31 Women of March: The First Five

Given the historic election of our first female VP in the US, I thought it fitting to start with the first woman ever elected to US Congress. She was elected in 1916, and is still the only women to ever be elected from Montana! This article in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle offers interesting insight into her life including how she got elected, and pushed out for a time, and her pacifism as a feminist act.
Born in 1823 to free Black parents, Shadd Cary was a suffragist, attorney (having been the first Black woman enrolled at Howard University Law School) and then became the first Black female editor of a paper in North America, the Provincial Freeman, which was aimed at Americans living in Canada. More information is available from the National Women’s Hall of Fame, where she was inducted in 1998.
A poet and gardener, West was perhaps best known for wrecking havoc on various literary marriages. She was forthright about the limitations of marriage as she saw them (hers was open), her sexual orientation and gender fluidity. She is considered the inspiration for her lover Virginia’s Woolf’s important gender-fluid character Orlando. This erotic poem, written to a different lover, was recently discovered when it fell out of a book during conservation work in her home.
The first woman elected Principle Chief of the Cherokee tribe (1987), Mankiller was grounded in and inspired by the fact that the Native American tradition had a long tradition of equality between the sexes before being upended by European invasion. She discusses discrimination as a woman as far worse than the discrimination she faced as a Native American in her autobiography.
Educated while enslaved in a prominent Boston household, Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was the first poetry collection published by an African American (1773). Snatched from Senegal/Gambia, West Africa at roughly 7-years old, she would become one of the best known poets of the 18th Century. You can find much more about her life and legacy in the Poetry Foundation’s profile.