banner image

7 Women Who Made History (Women's History Month)

7 Women Who Made History (Women’s History Month) 

I began writing this post by jotting down a list of names; while broaching a second page I  wondered: is there a limit on how many women to include on a Women’s History Month post? 

I realized it was a silly question. The limit does not exist.

Femme folks are entirely too great and have far too many extensive contributions and because of their numerous successes, this post can only share so much information.

scrabble words spelling out "Accomplishments"

“Woman” refers to people who identify as women and/or femme.

This post highlights women who fought back against sexism, racism, ableism; women who tore down metaphorical and physical barriers, and liberated the lives of all people regardless of their gender.

I admittedly do not know enough about the expansive field of disability history, but let’s recall the extraordinary contributions from some of the most badass people women in history without erasing their disability status.

Black women protesting for civil rights 1960's

While writing about these civil rights leaders, I keep in mind one of my favorite quotes from one of those revolutionaries:

“Asking you to give me equal rights implies that they are yours to give.” -Elizabeth Peratrovich

1.) Elizabeth Peratrovich, (1911-1958)

Elizabeth Peratrovich, maiden name Wanamaker, was born in 1911 as an Alaska Native Tlingit Lukaax.adi clan member in Petersburg, Alaska. Elizabeth is credited with leading the passage of the first anti-discrimination law in the United States.

In 1924, Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act which formally granted citizenship to the original stewards and inhabitants of what we call the United States.

Peratrovich grew up around signs which read, “No dogs, No Natives,” and “We cater to white trade only.”

While American Indians and Alaska Natives were “given” their rights to vote in 1924, there was still rampant discrimination, and erroneous racist barriers which kept Indigenous people from voting or occupying public spaces, such as schools. 

During her efforts to pass the Alaska Equal Rights Act in 1945, Peratrovich listened to hours of mostly white and male lawmakers and public members testify why Equal Rights for Alaska’s original inhabitants would be detrimental. 

A lawmaker stated, 

“The races should be kept further apart. Who are these people, barely out of savagery, who want to associate with us whites with 5,000 years of recorded civilization behind us?"

Elizabeth answered his question: 

"I would not have expected that I, who am barely out of savagery, would have to remind gentlemen with five thousand years of recorded civilization behind them of our Bill of Rights."

Gruening, the Governor at the time, stated the Alaska Equal Rights Act would not have passed if not for Elizabeth’s remarks.

  • Disability: Elizabeth Peratrovich died from breast cancer at age 47

2. Fannie Lou Hamer, (1917-1977)

Fannie Lou Hamer was born in Montgomery County, Mississippi, the daughter of a sharecropper family; she dropped out of school around age 12 in order to work.

Fannie Lou Hamer is known for her work as a civil rights and voting activist. Her advocacy on voting rights was motivated by her experiences as a Black woman in the South.

globe, center is north America with a post-it not over the South region reading, "politics"

In the American South, a procedure was so common the 1960’s and 1970’s it earned the nickname, “Mississippi appendectomy:” referring to the forcible sterilization of primarily low-income Black women and women of color. (Roberts, 1997).

Hamer was forcibly sterilized while receiving treatment for a uterine tumor. The doctor performing the surgery did not seek Hamer’s consent, as was common policy: Hamer, and thousands of women just like her, were deemed too “feeble-minded” to make an informed decision, so they were not asked or informed (Roberts, 1997).

Following the “end” of Jim Crow era, new policies were popping up which seemed to specifically target the reproductive rights of mostly low-income, disabled, women of color; women like Hamer.

At 45-years-old, Hamer learned that Black people could register to vote. She went to register and was subjected a racist literacy test, which she failed the first time. 

She continued to take the test until she passed (no easy task for Black people in the 1960’s).

The following year Hamer was arrested while registering Black women to vote. While in jail, she was beaten. The brutality left her with a blood clot behind one eye which impaired her vision, a lifelong limp, and kidney damage.

picture from civil rights protests of signs saying "we demand an end to police brutality" and "we demand voting rights now"

Hamer tirelessly traveled across the United States giving speeches at events in support of voting rights, as much as her health allowed her to. 

Following his acceptance of a Noble Peace Prize, Martin Luther King Jr. thanked Hamer as one of the great individuals for her contributions in securing voting rights for Black Americans.

  • Disability: Hamer died at 59-years-old due to a lifetime of stress and systemic oppression as an underprivileged Black woman, complications from the jailhouse beating, heart disease, and cancer.

