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Celebrating Women's History Month

For our first official blog post for Eva’s Home, we are celebrating Women’s History Month! This week we will be honoring some exceptional women in history who have inspired us all. Women’s contributions and accomplishments have largely been overlooked and consequently omitted from mainstream culture. Here are some of their stories.

Mary Eliza Mahoney is noted in history as the first licensed African-American nurse and co-founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN) to advocate for African American nurses’ equality. In 1878, at the age of 33, Mahoney was admitted into one of the first nursing schools in the United States, New England Hospital for Women and Children. Forty-two students entered the program with Mahoney, and only three people completed the 16-month program with her. After her training, she became a private nurse due to the extensive racial and gender discrimination in the system. In 191, Bethune became the director of the Howard Orphanage Asylum for black children. After retiring from nursing after 40 years, she still championed women’s rights. After the ratification of the 19th Amendment, Mahoney was among the first women who registered to vote. After three years of battling breast cancer, she died on January 4, 1926.

Mary McLeod Bethune is one of the most significant educators, civil and women’s rights leaders, and government officials of the twentieth century. In 1904, Bethune opened a boarding school, the Daytona Beach Literary and Industrial School for Training Negro Girls. In 1929, Bethune’s school merged with the all-male Cookman Institute to form Bethune-Cookman College, issuing its first degrees in 1943.

As a champion of racial and gender equality, Bethune led voter registration drives after women gained the vote in 1920, risking racial and gender-based attacks. In 1924, she was elected president of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, and in 1935, she became the founding president of the National Council of Negro Women. Bethune played a role in the transition of Black voters from the Republican Party—“the party of Lincoln”—to the Democratic Party during the Great Depression. In 1936, Bethune became the highest-ranking African American woman in government when President Roosevelt named her director of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration, where she remained until 1944. She was also a leader of FDR’s unofficial “black cabinet.” In 1937 Bethune organized a conference on the Problems of the Negro and Negro Youth and fought to end discrimination and lynching. In 1940, she became vice president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Persons (NAACP), a position she held for the rest of her life. As a member of the advisory board that in 1942 created the Women’s Army Corps, Bethune ensured it was racially integrated. Appointed by President Harry S. Truman, Bethune was the only woman of color at the United Nations’ founding conference in 1945. She regularly wrote for the leading African American newspapers, the Pittsburgh Courier and the Chicago Defender. In 1974, Bethune’s life was celebrated with a memorial statue in Washington DC and a postage stamp in 1985.

Ethel L. Payne, known in history as the “First Lady of the Black Press,” did her best to be a change agent using journalism as her tool, asking the hard questions, and taking action where needed through her work at the Chicago Defender. A Chicago native, Payne attended night courses at Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism. In 1948 Payne worked for the U.S. Army as an assistant service club director in Japan, recording her observations and experiences, which led her to work at the Chicago Defender. In the twenty-seven years Payne worked at the ChicagoDefender, she interviewed President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and national and international celebrities such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela. In 1954, she became the Chicago Defender’s correspondent to Washington, D.C. Payne reported many historical events occurring in the nation, such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott. She was instrumental in the success of the 1963 March on Washington. After her work with the Chicago Defender ended, she maintained an active life traveling, lecturing, advocating, and writing until she died from a heart attack at her home in Washington on May 28, 1991. In 2002, Payne was one of four journalists honored with a U.S. commemorative postage stamp.

Are there any women you would like to celebrate this month?

Condensed from: Spring, Kelly. Mary Mahoney, National Women’s History Museum. National Women’s History Museum, 2017. (February 2021); Michals, Debra. Mary McLeod Bethune, National Women’s History Museum. National Women’s History Museum, 2015. (Feb 2021); and Ethel Payne (1911-1991), Distinguished Alumna, Styberg Library (2021).

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