You get to hear about two wonderful women today, congratulations! Although Kami Sid and Geena Rocero have not (to my knowledge) met in person or worked together, they both are in the same industry and have made impressive accomplishments in their fields. Both women are transgender (trans) models and use their platform to advance trans rights; and because today, March 31st is the day of transgender visibility, I thought that these two women would be appropriate to talk about. Kami Sid is from Pakistan and is the country’s first transgender model. The goal of her first photoshoot was to educate the public about what it means to be transgender, and to hopefully end some of the hatred and misconceptions about the identity. Geena Rocero is a model from the philippines who was discovered by a photographer when she was 21 after she has been competing in beauty pageants for six years. Rocero came out as transgender in March of 2014 while giving a Ted Talk and has since created Gender Proud, an advocacy group for trans people which hopes to increase their rights. Representation in media and the people we see portrayed as beautiful is important, which is something that both women realize and use to their advantage. Having transgender women be models, a job that often sets a societal standard for beauty, is incredibly powerful and helps normalize the transgender community. To diverge slightly from simply giving you a biography of the women I write about, I would like to add that at a time when trans people, especially trans people of color, are often the victims of hate crimes and violence, I personally admire these two women for making themselves public figures, standing up for the rights of the transgender community, and helping to give transgender people such a positive and beautiful image.
Mary Edwards Walker grew up during the 1830s in a pretty unconventional household. Her parents did not believe in enforcing gender roles, so she and her other sisters would share the work with the men on the farm, and her brother shared domestic tasks equally with his sisters. Additionally, Walker’s parents wanted their daughters to be well educated. Because equal educational opportunities weren’t available to women in the late 1830s, Walker’s parents founded their own school to ensure that Walker and her sisters got the education they wanted for them. Throughout her childhood Walker was encouraged to defy gender roles, which led her to become extremely interested in studying medicine. She started to work as a teacher in order to pay her way through medical school where she graduated with honors, and as the only woman in her class. At the beginning of the Civil War, Walker signed up to be a surgeon but she was only permitted to work as a nurse. Eventually, she was able to start working, unpaid, as a surgeon in the field, the first woman to do so in the Union Army. Walker also risked her life during the war. She crossed over battle lines multiple times to treat both Union and Confederate soldiers, as well as civilians. On April 10th, 1864, as she was finishing helping a confederate surgeon perform an amputation, she was captured and taken as a confederate prisoner. She was released four months later as part of a prisoner exchange. In 1865 Walker was given the Medal of Honor, the highest military decoration given to service members, by Andrew Johnson for her work as a doctor during the Civil War. She was the first and only woman to ever receive the medal to date. The medal was taken away from her in 1979 when the board deleted over 900 names from the list but Walker refused to return the medal, and wore it until her death. The medal was later re-awarded to her after she died by President Jimmy Carter. After the Civil War ended, Walker became an activist for women’s rights, specifically their right to wear whatever type of clothing they wanted. Walker found women’s clothing impractical and even unhealthy so she refused to wear them, opting for men’s clothing instead. She was actually arrested multiple times for wearing men’s clothing. She attempted to register to vote in 1871 but was of course turned away since women had not gained the right to yet. Mary Walker died in February of 1919. There is an United States Army Reserve center named after her in Michigan, and The Mary E. Walker House in Pennsylvania which helps homeless female veterans.
I love Surya Bonaly, she’s probably my favorite woman that I have talked about this month; she’s flipping awesome (a pun that will be funny in a few sentences). Bonaly is a french figure skater, and is one of the only four women to win the European Figure Skating Championships five times. Additionally, she finished fourth in the 1994 Olympics, but that’s not the reason she’s so amazing. Not only is she one of the only three women to attempt to land a quadruple jump, she is the only known skater in the world, male or female, who can land a backflip on one foot. Doing a backflip is illegal in figure skating competitions. Unofficially, because it’s extremely dangerous, and officially because it landed on two feet, and all figure skating jumps must be landed on one. During the 1998 Olympics, Bonaly knew that she was not going to be able to medal so she decided to go for it and did a backflip during her routine, landing it on one foot. However, it was really more than just a breathtakingly amazing move. Throughout Bonaly’s career, she faced discrimination that other skaters were not subjected to. As one of the few black skaters at the time, she had to deal with racism from the judges, as well as many critics shaming her for the way she looked. People would say that she didn’t look like a figure skater, that is, that she looked to broad and muscular and not dainty like the traditional skater looked. Commentators often judged her because they believed she focused too much on the athleticism of figure skating, and sacrificed the artistry of it, which doesn’t even make sense if you think about it. People would even go so low as to make fun of her admittedly eccentric costumes (I think they were cool). Despite all the hate she received, Bonaly went on to become one of the most respected figure skaters of all time. She went to the Olympics three times, placed second at the World Championships three years in a row, and as previously mentioned, won the European Championships five times. Bonaly kept performing after her official career ended in ‘98, and the last recorded time she did her backflip on ice was during a 2012 performance when she was 41 years old.
