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2020 Women’s History Month: The Leaders Who Blazed the Trail

Each year, Americans celebrate Women’s History Month in March to highlight the contributions of women. These contributions took place despite the lingering sexism and, in the case of Black women, racism that exists in the country.

The Washington Informer has selected four female leaders who made history and inspired other women to follow in their footsteps.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Before she received the appointment as an associate justice on the Supreme Court by President Bill Clinton in 1993, Ruth Bader Ginsburg had a reputation in the legal profession as a leading advocate for gender equality and women’s rights.

She served as a professor of law at the Rutgers Law School, starting in 1963 and receiving tenure in 1969. She also taught at the Columbia School of Law from 1972-1980, where she became the first female to get tenure and co-authored the first textbook on sex discrimination.

She co-founded the Women’s Rights Law Reporter in 1970 and won five cases before the Supreme Court dealing primarily with significant legal advances for women under the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Noting the effectiveness of her advocacy, the late Antonin Scalia, who served on the Supreme Court with Ginsburg for decades, said “she became the leading and very successful litigator on behalf of women’s rights — The Thurgood Marshall of that cause, so to speak.”

In 1980, President Carter appointed Ginsburg to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia and she worked on that court until Clinton tapped her for the Supreme Court, where she joined Sandra Day O’Connor as the second women ever appointed to the high court.

As a justice, Ginsburg has established herself as a jurist who supports the legal rights of women whether in abortion rights, discrimination whether based on sex, employment or pay and equal access cases.

Sharon Pratt

Sharon Pratt
Sharon Pratt (Courtesy photo)

On Nov. 6, 1990, the residents of the District of Columbia made history when they elected Sharon Pratt as the city’s first female mayor. With that achievement, Pratt became the first Black woman elected to lead a major American city.

Pratt, a native Washingtonian who received her bachelor’s degree from Howard University and her juris doctorate from the Howard University School of Law, had many years of Democratic Party politics before she ran for mayor. From 1977-1990, Pratt represented the District on the Democratic National Committee (DNC), the first woman to hold that position.

She served as the treasurer of the DNC from 1985-1989.

Pratt also made history when in 1983 when she became the first woman and first Black to serve as vice president of community affairs at Pepco, the D.C. region’s utility company.

Pratt’s tenure as mayor had its troubles with the city heading into financial chaos and political infighting with members of the D.C. Council. She lost her reelection bid in 1994 and stepped down in 1995.

In her later years, Pratt opened up a consulting firm and taught at the Harvard University’s Kennedy School Institute of Politics. Presently, she serves as founding director of the University of the District of Columbia’s Institute for Politics, Policy and History.

Mae Jemison

Mae Jemison
Mae Jemison (Courtesy photo)

Mae Jemison, an African American female engineer, physician and astronaut, became the first Black woman to travel into space when she served as a mission specialist aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavor. Jemison and her crew orbited the Earth for nearly eight days in September 1992.

Born in Alabama and raised in Chicago, Jemison graduated from Stanford University with degrees in chemical engineering as well as African and African American studies. She then proceeded to Cornell University where she received a medical degree.

After serving in the Peace Corps in Liberia and Siberia, she moved to practice in Los Angeles. While in Los Angeles, she took graduate engineering courses and applied for the space shuttle program.

After her acceptance in 1987 in NASA Astronaut Group 12, the first group of astronauts after the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger explosion, she prepared to go into space.

Following her successful mission on the Endeavor, Jemison left NASA and founded a technology research company and later formed a nonprofit foundation. She has been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame and the International Space Hall of Fame.

Ruth Simmons

Ruth Simmons
Ruth Simmons (Courtesy photo)

Ruth Simmons made history when she became the first Black female president of Brown University, considered to be one of America’s elite Ivy League higher education institutions, in November 2000. Prior to that historic appointment, Simmons served as the president of Smith College, a Seven Sisters institution and one of the largest women’s colleges in the U.S., with her tenure starting in 1995.

A native of Grapeland, Texas, Simmons received her bachelor’s degree from Dillard University in 1967 and her master’s and doctorate from Harvard University in Romance Literature in 1970 and 1973, respectively.

Her academic career took her to the University of New Orleans, California State University, Northridge, the University of Southern California, Princeton and Spelman College. As the president of Smith, she became the first Black woman to head a major college or program.

While at Smith, she helped set up its engineering program and at Brown University, Time magazine selected her as “America’s Best College President” in 2001.

On Dec. 4, 2017, Brown again made history when she became the first woman to serve as president of Prairie View A&M University in Texas, a historically Black institution.

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