A photo montage showing Jovita Idár, Billie Holiday, Hedy Lamarr, Marjory Stoneman Douglas and Zitkala-Ša.
News + Advocacy

Celebrating Women’s History: The Power of Storytelling

In the USA, UK and Australia, Women’s History Month is celebrated throughout March; an opportunity to recognize and learn about women’s contributions and accomplishments both past and present that shaped and/or spearheaded countrywide and worldwide cultural and societal progress.

Observed annually since 1987 in the United States; this branch of the movement was initiated by the National Women’s History Alliance (NWHA), who successfully campaigned to have Congress declare March as National Women’s History Month. The focus/theme this year is ‘Celebrating Women Who Tell Our Stories’. This includes:

[…] those who have been active in all forms of media and storytelling including print, radio, TV, stage, screen, blogs, podcasts, and more. The timely theme honors women in every community who have devoted their lives and talents to producing art, pursuing truth, and reflecting the human condition decade after decade. | NWHA 2023 Theme

A title graphic for a post available on Transatlantic Notes called, ‘Celebrating Women’s History: The Power of Storytelling’. The background image shows a photo montage showing Jovita Idár, Billie Holiday, Hedy Lamarr, Marjory Stoneman Douglas and Zitkala-Ša.

March 8th also happens to be International Women’s Day; a chance to commemorate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women who have forged a path forward for gender equality. This undoubtedly is a valuable time to discover significant people who’ve impacted our lives throughout history — and those continuing to effect positive change. It goes without saying, however, that embracing equality and learning about women’s contributions is a year-long (even lifelong) endeavor to undertake.

Throughout history, women’s voices have often been overlooked and silenced; systems and structures of power typically favour, protect and prioritize male voices and experiences. Compounding this imbalance is the fact that Black, Indigenous, Hispanic, Latino, Asian and Pacific Islander women are further excluded from conversations, decisions and other forms of cultural/societal progress due to racism and other forms of systemic oppression. As a result, their perspectives and contributions have largely been omitted or ignored. This is changing, but the shift towards recognizing their critical importance throughout history has been slow — obstacles are still being put in place today.

Sharing the varied and considerable importance women have had throughout history — including those continuing this work today — should be inclusive of LGBTQ+ women who’ve advocated for a more fair and just world. Everyone deserves to be treated with respect; a cornerstone of an equitable society, after all, is experiencing a life free from inequality, discrimination, prejudice and the fear these systems produce. Learning about all women who make this month special represents an opportunity to explore humanity’s resilience, nuance and complexity. So with that in mind …

Here are five women you need to know about during Women’s History Month:

Zitkala-Šá (1876-1938)

A sepia toned portrait photo of Zitkala-Šá taken in 1898.
Zitkala-Šá in 1898 – photo via Joseph Keiley/Public Domain Wikimedia Commons

Born on the Yankton Indian Reservation, South Dakota in 1876, Zitkála-Šá is probably best known for her autobiographical writing and the Lakota stories she shared. Her works openly and directly challenged the racist stereotypes about Native Americans that were routinely used to justify forced assimilation into White American society.

Zitkála-Šá wrote about and remained fiercely critical of the government/Christian church-led Indian residential schools in the United States; exploring the complex feelings of profound loss that these schools inflicted on Indigenous children by stripping them of their culture and identity. Zitkála-Šá herself was taken from her family at eight years old by Quaker missionaries; placed in a residential school in Indiana that assigned her the name Gertrude Simmons, cut her hair and forced her to pray as a Quaker. This was a difficult time to navigate, but she took solace in learning to read, write and playing the violin and piano — an intricately challenging relationship that saw her returning to the residential school system as a music teacher. Her position at Carlisle Indian Industrial School only lasted a couple of years; she was fired in 1901 for writing a Harper’s Monthly article which described the overwhelming grief a young boy at Carlisle felt about losing his heritage and identity.

Zitkála-Šá also spent time lecturing across the country to advocate for Native American cultural and tribal preservation; also fighting for Indigenous Americans to be represented within the systems of government. This included obtaining citizenship (and therefore the right to vote) which Native Americans won with the passing of the Indian Citizenship Act in 1924. However, deliberate restrictions to voting in some states remained lawful up until the 1960s (and beyond) — voter suppression laws within Native communities continue to be utilized today.

