This month, we celebrate Women’s History Month. The U.S observance pays tribute to the struggles and accomplishments of women throughout history. This month, we’re introducing you to a group of lesser-known female pioneers from all over the globe who advanced our core values and achieved great success in business, leadership, and life.
Tye Leung Schulze – Civil Rights And Community Activist (1887–1972) Tye Leung Schulze was an advocate for trafficked women, the first Chinese-American female employee of the federal government, the first Chinese-American woman to vote in a U.S. Presidential election, and a rebel against laws that banned marriage between races. She was born in San Francisco’s Chinatown in a time of deep Asian xenophobia when many abusive practices were common toward Chinese-American females. When Leung was 9 years old, her parents sold her as a child servant to work in another family’s home, and at just 12 years old, a marriage was arranged for her by her parents with a much older man in Montana. She ran away, finding sanctuary within a Presbyterian Mission, which over the years rescued more than 3,000 Chinese women and girls from sex trafficking. While at the Mission, Leung became a star pupil and worked as a translator and interpreter in court proceedings. In 1910, she became the first Chinese-American female employee of the Federal Government, bypassing the civil service exam and working as an interpreter at the Angel Island Immigration Station. In 1911, women won the right to vote in California, and the following year, Leung became the first Chinese-American woman to cast a vote in a U.S. Presidential election. (According to the U.S. National Park Service, Leung was the first Chinese-American woman to vote in the U.S. and may have been the first woman of Chinese ancestry to cast a vote worldwide). While working at Angel Island, Leung fell in love with a German-American man, Charles Schulze. Their relationship was forbidden by anti-miscegenation laws. Undeterred, the couple eloped to Washington state to get married. Both were consequently fired from their Federal jobs at Angel Island and struggled to find steady work; however, they lived in a committed marriage and raised four children together while devoting time to community advocacy.
Wangari Muta Maathai – Nurtured a Movement(1940-2011) Dr. Wangari Muta Maathai is known as the creator of the Green Belt Movement. This innovative organization has now planted more than 51 million trees in Kenya, thus fighting ecological decline and regional desertification. Growing up in Kenya, Maathai always felt an affinity for trees. In the 1970s, she recognized that tree planting campaigns could be an ingenious solution to many of Kenya’s ecological problems. She established an indigenous, grassroots, non-governmental organization through which a small army of women worked to plant trees to replenish the soil, provide wood for fuel, protect watersheds, and promote better nutrition. In time, the program grew to encompass sustainable development goals and the promotion of democracy and peace. Earlier in her life, Maathai moved to the United States to attend college. She earned a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences, then a master’s degree before returning to the University of Nairobi in Kenya to earn her Ph.D. With that last degree, Maathai became the first woman in either East or Central Africa to earn a doctorate. After she graduated, she began teaching in the Department of Veterinary Anatomy at the University of Nairobi and later became the department chair. Maathai devoted time and energy to conservation, human rights, AIDS prevention, and women’s issues. She frequently represented these concerns at meetings of the United Nations General Assembly and was internationally recognized as a champion of these issues and democracy. In 2002, she was elected to Kenya’s Parliament with 98 percent of the vote, and in 2003 she was appointed Assistant Minister for Environment, Natural Resources, and Wildlife. When she won the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2004, she became the first Black African woman to win a Nobel Prize. Britannica noted that “her work was often considered both unwelcome and subversive in her own country, where her outspokenness constituted stepping far outside traditional gender roles”. Although Dr. Maathai passed away in 2011, her work lives on in the millions of trees planted in Kenya and similar tree plantings in other African countries, inspired by the Green Belt Movement. In addition, the Wangari Maathai Foundation continues to engage with children and young adults, empowering self-development and collective action and promoting leadership.
