From L-R: Mamie Smith, Judith Hueman, Justice Motley, Christine Quintasket, Manal al-Sharif
A vaudeville entertainer from the age of 10, Mamie Smith made history by recording “Crazy Blues” in 1920, widely considered the first recorded Blues track, and the first recording by an African American artist. Not only did the record open a floodgate of interest in the Blues, its wild success surprised recording executives who had no idea there was such a huge market for Black Women vocalists, and it paved the way for future greats such as Ma Rainey, Bessey Smith and Billie Holiday. Mamie caught her break that day in 1920, not because of some forward-thinking producer, but because she was filling in for a white singer who was out sick. She said,“Human laws pattern divine laws, but divine laws use only originals.” Learn more about Mamie Smith at Black Past.
Initially barred from grade school as a child because she was considered a “fire hazard” due to her wheelchair, Judy Huemann has been fighting for the rights of disabled people since the 1970s. She became the first wheelchair-bound teacher in New York City after suing the city for discrimination. She then took part in the largest sit-in of its kind in San Francisco that set the stage for passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, a triumph more than 15 years in the making. Thirty years later, she is still working to help people see that a “normal” world isn’t one designed for able people, but one that works for all people. She said, “Barriers are not just physical; the biggest barriers are prejudice and fear.” Read Judith’s memoir Being Hueman
JUSTICE CONSTANCE BAKER MOTLEY
Nominated by President Johnson in 1966, Constance Baker Motley became the first African American Woman on the Federal bench. A civil rights activist, Baker Motley worked at the Legal Defense and Education Fund of the NAACP alongside Thurgood Marshall before even graduating from Columbia Law School and participated in writing the brief of Brown v. Board of Education, among others. Fun fact: Justice Motley ruled for Judith Huemann in her disability discrimination suit against New York City. She became chief judge in 1982, also a first. She said, “Sexism, like racism, goes with us into the next century. I see class warfare as overshadowing both,” and, “We knew then what we know now: that only exemplary Blacks are acceptable.” She published a memoir, Equal Justice Under Law, in 1998.
An Interior Salish woman who wrote under the name Mourning Dove, Christine Quintasket was determined to break stereotypes of Native Americans. Her novel was published in 1927, the first by a Native American woman. Unfortunately, it was edited without her consent to make it “more palatable.” She continued to write and collect tribal lore, and in 1935 was the first woman elected to the council of the Confederated Colville Tribes. She said, “Everything on the earth has a purpose, every disease an herb to cure it, and every person a mission. This is the Indian theory of existence.” Learn more about her at Cogewea: the Half-Blood History Link.
The first Saudi woman to specialize in information security, Manal al-Sherif was arrested in 2011 for “driving while female” and “embarrassing her country” by posting a video of that car ride. She has been working ever since to change Saudi laws that do not recognize women as independent adults and require all women to have a male guardian (#IAmMyOwnGuardian). She was the first recipient of the Vaclav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent in 2012. She said, “The struggle is not about driving a car, the struggle is about being in the driver’s seat of our own destiny.” Visit her website and read her memoir, Daring to Drive.