Black Women You Should Know

Women have long been ignored by history. Add in a minority skin color or race or religion and they are even less likely to be remembered. And that is a shame. Black women are making and have made history. From long past to current history makers, from the music room to the boardroom to the court room to the tennis court, here are 41 black women you should know.

Photo of young and middle aged black women sitting around a conference table in a business office, even these are black women you should know

We will all, at some point, encounter hurdles to gaining access and entry, moving up and conquering self-doubt; but on the other side is the capacity to own opportunity and tell our own story.” Stacey Abrams, an American politician, lawyer, voting rights activist, and author.

“Don’t let anything stop you. There will be times when you’ll be disappointed, but you can’t stop.” Sadie T. M. Alexander,  an American lawyer who was the first African-American to receive a Ph.D. in economics in the United States, and the first woman to receive a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

“Won’t it be wonderful when black history and Native American history and Jewish history and all of U.S. history is taught from one book. Just U.S. history.” Maya Angelou, an American poet, memoirist, and civil rights activist. 

Restored portrait photo of Mary McLeod Bethune-one of many black women you should know from history

“Invest in the human soul. Who knows, it might be a diamond in the rough.Mary McLeod Bethune,  an American educator, philanthropist, humanitarian, womanist, and civil rights activist.

“Defining myself, as opposed to being defined by others, is one of the most difficult challenges I face.” Carol Moseley-Braun, politician and lawyer.

“Do not desire to fit in. Desire to oblige yourselves to lead.” Gwendolyn Brooks, American poet, author, and teacher, the first African American to receive a Pulitzer Prize (1950).

“Women must become revolutionary. This cannot be evolution but revolution.” Shirley Chisholm, an American politician— the first black woman elected to the United States Congress(1968), educator, and author.

”We must never forget that Black History is American History. The achievements of African Americans have contributed to our nation’s greatness.” Yvette Clarke,  an American politician

“The air is the only place free from prejudice.” Bessie Coleman, an early American civil aviator, the first African-American woman and first Native American to hold a pilot license.

“I knew then and I know now, when it comes to justice, there is no easy way to get it.” Claudette Colvin,  an American pioneer of the 1950s civil rights movement and retired nurse aide.

“In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist. We must be anti-racist.” Angela Davis, an American political activist, philosopher, academic, scholar, and author.

“As black women, we’re always given these seemingly devastating experiences — experiences that could absolutely break us. But what the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls the butterfly. What we do as black women is take the worst situations and create from that point. Viola Davis, an American actress and producer.

“When we’re talking about diversity, it’s not a box to check. It is a reality that should be deeply felt and held and valued by all of us.” Ava DuVernay, an American filmmaker.

Photo of Ella Fitzgerald singing in a club filled with black men. Ella Fitzgerald is one of many black women you should know

“Just don’t give up what you’re trying to do. Where there is love and inspiration, I don’t think you can go wrong.” Ella Fitzgerald, an American jazz singer, the “First Lady of Song”

“When I liberate myself, I liberate others. If you don’t speak out ain’t nobody going to speak out for you.” Fannie Lou Hamer, an American voting, civil rights, and women’s rights activist

“There is no vaccine for racism.” Kamala Harris, an American politician and attorney, the 49th and current vice president of the United States. 

“Those that don’t got it, can’t show it. Those that got it, can’t hide it.” Zora Neale Hurston, American author, anthropologist, and filmmaker.

“Never be limited by other people’s limited imaginations.”Dr. Mae Jemison, first African-American female astronaut

“I am a feminist, and what that means to me is much the same as the meaning of the fact that I am Black; it means that I must undertake to love myself and to respect myself as though my very life depends upon self-love and self-respect.” June Jordan, an American poet, essayist, teacher, and activist.

“Don’t agonize, organize.” Florynce Kennedy, an American lawyer, radical feminist, civil rights advocate, lecturer and activist.

Headshot of Coretta Scott King, wife of activists Martin Luthor King Jr. but one of the black women you should know in her own right

 “Hate is too great a burden to bear. It injures the hater more than it injures the hated.” Coretta Scott King, American author, activist, civil rights leader, and the wife of Martin Luther King Jr.

“If everything was perfect, you would never learn and you would never grow.” Beyonce Knowles, an American singer, songwriter, and actress.

“Friendly reminder that you don’t have to say the ‘n word’ to be racist. That’s not the sole requirement. Asking people to prove racism is another tool the oppressor uses to marginalize and discredit us.” Lizzo, nee Melissa Viviane Jefferson, an American singer, rapper, songwriter and flutist.

