with those of the NAWSA leaders, so she and Burns left to start their own group, the National Woman’s Party (NWP), in 1916. The NWP published a weekly paper and staged demonstrations, parades, mass meetings, picketing, hunger strikes, and lobbying vigils. During the U.S. Presidential elections in 1916, the NWP protested against Wilson’s refusal to support women’s suffrage.
In January 1917, she organized the “Silent Sentinels.” Activists would stand outside the White House holding banners asking, “Mr. President, what will you do for suffrage?” and “Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?” Over the next 18 months, more than 1,000 women picketed, including Alice, every day except Sunday. Wilson initially patronized the protesters, tipping his hat to them when he passed by. But when the United States entered World War I, Wilson and others became irate over the idea of women picketing outside the White House while the nation was at war. Angry mobs attacked the protesters, and police began arresting them on the trumped-up charge of obstructing traffic. Sent to a prison in Virginia, Paul and her colleagues adopted the tactics she had learned in England. They demanded to be treated as political prisoners and staged hunger strikes. Their jailers beat them and confined them to cold, unsanitary, rat-infested cells. The press reported on the suffragists’ terrible experiences in prison, and politicians and activist groups demanded their release. The public outcry played a role in Wilson’s decision in 1917 to reverse his stance and announce his support for a suffrage amendment. He explained that it was a “war measure”—to stop the controversy over women’s rights from dividing the country during wartime. But it was not until the war was over, in 1919, that both the House and the Senate passed the 19th Amendment. It was ratified by state legislatures the following year. Paul viewed that victory as only a first step. She drafted the Equal Rights Amendment in 1923 but had to wait almost 50 years—until 1972—before Congress passed it, only to watch it die when too few states ratified it. In the 1930s and 1940s she worked with the League of Nations and then the United Nations to get those institutions to adopt the principle of gender equality. In the 1960s she spearheaded a coalition that added a sexual discrimination clause to Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, a landmark law that helped break down many barriers to women’s equality.
14. Dorothy Day (1897–1980). Day founded the Catholic Worker movement, combining militant pacifism, radical economic redistribution and direct service to the poor, creating houses in urban slums that provided food and shelter to the destitute. Raised in San Francisco and Chicago, as a child Day was an avid reader. Upton Sinclair’s radical novel The Jungle inspired her to take long walks in Chicago’s poor neighborhoods. In 1916 Day dropped out of the University of Illinois after two years and moved to New York City, where she got involved in bohemian and radical circles. She convinced the editor of The Call, a socialist paper, to pay her $5 a week to cover strikes and peace meetings. In November 1917 Day was one of 40 women arrested and then briefly jailed during a rally in front of the White House to protest the brutal treatment of imprisoned suffragist Alice Paul. After they arrived in prison, Day and other women launched a hunger strike and were eventually freed by presidential order. It was the first of her many arrests. In the late 1920s, Day went through a spiritual awakening, which eventually led her to embrace Catholicism. She began writing for Catholic publications such as Commonweal and America, where she fused socialist ideas with Catholic social teaching. With virtually no seed money, Day launched the Catholic Worker newspaper, publishing the first issue on May 1, 1933. She and her friends hawked the paper to passersby in Union Square for a penny a copy. Her timing could not have been better. It was the midst of the Depression, and a newspaper aimed at the downtrodden—radical but not doctrinaire—had plenty of appeal. Within a few months, the print run had increased to 25,000, and it rose to 110,000 within two years. In addition to addressing labor issues, the Catholic Worker tackled other topics that the regular Catholic press would not touch, including racism, lynching, and corporate greed. As the newspaper attracted a following, Day sought to put her principles into practice.
In 1933 Day and others opened the first Catholic Worker house in a Harlem storefront. They soon rented an apartment with space for 10 women, and then a place for men. Catholic Worker activists continued to participate in direct action as well as service. They picketed the German consulate in 1935 to protest the rise of Nazism, walked picket lines with striking workers, and helped on breadlines. By 1936 the Catholic Worker movement had opened 33 hospitality houses around the country. The staff did not try to convert their guests to Catholicism or radicalism. They imposed no conditions. The outbreak of the Spanish Civil War tested Day’s pacifist views. Most leaders of the Catholic Church supported the fascist general Francisco Franco, seeing the battle as one of Christianity versus communism. Day received a great deal of hate mail when she refused to take sides in the war because of her pacifist beliefs. But Day viewed Franco as Adolf Hitler’s ally and was one of the founders of the Committee of Catholics to Fight Anti-Semitism. In the 1960s, Day actively opposed the Vietnam War. In 1973, when she was 76 and in failing health, she traveled to the San Joaquin Valley in California to demonstrate with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers union. Along with 1,000 others, she was jailed—for the final time. Although she was known to say, “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed so easily,” many Catholics have tried to get Day canonized by the Catholic Church for her lifetime of social and spiritual activism.