Hamer famously said, 

“I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

3. Judy Heumann, (1947-2023) 

Judy Heumann, “the mother of disability rights,” contracted polio in Brooklyn, New York around 18-months-old. She survived and used wheelchair for the rest of her life.

At 5-years-old, Judy was denied her right to attend school due to being deemed a “fire hazard” as a wheelchair user. Judy was not the type of girl to accept "no." 

Following years of barriers in her attempts to pursue education and become an educator, Judy became the first person to teach in New York state who used a wheelchair.

 Judy led the 504 Sit-In, the longest occupation of a federal building.

white neon lights reading "fight for your right"

Section 504 refers to the historic 1973 Rehabilitation Act which prevented discrimination of disabled people; which ultimately led to the foundation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. When examining the origin of disability rights, Judy Heumann is at its core.

If you wish to learn more about Judy’s life and accomplishments, the 504 sit-in, or the history on how a bunch of disabled teenagers founded the worldwide disability rights movement, check out the documentary: Crip Camp.

  • Disability: Judy was a childhood survivor of polio and wheelchair user

4. Helen Keller, (1880-1968)

Keller was born in 1880, Tscumbia, Alabama, to a family who earned income from their cotton plantation. Around 19-months-old, Keller contracted what is suspected scarlet fever which left her Blind and deaf for the rest of her life.

Helen Keller disclaimer: Her father was in the Confederate army; Keller grew up with … privilege.. as her family earned their income from their cotton plantation, and likely enslaved African Americans (accounts are difficult to locate).
Keller’s worldview and advocacy around racism evolved throughout her life and while she became a civil rights leader for minority groups. She was … complicated, and in my opinion warrants a caution/ let’s not forget her family enslaved humans. And she wrote in support of eugenics.

When most people think of Hellen Keller, they conjure the image of a young girl learning to communicate. This image is often based on the infantilization of disabled people, which does a disservice to the influential accomplishments of Keller’s adult life.

For one, Keller co-founded the ACLU. Keller was the first Deafblind person to earn a bachelor’s degree. She was a world-famous author, speaker, and advocate for rights for Deafblind peoples, women’s reproductive rights, women’s right to vote, and the working class; efforts she accomplished well throughout her adult years.

ACLU pins reading queer mami, equal work equal pay. Stellar insight counseling LGTBQ+ friendly therapy

Keller received positive accolades for years about her communication and advocacy skills, until she wrote in support of socialism and a Socialist Party presidential candidate around 1920. 

People replaced their support for Keller and her advocacy for Deafblind peoples and women’s voting rights with criticism of her disabilities, upon learning her views on socialism.

  • Disability: Keller survived “brain fever” (presumably scarlet fever), and was left Blind and deaf from age two. Keller experienced several strokes in 1961 before dying in her sleep.

5. Marsha P. Johnson, (1945-1992)

Originally assigned male at birth, Johnson grew up with six siblings in an African American family in New Jersey, Johnson wore dresses and clothes for girls around age 5. 

Her outfits reflected her authentic self, and she experienced bullying and assaults due to transphobia. Johnson moved to New York City after graduating high school.

In New York she embraced her identity and returned to wearing women’s clothes, using the name Marsha P. Johnson, P meaning, “Pay It No Mind,” using she/her pronouns, and described herself as gay, a transvestite (as was the preferred and common term during her time), and a drag queen.

LGBTQ+ discrimination was the norm in NYC during this era, and as a result many gay and trans peoples could not find employment or housing. 

sign reading "Black LGBTQ Lives Matter"

Many were left with scant options aside from sex work, including Johnson. She was often abused by clients, and faced arrests as a result of her profession. 

She struggled to find long-term or safe housing, and was often houseless or staying with various friends.

Johnson had a prominent role in the Stonewall Uprisings, a protest against blatant NYC police violence against the gay bar Stonewall Inn. This protest laid the foundation for the gay rights movement. 

Johnson spoke against transphobia and the exclusion of people of color within the early days of the gay rights movement.

Johnson spent her life advocating for issues like: 

  • housing programs for trans youth, 

  • LGBTQ+ rights (including trans and LGTBQ+ people of color),

  • ACT UP, in support for people with AIDS and HIV

AIDS red ribbon and pink background

Johnson’s body was tragically found in the Hudson River when she was 46-years-old. Police originally ruled her death a suicide though after pushback from Johnson’s friends and community, police changed the cause of death to drowning. 

Police stated they reopened her case to find the person responsible; but it remains unsolved.

  • Disability: Marsha experienced psychiatric and physical disabilities, and announced she was HIV positive in 1992.

