Despite a state government that has historically hoarded power and opportunity for the few, women in Alabama have for decades championed causes and led movements to bring equity, fair treatment and opportunity to the many. Alabama women have risen from racism, poverty and prejudice to make waves that ripple across the nation, not just the state.
Women in Alabama such as Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King were the foot soldiers, behind-the-scenes planners and unsung caretakers of a national Civil Rights Movement buoyed by the Montgomery Bus Boycott and Selma’s voting rights marches. Black women in Alabama would carry this mantle for decades afterward, advocating for equal access to public education and labor equality in the face of rampant racism and discrimination.
The advocacy of these women, whether through activism or art, would set the stage for other women to follow: artists and scientists such as Laverne Cox and Dr. Hadiyah Nicole-Green, who have become trailblazers in their own right.
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In August, America marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote. In commemorate of the occasion, the USA TODAY Network is naming 10 American women from all 50 states, plus the District of Columbia, who’ve made significant contributions to their respective states and country as Women of the Century. The women were expected to have a documented track record showing outstanding achievement in areas such as arts and literature, business, civil rights, education, entertainment, law, media, nonprofits and philanthropy, politics, science and medicine, and sports. They also had to have been alive between 1920 and 2020.
It was difficult to trim Alabama’s list of powerful women to just a few. Helen Keller, the blind and deaf disability rights advocate who co-founded the American Civil Liberties Union, and Amelia Boynton Robinson, the voting rights activist who put her life on the line at Selma’s Bloody Sunday march, are just a few of the powerful Alabamians who didn’t make the list.
Industrious and formidable, Alabama women have demanded change and progress time and again, using whatever they had at their disposal – even if, like Georgia Gilmore, it was only a little flour and a working kitchen – to smooth the road for those who followed.
Who is your Woman of the Century? Did we miss a woman you think should be on our list? We’d like to hear from you.
Chef turned activist
A domestic worker turned civil rights activist, Georgia Gilmore used her natural talent as a homegrown chef to feed Montgomery bus boycotters and finance the movement.
Gilmore was a widow with six children who understood the motivations of Rosa Parks when she refused to vacate her seat for a white bus passenger, kicking off a chain of events that would change the world. As a cook and maid, Gilmore traveled by bus to work daily until a spat with a white driver kept her off the city lines for good.
Out of work but undeterred, Gilmore began selling pies and sandwiches at the weekly mass meetings held throughout the boycott. She was soon organizing women into a group called the Club from Nowhere, cooking and selling meals to raise money that would pay for volunteer taxi services that took Black employees to work, school and elsewhere throughout the 13-month boycott.
After one of her sons was attacked by police for walking through a segregated white park, Gilmore filed a discrimination suit against the city that eventually led to the integration of its parks.
Actress and LGBTQ advocate
Laverne Cox has spent most of her life pushing back against hateful rhetoric, much of which came during her childhood growing up in Mobile. Cox, who’d eventually become the first openly transgender person to be nominated for an Emmy Award for acting, knew from an early age that she didn’t quite fit in with the gender role she was expected to fill.
Cox was accepted into the Alabama School of Fine Arts in Birmingham, where she studied classical ballet and earned a scholarship to Indiana University. After transferring to Marymount Manhattan College, she began acting. Cox’s transition from dance to acting paralleled that of her transition from gender nonconforming to identifying as a woman.
Cox initially didn’t disclose that she was transgender during auditions, but when Candis Cayne became the first transgender actor to have a recurring role on prime-time TV, the shame Cox felt about being transgender began to lift. The Netflix series “Orange is the New Black” catapulted her to stardom. In the years since, Cox has used her platform to advocate for LGBTQ rights and opportunities for transgender people.
Dr. Hadiyah-Nicole Green was one of the first Black women in the country to earn a doctorate in physics and just the second to do so at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
In her early 20s, she became the primary caregiver for the aunt and uncle who raised her when both were diagnosed with cancer. They died, fueling Green to search for a cancer treatment without side effects.
In 2016, Green founded the Ora Lee Smith Cancer Research Foundation in honor of her aunt. That same year, she was awarded a $1.1 million grant from the Department of Veteran Affairs to continue her research. Green is now an assistant professor at Morehouse School of Medicine in the Department of Surgery.
First Black female secretary of State
Condoleezza Rice grew in Birmingham at the height of the Civil Rights era. With segregation as the backdrop for her childhood, Rice’s parents instilled in her that minorities would have to be “twice as good” to overcome racial barriers, a conviction she has carried with her through life.
Believing education was the armor against prejudice, Rice immersed herself in school, graduating with her doctorate in political science by the time she was 26. Rice ingratiated herself with top Republican leaders, often serving as an adviser on foreign affairs. In 2001, she was named national security adviser, the first woman to hold the position. She stayed in that position until 2005, when she was named secretary of State, the first Black female to hold the title. Her foreign affairs expertise found regional solutions to the ills plaguing the world.
After a decade in Washington, Rice returned to academia as a faculty member at Stanford, where she was named a director of its Global Center for Business and the Economy. In September, Rice will take over as director of the Hoover Institution.
Equal pay advocate
An anonymous note set Lilly Ledbetter, a working mother in rural Alabama, on a trailblazing path of equal pay advocacy.
Born in Possum Trot, Alabama, Ledbetter worked for the local Goodyear tire factory for nearly two decades when she received an anonymous tip that her male peers were earning thousands more in salary a year.
Ledbetter sued Goodyear for pay discrimination, and a jury ordered the company to pay millions in damages. But Ledbetter ultimately lost the case on appeal after it rose to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2007.