15. Margaret Mead (1901–1978). Mead was the world’s best-known anthropologist and one of the first to look at human development in a cross-cultural perspective. Her many articles, books, lectures, and television appearances helped Americans understand and respect the wide variety of cultures and everyday practices around the world. She was particularly influential in explaining that there is no single thing called “human nature” and that different kinds of child rearing practices and gender roles can be equally valid. Her research and views about such social issues such as women’s rights, child rearing, sexual morality, population control, environmental pollution and world hunger gained a wide audience. Both of Mead’s parents were social scientists but she was primarily influenced by her grandmother, a child psychologist, who taught her to watch the behavior of the younger children to figure out the reasons behind their actions. She graduated from Barnard College in 1923 and after studying with famous anthropologists Franz Boas and Dr. Ruth Benedict earned her Ph.D. from Columbia in 1929. In 1925, she went off to Samoa on a fieldwork to study the life of adolescent girls. She found that young Samoan girls experienced none of the tensions that the American and European teenagers suffered from. In 1928, she went off on another expedition in New Guinea to study of the thought of young children. Her first book, Coming of Age in Samoa (1928), became a best seller. This work alerted many people that gender roles were as much a product of culture as of biology and differed from one society to another. Her next books, Growing Up in New Guinea (1930) and Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (1935), refuted the notion that “primitive” peoples are “like children” and that male domination was universal around the world. She authored or coauthored more than 40 books and served as president of major scientific associations, including the American Anthropological Association and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Mead’s broad understanding of human adaptation led her to speak out on a very wide range of issues. She insisted that human diversity is a resource, not a handicap, that all human beings have the capacity to learn from and teach each other. She believed that racism, warfare, and environmental exploitation were learned, and not inevitable, and that the members of a society could work together to modify their traditions and to construct new institutions. She expressed this belief most succinctly with her slogan, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.” In 1979, she was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
16. Ella Baker (1903–1986). Baker was probably the most influential, and the least-known, organizer within the civil rights movement, in large part because she believed in being a behind-the-scenes presence. Baker grew up in rural North Carolina not far from where her grandparents had been slaves. For high school, Baker’s parents sent her to the boarding school affiliated with Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina. She remained at Shaw for college, edited the student newspaper, and graduated as class valedictorian in 1927. Then she moved to Harlem. Financial hardship forced Baker to set aside her dream of getting a graduate degree in sociology. Despite her college education, her race and gender limited her job prospects, and she wound up waiting on tables and working in a factory. She began to write articles for the American West Indian News and in 1932 found a job as an editorial assistant and office manager for the Negro National News. The suffering brought on by the Depression troubled her deeply. Harlem was a hotbed of radical activism, and Baker soon got involved in local groups working on behalf of tenants and consumers. In 1931 she organized the Young Negroes’ Cooperative League and became its national director. The group sponsored cooperative buying clubs and grocery stores both to reduce prices and to bring people together for collective action. In her next job, paid for by the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration, she organized consumer cooperatives among housing project residents. She taught adult literacy and consumer education, often with a focus on young women and housewives. In 1935 she wrote an exposé of the exploitation of black domestic servants for the NAACP journal Crisis.
In 1938, Baker started working for the NAACP, traveling throughout the South, recruiting new members, working with local leaders to strengthen their chapters, and helping them organize campaigns against lynching, for equal pay for black teachers, and for job training. One of the leadership-training workshops she organized was attended by Rosa Parks, an active NAACP member in Montgomery, Alabama. Baker’s experiences convinced her that “strong people don’t need strong leaders.” She worked to cultivate what she called “group leadership” in contrast to leadership by charismatic figures or by people of higher economic status. She would carry these lessons with her the rest of her life. In 1946 Baker left her NAACP job and returned to New York City to raise her niece but remained active in the organization. In 1952 she was the first woman elected president of its New York City chapter. Soon after the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott erupted, Baker, Bayard Rustin, and Stanley Levinson (a close adviser to Martin Luther King Jr.) used their connections with northern liberals and unions to establish In Friendship, which raised funds and provided support for the boycott campaign. After the Montgomery buses were desegregated, the three of them talked extensively with King about establishing a new organization to build similar campaigns throughout the South. This was the genesis of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which catapulted King from local to national leadership. For the next two and a half years, Baker ran the new organization’s day-to-day operations.