Stephanie Kwolek – Inventor Of Kevlar (1923 – 2014) Stephanie Kwolek was an American chemist, best known for discovering synthetic fibers so strong, they were bulletproof. Kwolek made the scientific breakthrough while heading polymer research at DuPont’s Pioneering Lab, paving the way for Kevlar’s invention, which is used today in hundreds of products such as tires and construction cables—and even on spacecraft. Kwolek’s breakthrough technology also laid the groundwork for numerous products used for safety, like protective gloves used at construction sites worldwide. Her discovery generated billions of dollars in revenue for DuPont. The company awarded Kwolek with the Lavoisier Medal for outstanding technical achievement, one of many awards she won for her work in polymer chemistry. During her 40-year career, Kwolek also earned the National Medal of Technology, the IRI Achievement Award, the Perkin Medal, and 17 patents. She shared her talents through education, teaching chemistry, participating in programs that introduce young children to science, and mentoring other female scientists. In 1995, Kwolek was added to the National Inventors Hall of Fame, and in 2003 she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
Mary Ann Shadd Cary – Abolitionist, Publisher, Activist (1823-1893) Mary Ann Shadd Cary is remembered as a Canadian-American abolitionist, journalist, publisher, teacher, and lawyer. Growing up in a home that often served as a temporary shelter for enslaved people who were on the run, Shadd Cary became an outspoken proponent of abolishing slavery. With the passing of the Fugitive Slave Acts, a pair of federal laws that allowed for the capture and return of runaway enslaved people within the U.S., Shadd Cary moved to Canada, where she founded Canada’s first-antislavery newspaper, the Provincial Freeman. Despite significant risks to her safety, Shadd Cary lectured extensively to increase subscriptions and solicit aid for runaway enslaved people. Known by those closest to her as “The Rebel,” Shadd Cary returned to the U.S. during the Civil War and was appointed a Recruiting Officer for the Union Army. She later studied law at Howard University, graduating in June 1883, and often served as an articulate public speaker on women’s rights and the women’s suffrage movement. Shadd Cary addressed the House Judiciary Committee in January 1874 as part of a group of women petitioning for the right to vote. Forever an advocate for diversity, Shadd Cary encountered a great deal of criticism for being so visible and vocal in her activism, including from Black male leaders and Black women. She persevered in her efforts and acknowledged the pride she took in creating space for diverse voices.
Gertrude Elion – Innovative Biochemist (1918–1999) Gertrude “Trudy” Belle Elion dedicated her life to improving medical and pharmaceutical care and enhancing people’s quality of life. Born in New York City to immigrants from Lithuania and Poland, she excelled in all her studies, graduating high school when she was just 15 years old. When her beloved grandfather became ill and died of cancer, Elion dedicated herself to the study of chemistry in hopes of finding a cure for the disease. Despite the financial hardships of the Great Depression, she attended college at tuition-free Hunter College. She earned a bachelor’s degree there and a master’s degree at New York University. While at university, Elion fell in love with and became engaged to Leonard Canter, exchanging more than 300 love letters with him over 4 years. Tragically, Canter contracted bacterial endocarditis and died before they could marry. Elion used her heartbreak as motivation to persist in her chemistry career. Science later reported, “despite her academic record, 15 chemistry departments around the United States rejected her application, largely because she was female.” For years she was confined to jobs outside her area of study and could never earn a Ph.D. It wasn’t until World War II caused a shortage of male chemists that Elion finally found laboratory work in her chosen field. In 1944, she was hired as a research assistant to George Hitchings at what is now GlaxoSmithKline and worked there for nearly 40 years, eventually rising to the head of the Department of Experimental Therapy. Elion supported Hitchings in the so-called “rational drug design,” which uses observed differences in nucleic acid metabolism to help target treatments that will kill cancerous and infectious cells without damaging healthy ones. That was a marked departure from the slower trial-and-error methods of the time. One of Elion’s most remarkable discoveries was a leukemia treatment that was more effective and less toxic than previous therapies. Today, Elion’s development is responsible for curing 80% of childhood leukemia cases and treating some cases of cancer in adults. Her push for quality drug development also gave rise to treatments for many herpesvirus infections, HIV, malaria, meningitis, and gout. Elion advised the World Health Organization and the American Association for Cancer Research. In 1988, she earned the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine alongside Hitchings and pharmacologist Sir James Whyte Black. Interviewed before her death, Elion said, “The thrill of seeing people get well who might have otherwise died of disease…cannot be described in words. The Nobel Prize was only the icing on the cake.”