“Even if it makes others uncomfortable, I will love who I am.” Janelle Monáe,  an American singer, rapper, and actress

“If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, you must be the one to write it.” Toni Morrison, an American novelist

“There are still many causes worth sacrificing for, so much history yet to be made.” Michelle Obama, an American attorney and author who served as the first lady of the United States from 2009 to 2017

“To bring about change, you must not be afraid to take the first step. We will fail when we fail to try.” Rosa Parks,  an American activist in the civil rights movement

“Black history isn’t a separate history. This is all of our history, this is American history, and we need to understand that. It has such an impact on kids and their values and how they view black people.” Karyn Parsons, an American actress, author and comedian.

“Dreams are lovely but they are just dreams. Fleeting, ephemeral, pretty. But dreams do not come true just because you dream them. It’s hard work that makes things happen. It’s hard work that creates change.” Shonda Rhimes, an American television producer, screenwriter, and author

“I need to see my own beauty and to continue to be reminded that I am enough, that I am worthy of love without effort, that I am beautiful, that the texture of my hair and that the shape of my curves, the size of my lips, the color of my skin, and the feelings that I have are all worthy and okay.” Tracee Ellis Ross, nee Tracee Joy Silberstein, an American actress, singer, television host, producer and director.

Never underestimate the power of dreams and the influence of the human spirit. We are all the same in this notion: The potential for greatness lives within each of us.” Wilma Rudolph, an American sprinter, who became a world-record-holding Olympic champion and international sports icon in track and field.

“You’ve got to learn to leave the table when love’s no longer being served.” Nina Simone, nee Eunice Kathleen Waymon, an American singer, songwriter, musician, arranger, and civil rights activist.

“Whatever we believe about ourselves and our ability comes true for us.” Susan L. Taylor, journalist

“Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.” Harriet Tubman,  an American slave, an abolitionist and political activist.

“Whatever is bringing you down, get rid of it. Because you’ll find that when you’re free . . . your true self comes out.” Tina Turner, an American-born Swiss singer, songwriter and actress.

restored photo of Sojourner Truth sitting in an armchair

“Truth is powerful and it prevails.” Sojourner Truth, an American abolitionist and women’s rights activist. 

The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” Alice Walker, an American novelist, short story writer, poet, and social activist.

“Don’t sit down and wait for the opportunities to come. Get up and make them.” Madam C.J. Walker, an American entrepreneur, philanthropist, and political and social activist, recorded as the first female self-made millionaire in America in the Guinness Book of World

“The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.” Ida B. Wells, an American investigative journalist, educator, and early leader in the civil rights movement

“Every time you state what you want or believe, you’re the first to hear it. It’s a message to both you and others about what you think is possible. Don’t put a ceiling on yourself.” Oprah Winfrey, an American talk show host, television producer, actress, author, and philanthropist.

I am lucky that whatever fear I have inside me, my desire to win is always stronger.” Serena Williams, an American professional tennis player.

These are but a few of the Black Women You Should Know. Because I’m American, my selections here are American, but there are black women across the world who deserve honors and remembrances. Please take a moment during this Black History Month to remember the black women who have worked quietly behind the scenes as well as those made famous by the actions or words. All women deserve more credit for their contributions to history. Even if their “only” contribution is living their own lives.

Image Credits

Top Photo-women in business by Christina @ on Unsplash

Second Photo-Mary McLeod Bethune, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Third Photo-Ella Fitzgerald, William P. Gottlieb, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Fourth Photo-Coretta Scott King by John Mathew Smith & from Laurel  Maryland, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Final Photo-Sourjourner Truth , National Portrait Gallery, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

She Was Convicted Because the Sex Side of Life Was Judged Obscene

On April 4, 1872, Livonia Coffin and George Whitefield Ware, Worcester, Massachusetts residents, welcomed their second child, daughter Mary Coffin Ware. Although the women’s suffrage movement started in the United States in 1848, women still did not have the right to vote in 1872. And married women could not own their own property, keep their own wages, or sign a contract. These conditions deeply affected Mary’s life. She was convicted because the sex side of life was judged obscene.

Photograph of Mary Dennette in Suffragette outfit, standing in a car handing something to a man and his son standing beside the car. She was convicted because the sex side of life was judged obscene

Early Life

In 1882, Mary’s father died of cancer. Her mother moved the family to Boston to be closer to her mother’s relatives. But finding a job to support the family proved impossible. So Mary’s mother chaperoned young ladies traveling to Europe for pay. Unable to take Mary (or her other children) with on those trips, Mary and her siblings stayed with her aunt and went to public school. 

Lucia Ames Mead, Mary’s aunt, was active in social reform, women’s voting rights, and advocated for world peace. In time, this influence would reveal itself in Mary’s life.


Mary graduated from her high school, Miss Capen’s School for Girls in Northampton, Massachusetts, and went to the School of Art and Design at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. There she studied textile design and won prizes for tapestry and leatherwork projects.

She graduated from art school with honors in 1894 and moved to Philadelphia, where she lead the department of decoration and design at the Drexel Institute of Art for the next three years. After she left the Drexel Institute, she studied antique leatherwork in Spain and Italy. When she returned to the U.S., she settled in Boston where she organized art exhibitions for the Society of Arts and Crafts.