6. Wilma Mankiller, (1945-2010)

Mankiller was born as a Cherokee woman in Tahlequah, Oklahoma (capital of the Cherokee Nation). 

At 11-years-old, Mankiller and her family moved to San Francisco as part of a BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) policy to relocate American Indians from their homelands with the assurance of receiving good jobs in cities.

Mankiller described this move as, “my own little Trail of Tears.” Mankiller returned to Oklahoma as an adult, after being inspired by the Occupation of Alcatraz; seeking to augment pride about Native American identity among youth in her community and promote the health and well-being of her people.

photo of Alcatraz island

Mankiller worked on issues such as tribal sovereignty, improving access to water and housing, unemployment; issues caused by systemic racism and disenfranchisement of North America’s original stewards.

Her successes ranged from building a waterline to serving as the first woman elected as Principle Chief of the Cherokee Nation. Mankiller was the Chief for 10 years, and saw rather impressive improvements:

  • the Cherokee nation population nearly doubled, 

  • there was a marked decrease in infant mortality,

  • improved education outcomes, 

  • better healthcare programs, 

  • and more housing options for her community

In 1987, she earned the title, Woman of the Year from Ms. Magazine; in 1993 she was formally inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame; and received a Presidential Medal of Freedom award from President Clinton in 1998. 

Mankiller improved the nation-to-nation relationship between the United States and the Cherokee Nation and used tribal sovereignty in new ways.

  • Disability: Mankiller died at age 64 from pancreatic cancer.

7. Judi Chamberlin, (1944-2010)

If you have ever needed to voice your concern related to mental healthcare treatment you received (or you’re thankful you have that option in the future, should it be necessary), Judi Chamberlin is one of the people to thank for that.

At 21-years-old and having had little progress from outpatient treatment for her depression, a mental healthcare provider recommended Chamberlin try inpatient treatment from a hospital. 

Believing that hospitals helped patients Chamberlin went voluntarily, after she signed the admission paperwork she learned she was not able to leave when she wanted to.

Chamberlin was subjected to restraint, sedation, and other poor treatments without her consent; she experienced the reality that people who were hospitalized for mental health issues had no rights.

Upon her completing treatment and leaving inpatient hospitalization, she met with other people who identified as having a mental illness and spoke about their experiences. 

This motivated Chamberlin to advocate for the rights of people with mental health issues; and was known to advocate for “mad pride,” a term meant to replace the stigma of mental health issues with pride of mental health issues.

neon pride colored lamp

Deinstitutionalization was a growing movement during this era, emphasizing the importance of keeping disabled people in their communities and out of institutions, and having a voice in their healthcare. I will write about deinstitutionalization & mental health in a future post.

Her work developed patient rights and transformed mental healthcare treatment in the United States. 

Chamberlin’s work was no easy feat: not only was she criticizing the field she was demanding change, but she got those people to actually listen to her. 

I’ve written about the vital role therapeutic alliance plays in determining client therapy outcomes before; and the mental health field was influenced by Chamberlin’s advocacy that patient involvement in care leads to better health outcomes and patient experiences.

  • Disability: Judi experienced psychiatric disabilities, and lung disease later in life.

Check back next week for Part II.


‌Advocate for people with mental illnesses dies. (n.d.).

Boochever, (2019). Fighter in velvet gloves: Alaska civil rights hero Elizabeth Peratrovich. AK: University of Alaska Press.

Helen Keller, family, quotes & teacher, (2021). Biography; A&E; television networks.

Heumann, (2020). Judy Heumann, advocate for rights of disabled people.

‌Mankiller, (n.d.). About Wilma Mankiller., D., (1997). Killing the Black Body. Vintage Books.

Roberts, D. E. (1997). Killing the black body: Race, reproduction, and the meaning of liberty. Pantheon Books.

Rothberg, E. (2022). Marsha P. Johnson. National Women’s History Museum.

“The Sweat and Blood of Fannie Lou Hamer" (2020). National Endowment for the Humanities, 22(1).

About Nicole Zegiestowsky, M.S.

My name is Nicole (she/her), and I provide individual and group therapy to adult Alaskans. 

As a mental health professional, I believe that each client is the expert in his/her/their own life. 

I treat PTSD, trauma, anxiety, depression, parent-child relationships, panic attacks, perinatal and postpartum depression and anxiety. 

I work with men, women, and nonbinary Alaskans  through online counseling services or outdoor walking therapy in-person in Anchorage.

Prior to private practice, I’ve provided outpatient and residential psychotherapy services to youth, adults, seniors, families, couples, and groups through community mental health, interdisciplinary family medicine, and tribal health agencies.