Winona LaDuke – Environmentalist And Political Activist (Born 1959) Winona LaDuke is an internationally respected environmental leader, author, and economist, working on sustainable development, renewable energy, and food systems. She is an enrolled member of the Ojibwe Nation, also known as the Anishinaabe people. LaDuke’s introduction to activism came when she was 10 years old and attended a peace rally with her mother. At age 18, LaDuke spent a summer campaigning against nuclear testing and uranium mining on Navajo lands. Later that year, she addressed the United Nations in Geneva, providing expert testimony about mining’s poisonous effects on Native lands. Those efforts contributed to the Navajo Nation receiving a $1 billion settlement from an energy company for cleanup of uranium-laced water and mines. LaDuke graduated from Harvard in 1982 with a degree in Native economic development and moved to White Earth Reservation. She became involved in a lawsuit to recover lands taken from the Ojibwe Nation. Although that lawsuit was unsuccessful, LaDuke founded the White Earth Land Recovery Project (WELRP), which continues work to regain lands through private purchases, cultivate traditional tribal foods such as wild rice, and sustain Ojibwe’s traditional language speech. In the 1980s, LaDuke founded the Indigenous Women’s Network and worked with Women of All Red Nations to publicize the forced sterilization of Native American women in the U.S. She served as the program director of the Seventh Generation’s Fund. This organization advocates on behalf of Native Americans and the environment. It is the executive director of Honor the Earth, working nationally and internationally with Indigenous communities on climate change, renewable energy, and environmental justice. Her ecological work led to her twice running as the U.S. vice-presidential candidate for the Green Party in 1996 and 2000. Now a member of multiple advisory boards, an author, and a mother of three, LaDuke has won several awards for her work and is a member of the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
Lilly Ledbetter – Fierce Champion Of Equal Pay (Born 1938)In U.S. society, where women are paid an average of 82 cents for every dollar earned by men, Lilly Ledbetter has struggled to narrow that gap. Ledbetter was a victim of discrimination. After 19 years of high performance on the job, she discovered that her employer Goodyear had been paying less than any of her male colleagues. Ledbetter sued Goodyear and won a $3.8 million verdict in a jury trial. As Goodyear appealed, the case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and Ledbetter found her case overturned by a 5-4 vote on a technicality. In her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg challenged Congress to correct what she saw as an injustice in the Supreme Court verdict. Thanks to Ledbetter’s tireless lobbying, Congress passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in 2009, 2 years after the Supreme Court delivered its decision on her case. Though Ledbetter will never receive restitution from Goodyear, the Fair Pay Act that bears her name makes it easier for workers to challenge past discriminatory compensation, regardless of the basis of the discrimination, and even if those workers discover unfair treatment long after the discrimination occurred. Since 2009, Ledbetter has written a memoir and lectured widely. In 2011, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
Sheikha Lubna bint Khalid Al Qasimi – IT-Innovator, Philanthropic Leader, Advocate For Tolerance (Born 1962) Ranked as the 36th most powerful woman globally by Forbes magazine, Sheikha Lubna bint Khalid Al Qasimi is a beloved leader in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). While she served as Minister of State for International Cooperation and Development, she oversaw a vast expansion of UAE-sponsored overseas philanthropy. Before entering government work, Sheikha Lubna received a bachelor’s degree in computer science from California State University, Chico, and an Executive MBA from the American University of Sharjah. During a successful business career, Sheikha Lubna oversaw the software automation of the federal government of the United Arab Emirates. She then moved on to the position of senior manager of the Information Systems department at the Dubai Ports Authority, the largest port in the Middle East. Her work tremendously slashed turnaround times and earned her high praise from UAE government leaders. It also opened the door to a role as Chief Executive of Tejari, the award-winning, business-to-business marketplace, first of its kind in the Middle East. With her appointment in 2004 as the Minister of Economy, Sheikha Lubna became the first female to receive a ministerial appointment in the UAE. In 2008, she was appointed to the minister of foreign trade. She was also selected as Minister of State for International Cooperation and Development in 2013. Sheikha Lubna currently serves as the Minister of State for Tolerance in the UAE, focusing on promoting tolerance and instilling this core principle in her country. Sheikha Lubna serves on several boards worldwide, including those of Zayed University and the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation. Globally, she is recognized as a leader and a strong advocate for women’s equal rights.