Late in the afternoon of February 1, 1960, four young black men—Ezell Blair Jr., David Richmond, Franklin McCain, and Joseph McNeil, all students at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College in Greensboro—visited the local Woolworth’s store. They purchased school supplies and toothpaste, and then they sat down at the store’s lunch counter and ordered coffee. “I’m sorry,” said the waitress. “We don’t serve Negroes here.” The four students refused to give up their seats until the store closed. The local media soon arrived and reported the sit-in on television and in the newspapers. The four students returned the next day with more students, and by February 5 about 300 students had joined the protest, generating more media attention. Their action inspired students at other colleges across the South to follow their example. By the end of March sit-ins had spread to 55 cities in 13 states. Many students, mostly black but also white, were arrested for trespassing, disorderly conduct, or disturbing the peace. As the sit-ins began, Baker met with the young activists and encouraged the young activists to build a movement from these isolated local protests. She invited the activists to a conference over Easter weekend, April 16 to 18, at her alma mater, Shaw University, to discuss how to capitalize on the growing momentum of the sit-ins. She expected 100 participants to attend, but more than 300 activists showed up. The fruit of the meeting was the founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). SNCC would expand the sit-in campaign, but it also used other tactics, such as freedom rides and voter registration drives, to tear down segregation. SNCC’s work reinvigorated the civil rights movement. Many of the young civil rights activists called Baker “Fundi,” a Swahili title for a master technician who oversees apprentices, to acknowledge her role as their mentor. Baker resigned from SCLC and worked as a volunteer for SNCC, supporting herself as a paid consultant for the Atlanta YMCA. With Baker’s help, the SNCC activists mobilized a voter registration effort that led them to create the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to challenge the all-white state delegation to the 1964 Democratic Party convention in Atlantic City. Baker gave the keynote speech at the MFDP’s statewide convention at the Masonic Temple in Jackson before they head to New Jersey. Baker gradually drifted away from SNCC, but continued her involvement with the civil rights movement, including several years working on school desegregation efforts with the Southern Conference Educational Fund.
17. Rachel Carson (1907–1964). Carson was a marine biologist and a reluctant activist. She became a household name when her 1962 book Silent Spring alerted the public to the dangers that pesticides (such as DDT) have on the environment and on health. Carson was a prolific and graceful writer who learned how to translate her understanding of scientific facts into works that raised public awareness about the natural world. Her specialized knowledge of marine biology, genetics, and other fields never diminished her sense of the majesty of the natural environment. At the Pennsylvania College for Women (now Chatham University), Carson explored her two passions: literature and biology. Despite society’s prejudice against women in science, Carson’s biology teacher, Mary Scott Skinker, encouraged her to pursue graduate school at Johns Hopkins University. She earned her master’s degree in zoology and genetics in 1932 and taught for a few years at Johns Hopkins and at the University of Maryland, while spending her summer conducting research at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Massachusetts. In the midst of the Depression, Carson lacked the funds to finish her Ph.D. She took a temporary position with the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries (now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) as the writer for the Romance under the Seas radio show. In 1936 the Bureau hired her as a full-time biologist. She eventually became the chief editor of all the Bureau’s publications. Her 1941 book, Under the Sea-Wind, earned critical acclaim but little popular attention. Her next book, The Sea Around Us (1952), brought her fame and many scientific honors. During World War II, the United States used the insecticide DDT to kill lice and mosquitoes and to protect against outbreaks of malaria and typhus. After the war, chemical companies produced over 200 pesticides for use by farmers, foresters, and millions of suburbanites determined to keep insects off their lawns. Pesticide use grew from 125 million pounds in 1945 to 600 million pounds a decade later, but the public was generally unaware of the dangers. This was part of a larger business-sponsored crusade to persuade Americans that science and technology could save humankind from the threats of disease, war, and hunger, could make society more efficient and productive, and could generally make life easy. Carson’s most profound influence was creating popular skepticism of business claims about the safety of chemicals in our food, water, air, toys, clothes, and other aspects of the environment and daily life. Carson was concerned about the use and abuse of science and technology. Human arrogance and power, she believed, could be used to “change drastically—or even destroy—the physical world.”
