In a month Americans dedicate to celebrating the women in our lives—mothers, sisters, daughters, and celebrated historical figures alike—and at a time when national and cultural divisions are entrenched pretexts for persecution, it’s important to remember the women around the world who have fought, often in obscurity, for justice and equality. Women have risked their lives to secure the rights of their people and of workers, for national sovereignty and fellow women. Here are tributes to just a few.
Florinda Soriano Munoz, known as Mamá Tingó, was born on November 8, 1921, in the Dominican Republic. A peasant farmer, or campesino, she fought for the land rights of fellow campesinos as a member of the Federation of Christian Agrarian Leagues, a group of over 350 who stood for the right to their lands for decades after unjust redistribution. Though elderly and illiterate, she was an effective and passionate leader.
In 1974, a landowner named Pablo Diaz reclaimed the land that she and other farmworkers had cultivated for decades. He destroyed the farmworkers’ crops and posted armed guards around 8,000 acres of their land in an effort to push the campesinos to sell and leave. Mamá Tingó took up the fight against Diaz. When she and other campesinos attended a trial to determine ownership of the lands, Diaz did not attend. When she returned to her farm that day, a foreman who worked for Diaz was hiding and waiting for her. She tried to defend herself but was shot twice, once in the head and once in the chest, killing her. Mamá Tingó may have passed away that day, but she is remembered for her work to fight for the campesinos.
The first and last queen of Hawai’i, Lili’uokalani was born Lydia Lili’uloloku Walania Wewehi Kamaka’eha on September 2, 1838. When King Kamehameha V died in 1874, Lydia’s brother was selected to rule. Three years later she was named heir to the throne. Her name changed from Lydia to Lili’uokalani to represent her royal lineage. Her brother ruled until his death in 1891, when she took his place.
Lili’uokalani was fiercely dedicated to her country and her people. During his reign, her brother was coerced into signing the Bayonet Constitution with the United States—supposedly by gunpoint (hence the name). The Bayonet Constitution limited the power of the Hawaiian monarchy, disenfranchising Hawaiians while opening voting rights to non-Hawaiians.
Lili’uokalani tried to amend the Constitution and restore power to the monarchy. However, she received immediate pushback from American and European sugar planters and businessmen. They pushed to overthrow her, and she surrendered the Hawaiian nation to the United States in 1893, unwilling to spill any Hawaiian blood in a war. Though she was no longer queen, she continued to fight for her country by appealing to the United States government, but also by staging a counter-revolution for which she was imprisoned for eight months in 1895. In 1898, the United States annexed Hawai’i. She entrusted her estate to provide for Hawaiian orphans and other destitute children. Lili’uokalani is celebrated for her bravery and dedication to her people and country, but also for her hymns and ballads. She created over 150 songs, including “Aloha ‘Oe,” meaning “Farewell to Thee,” which has become a cultural symbol in Hawai’i.
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Funmilayo Ransome Kuti
Funmilayo Ransome Kuti was born in Abeokuta, Ogun State, in Nigeria on October 25, 1900. During her time attending school in England, she discovered socialism and anticolonialism. Due to the racism she experienced in England, she dropped her Christian name, Frances Abigail, when she returned to Nigeria in 1922 to teach at Abeokuta Grammar School, a Christian Missionary school, where she met her husband, the school’s principal, Reverend Israel Oludotun Ransome-Kuti. Together they had four children. Her husband was the founder of the Nigerian Union of Teachers and the Nigerian Union of Students. They would work together to end colonialism in Nigeria and to further educate the Nigerian population.
Kuti launched literary classes for women and, later, a nursery school. In 1942, she created the Abeokuta Ladies’ club, an organization that attracted mostly middle- and upper-class women. However, in 1944 it expanded to include women of all classes when it merged with the group Social Welfare for Market Women, which she also led. The fusion of the two groups became the Abeokuta Women’s Union (AWU). The AWU was dedicated to addressing all concerns related to Nigerian women and to fight for their equal rights.
The AWU also focused on fighting back against colonial power and granting Nigerian women rights that had been taken away by the British. When dealing with colonial authorities, she would speak Yoruba rather than English. In 1949, she led a protest known as the Egba Women’s War, or Nigerian Women’s Struggle, where thousands of women flooded the streets in mass protests, which eventually forced the Alake to abdicate from the throne. Women were then granted representation in the Sole Native Authority, which helped drive the administration, then under Britain’s control, to collapse.
The first Nigerian president elected her treasurer of the Gba division of his party, the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC), in 1956. Though endowed with more power, she still felt that women had become an afterthought within the movement. With this in mind, she and other women founded the Commoners Peoples Party, which successfully challenged the NCNC; the opposition group won. Kuti would go on to be one of the delegates to negotiate Nigeria’s independence with Britain. She was elected to House of Chiefs, one of the most influential bodies at the time, and became an Oloye of the Yoruba people. It is said that she was one of the first women to drive a car and a motorcycle. Kuti, remembered as “The Mother of Nigeria,” died on April 13, 1978, in Lagos, after being thrown from a second-floor window on orders of the military regime.