A 5-4 majority ruled Ledbetter’s complaint failed to report discrimination within 180 days of the first unequal payment, despite 19 years of unequal pay. In a strong dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg argued Ledbetter’s complaint shouldn’t be time-barred, and that it would be up to Congress to “correct” the interpretation of the law.
Less than two years later, Congress would do so. In 2009, President Barack Obama signed into law the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Ledbetter continues to work as an equal pay and women’s advocate.
Civil rights activist
Born in Tuskegee, Rosa Parks was working as a seamstress in 1955 when her refusal to give up her bus seat to a white passenger sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott and ultimately ended segregation on public transit systems.
She later recalled that the refusal wasn’t because she was physically tired, but because she was tired of giving in.
After Parks’ arrest, the boycott of buses by the city’s Black residents lasted 381 days. Montgomery became the birthplace of the modern-day Civil Rights Movement, where nonviolent protest also led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Prior to the boycott, Parks worked for the Montgomery NAACP chapter as the youth leader and secretary to NAACP President E.D. Nixon. She and her husband lost their jobs after her arrest and moved to Detroit in 1957.
After her death, a life-size statue of Parks was erected in downtown Montgomery in 2019, in the place where she is believed to have boarded the bus on Dec. 1, 1955. A street and apartment complex have also been named in her honor in Alabama’s capital. She is often referred to as the “first lady of civil rights.”
Coretta Scott King
Civil rights activist
Coretta Scott King was a human rights activist and labor union advocate who fought for racial equality alongside her husband, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. She continued the fight after his assassination.
Born in a small unincorporated community in Perry County, Alabama, Scott King was a gifted student who graduated in 1945 as valedictorian of her high school class. She attended Antioch College in Ohio, where her elder sister was the first Black student to integrate the school’s campus. Her experiences of racial discrimination at the historically white school motivated her to become increasingly politically active.
Scott joined the local NAACP and became a member of the school’s Race Relations and Civil Liberties Committees. She later earned a scholarship to the New England Conservatory of Music, the oldest private classical college in the country and one of its most prestigious, where she earned degrees in voice and piano. It was in Boston that she was introduced to King. The newlyweds soon to Montgomery, where they were thrust into the political action of the bus boycott.
After King’s murder in 1968, Scott King continued to champion civil and labor rights. Through her activism, Scott King fiercely condemned American poverty, racism and inadequate public education as well as the international system of South African apartheid. She was an early advocate of LGBT rights, pledging support for a 1980s bill that would have prohibited discrimination against gays and lesbians in employment, housing and public accommodations.
After the death of her husband, she founded the King Center to continue his legacy and successfully lobbied President Ronald Reagan to create a holiday in his honor.
Virginia Foster Durr
Civil rights activist
Virginia Foster Durr was raised on a plantation in Union Springs, Alabama, amid the racist attitudes and systems of the Old South. As a young woman, she embraced the bigoted sentiments taught to her as a child before exposure outside her family structure began to reshape her views.
In her early 30s, Durr began volunteering with the Women’s Division of the Democratic National Committee, working against the poll tax that disenfranchised millions of Southerners.
In 1955, a couple of months before the Montgomery Bus Boycott began, she helped Rosa Parks land a scholarship to attend an integration workshop, an experience that would later inspire Parks to challenge the segregated bus system. Durr was there to help get Parks released after she was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat for a white person. Durr and her husband went on to assist in the Civil Rights Movement despite the consistent criticism by fellow whites for their involvement.
Durr published her autobiography, “Outside the Magic Circle,” in 1985, and remained active in politics into her 90s.
Evelyn Daniel Anderson
Public school teacher and disability advocate
A lauded educator who defied uninformed, preconceived notions about disabled people and their value in American society, Evelyn Daniel Anderson was a Greensboro native who became physically disabled at age 4 after she was hit by a stray bullet that damaged her spinal cord and paralyzed her legs and lower body.
She attended Judson, a private liberal arts college founded for white women in 1838, where she graduated with honors and earned degrees in art and history in 1948. Motivated to guide and support her students more comprehensively, she would later earn a master’s of education in counseling from the University of Alabama in 1964.
When Daniel Anderson began her career in education in 1948, it was as an “unofficial” art instructor because Alabama law prohibited people it deemed severely physically disabled from teaching in schools. Her skill and dedication inspired a legislator and the state superintendent to advocate for a law that would repeal that ban in 1953. The next year, she became the first “seriously handicapped professional” hired in the state’s public school system. She spent the next 34 years teaching English and Spanish and serving as a guidance counselor.
Her passion and commitment eventually inspired her small city in a largely rural county to provide accommodations for physically disabled people before any law required municipalities to do so.
Born Nelle Harper Lee, the author lived most her life saying very little, growing up in Monroeville, Alabama, during a time when children were better seen and not heard. But Lee observed, taking in the racial unrest of the time that would become the foundation for her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Published in 1960, the themes of the book – racial injustice, class, courage and compassion – helped rocket it to worldwide acclaim, a status Lee largely shied away from, granting few interviews and public appearances. The novel also drew much criticism – and continues to do so – for its frank discussion of rape, use of profanity and racial slurs. It has been removed from library shelves in numerous school districts.
Still, the novel has sold more than 30 million copies and been translated into more than 40 languages. Lee didn’t publish another novel for 55 years, until “Go Set a Watchman,” the first draft of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” was reworked as a sequel and released in 2015, shortly before her death.
Contributing: Safiya Charles, Kirsten Fiscus and Krista Johnson
Sources used in the Women of the Century list project include newspaper articles, state archives, historical websites, encyclopedias and other resources.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Women of the Century: Alabama list includes civil rights activists