She met William Hartley Dunnett, an architect, in 1894 and married him on January 20, 1900. After they married, she wrote and gave lectures about arts and crafts, became a board member of the Society for Arts and Crafts, and took part in Boston social reform groups

The birth of their first son in December 1900 almost killed Mary. In 1903, Mary’s second pregnancy was also difficult. The child lived for only three weeks. 

Their third child was born in 1905. Her labor was so difficult she had to quit her work in order to recover. The doctor advised them Mary should have no more children.

Mary and Hartley were ignorant of birth control. Abstinence was the only method either of them knew.


Mary’s husband, Hartley, began working on a house for a doctor and his wife in 1904. Over time, he developed a very close relationship with the doctor’s wife.

In 1908, Mary took a job as the field secretary of the Massachusetts Suffrage Association in Springfield, Massachusetts. She spoke to individuals and groups about suffrage, organized events, and recruited new members.

Hartley left Mary in 1909.

The National American Woman Suffrage Association in New York City, New York, elected Dennett as correspondence secretary in 1910. She accepted the position and moved to New York.

Mary grew concerned about the affect Hartley had on their children and filed for divorce in 1912. He sued for custody of the children. It was scandalous and therefore a popular topic in the newspapers.

In 1913, the court granted Mary the custody of her children and finalized her divorce from Hartley. The court required Hartley to pay child support. He claimed he did not make enough money to do so and refused to pay.

A New Life

Also in 1913, Mary accepted an offer to lead the Twilight Sleep Association. Twilight sleep referred to the doctors using anesthesia (scopolamine and morphine) during labor to induce a semi-conscious state in mothers-to-be during deliveries. Twilight sleep reduced the use of forceps, which reduced infant mortality and the risk of injury and infection to both mother and infant. She served as president, then Vice President of the Association.

During this time, she struggled to support her sons and incurred many debts.

When World War I broke out in Europe in 1914, Mary volunteered for the Women’s Peace Party in New York that opposed the war.

Sex Ed

The cover of the Sex Side of Life an Explanation for young people is two toned, cream on the top third with the title on it and red on the bottom two thirds with Mary's name toward the bottom. She was convicted because the sex side of life was judged obscene

In 1915, Mary created a pamphlet to answer some of her eldest son’s questions about sex. She titled the work, “The Sex Side of Life: An Explanation for Young People.” In the pamphlet, she discussed that the books she’d read were vague and misleading. The vagueness and misinformation resulted from state and federal obscenity laws that limited the amount of detail that could be published about sex education.

She wrote that the sex education books she’d read also portrayed the sex as fearful or shameful act. Her twenty-four-page pamphlet included clear information about sex and realistic descriptions of intercourse. Once friends learned of the pamphlet, they wanted one to help teach their children about sex.

Birth Control

Mary became more involved in the birth control movement. Working with Jessie Ashley and Clara Gruening Stillman, they established the National Birth Control League in 1915 to increase knowledge about and access to birth control.

Mary lobbied New York’s federal congressmen to repeal the Comstock Act. She wanted Congress to remove the words “prevention of contraception” from federal obscenity statutes. Her efforts brought the birth control movement to the attention of the media and birth control activist Margaret Sanger.

Sanger had left the country from 1914 to 1915 to avoid prosecution for writing a radical (and co-called obscene) newspaper called The Woman Rebel.

Mary disapproved of Sanger breaking the law in order to bring attention to it. And Sanger thought Mary’s efforts to get free birth control for everyone was doomed to fail. Sanger believed working through state governments and allowing doctors to prescribe birth control had the best chance for success.

Photograph of a modern birth control pill card with last seven days of pills still in it. Mary was convicted because the Sex Side of Life was judged obscene

More Publicity Woes

Mary’s name was in the papers again during 1915, thanks to a public invitation from her ex-husband, Hartley, his partner, Margaret Chase, and her husband. They wanted her to join them and form a “quadrangle” of love. Mary feared the negative publicity and notoriety she gained from her ex-husband’s unwanted proposal would adversely affect the organizations she worked with.

For the next two years, Mary shifted her focus to women’s suffrage and the anti-war movement. But as the war dragged on, and President Woodrow Wilson supported the war efforts, resistance to her anti-war campaigns led to her return to birth control activism.

More Activism 

In 1918, Mary became executive secretary for the National Birth Control League in New York City. The following February, the editor of the Medical Review of Reviews agreed to publish her pamphlet, “The Sex Side of Life.” Unable to get support from New York politicians, Mary resigned from the Nation Birth Control League in 1919.

Later that year, Mary founded the Voluntary Parenthood League. The League’s goals were to remove birth control from obscenity laws by lobbying the federal government and to better educate parents about teaching sex education to their children.

