Celebrating Five Women’s History Trailblazers

Upholding the contributions women have made throughout history


Kay Copeland

The national celebration began after President Carter declared the week of March 8, 1980 as Women’s History Week. Subsequent Presidents issued the same proclamation until Congress designated March as Women’s History Month in 1987.

March is recognized as Women’s History Month— a time to commemorate the vital role women have played in shaping American history. To celebrate, let’s take a look at five influential women that have paved the way for their successors, whilst securing their everlasting legacies.

Maya Angelou (1928-2014) 

President Barack Obama awards Maya Angelou with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012. (Wikimedia Commons)

Maya Angelou was an award-winning author, poet and civil rights activist most known for her memoir entitled “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” (1969). She made literary history with this memoir being the first nonfiction bestseller by an African American woman. 

During World War II she moved to San Francisco, CA, where she received a scholarship to study dance and acting at the California Labor School. She went on to star in the off-Broadway production of “Calypso Heat Wave” (1957) and later in “The Blacks” (1961) with James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson. She also released her first album “Miss Calypso” in 1957. 

Angelou worked closely with many prominent human rights activists throughout the 1960s. She helped Malcolm X form the Organization of Afro-American Unity in 1964. A very close friend of hers, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on her birthday in 1968, prompting her to not celebrate her birthday for years afterward. 

Angelou died at her home in North Carolina on May 28, 2014 after experiencing years of health issues. Even after her death, in May 2021 she became one of the first women to be commemorated with a series of quarters by the U.S. Mint, and subsequently became the first black woman depicted on the quarter. 

Major achievements: 

  • First black woman to conduct a cable car in San Francisco
  • First nonfiction bestseller by an African American woman for “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” (1969)
  • Recited poem at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration ceremony in 1993 entitled “On the Pulse of Morning” and was the first African American woman to do so 
  • Awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2012

“You may shoot me with your words, you may cut me with your eyes, you may kill me with your hatefulness, but still, like air, I’ll rise…” -Maya Angelou

Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1933-2020)

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg sits for her 2016 portrait. (Creative Commons)

Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a U.S Supreme Court Justice and the second woman to be elected to the position. She was appointed to the Supreme Court by President Bill Clinton in 1993. 

Ginsburg graduated first in her class from Cornell University in 1954. She faced a hostile, male-dominated environment when she later went to Harvard University, but she pressed on; becoming the first female member of the Harvard Law Review. 

Despite her grandiose achievements, Ginsburg continued to face gender discrimination while searching for a job. She ended up teaching at Columbia University, where she became the school’s first female tenured professor. She also served as the director of the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Ginsburg played an involved role in many landmark Supreme Court cases. In 2015, she sided with the majority to uphold components of The Affordable Care Act. This was a massive victory for President Obama, making the act difficult to undo. Also in 2015, the Court legalized same-sex marriage in all 50 states. Ginsburg is believed to have been instrumental in this decision, having shown support for the idea in years past. 

A documentary titled “RBG” (2018) explored the intricacies of her lifespan and career- coming out just two years before her death on September 18, 2020. Ginsburg passed away at her Washington D.C. home after suffering from metastatic pancreatic cancer. She is lovingly remembered by many as the “Notorious RBG.”

Major achievements:

  • First female member of the Harvard Law Review 
  • Second woman appointed to the Supreme Court 
  • Columbia University’s first female tenured professor
  • Recipient of the American Bar Association’s Thurgood Marshall Award for her contributions to gender equality

“Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.” -Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Simone Biles (1997-)

Simone Biles stands atop the Olympic podium
after winning all-around gold in 2016. (Wikimedia Commons)

Simone Biles is the most decorated gymnast in the United States, having more than two dozen Olympic and World Championship medals to her name at the mere age of 24.

Biles discovered her love for gymnastics early on in life. According to the USA Gymnastics official website, she visited a gymnastics center on a field trip with her daycare group. “While there I imitated the other gymnasts, and Coach Ronnie noticed,” Biles noted. “The gym sent home a letter requesting that I join tumbling or gymnastics.” 