Mary McLeod Bethune was the fifteenth of seventeen children born to two former slaves in Mayesville, South Carolina. Her family was very poor so all of her siblings had to work in cotton fields to help support the family. Bethune, however, was given an opportunity none of her siblings received: the chance to go to school. A missionary had opened up a school specifically for African-American children and Bethune’s parents allowed her to go. The school was a five mile walk away from her house, but that did not dissuade her; Bethune was set on getting an education and a little bit of walking was not going to get in her way. Not only her education depended on her going to school, but her siblings as well since she taught her siblings what she had learned that day when she returned home from school. Bethune did very well in school and earned herself a scholarship to go to an all girls seminary college in North Carolina. After graduating, she became a teacher for almost 10 years. Bethune believed that education was key to the advancement for people of color so she decided to start a school for black girls in Florida. The school only had five girls at first, however, Bethune grew the school to over 250 girls within a few years. The school became big enough that it expanded into a college and merged with an all boys school, becoming the Bethune-Cookman College (which Bethune remained the head of); it was one of the only schools in America where black students could obtain a college degree. Bethune made great accomplishments in the political world as well. She served as president for the National Association of Colored Women and held voting registration drives after women gained the right to vote. She also served on multiple committees for a few different presidents. Most notably, she served as a special advisor concerning minority affairs to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Later in FDR’s administracion, she was promoted to director of the Division of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration where she helped young black people find jobs. Following her death in 1955, Bethune was inducted to the National Women’s Hall of Fame and her last home was declared a National Historic Site.
Dolores Huerta is a civil rights activist who was raised by her mother in a farm town in California. Huerta’s mother owned a hotel which she would let farm workers and their families stay in for very low prices, sometimes even for free. Her mother, who Huerta describes as intelligent and gentle, was a large source of inspiration for Huerta’s activism later in her life. Another reason she was driven to activism was because of her experience in the education system. For a short time she worked as an elementary school teacher, but was saddened by the horrible conditions many of her students lived in, students who were the children of farm workers. So, in 1955, Huerta helped start a local chapter of the Community Service Organization to, among other things, improve the economic conditions of farm workers. Much of Huerta’s activism focused on farmer’s rights. She started the Agricultural Workers Association in 1960, and co-founded the National Farm Workers Association in 1962. Some of her more specific victories include lowering the amount of pesticides used on grape farms, which were harmful to the people, and getting farm workers health insurance. But Huerta’s activism wasn’t just limited to farm workers. She also lobbied to make voting ballots and driver’s tests available in spanish, making both more accessible to the hispanic community. In 1993, Huerta was inducted to the National Women’s Hall of Fame, and in 2002 she received the Puffin/Nation Prize for Creative Citizenship. The prize money, $100,000, was used to start the Dolores Huerta Foundation which focuses on social justice issues such as economic development and education. Huerta is now 86 years old (87 in April), and is still an active activist. She was recently named honorary co-chair of the women’s march that took place on January 21st.
Judy Heumann has, in my personal opinion, the best comeback story in the history of comeback stories. After battling polio when she was 18 months old, Heumann was left confined to a wheelchair. When she was old enough to attend elementary school, she was sent home for being a fire hazard. I’m not paraphrasing, her mother was told that she was a fire hazard and she would not be allowed to attend school. Her mother challenged the decision and Heumann was allowed back into her local public school in the fourth grade. During college, Heumann became an activist for people with disabilities. After graduating, she tried to get a license to teach in New York, but was rejected because, keeping with a recurring theme in her life, the school board did not believe she would be able to safely evacuate herself and her students if there were a fire. A judge intervened, grave Heumann her teaching license, and she taught elementary school for three years; she was the first person in a wheelchair to do so in New York City. In 1970, she and some friends organized a civil rights organization for people with disabilities called Disabled in Action. She went on to be a legislative assistant, working on multiple bills that would advance the rights of disabled people, all while still organizing rallies, sit-ins, and demonstrations for the disabled. She also worked in the white house during the Clinton administration in the Department of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services, and the Department of Education. Eventually Heumann even became the first ever Special Advisor on Disability Rights for the US State Department during the Obama administration.
Amelia Boynton was an important figure from the civil rights movement. After graduating from college, Boynton became a teacher and later an agent with the Department of Agriculture in Selma, Alabama. She was passionate about advancing the voting rights of African Americans so in 1933 she co-founded a group that helped black Americans pass voting literacy tests, and throughout the 1930s until the 1950s, she and her husband held multiple voting drives in Selma, Alabama. In 1964, during the civil rights movement, Boynton became the first black woman to run for congress in Alabama, and the first woman in Alabama to run as a democrat. She unfortunately lost, but she did win over 10% of the vote. She also worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King. Boynton invited Dr. King to Selma to organize the March from Selma to Montgomery, and her home was used as a headquarters for the planning. On “Bloody Sunday” (March 7th, 1965), the day of the march Boynton helped plan, state troopers sent 17 protesters to the hospital with injuries. Boynton was one of those protesters. A photo of her after she was left unconscious on the ground circulated through newspapers, catching people’s attention and sparking a national outrage. A few months later, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, and Boynton attended as a guest of honor. Boynton remained an advocate for human rights well into her 90s, she was an active member of a civil and human rights organization until 2009. In 2015, when she was 103 years old, she was wheeled next to President Obama while they walked over the Edmund Pettus Bridge for the 50th anniversary of the march she helped organize. Amelia Boynton passed away in August of 2015 after a series of strokes when she was 104 years old.