Mary campaigned and lobbied federal officials to exempt information about birth control from obscenity laws. She even appealed to the solicitor of the US Postal Services, saying that since they couldn’t open all mail and check it, post offices could not enforce the Comstock Act.

The Post Office Department banned circulation of any mail that contained Mary’s “The Sex Side of Life.”

Mary resigned from the Voluntary Parenthood League in 1925.

Spreading Information

After her resignation, Mary continued to receive mail from parents asking about birth control and sex education. The post office thwarted her attempts to send those people her pamphlet, “The Sex Side of Life.” The common method of placing mail in unsealed envelopes allowed the post office to open and confiscate all copies of her pamphlet. So Mary began sending the pamphlet in sealed envelopes.

Mary published Birth Control Laws: Shall We Keep Them, Change Them, or Abolish Them in 1926. The book described the state and federal laws and Mary’s arguments to change the laws.


In 1928, Mary had a court case filed against her. An alleged woman named Mrs. Carl Miles, who said she received Mary’s pamphlet by mail, which violated the federal code preventing mailing of obscene literature. Once again, Mary faced unwanted publicity.

Stories about the fifty-three-year-old grandmother appeared in most newspapers in the country.”

On April 23, 1929, a jury composed entirely of middle-aged family men convicted Mary for sending obscene materials through the mail. She faced up to a five thousand dollar fine or five years in jail or both.

It fined her three hundred dollars. 

She refused to pay.

An Appeal

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sponsored her, supported her pamphlet, saying it was not obscene but an important educational tool. The court of appeals learned that Mrs. Carl Miles was a fake character created by the post office to trick Mary into mailing a copy of her pamphlet so they could file the case.

On March 3, 1930, the appellate court ruled that because Mary’s intent was educational and not obscene, the pamphlet did not qualify as obscene. Circulation of “The Sex Side of Life” increased after the original ruling was reversed.

Death and Legacy

Mary Coffin Ware Dennett died in Valatie, New York on July 25, 1947. She was 75.

From 1929 to 1930, most of the nation knew about Mary and her trial. They knew she was convicted because “The Sex Side of Life” was judged obscene. They knew about her appeal. What no one knew was that “United States v. Dennett would ultimately prove to be a landmark censor ship case that paved the way for dramatic changes in the legal definition of obscenity.”

What if Mary Dennett originally had pleaded guilty?

Image Credits

First Image is Public Domain

Second Image Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

Final Image by Ichigo121212 from Pixabay 

The Second Woman to Win the Nobel Prize in Physics

Fifty-two years after Marie Curie, society believed women were unsuited for academic or scientific work. Maria Goeppert Mayer pursued her interests, anyway. And she became the second woman to win the Nobel Prize in physics.

Portrait of Maria Goeppert Mayer, the second woman to win the nobel prize in physics

Early Life

Friedrich Goppert, and his wife Maria, lived in Kattowitz (now Katowice, Poland). Their only child, Maria Goeppert Mayer, was born on June 28, 1906.

They moved from Kattowitz when her father, a sixth-generation university professor, accepted an appointment as the professor of pediatrics at the University of Göttingen in 1910.

She claimed she was closer to her father because being a scientist; he was a more interesting.


Only one school in 1921 Göttingen would prepare girls to take the university entrance exam, the abitur. It closed its doors a year before she would have graduated.

She took the university entrance exam, anyway. And passed the exam at 17 years old, a year earlier than most. Fewer than one in ten German university students were female.

Maria entered the mathematics program at the University of Göttingen. But changed to physics. It interested her more.

Her doctoral thesis explained her theory of two-photon absorption (aka excitation). Though there was no way to prove her theory then, she earned her doctorate in 1930.

Marriage & Career

American Joseph Edward Mayer boarded with her family. They married on January 19, 1930. The couple moved to the United States. Johns Hopkins University had hired him as an associate professor of chemistry.

The university would not hire Maria as a professor because of strict anti-nepotism rules. Similar rules existed at most universities during the depression. They kept her from getting a job consistent with her education level.

The university hired her as an assistant in the Physics Department. She taught some courses and worked with German correspondence. She received a tiny salary, a place to work, and access to the facilities. That was important to her. She worked with Karl Herzfeld. Herzfeld was an Austrian-American physicist. They collaborated on several papers.

During the summers, she returned to Göttingen to work and collaborate with her former examiner, Born.

She and Joe had two children, Mary Ann and Peter.

World War II

The rise of the Nazis ended her trips to Germany. Soon after the war started, her husband, Joe, was fired. They suspected the dean of physical sciences fired him to get Maria out of the laboratory, but it could have been that there were too many German scientists in the department or because of complaints that his chemistry lectures contained too much modern physics.

He accepted a position at Columbia University in 1940. They gave Maria an office but not a paid or official position. She kept working because physics was fun.

