7 Women Of Color Your History Books Forgot

by Mia Mercado

If you paid attention in school even a little bit, you likely heard the stories of Amelia Earhart, Marie Curie, and Sally Ride. But even if you paid attention in school carefully, did the homework, read your texts cover to cover and made a diorama for extra credit, there would be a lot of women your history books forgot — among them a huge number of women of color from history everyone should know about, but frustratingly few do. Indeed, the recent success of the Oscar-nominated movie Hidden Figures puts numbers to a now seemingly-obvious notion: We want to hear stories about women of color. And it's high time we started telling them.

History is said to be written by the winners. When you have a history compounded by sexism and racism, it’s hard to get a participation trophy, let alone win. Women of color have always been integral to American history, but their contributions have not always been recognized. When they are given recognition, it is usually secondary to their male counterparts. They are the Sacagawea to dozens of Lewis and Clarks.

The history of women of color is important to America because it is American history. Their stories are incredible in their own right. But their accomplishments overcome the impossible when you consider the people and perceptions and actual laws that held these women back.

So, get out your notebooks and pay attention. This will be on the test. Here are seven women of color who made history. Learn about them for Women's History Month — but also learn about them just because they deserve to be learned about.


Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey: The Mothers of Modern Gynecology

Dr. James Marion Sims is often credited as the father of modern gynecology. His work is so revered there are statues of his likeness across the country. But in order to talk about Dr. Sims’ accomplishments, we need to talk about Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey, the enslaved women on whom he experimented. The NPR podcast Hidden Brain has an episode dedicated to these three women and the gynecological advancements their bodies helped make possible. The episode discusses medical consent and the misperceptions of black women and physical pain that still persist today.


Chien-Shiung Wu: Physicist

Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu was nicknamed the First Lady of Physics for her contributions as an experimental physicist, including work that was instrumental in developing the atomic bomb. She is best known for the Wu Experiment, which disproved the law of conservation of parity. Check out this video from the National Women's History Museum for an introduction to Wu's work.


Angella D. Ferguson: Pioneer in Sickle Cell Research

Dr. Ferguson is a pediatrician who made clear the necessity for black children to be included in scientific studies. Prior to her work, pediatric research was primarily done with white patients, giving little information on diseases that disproportionately affect black children. She pioneered research on sickle cell disease, developing a program at Howard University to diagnose and treat children with the condition.


Marsha P. Johnson: LGBTQ Activist

Marsha P. Johnson was a black transgender LGBTQ activist. She was an integral part of the Stonewall riots, a series of demonstrations credited with being the catalyst for the gay rights movement. If you want to learn more about Marsha P. Johnson, a great place to start is this episode of Drunk History featuring Crissle West.


Madam C.J. Walker: First Female Self-Made Millionaire

Born with the name Sarah Breedlove, entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker built an empire by creating haircare products for black women. This also brought about new job opportunities for thousands of black women, as she hired them as “hair culturists.” Walker, known as one of the first female and first black self-made millionaires, famously said, "If I have accomplished anything in life, it is because I have been willing to work hard."


Claudia Gordon: Previous White House Advisor To Disabilities Communities

As a woman who is black and deaf, Claudia Gordon represents a lot of firsts. She both is the first lawyer who is black and deaf in the United States and the first deaf student to graduate from American University’s law school. She is an advocate for people who are disabled and previously served as an adviser to President Obama on issues in the disabled community. Check out this interview with Gordon for more on her life and career.


Yuri Kochiyama: Civil Rights Activist

Yuri Kochiyama was a lifelong activist who advocated for civil rights. Her work was influenced by people Malcolm X, with whom she was friends, and events like her family’s internment in Japanese American camps. This episode of NPR’s Code Switch gives insight to some of Kochiyama’s incredible work.

Check out the “Feminism” stream in the Bustle App throughout the month of March for more inspiring ways to celebrate Women's History Month.