Of all the amazing women in U.S. history, it’s down to a final four: Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Wilma Mankiller. There are a few other great women like Elizabeth Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and author Mary Shelley who should be on that short list. There’s also my personal favorite, Amelia Bloomer, who refused to wear dresses, unwittingly creating the term “Bloomers.” Atta girl!
Regardless, we are down to the final four of which female mover-and-shaker should grace the $20 bill in replace of President Andrew Jackson.
Ladies and Gentlemen, it is no contest.
Wilma Mankiller, the first female leader of the Cherokee Nation, restored many educational programs and self-esteem to young Native American girls. Her family was destitute, living on an Indian Reservation until forced to leave when the land was granted to another federal program. Under the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Indian Relocation Program, the Minkillers moved to San Francisco where Mankiller fought to put herself through school and eventually return to her people and the Cherokee Nation. While undoubtedly instrumental in the Native American political world and to girls everywhere, she ranks as #4.
Coming in at #3 is Rosa Parks. She became the face of Civil Rights when, on Dec. 1, 1955, she refused to give up her seat to a white man while riding in what was termed the “colored” section of a public bus in Montgomery, Alabama. It was a brave act of defiance that won her international acclaim and the title of “the first lady of civil rights” by the United States Congress. She was also arrested, fired from her job as a seamstress, and she received death threats. But she was not the first African-American woman to take such a bold stand (or seat). In 1944, Irene Morgan was arrested in Virginia when she refused to give up her seat on an interstate bus. And on Aug. 1, 1952, an African-American WAC private named Sarah Keys refused to give up her seat to a white Marine in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina. Enraged, the bus driver had her arrested, citing the Jim Crow laws and she was jailed overnight, and charged with disorderly conduct. Instead of rolling over, however, Sarah and her father refused to accept the verdict of the courts and petitioned the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) where Sarah was referred to a law student named Dovey Johnson Roundtree, who had also been booted from a bus after refusing to relinquish her seat in 1943 in an eerily similar situation. Using the Interstate Commerce Commission Act, they went to the U.S. Supreme Court, laid the groundwork for the civil rights movement, and have me wondering why I had never heard of these tremendous women growing up.
While Rosa Parks was certainly brave, there were mightier warriors before her.
One such warrior comes in at #2. Eleanor Roosevelt never knew the degrading, debilitating, even dangerous world of racism that Rosa Parks did but Eleanor was a leader of a different kind. Despite personal tragedies and very public betrayals, this outstanding woman redefined the power of women. She was a politician, diplomat, and activist. As the longest-serving first lady of the United States, she was considered very controversial for her stance on racial issues and equality for women. By the early 1940s, she was the first first lady to hold press conferences, write her own syndicated column, even publically critiquing her husband’s policies. She fought for educational opportunities for those on welfare, was a staunch human rights advocate, and even after the death of her husband remained in politics.
It was Eleanor who said, “A woman is like a tea bag; you never know how strong it is until it’s in hot water,” and “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” This was our former first lady.
However, a quote by another leading lady, Harvard professor and author Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, penned the now famous line: Well-behaved women seldom make history.
With that brilliant sentiment in mind, coming in at #1 is “the Conductor.” The Runaway Slave; the brave, the extraordinary, the resilient and brilliant Harriet Tubman, who escaped slavery in 1849 and worked with the Underground Railroad for more than eight years. In 1850, the U.S. Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law, making her mission trips far more dangerous but she would not be stopped.
The early history of her family, such as it was, is a terrible reminder of how slaves were treated and what a triumph her story is. Harriet had only a vague idea of what year she was born. As a child she was so severely beaten by masters she began to have epileptic seizures that would plague her for the rest of her life. Because she was so strong, she was forced to work in the fields, “with blood and sweat rolling down my face until I could not see,” without mercy, without humanity. In return, her faith grew stronger. Although illiterate, she was a great admirer of the Old Testament, even earning the nickname “Moses,” likening her work to leading the Hebrews from Egypt.
What is most extraordinary and telling about this “Runaway Slave,” is that Harriet continued to go back, to save others, leading hundreds of slaves to freedom and, without realizing it, forming the motto of this nation: ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
Now residing in “the nicest city in Texas,” Alexandra Allred is the author of numerous books, including White Trash, Damaged Goods and the Allie Lindell series. Visit her website, www.alexandratheauthor, or Twitter @alexandraallred but always check out her column the WDL as she ponders all things Waxahachie and beyond its borders.