Photograph of the second woman to win the nobel prize in physics, Maria Goppert Mayer, who is  seated at a desk, holding a slide rule. Behind her is a chalkboard with equations written on it.

Within nine years, she produced ten papers applying quantum mechanics to chemistry, one of which became a milestone. Also, with her husband, she wrote Statistical Mechanics, a textbook that sold for 44 years.

National Women’s Hall of Fame

A Paid Professional

She got her first paid professional position in December 1941, teaching science part-time at Sarah Lawrence College.

In early 1942, she joined the Manhattan Project. She was part of a project to discover a way to separate the fissile uranium-235 isotope in natural uranium. It was impractical then.

We found nothing, and we were lucky… we escaped the searing guilt felt to this day by those responsible for the bomb.

Maria Goeppert Mayer via

A Nobel Prize Worthy Idea

After the war, she worked another unpaid job at the University of Chicago. Around that time, she received a part-time job offer to work in nuclear physics at Argonne National Laboratory. She protested she knew nothing about nuclear physics, but took the job.

Two years later (1949), she proposed that inside the nucleus, there was a series of layers of protons and neutrons, arranged like the layers of an onion, with neutrons and protons spinning around their axes and orbiting the center of the nucleus at each level.

After she published her theory, she learned that Hans Jensen and his colleagues had simultaneously made the same discovery. She and Jensen published a book together.

A Full Professorship

In 1959, more than thirty years after beginning her career as a scientist, The University of California, San Diego hired Maria as a full professor.

The Nobel Prize

This photo was taken in 1963, as physicist Maria Goeppert-Mayer (1906-1972) was being escorted by King Gustav Adolf of Sweden to a gala banquet following the ceremony during which she received the Nobel Prize in physics for development of the model of atomic nuclei in which the orbits of protons and neutrons are arranged in concentric "shells".
Maria Goeppert Mayer escorted by King Gustav Adolf of Sweden to the gala after the Nobel Prize Ceremony

They awarded Maria Goeppert Mayer and J. Hans D. Jensen half the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1963 for their proposal of the shell nuclear model. (Eugene P. Wigner of the United States won the other half for unrelated work.)

She was the second woman who won the Nobel Prize in physics, after Marie Curie. (It was another fifty years before another woman won the prize).

Death and Legacy

Maria suffered a stroke shortly after moving to California, but returned to work for years. In 1971, she had a heart attack and slipped into a coma. She never regained consciousness and died of heart failure on February 20, 1972.

In her honor, the American Physical Society (APS) created the Maria Goeppert Mayer Award for young female physicists at the beginning of their careers. Argonne National Laboratory also presents an annual award in her honor to young women scientists or engineers. On Venus, there is a crater about 35 km in diameter that is named Crater Goeppert Mayer. They inducted Maria into the Women’s Hall of Fame and included her in the third American Scientists collection of US postage stamps.

Her impact on science, on physics, was enormous. She changed our understanding of atoms.

Second Woman Who Won the Nobel Prize

Maria Goeppert Mayer didn’t plan to win the Nobel Prize. Didn’t think about it when she made her discovery. She was just excited to find the last piece of the puzzle she wanted to solve.

Being second isn’t losing when you’re the second woman who won the Nobel Prize in physics. But is her name as common as Marie Curie? I didn’t study physics, and I never heard of her before. Did you know Maria discovered the “layers” of protons and neutrons around an atom’s nucleus?

If you liked this post, you might like to read about the woman men wanted to ignore.

Image Credits

Top portrait: Nobel foundation, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Middle portrait: ENERGY.GOV, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Bottom photograph: Smithsonian Institution from United States, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons

The Woman Men Wanted to Ignore

In the late nineteenth-century, few women had access to higher education, especially in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Born to a poor immigrant family, Hertha Marks Ayrton let nothing stop her. She was a suffragette, a physicist, a mathematician, and an inventor. She was the woman men wanted to ignore.

Color portrait of Hertha Ayrton, the woman men wanted to ignore
(c) Girton College, University of Cambridge; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Early Life

On April 28, 1854, Hertha was born in Portsea, Hampshire, England, to a poor immigrant family. The third child of a Polish watchmaker and a seamstress, her parents named her Phoebe Sarah Marks. She went by the name Sarah.

In 1861, her mother was pregnant with their eighth child when her father died. Penniless, her mother returned to work as a seamstress. And seven-years-old, Sarah took over some of the childcare for her younger siblings.

Two years later, Sarah’s maternal aunt invited Sarah to live with her family in north-west London. Since her aunt and uncle ran a school, this gave Sarah an opportunity for education. Her mother approved of that. Her cousins introduced her to science and mathematics. Peers and teachers described her personality as fiery and occasionally crude.


