After securing her historic win for Vice President of the United States, Kamala Harris heralded, “I may be the first woman to hold this office. But I won’t be the last.” Long before Harris, countless women throughout history have been paving the way for future generations. As we celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8th, we recognize the women who have shaped DC’s history through the arts, politics, and activism. Following are some influential Washington women who have shaped our city’s deep history.
A 1986 graduate of Howard University with degrees in political science and economics, Harris was inaugurated as vice president in 2021. She is the United States' first female vice president, the highest-ranking female official in U.S. history, and the first Black and first Asian American vice president.
Eleanor Holmes Norton
Eleanor is a native Washingtonian who was very active in the Civil Rights movement. She is now DC’s delegate to Congress. The District’s tireless nonvoting representative serves on committees, introduces legislation, and speaks on the House floor; however, she is not permitted to vote on the final passage of any legislation, since DC is not a State.
Bowser has been mayor of the District of Columbia since 2015. She is the second female mayor of the DC after Sharon Pratt, and the first woman to be reelected to that position. A lifelong Washingtonian, Bowser attended Chatham University in Pittsburgh, PA for her undergraduate degree and then returned to DC to obtain a masters from American University's School of Public Affairs. Bowser is responsible for Black Lives Matter Plaza, the two-block-long section of Downtown Washington, DC. Written in striking yellow paint, the words "Black Lives Matter" run down the blocks near the White House. She is also known for her tireless work in trying to make DC the 51st State.
While she is mostly known as the founder of the American Red Cross, Clara also served as a clerk in the US Patent Office. This was the first time a woman had received a substantial federal clerkship and at a salary equal to what a man would earn. She was a hospital nurse in the American Civil War and is noteworthy for doing humanitarian work and civil rights advocacy at a time before women had the right to vote.
One of the leaders of the National Woman’s Party in the early 1900s, Burns was arrested six times and led a hunger strike at the Occoquan Workhouse. She is remembered for being a fervid advocate for women’s rights. She retired from public life with the passage of the 19th amendment.
Mary McLeod Bethune
As president of the National Association of Colored Women, Ms. Bethune purchased a property at 1318 Vermont Ave., which became the first black controlled organization to be headquartered in the District! She was also invited by Presidents Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover to lead on issues relating to children’s health. She later formed a coalition called the Federal Council of Negro Affairs which advised President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
A singer and pianist who was born in DC, Shirley teamed up with dozens of jazz greats including Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and Wynton Marsalis. She was nominated for nine Grammy Awards winning in 1999 for Best Jazz Vocal Performance. Encouraged by her grandmother, Horn began piano lessons at the age of four. She studied piano and composition at Howard University.
Also born in DC, Rivera is a singer, dancer and actor who starred in Broadway musicals including Anita in West Side Story, Chicago, and the title role in Kiss of the Spider Woman. She is a three-time Tony Award recipient and is the first Hispanic woman and the first Latino American to receive a Kennedy Center Honor and is a recipient the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Famous opera singer, Denyce Graves was born in Washington, DC, and was raised by her mother on Galveston St. SW., in the Bellevue section of the District. She graduated from the Duke Ellington School of the Arts and studied voice at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and the New England Conservatory. The Mezzo Soprano is recognized worldwide as one of today's most exciting vocal stars and continues to gather unparalleled popular and critical acclaim in performances.
Hayes was born in Washington, DC in 1900. She was an actress whose career spanned 80 years. She is one of a handful of people to be an EGOT (recipient of an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony). Hayes received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Ronald Reagan in 1986 and was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 1988. The annual Helen Hayes Awards, which have recognized excellence in professional theatre in greater Washington, DC, since 1984, are her namesake.
A native Washingtonian, Ms. Pratt is an American attorney and politician who was the third mayor of the District of Columbia from 1991 to 1995. Most notably, she is the first African-American woman to hold that position.
—Guiomar Ochoa and Aimee Della Bitta