I highly recommend reading her books, which you can find listed here.

Jovita Idár (1885-1946)

A black and white portrait photo of Jovita Idár taken in 1905.
Jovita Idár in 1905 – photo via Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

Born in 1885 in Laredo, Texas, Jovita Idár was a Mexican-American journalist, political activist and suffragist. Initially training and working as a teacher in 1903 at a segregated Mexican-American school, she soon left the profession due to the racism and poor conditions her students faced. Hoping to improve the lives of Mexican-American people, Idár went on to work at her father’s newspaper, La Crónica which shared articles exposing the racism, violence, lynchings and injustices Mexican-Texans often endured. Idár passionately wrote about Mexican-American rights, women’s equality and supporting the suffragette movement.

Politically driven from an early age, Idár and her family assembled El Primer Congreso Mexicanista (First Mexican Congress) in 1911; an organization aimed at securing social and economic justice for Mexican-Americans in the United States and Mexicans across the border. As president of El Congreso’s Women’s League, Jovita Idár worked to provide better education for the children within her community and ending segregation.

A supporter of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), Idár travelled across the border from Laredo to Mexico in 1913 to become a nurse taking care of injured revolutionary soldiers. Crossing the Rio Grande River, she joined the La Cruz Blanca (White Cross) which was created by Leonor Villegas de Magnón.

Returning in 1914, Jovita Idár joined El Progreso as a journalist to resume her advocacy. One particular article she produced protesting President Woodrow Wilson’s decision to send military troops to the Texas-Mexico border during the revolution angered the U.S. Army and the Texas Rangers. Officers from the Rangers turned up at El Progreso’s headquarters with the intention of destroying it; however, in an act of astoundingly courageous defiance, Idár stood in the doorway and refused to move. She blocked the men from entering arguing that silencing the newspaper was a violation of the First Amendment and a constitutional right to freedom of the press. Sadly, the Rangers did end up shutting down El Progreso, but this did not stop Jovita Idár from using her voice.

Returning a run La Crónica after her father passed away, she continued to champion Mexican-American rights, even joining the Democratic Party in Texas to further women’s equality.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas (1890-1998)

A black and white photo of Marjory Stoneman Douglas taken in 1985.
Marjory Stoneman Douglas in 1985 – photo via Florida Memory/Flickr

Born in 1890 in Minnesota, Marjory Stoneman Douglas was a journalist, author, women’s suffrage advocate and environmentalist recognized for her tireless defense of the Florida Everglades against land development and climate change.

Always seemingly bold and fearless, Stoneman Douglas became the first woman to enlist in the Naval Reserve when America joined World War I in 1917. This experience prompted her to join the American Red Cross and serve in Europe — a tenacity she held onto when pursuing political activism and environmentalism upon her return/move to Florida. She spent some time honing her writing talents at the Miami Herald (a newspaper her father began in 1910) before leaving in 1923 to become a freelance writer.

Her 1947 book ‘Everglades: River of Grass’ highlighted her passion for nature conservancy and established her as a trusted and respected voice in this field. In 1969 she founded the Friends of the Everglades and pursued environmental activism throughout the rest of her very long life — she died aged 108.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas used her considerable writing acumen to dedicate her life to safeguarding the environment; leading several committees and legislative drives to permanently protect wildlife and national parks around the United States. Her environmental work was recognized and celebrated when she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1993 — but perhaps the greatest testament to the esteem in which her environmental work was held is that upon her death in 1998, her ashes were scattered in the Everglades.

Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000)

A black and white portrait photo of Hedy Lamarr taken in 1944.
Hedy Lamarr in 1944 – photo via Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

Born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in Austria 1914; Hedy Lamarr was lauded for her on-screen beauty as a film star during Hollywood’s ‘Golden Era’ (the 1930s/1940s) — but she was also a highly gifted inventor and engineer. Along with American composer George Antheil, she pioneered a secret communications system called ‘frequency hopping’ that could switch between radio frequencies and avoid signal jamming. After receiving a patent for this technology in 1942, Lamarr gifted it to the U.S. Navy to guide torpedoes under water without detection during World War II. Sadly, its significance was overlooked, remaining unused until the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. 

