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Gender Equity Toolkit: Women Who Changed History


Bessie B. Stringfield (c.1912-1993),  the 'Motorcycle Queen of Miami'

Nicknamed the “Motorcycle Queen of Miami,” Bessie Stringfield was a dispatch rider for the United States Army in the 1940s — at a time when motorcycle riding was considered “unladylike.” When other women were relegated to housework, Stringfield revved and roared through Florida’s palm-tree-lined streets on her Harley-Davidson, sharing stories with friends of being chased off the road in the Jim Crow South and doing carnival stunts on the Wall of Death. Today, hundreds of women motorcyclists make an annual cross-country trek in her honor.

Mabel Stark (1889-1968), Fearless Tiger Trainer

Nicknamed “Tiger Girl” and “Crazy Mabel,” Mabel Stark was among the most celebrated animal trainers in a field dominated by men in the early 20th century. She performed with tigers until she was nearly 80, her 5-foot-3, 100-pound body covered with more than 700 stitches from being bitten, gouged and clawed (though she never blamed her tigers for the maulings).

First Woman To...

...earn a pilot's license: Bessie Coleman, Pioneering African-American Aviatrix

Bessie Coleman wanted to fly, but no aviation school in the United States would admit her. So she taught herself French, moved to France and became the first black woman to earn a pilot’s license, in 1921. The daughter of sharecroppers, who were also of Native American descent, she was inspired by stories of the Wright brothers and World War I pilots. a taxi driver: Gertrude Jeannette—Actor, Director and Cabdriver

On her first day on the job, the taxi driver Gertrude Jeannette, believed to be the first woman to drive a cab in New York City, got in an accident — on purpose. She had pulled up to the Waldorf Astoria hotel looking for a fare, but was cut off by other taxis. “In those days (the 1940s), they didn’t allow black drivers to work downtown; you had to work uptown,” she later recalled. As cabbies hurled insults at her, she remained calmly in the taxi line — until another cab cut in front of her. She rear-ended him, tearing his bumper, to which the man screamed: “A woman driver! A woman driver!


Miki Gorman (1935-2015), the Unlikely Marathon Winner

When she first signed up for the New York City Marathon in 1975 — five years after its inception — Michiko “Miki” Gorman was an unlikely candidate to win. She was already 40, considered old for an elite runner, and had given birth to a daughter at the start of the year. She came in second that year, but raced again in 1976 and won. She won again the next year — becoming the only woman known to have won the New York City and Boston marathons twice.

Jackie Mitchell (1913-1987), Who Fanned Two of Baseball's Greats

Seventeen-year-old Jackie Mitchell struck out baseball giants Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in an exhibition game against the Yankees in 1931 — a feat that, to this day, leaves many critics skeptical. Mitchell was the only female pitcher signed to a professional baseball team at the time. But after the upset against the Yankees, it is believed that the baseball commissioner voided her contract, perhaps embarrassed by the episode. It would be another nine years before the creation of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.

Alison Hargreaves (1962-1995), Who Conquered Everest Solo and Without Bottled Oxygen 

In 1995, Alison Hargreaves became the first woman to conquer Mount Everest alone, without bottled oxygen or the help of Sherpas. When she reached the peak — 29,029 feet high — she sent a radio message to her son and daughter: “To Tom and Kate, my dear children, I am on the highest point of the world, and I love you dearly.” Her homeland, Britain, rejoiced. But the celebration did not last long. She died three months later, while descending from the summit of K2 in Pakistan.


The Secret History of Women in Coding 

Feature Computer programming once had much better gender balance than it does today. What went wrong? 

Karen Sparck Jones (1935-2007), Who Established the Basis for Search Engines

Karen Sparck Jones, a pioneer of computer science who established the basis for search engines like Google, once said: “Computing is too important to be left to men.” When most scientists were trying to make people use code to talk to computers, Sparck Jones taught computers to understand human language instead. 


Gladys Bentley (1907-1960), Gender-Bending Blues Performer and '20s Harlem Royalty

In her top hat and tuxedo, Gladys Bentley belted gender-bending original blues numbers and lewd parodies of popular songs, eventually becoming 1920s Harlem royalty. By the early 1930s, Bentley was Harlem’s most famous lesbian figure and among the best-known black entertainers in the United States. She was also the first prominent performer of her era to embrace a transgender identity. Her rise to fame demonstrated how liberated the Prohibition culture of the Harlem Renaissance had become.

Marian Anderson (1897-1993) Singer Shattered Racial Barriers

Marian Anderson became the first black singer to perform at the Metropolitan Opera in 1955 — fulfilling a childhood dream. It did not matter that, at 57 years old, she was past her vocal prime. As The Times noted in a review of her performance at the time, which was met with a standing ovation: “Men as well as women were dabbing at their eyes.” She went on to sing at the inauguration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1957 and of John F. Kennedy in 1961.

Movie monster maker Milicent Patrick (1915-1998) finally gets her due in 'The Lady From the Black Lagoon'

In 1952, Milicent Patrick was hired by Universal Pictures as a makeup designer for the film “Creature From the Black Lagoon,” where she thought up the movie’s monster, a sea creature called Gill Man who falls in love with a human. Jealous of her acclaim, Patrick’s boss fired her and had her name removed from the credits, replaced with his own. Her work has inspired horror and science-fiction directors over the decades, and most recently, influenced the creature in the 2017 Oscar-winning movie “The Shape of Water.”

Crusaders for Equity

Overlooked No More: Mabel Ping-Hua Lee (1897-1966), Suffragist With a Distinction

Lee stood out as a Chinese immigrant, giving speeches, writing articles and helping to lead a 10,000-strong march through the streets of New York City when she was just a teenager. This article is part of Overlooked, a series of obituaries about remarkable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The Times.

Before Kamala Harris, There Was Charlotta Bass

She was the first Black woman to run for vice president, in 1952. She was also a pioneering journalist at The California Eagle, the West Coast's oldest Black newspaper. She would run for vice president on the Progressive Party ticket, laying the foundation for a figures like Kamala Harris, the first Black woman and first person of Indian descent to be nominated on a major-party ticket.