By the age of sixteen, Sarah lived independently and worked as a governess. She became friends with the family of Karl Blind, Jewish-German emigrants. Blind’s daughter, Ottilie, gave Sarah the nickname of Hertha after the title and character name in the poem by Algernon Swinburne. Ottilie and Hertha (formerly Sarah) grew to be lifelong friends.

They attended suffrage meetings together and studied together for the Cambridge University entrance examination for women.

Hertha wanted to go to Cambridge even though Cambridge did not award degrees to women.

Ottilie introduced Hertha to Barbara Bodichon, an outspoken feminist and women’s rights activist. Bodichon’s friendship and mentorship led to a university education Hertha would never have had otherwise.

Bodichon was one of the main founders of Girton College, Cambridge. She encouraged Hertha to apply to Girton, Cambridge’s only all-female college and the first women’s residential college in England. Bodichon also introduced Hertha to another feminist, Mary Anne Evens, whose pen name was George Eliot.

A Little Help from her Friends

Image of Girton College, Cambridge where the woman who men wanted to ignore went to school.

Unable to get a scholarship in 1876, Hertha could not afford the £92 a year to attend Girton. (According to this conversion site £92 would be worth about £10,889.34 or $10,889.34 usd in 2021). Her dreams of attending college would have died then, but for the help of friends. Bodichon, George Eliot, Lady Sophia Goldsmid, and others gave her financial aid.

She studied mathematics and began her earliest work on scientific and medical instruments. She founded the college fire brigade, was a leader of the College Choral Society, and with Charlotte Scott, formed a mathematics club.

Coached by the prominent English physicist, Richard T. Glazebrook, she passed the Mathematical Tripos in 1880. But Cambridge only awarded women certificates. So she went to a non-Cambridge source, passed that examination and earned a BSc degree from the University of London, one of the few British universities who granted degrees to women.

Early Career

In London, Hertha tried teaching in a classroom and found it didn’t suit her. So she took up tutoring (math and other areas), embroidery, ran a club for working girls, and cared for her invalid sister.

Bodichon continued her financial aid and helped fund patent expenses. In 1884, Hertha patented a line-divider instrument. Useful for architects, engineers, and artists, her line-divider was an engineering instrument that divided lines into equal parts and would enlarge and reduce figures. (Remember, this was long before computers made this so easy.) Her line-divider received good reviews but wasn’t a commercial success.

She also started Professor William Edward Ayrton’s evening classes on electricity at Finsbury Technical College.

She married her former professor, William Edward Ayrton, on 6 May 1885. Their daughter was born in 1886. They named her Barbara Bodichon Ayrton after Hertha’s mentor.

Her mentor, Barbara Bodichon, died in 1891. Bodichon left Hertha a sum of money. That money allowed Hertha to support her aging mother and hire a housekeeper. Therefore, she had more time for study and research.


Public lighting by electric arc lights was problematic in the late nineteenth century. No one could explain why they hissed and produced irregular, flickering light. Performing experiments first with her husband, then on her own, Hertha figured it out. She published the reasons in a series of articles for the Electrician in 1895.

In 1899, she was the first woman ever to read her paper to the Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE). She read her paper “The Hissing of the Electric Arc.” Soon she became the first and only female member of the IEE (until 1958).

The Royal Society refused to allow her to read a paper to them. So John Perry read her paper, “The Mechanism of the Electric Arc,” for her in 1901.

In 1902, she published The Electric Arc, a summary of her work on the electric arc.

Unfortunately, her husband’s serious illness required them to move. They had to leave the laboratory where they both worked. Hertha couldn’t continue her electric research. But the family’s coastal retreat gave her a new fascination with ripple marks.


In 1902, Hertha was the first woman nominated to the Royal Society. However, legal counsel advised against approving her membership because the law did not recognize a married woman as a person. Men could ignore her by a law created by men.

She became the first woman to read a paper before the Royal Society in 1904. Later, the Royal Society published her paper, “The Origin and Growth of Ripple Marks.”

The Royal Society awarded her the prestigious Hughes Medal “for her experimental investigations on the electric arc, and also on sand ripples” in 1906. She was the fifth recipient of that annual award and the first woman ever to receive that award. (The next award to a woman was in 2008.) She never became a member.


Portrait photograph of Hertha Ayrton. She is wearing a high neck dress with a broach at her throat with a fur collared jack around her shoulders

Hertha’s husband died in 1908. This severely limited her access to laboratories (she only gained access because of her husband’s access.)

Still, she studied and researched. In 1911, she presented “Sand Ripples and Oscillating Water” to the Société de Physique in Paris. Her friend, Marie Curie, visited with her while she was there.

From 1911 to 1913, Hertha devoted much time and energy to suffrage. She took part in the Battle of Downing Street where policemen dressed in plain clothes repeatedly grabbed her by the throat and beat her and other suffragists.