After four years of research, her Silent Spring, published in 1962, carefully documented the dangers of pesticides and herbicides. (The title referred to a spring when no birdsongs could be heard because the birds had been killed by pesticides.) She revealed the long-term presence of toxic chemicals in water and on land and its threat to animals, the habitat, and humans. Among other things, she documented the presence of DDT in breast milk. Carson called for a ban on the more harmful, long-lasting chemicals like DDT and for tighter government regulations on the manufacture and sale of other chemicals. She urged scientists to find other ways to fight pests to reduce the deadly poisons in the environment. Carson accused the chemical industry of intentionally spreading misinformation and government officials of uncritically accepting industry’s claims. The chemical industry attacked Silent Spring as “sinister” and “hysterical.” Industry spokespersons called Carson an alarmist. DuPont, Monsanto, and other corporations, including baby food companies, as well as the pesticide industry trade group, the National Agricultural Chemicals Association, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce brochures and articles attacking Carson’s credentials and promoting and defending pesticides. The chemical industry’s campaign against Silent Spring brought more attention to the book, increasing public awareness and sales. It became a best seller. CBS Reports broadcast an hour-long television program about it, even after two major corporate sponsors withdrew their support. President John F. Kennedy discussed Silent Spring at a press conference and appointed a presidential science advisory committee to look into the problem of pesticides. Congress held hearings on the topic. Carson testified before both groups. In 1963 the Kennedy task force issued a report supporting Carson’s scientific claims. Carson’s work helped spark the modern environmental movement. A few years after she died, in 1970, Congress established the Environmental Protection Agency. Two years later, the federal government banned the use of DDT. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously in 1980.
18. Rosa Parks (1913-2005). In the popular legend, Parks is portrayed as a tired middle-aged seamstress in Montgomery, Alabama, who, at the spur of the moment after a hard day at work, decided to resist the city’s segregation law by refusing to move to the back of the bus. She is typically revered as a selfless individual who, with one spontaneous act of courage, triggered the bus boycott and became, as she is often called, “the mother of the civil rights movement.” That popular legend is misleading. Parks’ defiance of Montgomery’s segregation laws in 1955 was not an isolated incident. It was part of her lifelong crusade to dismantle Jim Crow. She was a veteran activist and part of a local movement whose leaders had been waiting for the right moment to launch a campaign against bus segregation. Parks graduated from high school in 1933 at a time when less than 7 percent of African Americans had a high school diploma. In the 1930s, she and her husband, Raymond Parks, a barber, raised money for the defense of the Scottsboro Boys, nine young black men falsely accused of raping two white women. Involvement in this controversial cause was extremely dangerous for southern blacks. In 1943, Parks became one of the first women to join the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP which, at the time, was considered a radical organization by most southern whites, especially politicians and police officials. Joining the NAACP put its members at risk of losing jobs and being subject to vigilante violence. In 1943, Parks made her first attempt to register to vote. Twice she was told she didn’t pass the literacy test, a Jim Crow invention to keep blacks from voting. In 1945, she passed the test and became one of the few blacks able to exercise the right to vote. She served for many years as the NAACP chapter secretary and director of its youth group.
As NAACP youth director, Parks helped black teenagers organize protests at the city’s segregated main public library because the library for blacks had fewer (and more outdated) books, but blacks were not allowed to study at the main branch or browse through its stacks. Bus segregation had long been a source of anger for southern blacks, including those in Montgomery. “It was very humiliating having to suffer the indignity of riding segregated buses twice a day, five days a week, to go downtown and work for white people,” Parks recalled. The city’s black leaders had long discussed organizing a boycott to challenge the segregation laws. During the summer of 1955, Parks attended a 10-day interracial workshop at the Highlander Folk School, a training center for union and civil rights activists in rural Tennessee, to discuss strategies for implementing the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling against school segregation. That August, two white racists in Mississippi kidnapped and murdered a 14-year old African American named Emmett Till and then an all-white jury acquitted the two killers. Parks’ Highlander experience and the Till murder were on her mind on Thursday, December 1, 1955, when she finished her work at the Montgomery Fair department store, boarded a city bus, and sat with three other blacks in the fifth row, the first row that blacks were allowed to occupy. A few stops later, the front four rows were filled with whites. One white man was left standing. According to law, blacks and whites could not occupy the same row, so the bus driver asked all four of the blacks seated in the fifth row to move. Three acquiesced, but Parks refused. The driver called the police and had Parks arrested. Because of her stellar reputation, her activism, and her web of friendships, word of Parks’ arrest spread quickly. What followed is one of the most amazing examples of effective organizing in American history, including a 381-day boycott that mobilized Montgomery’s black community and catapulted a newly arrived 26-year-old minister at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Martin Luther King, Jr., into local and then national prominence. During the boycott, Parks and her husband were fired from their jobs. In 1957, they moved to Detroit, where Parks continued her involvement in the civil rights movement while she worked as a seamstress at a small factory and then in Congressman John Conyers’ Detroit office. In 1999, President Bill Clinton presented Parks with the Medal of Freedom, the highest award the U.S. government can bestow on a civilian. When Nelson Mandela visited Detroit in 1990, he insisted on meeting with Parks. Mandela said that Parks had inspired him while he was jailed in South Africa.