Hedy Lamarr’s invention became the groundwork for modern-day wireless communication technology like WiFi, Bluetooth and GPS. However, as the patent had expired, she never received any money for her work and her genius went largely ignored. In later life, Lamarr finally received recognition when she and Antheil were jointly presented with The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Pioneer Award in 1997; the same year they also won the Bulbie Gnass Spirit of Achievement Bronze Award — becaming the first women to receive this honour. In 2014, Hedy Lamarr was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

The biggest people with the biggest ideas can be shut down by the smallest people with the smallest minds. Think big anyway. | Hedy Lamarr

Billie Holiday (1915-1959)

A black and white photo of Billie Holiday singing taken in 1947.
Billie Holiday in 1947 – photo via William P. Gottlieb/Library of Congress Free Use

Born Eleanora Fagan in Pennsylvania in 1915; Billie Holiday was an influential and trendsetting jazz and swing singer — arguably one of the best. Her vocal art included incredible songs like, Strange Fruit, Solitude and Lover Man (Oh, Where Can You Be?).

Billie had an unsettled childhood, often being left in Baltimore with relatives while her mother, Sadie looked for a better life and work opportunities in New York City — a necessity after Billie’s father abandoned his family shortly after she had been born. Sadie’s married half-sister, Eva and Eva’s mother-in-law looked after Billie until she was sent to a Catholic reform school at nine-years old. From here she was released into the care of her mother, moving with her to New York.

Life continued to be turbulent when at age ten, Billie was sexually assaulted by a male neighbour. Taken into protective custody as a state witness in a rape case; she was not released to her mother until she was nearly twelve-years old. More back and forth followed with Billie staying with her aunt’s mother-in-law, then in 1929 she moved to Harlem with her mother. It was here she started singing in nightclubs where music producer John Hammond heard her voice and arranged a recording debut when she was just eighteen.

Billie Holiday went on to record many incredible hits with pianist/arranger Teddy Wilson from 1935-1941 as well as celebrated works in 1936 with prominent tenor saxophonist Lester Young. More and more hits followed in 1939 when she co-wrote, God Bless the Child with Arthur Herzog, Jr. and signed with Decca Records in 1944 (which included duets with Louis Armstrong).

Billie poured her life experience into her music; all of the highs, lows, joy and pain were weaved into her art and remain a beautifully raw legacy to this day. In 1959, Billie died from cirrhosis of the liver likely linked to excessive drinking and heroin use that started in the 1940s (something she spent a few months in jail for). Despite her failing health towards the end, Billie continued to tell stories through her songs; delighting and enthralling generations of music lovers with her undeniable talent.

The Importance of Storytelling

Everyone has a story to tell and wisdom, truth and art to share. It can take many different forms and be expressed in numerous ways. I hope you continue to explore and celebrate the lives and achievements of the women featured in this post — thanks for reading!   

Who are you celebrating this Women’s History Month?

Further Info:

16 Iconic Female Figures to Celebrate During Women’s History Month – Better Homes & Gardens

32 thoughts on “Celebrating Women’s History: The Power of Storytelling”

  1. Exceptional post Molly. Thank you for highlighting some of the strongest and inspirational women in history. I love Billie’s music but I never knew anything about her personal life. It’s beautiful how she managed to turn that pain into such iconic and universal art that it’s still celebrated to this day.


  2. Another incredible post but I don’t expect anything less from you, all your posts like these are amazing! Thank you for highlighting some of these incredible women and sharing their stories x


  3. Loved this!! What a wonderful list of incredible women! Thank you for sharing:)


  4. Thank you for this really informative post. I actually never learned a lot about women throughout history so it’s great to read something like this.


  5. This was really informative and I learned something. A great post for Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day. Thank you for sharing.



  6. Very interesting article and some wonderful people on show here. I already knew about Hedy Lamarr, who seemed to be only considered for her looks and not her mind. I love the quote you have used in her piece, sums up a lot of ‘man’kind. An inspiring read, for all, but most certainly for women.


  7. This was such an incredible post Molly! I always love all the research and love you put on each posts. I must admit that I had only heard of Billie Holliday, but found the other women’s stories so very interesting. I will add some of Zitkala-Šá on my reading list, thank you for sharing this x


  8. Totally love this post! I’ve read some list about incredible women during my high school but never learned about their history. This is very interesting article. Thanks for sharing, Molly 😀


  9. Wow, it’s always so amazing reading about women and how they helped shaped society in some way. Beautiful post, Molly. Thanks for sharing and education us.


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