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Historical Women Who Changed Politics

“If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring in a folding chair.” Meet Shirley Chisholm and other politically-driven women who changed the course of modern America.

It's Women's History Month so we're introducing you to a few badass historical women who laid the groundwork for the lives we live today. This week’s installment features women who pushed political movements forward — and were champions of women’s causes, racial equality and the poor and underserved. 

Ruth Bader Ginsberg turns 86-years-young today, and has been a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court since 1993. The second female (of only four) to be named, she is notoriously known for championing gender equality, healthcare reform and marriage equality. But she's been fighting against gender constraints for the entirety of her career: She was one of only nine women out of 552 students in her Harvard Law School class of 1959. She tied for first in her class at Columbia Law School but couldn’t find a job after graduation. When she began her teaching career in 1963, there were only 18 female tenured law professors in the entire country. So yes, RBG has certainly lived up to her own words: "Women belong in all places where decisions are being made...it shouldn't be that women are the exception."

Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm (1924-2005) was the first Black American from a major party to make a bid for president of the United States, and also the first in Congress when elected in 1968. She was a champion for racial and gender equality and the underserved for her seven terms. Chisholm helped found both the Congressional Black Caucus and the National Organization for Women. Yet her campaign for the 1972 Democratic Party presidential nomination was riddled with discrimination. She was blocked from participating in televised primary debates, and after taking legal action, was permitted to make just one speech. She fought hard and carried 152 delegates, despite ultimately losing. Her determination to take a stand still resonates today, and her words are ones we should all live by: “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring in a folding chair.”

Margaret Sanger (1879-1966) founded the birth control movement and became an outspoken and life-long advocate for women’s reproductive rights. With a career background in nursing, she strongly believed that the ability to control family size was crucial to ending the women’s poverty cycle. In the early 1900s it was illegal to distribute birth control information, but Sanger was undeterred — she launched her own feminist publication, The Woman Rebel, advocating for birth control. Discovering a legal loophole, she opened a women’s clinic in 1923 staffed by female doctors and social workers, which would later become the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. She rightly declared, “No woman can call herself free who does not own and control her body.

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Yuri Kochiyama (1921-2014) was a Japanese-American peace activist and a lifelong champion of civil rights causes in the black, Latino, Native American and Asian-American communities. As a child she was held in a Japanese internment camp after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. As an adult, her friendship to Malcolm X, defined her advocacy. In the 1980s, Kochiyama and her husband pushed for reparations to the Japanese-Americans who had been incarcerated during World War II and a formal apology from the government. The campaign succeeded, and led to the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. We would do well to remember her words: "Our ultimate objective in learning about anything is to try to create and develop a more just society." 

(Want more RBG? See the documentary featuring this fearless woman and her work to make the world better.)

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