The Bay Area wouldn’t be the place of innovation, creativity and activism that it is today were it not for many of our trailblazing women. Keep reading to celebrate their accomplishments which have transformed the Bay Area and motivate your little trailblazers to set out on their own quest for a better world!
Renaissance Woman, 1928-2014
Chalking up dozens of awards and over 50 honorary degrees, Maya Angelou has worn many hats—from nightclub performer and Porgy and Bess cast member to fry cook, sex worker, and Civil Rights activist. She is best known for her written work—particularly her poetry and her memoirs spanning a series of seven autobiographies, including I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Before Amanda Gorman there was Maya Angelou, who became the first female inaugural poet in 1993.
Interesting fact: In 1944, after dropping out of San Francisco’s George Washington High at 16, Maya Angelou set her sights on becoming a cable car operator. She wanted the job because she admired the uniforms, but at first she was refused an application. She sat in the company offices every day for two weeks until she was hired, becoming one of the first Black cable car operators in San Francisco.
Founding Mother, 1802-1889
Often referred to as “The Founding Mother of San Francisco,” Juana Briones was born near Santa Cruz, of mixed Spanish and African descent. Many of her family members arrived in Alta California with the de Anza and de Portola expeditions. Briones, a midwife, herbal medicine healer, and successful entrepreneur, gave birth to 11 children and adopted one. In 1844 she was granted a clerical separation (almost unheard of at the time) from her physically abusive and alcoholic husband. The same year she purchased the 4,400 acre Rancho La Purisma Concepcion in present day Palo Alto and Los Altos Hills. Through the late 1850s and 1860s she successfully fought in court to retain the title to her land in San Francisco and Santa Clara Counties.
Interesting fact: Juana Briones was killed in a cow stampede in the then city of Mayfield, now part of Palo Alto. There is an elementary school and park named for her in Palo Alto.
Charlotte L. Brown
Justice Seeker, 1839-?
Before Rosa Parks there was Charlotte L. Brown. She was the plaintiff in one of the earliest civil rights cases in California after being forcibly removed from a whites only horse-drawn streetcar near her home on Filbert Street in San Francisco in 1863. Brown won her case and was awarded $25, and later in criminal court the conductor was convicted of assault and battery against her. Only three days after the first trial she was ejected from a streetcar again, and once more filed suit against them, winning again. The Black-owned newspaper, the Pacific Appeal, noted at the time that the verdict “establishes the right, by law, of colored persons to ride in such conveyances.” Charlotte L. Brown’s case paved the way for similar cases that challenged the segregationist policies of private streetcar companies, culminating in an 1893 ruling officially outlawing segregation on state streetcars. The case was one of the first of several brought by Black activists in the U.S. against segregation and exclusion in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Interesting fact: Brown’s father was born enslaved and her mother, a free seamstress, purchased his freedom. They lived as Free People of Color in Baltimore in 1850, before moving to San Francisco and becoming part of the city’s burgeoning Black middle class.
Lyrical Chef, 1965-
Dominique Crenn elevated the San Francisco dining scene to the world stage after becoming the first female chef in the United States to earn three Michelin stars at her eponymous restaurant, Atelier Crenn. Lines of poetry literally accompany each course and her exquisite food is presented like an elaborate work of art. Her one Michelin-starred wine bar, Bar Crenn, is also a red hot attraction. Known for her creative modernist menus as well as her uncompromising vision, she is acclaimed as a chef and a business leader.
Interesting fact: Crenn is engaged to Coyote Ugly and NCIS star, Maria Bello.
Innovative Dancer, 1877-1927
Isadora Duncan, the “Mother of Modern Dance,” brought her unique free-spirited and untrained style to the field of ballet. Her ideas spread across the U.S. to Europe and the Soviet Union, and helped bring about modern expressive dance. Duncan was born in San Francisco and raised in Oakland, which is where she met Florence Treadwell Boynton. Boynton created a home and dance school in the Berkeley Hills that reflected Duncan’s dance style which was influenced by Greek art and sculpture with dances in flowing tunics. This Greek collonaded “Temple of Wings” helped solidify Berkeley’s turn-of-the-century reputation as the Athens of the West.