19. Fannie Lou Hamer (1917–1977). No one symbolized the civil rights movement better than Hamer, a charismatic and courageous plantation worker from rural Ruleville, Mississippi who galvanized the country with her stirring words and her remarkable courage. Hamer was the youngest of 20 children born to impoverished, hard-working sharecroppers in the heart of cotton country. The family often went hungry. Shoes were a luxury that Hamer did not enjoy for many years. She was forced to stop her education in the sixth grade to work in the fields to help her family. She was first exposed to activism in the 1950s, when she attended meetings of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership, founded by Mississippi physician T. R. M. Howard to promote voter registration, equal schools, and other civil rights. When organizers from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) came to Ruleville in August 1962, Hamer was ready. She attended a meeting at Williams Chapel Church and was the first to raise her hand high when the organizers asked who would be willing to register to vote. She later said, “I guess if I’d had any sense I’d a-been a little scared.” Soon after, Hamer and 17 other brave souls took the bus to the Sunflower County seat in Indianola, Mississippi, to try to register to vote. On the bus, she began singing hymns, such as “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and “This Little Light of Mine,” to bolster the group’s morale. Others had been turned away before them, but this time, she and one other person, Ernest Davis, were allowed in. Before they could register, they had to take one of the infamous literacy tests designed to disenfranchise black people. She failed the test. By the time she returned home, she had lost her job, but she had discovered her passion. She became a leader and public figure in the civil rights movement. In 1963 she traveled throughout the South with SNCC, living on a stipend of $10 a week. She met with people in homes, churches, and elsewhere, encouraging them to register to vote. Hamer and others organized citizenship classes, which included reading lessons, instruction on how to take the voter registration test and how to use a bank account, and lots of singing. One participant observed that the classes were designed to help people “unbrainwash” themselves.
In 1964 Hamer was in the vanguard of Freedom Summer, educating and training busloads of idealistic volunteers, many of them college students, who came from the North to help register voters. That year, Hamer helped found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), a pivotal part of the movement’s strategy to shine a national spotlight on the disenfranchisement of African Americans in the South. Several MDFP activists ran for office in the Democratic primary, challenging white segregationist incumbents. Hamer ran against Representative Jamie Whitten, who had held the seat since 1941. She had no chance to win, because most blacks could not vote, but she used the campaign to give the MDFP project visibility and to show African Americans how the election process worked. Their activism helped push President Lyndon Johnson and Congress to enact the Civil Rights Act in July 1964. The next month, MFDP sent an integrated delegation of 68 members, including Hamer, to represent Mississippi at the Democratic Party convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey. In her testimony before the credentials committee, Hamer explained why the committee should recognize the MFDP over the state’s segregated official party delegation. With the television cameras rolling, she delivered an emotional speech, telling the world what it was like for African Americans trying to be “first-class citizens” in Mississippi. “If the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America,” Hamer said. “Is this America?” she asked. “The land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives be threatened daily because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?” Hamer spoke of her own beating and of the murders of NAACP leader Medgar Evers and of three other civil rights workers—James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner—who only a few days earlier had been slain near Philadelphia, Mississippi. President Johnson, who would soon be campaigning and hoped to avoid controversy in the national spotlight, called a last-minute press conference to divert press coverage from Hamer’s testimony, but many TV networks ran her speech on their late news programs. The credentials committee received thousands of calls and letters in support of the MFDP. Johnson persuaded the credentials committee to offer MFDP two at-large seats, but the MFDP rejected the compromise, arguing that it was too little. Nevertheless, the battle in Atlantic City accelerated the civil rights movement’s momentum. The next year, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act. At the next Democratic Party convention, in 1968 in Chicago, Hamer was part of an integrated Mississippi delegation, and spoke out against the war in Vietnam. In 1969, after years of dreaming and fund-raising help from longtime supporter Harry Belafonte and others, Hamer bought the first 40 acres of land for Freedom Farm, a cooperative for African American farmers. The words chiseled on Hamer’s gravestone are a good slogan for all activists: “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