Biles began competing as a level 8 gymnast in 2007, continuing to make her way up the ranks. By 2013 she emerged as a senior elite gymnast and won all-around at the P&G Championships. That same year, she became the first female African American athlete to win gold all-around at the World Championships. 

In 2015 she became the first woman to win her third consecutive world all-around title, marking a record-breaking 10 gold medals won at the international competition. 

Biles managed to earn a spot on the 2016 American women’s gymnastics Olympic team. The team became known as “The Final Five”, with Biles leading the group of women to victory. The Final Five became the third American women’s gymnastics team to win gold, with past victories in 1996 and 2012. 

Biles took a rightly deserved break from the sport throughout 2017. Once she returned in 2018, she won all four events at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships, becoming the first woman to claim five national all-around titles. 

Major achievements:

  • TIME’s 2021 Athlete of the Year 
  • Most decorated American gymnast 
  • Seven-time U.S. Olympic all-around champion
  • Tied for most medals by a U.S. gymnast

“I’m not the next Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps… I’m the first Simone Biles.” -Simone Biles

Nellie Bly (1864-1922)

Nellie Bly photographed, around age 26. (Wikimedia Commons)

Nellie Bly was one of the foremost female journalists of her time. She’s regarded as a pioneer of early investigative journalism; most known for her 1887 exposé on the conditions of asylum patients at Blackwell’s Island in New York City. 

Bly got her start in journalism after she penned a letter to the editor of the Pittsburgh Post Dispatch, pointing out the paper’s negative representation of women. The editor not only read her letter, but also offered her a job as a columnist. 

Moving to New York in 1886, Bly went to the office of The New York World newspaper, expressing interest in writing a story on the immigrant experience in the United States. The editor declined, but instead challenged her to investigate one of New York’s most notorious mental hospitals. She not only agreed, but pretended to be mentally ill in order to gain entry to the hospital and expose how patients were treated. 

Bly spent 10 days in the asylum before The New York World published her exposé titled “Ten Days In A Mad-House”. After publication, she was regarded as one of the most well-known journalists in America for her courageous hands-on approach to stories. 

Today, Bly is remembered with films exploring her infamous endeavors- such as “10 Days In A Madhouse” (2015) and “Escaping the Madhouse: The Nellie Bly Story” (2019). In 2019, a monument was built in memory of Bly on Roosevelt Island. 

Major achievements:

  • Inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame (1998)
  • Developed the practice of investigative journalism
  • Traveled around the world in 72 days- a world record at the time

“Energy rightly applied and directed will accomplish anything.” -Nellie Bly 

Greta Thunberg (2003-)

Greta Thunberg speaks at an event in 2020. (Wikimedia Commons)

Greta Thunberg is a Swedish environmental activist who has received worldwide recognition for her efforts to fight climate change.

Thunberg sparked an international movement in 2018, all starting with a photo of her handwritten message reading “school strike for climate”. She began skipping school on Fridays to protest outside of the Swedish Parliament. Social media was instrumental in spreading her message and organizing others to protest.

Learning about the climate crisis at age 8, Thunberg began making efforts to decrease her carbon footprint. She became vegan, stopped flying, and influenced her family to do the same.

Thunberg is widely regarded as the face of the youth climate movement, often being invited to speak at rallies across the globe. Her speech at the 2019 United Nations Climate Action Summit made headlines for her blunt, indignant remarks. “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing,” Thunberg voiced at the Summit. “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”

Thunberg plans to take a year off school to campaign for climate action- traveling to Mexico, Canada, and South America to meet with environmental activists. On this trip, she hopes to witness the first-hand effects of climate change in these regions. 

Major achievements:

  • Nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019
  • TIME’s 2019 Person of the Year, youngest individual to earn the honor 
  • Founded “Fridays For Future”, prompting more than 7.6 million people to protest during September 2019 alone 

“I have learned you are never too small to make a difference.” -Greta Thunberg