Interesting fact: Not only was Isadora Duncan one of the most innovative and internationally renowned dancers of her time, she also leaves behind the lesson not to wear a long scarf while riding in a car. She was strangled after it became entangled in the rear wheels.
Gutsy Naturalist, 1932-1985
San Francisco-born Dian Fossey attended U.C. Davis and San Jose City College before travelling to Rwanda where she spent 18 years studying the endangered mountain gorilla. Her “war on poaching” is generally credited with reversing the downward trend in the animal population, which reached a low of 250 in 1981. In the process she made a lot of enemies and was found brutally murdered in her cabin in 1985. Fossey made huge contributions to the study of mountain gorilla behavior and a movie was made based on her best selling autobiography, Gorillas in the Mist.
Consciousness Raiser, 1912-1976
After marrying twice and spending the first 30 years of her life as a low key young man named “Lew,” Louise Lawrence was finally able to fully embrace who she was on the inside and moved from Berkeley to San Francisco to begin living full time as a woman. She placed personal ads and regularly scanned the newspapers for cross dressing arrests in order to find other trans and gender non-conforming people.
Lawrence started assisting at the U.C.S.F. Langley Porter Clinic and lectured to the doctors there in order to convince them not to classify being transgender as a mental disorder. Her work at U.C.S.F. put her in touch with Dr. Alfred Kinsey in 1948 who had recently released his book, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. By then, Louise Lawrence had amassed a network of nearly 200 trans people across the United States and decided to share their stories with Kinsey. She felt that gender variance was missing from his first book, and she directly facilitated its inclusion in his follow-up works. Without Lawrence’s efforts it likely would have been left out.
Interesting Fact: Louise Lawrence housed strangers travelling cross country to San Francisco to undergo gender confirmation surgery and also counseled them.
Prolific Architect, 1872-1957
After graduating from Oakland High School and then U.C. Berkeley near the turn of the twentieth century, Julia Morgan became the first woman admitted to a prestigious architectural program in Paris, and in 1904 the first woman in California licensed to practice architecture. A project assigned to her by Phoebe Hearst to improve one of her estates led to a meeting with her son, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, and her most famous commission—Hearst Castle.
She was one of the leaders in the Bay Area Arts and Crafts Movement and her buildings can be found all over the Bay Area, including the Berkeley Women’s City Club; several buildings at U.C. Berkeley including the Hearst Greek Theater and the Women’s Gymnasium; six buildings at Mills College including El Campanil, the Margaret Carnegie Library, and the Student Union; the Julia Morgan Ballroom at the Merchants Exchange Building; numerous YMCAs; and the redesign of San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel. In the course of her career, she designed more than 700 buildings, and in 2014 she became the first woman awarded the AIA Gold Medal for Architecture.
Trans Crusader, 1978-
Bay Area-raised Isa Noyola, is a Latina transgender activist and deputy director of the Transgender Law Center, the largest transgender-led civil rights organization in America. She organized the first national anti-trans violence protest in 2015, with over 100 activists—particularly trans women of color—protesting the violence trans communities face. Noyola also founded and serves as a national advocate for El/La Para Translatinas which seeks to improve the quality of life for TransLatinas in the Bay Area. She is a tireless activist in the LGBT immigration rights movement, advocating for transgender women being detained at ICE detention centers.
Heritage-Inspired Writer, 1952-
Oakland-born Amy Tan, author of The Bonesetter’s Daughter, The Kitchen God’s Wife, and most famously her best-selling novel, The Joy Luck Club, was often inspired by her mother’s stories of growing up in China. The Joy Luck Club became the most prominent example of Asian Americans on screen for a quarter century. (This writer saw a scene from the movie adaptation being filmed at U.C. Berkeley.)
Interesting fact: While pursuing a doctorate in linguistics at U.C. Berkeley, Tan’s best friend and roommate was murdered. She was asked to identify the body, and the shock of it all left her temporarily mute and prompted her to leave school and become a speech therapist for children.