20 Important Women in Indiana and National History

Women and girls were critical to our nation’s history and are essential to our present and future. They develop, innovate, provide, fight, create, build, nurture and more. And they do this, despite historical inequity rooted in sexism and compounded by marginalization related to other intersected identities. In honor of Women’s History Month, this article highlights women in Indiana and national history who made and are making a difference. 

20 Important Women in Indiana and National History 

Learn more about women in Indiana and national history who changed not just the Hoosier state but also the world. Each of these women contributed something different, but their individual and collective work impacts generations.    

Important Figures in Indiana 

Mari Evans (July 16, 1919 – March 10, 2017) – Writer, educator, long-time Indianapolis resident and central figure of the Black Arts Movement and Indiana Avenue jazz scene, Evans is best known for her renowned poetry collection, I Am a Black Woman. She received a Lifetime Achievement honor from the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana Author Award. Learn more. 

Eva Mozes Kor (January 31, 1934 – July 4, 2019) – A Holocaust survivor, Kor and her twin sister were subjected to horrific human experimentation at Auschwitz. Kor was an activist, author and founder of CANDLES (Children of Auschwitz Nazi Deadly Lab Experiments Survivors), an organization devoted to educating the public about eugenics, the Holocaust, and the power of forgiveness. Kor was a long-time resident of Terre Haute.  Learn more. 

Jane Pauley (October 31, 1950) – Journalist and Indiana native Jane Pauley graduated from Indiana University and began her career at Indianapolis’ own WISH-TV, before becoming history-making anchor Barbara Walters’ successor on NBC’s “The Today Show.” Pauley has received numerous journalism awards, including several Emmys and the Edward R. Murrow Award for Outstanding Achievement. Pauley lives with bipolar disorder and is a passionate advocate for mental health. She currently hosts “CBS Sunday Morning.” Learn more. 

Madam CJ Walker (December 23, 1867 – May 25, 1919) – was a Black entrepreneur, philanthropist and activist. Madam Walker was the first self-made woman millionaire, as documented by Guinness World Records. She founded Madam CJ Walker Manufacturing Company which developed hair care products. The manufacturing headquarters was repurposed and is now named The Madam Walker Legacy Center, it stands as a testament to Madam Walker’s entrepreneurial spirit. Learn more.  

Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso was ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia, on May 19, 1974, becoming the first woman to be ordained a rabbi in Reconstructionist Judaism. From 1977 until 2013, Sasso served as rabbi, along with her husband, at the congregation Beth-El Zedeck here in Indianapolis, making the couple the world’s first couple to serve jointly as rabbis. Sasso, recipient of the prestigious Sagamore of the Wabash award, is the author of numerous religious books, including the children’s books Abuelita’s Secret Matzahs and Butterflies under Our Hats. Learn more. 

Mary Clark (1801- 1840) was an enslaved woman purchased in Kentucky in 1814 by B. J. Harrison and brought to Vincennes, Indiana, in 1815, as an “indentured servant.” In 1816, G.W. Johnston purchased Clark’s indenture for 20 years. In 1821, Clark and attorney Amory Kinney petitioned Knox County Circuit Court to terminate her indenture because she was held illegally “as a slave.” Circuit Court ruled Clark “freely” entered into her indenture and had to complete it. Upon appeal, Indiana Supreme Court ruled in November 1821 that Clark’s suit proved her service was involuntary, violating Indiana’s 1816 Constitution. The court discharged her from service and the ruling contributed to ending indentured servitude in Indiana. Learn more. 

Important Figures in National History 

Marsha P. Johnson (August 24, 1945 – July 6, 1992) – was a well-known and outspoken advocate for gay rights, and she was a prominent figure in the Stonewall Uprisings in 1969. Johnson was a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front and cofounded the activist group S.T.A.R. She was also a popular figure in art and modeling. She modeled for artist Andy Warhol and performed with the drag performance group Hot Peaches. The “P” in Johnson’s name stood for “Pay It No Mind.” Learn More.   

Coretta Scott King (April 27, 1927 – January 30, 2006) – was the founder of the King Center, a lifelong human rights activist and a leading participant in the Civil Rights Movement along with her husband, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. After the assassination of her husband, Mrs. King became a figurehead for racial and gender equality, hosting the second National Organization for Women conference in Atlanta and advocating for the Equal Rights Amendment to secure women’s rights in the U.S. Constitution. She was the leading force behind establishing a national holiday in Dr. King’s legacy. Learn more. 

Audre Lorde (February 18, 1934 – November 17, 1992) – was a writer, poet, feminist, professor and civil rights activist. She is best known for her passionate writing on race, feminism and lesbianism. Lorde’s landmark work is “Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches,” in which she wrote about the oppression caused by her intersecting identities. In the book, Lorde says that Westerners have been conditioned to view differences with suspicion rather than as a strength and catalyst for change. Learn More. 