After the Great War started, she wanted to find a way her research could help Britain’s efforts. She invented the Ayrton fan used to blow away poison gas released in the trenches. She described her device to the Royal Society in 1919. There was little support for her device.

The Ayrton Fan

Despite resistance from the Royal Society and the War Office, Hertha worked through her fan’s operational limitations. Opposition against her invention continued until she received support from A P Trotter, a fellow electrical engineer and member of the IEE who had contacts in British military command. Soon after that, the British military ordered more than 100,000 Ayrton Fans.

Despite a letter of support from Major H J Gillespie, formerly of the Royal Field Artillery, the British Army in France turned the Ayrton Fans down as ineffective in defense against gas in the field.


Hertha continued her studies of vortex. Supported by peers and friends, she was probably the first female professional engineer. She received twenty-six patents before her death.

A bug bite complicated by exhaustion, and other medical issues turned into blood poisoning. She died on 26 August 1923 at New Cottage, North Lancing, Sussex.

Two years after her death, her friend Ottilie (Hancock nee Blind) endowed the Hertha Ayrton Research Fellowship at Girton College.

By doing what she was interested in, she proved wrong many of the masculine myths about women of her time. History tried to ignore her, to erase her efforts. Let’s not allow history to ignore women any longer.


Women You Should Know

Science Museum Group Journal

Agnes Scott College

Scientific Women

Hertha Ayrton on Wikipedia

Image Credits

Top image: Portrait of Hertha Ayrton, Girton College, University of Cambridge; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Middle image: Girton College, Cambridge, 1869, Cornell University Library (No restrictions or No restrictions), via Wikimedia Commons

Bottom image: Cropped portrait Hertha Ayrton, Unknown:Bain News Service (publisher), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Her Story is Missing from Our History Books

Ruth Margaret Muskrat Bronson, a Cherokee poet, educator and Indian rights activist, is a person who should be in all our history books. Her passion, creativity, and dedication to her people alone earned her a place in history. But her story is a missing from our history books. Muskrat Bronson acted when women were struggling to be seen and to vote. In addition, she was a mixed race Indian with all the racial difficulties that came with that. It’s our national shame we don’t all know her name.

Image of Ruth Muskrat in her Plains Indian buckskin dress holding the report she presented to the President. Her history is missing from your history
Public Domain, By National Photo Company, restored by User:Adam Cuerden – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress

Early Life

Muskrat was born Sunday, October 3, 1897 in White Water, on the Delaware Nation Reservation in Indian territory (now Oklahoma). Her father, James Ezekial Muskrat, was a Cherokee who’s ancestors had traveled the Trail of Tears in the late 1839s. Ida Lenora (nee Kelly) was her mother, an Irish-English transplant from Missouri whose family had moved to Indian Territory.

Muskrat’s surviving relatives and biographers believe her father’s “Restricted Indian” status and his struggle to become a citizen heavily influenced her world view .

Restricted status meant that while her father held the title to their land, he could not sell or trade the land without the approval of the Secretary of the Interior. (For more information, see the Bureau of Indian Affairs FAQ page. )

As early as 1817, U.S. citizenship had been conferred by special treaty upon specific groups of Indian people. American citizenship was also conveyed by statutes, naturalization proceedings, and by service in the Armed Forces with an honorable discharge in World War I. In 1924, Congress extended American citizenship to all other American Indians born within the territorial limits of the United States.

Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA)

The Curtis Act

At ten, she lived through devastation to her people by the Curtis Act of 1898.

The Curtis Act, an amendment of the Dawes Act, called for the abolition of tribal governments on March 6, 1907. The act meant to establish individual landholdings in the European-American model for subsistence farming by families. It also provided for the establishment of public schools. But the lands in Indian Territory and the dry climate made the 160-acre allotments too small to permit profitable farming.

Originally her people (one of the Five Civilized Tribes of the Indian Territory) were exempt from the 1887 General Allotment Act (Dawes Act) because of the terms of their treaties. The Curtis Act meant that when she was ten, the tribes lost control of about 90 million acres of their communal lands. They lost more in subsequent years.


Muskrat enrolled in preparatory school at the Oklahoma Institute of Technology at fourteen. After she graduated in 1916, she went to Henry Kendall College in Tulsa, then Northeastern State Teacher’s College.

Financial hardships forced her to quit school and teach for two years. She attended three semesters at the University of Oklahoma in 1919.

During the summer of 1921, she worked for the YWCA. They sent her to the Mescalero Apache Reservation in New Mexico. There, her organizing efforts and the subsequent report she wrote about those efforts earned her a scholarship to the University of Kansas. She studied at KU for three more semesters.

She wrote and published poems during her college days.

“Songs of the Spavinaw” (1920)

Stanza One

I am the river of Spavinaw,

     I am the river of pain;

Sadness and gladness must answer my law;

Measure for measure I give, and withdraw

Back through the hills of the Spavinaw,

     Hiding away from the plain.