Huda Shaarawi was born in 1879 in Upper Egypt to a wealthy family, where she received a rigorous education. She was married to a much older man at the age of 13 and spent her early years in a harem, which she describes in her memoir, Harem Years, published in 1987.
Shaarawi was passionate about making education more accessible to other Egyptian women. She organized lectures for women to attend, which allowed middle- to upper-class women to leave the harem. She went on to found a school for girls in 1910 that taught academic subjects rather than traditional midwifery.
After World War I, Shaarawi’s husband became an active part of the movement for Egyptian independence. The Wafd party was formed to pursue these nationalistic causes. During the 1919 Egyptian revolution, Shaarawi led women into the streets to support the party. They encountered British soldiers and, for three hours, stood firm. Following this, she created the Wafd Women’s Committee. In 1922, England recognized Egyptian independence, though women were mostly left out of the proceedings. This only further radicalized Shaarawi. Upon her arrival at the train station from the first meeting of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance, Shaarawi removed her veil. Other women followed suit. This defiant act is something she is most recognized for, which helped push for the veil to be a choice rather than a requirement.
From there, Shaarawi dedicated herself to fighting for Egyptian women’s rights. She founded the Egyptian Feminist Union, the first national women’s organization in Egypt, in 1923. The organization was dedicated to women’s suffrage and education and published a newspaper and journal. After having attended a multitude of conferences in Europe, Arab women asked Shaarawi for help, and as a result she organized the first Arab Feminist Conference in 1944. In 1945, she founded the Arab Feminist Union. She was given Egypt’s highest civilian honor before she was able to vote.
Yuri Kochiyama was born Mary Yukrio Nakahara to Japanese immigrants on May 19, 1921, in San Pedro, California. Her family lived in a working-class neighborhood, until the attack on Pearl Harbor forced them to relocate to an internment camp in Arkansas. For Kochiyama, this period was the beginning of her political awakening, where she realized the similarities between the oppression of African Americans and the treatment of Japanese-Americans.
After World War II, she and her husband, whom she met at the internment camp, moved to New York to start a family. They had six children and lived in public-housing projects among African-American and Puerto Rican families. Being a part of the community pushed her to become interested in the civil rights movement, and her house played an active role in it. She held weekly meetings for activists, like the Freedom Riders, to come and discuss their plans. Her daughter remarked that “Our house felt like it was a movement 24/7.” She and her husband became members of the Harlem Parents Committee, a grassroots organization dedicated to fighting for safer streets and integrated education.
In 1963, she befriended Malcolm X. When he was assassinated, she cradled his head. She soon shifted to fighting for black liberation and joined the Republic of New Africa, a militant black-nationalist organization in Harlem. In 1969, she joined the Young Lords Party, a community and political-action group started by Puerto Ricans fighting for their independence. She was a part of the demonstrations that took place for independence in 1977, known as the Statue of Liberty Storming.
Kochiyama was deeply involved in the Asian-American movement for social justice. She became fiercely anti-imperialist and anti–Vietnam War and supported the development of ethnic-studies programs. She fought against the racial profiling of Muslims and South Asians after 9/11, using the history of Japanese-American internment to remind Americans of their history of xenophobia. She was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 for her work fighting imperialism and racism. She died at the age of 93 in 2014 in Berkeley, California.
Marsha P. Johnson
Marsha P. Johnson was born on August 24, 1945 in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Marsha identified as a drag queen and transgender. She would leave Elizabeth, New Jersey, in male clothing and change into female clothing when she arrived in New York City. After 1966 she legally changed her name to Marsha when she settled permanently in Greenwich Village.
Marsha is credited by some with starting the Stonewall Riots. The Stonewall Riots began on June 28, 1969 at the Stonewall Inn, a known queer bar in Greenwich Village. One night police raided the bar, which usually involved them searching for drugs and IDs, and ensuring that one’s biological gender matched their clothing. At the time, if you didn’t have three articles of clothing that matched your biological gender, you could be arrested. As the story goes, Marsha, tired of the mistreatment, threw a shot glass against the wall and yelled, “I got my civil rights!”—which launched the riot. (This has been heavily contested; in an interview, she has said she arrived at the riots after they started.)
After the riots, Marsha and her friend and fellow activist Sylvia Rivera co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, an organization that provided shelter to homeless queer youth and helped raise money for legal support for trans people. She also co-founded the Gay Liberation Front, which advocated for political action and protection for queer folks—particularly trans people, who had been in many ways excluded from the movement.
Her own experience allowed her to offer guidance to younger trans people at the time. She became known as Queen Mother for her love of drag and the way she cared for others.
Marsha was a pivotal woman in the Gay Liberation movement and queer culture in New York City. On July 6, 1992, her body was found in the Hudson River. Though her death was ruled a suicide, many family and friends said that she was not a suicidal individual—they contended that a group of men had attacked her. The case was reopened in 2012 and remains open today.