20. Betty Friedan (1921–2006). Betty Friedan’s 1963 book The Feminine Mystique catalyzed the modern feminist movement, helped change attitudes toward women’s equality, and identified the “problem that has no name” (which feminists later labeled “sexism”). She was also instrumental in organizing the National Organization for Women (NOW) and other influential groups that advocated women’s equality. Friedan was raised in a prosperous family in Peoria, Illinois, but as Jews her family was never fully accepted into the local society. In high school she wrote for the school paper, founded a literary magazine, joined the debating society, and graduated as class valedictorian. Her academic and leadership skills blossomed when she arrived at Smith College in 1938, in the midst of the Depression’s political ferment. As its editor, she revitalized the college newspaper from a bland publication filled with gossip and social news to a far more political outlet. When the maids at the college went on strike, she sympathetically covered the struggle. Her editorials challenged her privileged classmates to wake up to issues of social justice, workers’ rights, and fascism in Europe. The summer after her junior year, she spent eight weeks at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, participating in a writing workshop and taking classes about unions and economics. In 1942 she went to graduate school at University of California, Berkeley to study psychology but dropped out and moved to New York City in 1944. Her first job was as a reporter for the Federated Press, a union-sponsored news agency, and then worked as a reporter for the weekly paper of the progressive United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America union. She showed a talent for humanizing class, race, and women’s issues, even though there was no significant feminist movement at the time.
In 1957 Friedan was asked to prepare an alumni questionnaire for her Smith College 15th reunion. Two hundred women responded. Friedan found that those who seemed most happy and fulfilled were those who did not conform to the “role of women” and that those who were most dispirited were traditional housewives. No women’s magazine wanted to publish her article based on the survey, but Friedan was convinced she was on to something important and expanded her article into her history-changing book. The publisher initially printed only 2,000 copies, but The Feminine Mystique’s sales exploded. It was on the New York Times best-seller list for six weeks. The first paperback printing sold 1.4 million copies. McCall’s and Ladies’ Home Journal, magazines with a combined readership of 36 million, published excerpts. In the book, Friedan argued that women were trapped by their domestic lives. She also exposed the myriad ways that advertisers, psychiatrists, educators, and newspapers patronized, exploited, and manipulated women. She was flooded with letters from women reporting that the book had opened their eyes about their own lives and had validated their dissatisfaction with the status quo. She was asked to speak at colleges, before women’s groups, and elsewhere. She quickly connected with a small network of liberal, professional women who were involved with the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women, which had been created in 1961 by John F. Kennedy at the suggestion of Eleanor Roosevelt. They talked about creating a women’s version of the NAACP and in 1966 they formed NOW to lobby and organize for the civil rights of women. Friedan was elected president, a position she held until 1970. Two years before NOW’s founding, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination in employment on the bases of race, color, national origin, religion, and sex. Most members of Congress viewed the law primarily in terms of race and hardly noticed that “sex” was included. For half a century, NOW and other feminist groups have used the law—which established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission—to fight for women’s equality at work. Friedan also cofounded the National Abortion Rights Action League (originally the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws) in 1969. The next year—the 50th anniversary of the 19th Amendment guaranteeing women the vote—she co-organized the Women’s Strike for Equality. In 1971, a year after the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment, Friedan and other feminists formed the National Women’s Political Caucus to encourage more women to participate in politics and run for office. Throughout her life, Friedan continued to write major books, among them The Second Stage (1981), The Fountain of Age (1993), and Beyond Gender (1997). In a 1995 column in Newsweek, she wrote, “Pursuing the separate interests of women isn’t adequate and is even diversionary. Instead, there has to be some new vision of community. We need to reframe the concept of success. We need to campaign—men and women, whites and blacks—for a shorter workweek, a higher minimum wage, an end to the war against social-welfare programs. ‘Women’s issues’ are symptoms of problems that affect everyone.”
Peter Dreier teaches politics and chairs the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His most recent book is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books, 2012).