Read the rest of the poem and an analysis of it on

Read her poem The Trail of Tears” published by the University of Oklahoma Magazine in 1922. She also wrote “The Hunter’s Wooing” (1921), “Sonnets from the Cherokee” (1922), and “If You Knew” (1923).

Early Political Work

At twenty-five, she was the first Native American to represent her people internationally. As part of a YWCA youth conference delegation, she traveled to Hawaii, Manchuria, Japan, Korea, and Hong Kong. The trip brought her to the attention of the International Press. It also inspired her to become a cultural activist.

The following year, she traveled to many places and worked for racial equality. For her public appearances, she wore a Plains Indians buckskin dress. She chose that dress because that was how most Americans thought all Indians dressed. She wanted them to see her as an Indian.

Her most important appearance was a presentation and speech she made. The “Committee of One Hundred” was a group of Native American leaders intended to advise President Coolidge on American Indian policy.

Image of President Coolidge and Rev. Sherman Coolidge, and Muskrat Bronson presenting the volume of Red Man. Her story is missing from our history books.
President Coolidge and Rev. Sherman Coolidge, Ruth Muskrat Bronson, Public Domain

Part of that Committee, she presented President Coolidge with the volume of the “Red Man in the United States: An intimate study of the Social, Economic, and Religious Life of the American Indian.” She also gave a speech advocating for Indians to solve their own problems.

Mr. President, there have been so many discussions of the so-called Indian Problem. May not we, who are the Indian students of America, who must face the burden of that problem, say to you what it means to us?

Antiques Roadshow, PBS

Later Education and Early Work

In 1923, she enrolled at Mount Holyoke College with a full scholarship. She graduated with a BA in English after two years.

After graduation, she taught English at the largest Indian school in the world, the Haskell Institute in Lawrence, Kansas. She became head of the college placement bureau and won the Henry Morgenthau Prize in 1926. The prize was for best use of her college education in the first year after graduation.

She married a Connecticut Yankee, John Bronson, in 1928. They adopted a native Indian girl. She was their only child.


Muskrat Bronson got a job at the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). She implemented the first national American Indian higher education program through the BIA. Traveling across American Indian country, she increased the number of American Indian students enrolled in higher education by at least 200%.

Awarded the Indian Achievement Medal of the Indian Council of Fire in 1937, Muskrat Bronson was the second woman to have received the award since its inception.


Muskrat Bronson left the BIA in 1943 to raise her daughter. During this period, she wrote and published several books and articles including: Indians are People Too (1944), The Church in Indian Life (1945), and Shall We Repeat Indian History in Alaska (1947).

The National Congress of American Indians

Later, Muskrat Bronson worked at the NCAI. Appointed the executive secretary of the organization, she spent a decade monitoring legislative issues.

She promoted Native American progress at tribal meeting across the country. She advocated for native water rights along the Colorado River, Alaska native rights, and gaining quality medical care for American Indians.

They elected Muskrat Bronson treasurer of the NCAI in 1955. After that, she focused on ways to work directly with local communities.


She moved to Arizona in 1957. There, she worked for Indian Health Service, part of the Department of Health and Human Services. She was a health education specialist at the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation.

Muskrat Bronson also served a philanthropic organization called ARROW. Once again, she managed the education loan and scholarship funds of that organization. And she advised tribes about community development.

In 1962, Muskrat Bronson received the Oveta Culp Hobby Service Award from the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare for her work to improve the lives of Native Americans. And she retired from government service.

After she moved to Tucson, she became the national chairperson of the Community Development Foundation’s American Indian section under the umbrella of the Save the Children Foundation.

Portrait photograph of Ruth Margaret Muskrat Bronson,
By Unknown photographer – Gridley, Marion E. (1947) Indians of Today, Chicago: Millar Publishing Company, Public Domain,

Later Life

Muskrat Bronson continued to advocate for Native Americans to determine their own development and leadership programs, even after a stroke in 1972.

She was a recipient of the National Indian Child Conference’s merit award in 1978 for her commitment to improving children’s quality of life.

Ruth Muskrat Bronson died in Tucson, Arizona on June 12, 1982.

Our Shame

It’s our national shame we don’t all know her name. Ruth Muskrat Bronson embraced her mixed heritage. She believed Indians could benefit from many things from both cultures. For her entire life, she advocated for American Indians to maintain their culture and be self-determining.

Our shame is that despite Muskrat’s tireless work, today approximately 90,000 American Indian families are under-housed or homeless and only 13% of American Indians have a college degree.

Stop our national shame. Speak out, volunteer, buy Native American products, support our American Indian communities.

Her story is missing from our history books. Embrace our real history. It is our national shame we aren’t taught about people like Muskrat Bronson. We don’t own how we’ve mistreated others, especially American Indians. What will you do to advocate like Ruth Muskrat Bronson?