Wilma Mankiller (November 18, 1945 – April 6, 2010) – was the first woman Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation and the first woman elected chief of a prominent indigenous tribe. Mankiller found her passion for activism in 1969, when a group of American Indians took over the federal penitentiary on Alcatraz Island as an act of protest. She led the Cherokee Nation for 10 years, starting in 1985 and ending her term in 1995. During her tenure, the tribe’s population more than doubled from 68,000 to 170,000. Learn more. 

Sally Ride (May 26, 1951 – July 23, 2012) – was the first American woman to fly in space in 1983. In addition to being the first woman, she was also the youngest person to be in space at 32. Her two missions to space were on the Challenger, and she operated the robotic arm which deployed and retrieved communications devices. She spent a total of 343 hours (about two weeks) in space and was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Learn More.  

Mona Haydar (May 18, 1988) – is a Syrian American rapper, poet, activist and chaplain. Haydar first became nationally known when the project she and her husband (Sebastian) called “Talk to a Muslim,” a means to “replace trauma with love,” went viral. In 2017, her debut song “Hijabi (Wrap My Hijab),” hit big, with Billboard naming it one of the Top 25 Feminist Anthems. She was also featured in an Emmy-nominated series called The Secret Life of Muslims. Learn More. 

Grace Lee Boggs (June 27, 1915 – October 5, 2015) – was regarded as a key figure in civil rights, labor rights, Black Power and Asian American movements. Boggs was an author, poet, social activist, philosopher and feminist. She published five books, including her autobiography and her final book, The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century. Learn More. 

Dr. Dorothy Height (March 24, 1912 – April 20, 2010) – was a civil rights and women’s rights activist. Height is credited as the first leader of the civil rights movement to recognize the inequality of women and Black people as one issue instead of two separate problems. Her focus was on Black women’s issues, such as unemployment, literacy and voter awareness. President Barack Obama called Height “the godmother of the civil rights movement and a hero to so many Americans.” Learn more.   

Kalpana Chawla (March 27, 1962 – February 1, 2003) – was an astronaut, aerospace engineer, role model and the first woman of Indian origin to go to space. Chawla first flew on the space shuttle Columbia in 1997 as a mission specialist and primary robotic arm operator. She was posthumously awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor, and there have been multiple streets, universities and institutions named in her honor. Learn more. 

Dolores Huerta (April 10, 1930) – is a role model for many in the Latinx community. She is an American labor leader and civil rights activist who co-founded National Farmhouse Association (later known as United Farm Workers) with Cesar Chavez. She was a leader in organizing the Delano grape strike and boycott in 1965. She has received many awards for her activism, including the United States Presidential Eleanor Roosevelt Award for Human Rights and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Learn more. 

Sylvia Rivera (July 2, 1951 – February 19, 2002) – was an activist for LGBTQ+ rights and transgender rights. In addition, she was a close friend of Marsha P. Johnson. Together they cofounded S.T.A.R., a group dedicated to helping LGBTQ+ youth and trans women. All throughout her life, she fought against the exclusion of BIPOC and transgender people and was outspoken about her support of all LGBTQ+ people. Learn more. 

Judith Heumann (December 18, 1947 – March 4, 2023) – was widely regarded as the “mother” of the disability rights movement. She was a lifelong advocate and served in both the Clinton and Obama administrations. Judy’s story was also featured in Crip-Camp: A Disability Revolution, a 2020 Oscar-nominated documentary. In 2021, she started a podcast where she spoke with disabled individuals making a difference. Learn More. 

Shirley Chisholm (November 30, 1924 – January 1, 2005) – was the first Black woman elected to the U.S. Congress in 1968. Chisholm represented New York’s 12th district, and she served seven terms. In addition to being the first Black woman elected to congressional office, she was the first Black candidate for a major party presidential nomination and the first woman to seek Democratic Nomination for the presidency. Chisholm was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Learn More. 

Dr. Pauli Murray (November 20, 1910 – July 1, 1985) – was the first Black woman to be ordained as an Episcopal priest and the first Black person to receive a Doctor of Juridical Science degree from Yale Law School. Murray was a civil rights activist, gender equality advocate, author and lawyer. She published two autobiographies and a volume of poetry, The Dark Testament, which was republished in 2018. Learn more. 

Support Women’s Fund 

Without the support of our community, Indiana will continue to lack equity for women and girls. Like so many of the women we just talked about, you can make a difference too. At Women’s Fund of Central Indiana, we are dedicated to mobilizing people, ideas and investments, so every woman and girl in our community has an equitable opportunity to reach her full potential – no matter her place, race or identity. You can make an impact with your support; we invest in organizations that help women in our focus areas, caregiving, intimate violence, economic empowerment and girls’ programs. Learn more about Women’s Fund.   

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