In honor of Women’s History Month, here’s a short overview of just a few women who have made Alabama better and stronger.
Princess Malee (Anglicized to “Milly Francis”) was born near modern-day Montgomery, Alabama, and lived from 1803-1848. In 1818, with tensions still high between the U.S government and Native Americans from the Creek War, Malee saw two Creek Warriors about to execute a U.S soldier named Duncan McCrimmon. She intervened and persuaded them to release him. When she chose compassion that day, she subverted the false narrative that Native Americans are “savages.” Local media picked up the story, and she became well-known throughout the South. Years later, her family was displaced to Oklahoma. A government official recognized Malee living in poverty, and wrote to the Secretary of War, asking to give her a pension for her heroism years ago. Congress approved a $96/year pension with backpay and a medal, making her the first woman and Native American to receive a medal from Congress. Unfortunately, she never saw any of it and died a few years later in poverty. Her legacy is preserved through a monument at Bacone College and historical markers at Fort Gadsden, Prospect Bluff Historic Park Sites, and San Marcos de Apalache Historic State Park. In 2019, she was inducted into the Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame.
Julia Tutwiler (1841-1916) was born in Tuscaloosa to parents who believed women were intellectually equal to men, and should be treated as such. In the winter of 1879 and 1880, she organized the Tuscaloosa Benevolent Association, which aimed to reform the Alabama prison and jail system and conditions. They sent surveys to county jail heads, inquiring about jail conditions. She submitted the results to the state legislature in 1880, which led to legislators fixing the heat and sanitation systems in jails. She campaigned and gained state funding for night school teachers in prisons, the creation of separate facilities for women, the Alabama Boys Industrial School (the first juvenile reform school for white boys in the South), and the creation of an appointed state prison inspector. During this time, she became the co-principal and president at the Livingston Female Academy, which later became the University of West Alabama. She worked with the National Education Association to develop the Alabama teacher-certification system with uniform standards for teacher education. After lobbying for support from local women’s clubs and groups, she persuaded state legislators to authorize grant funding for the Alabama Girls Industrial School at Montevallo, which is now the University of Montevallo. She was posthumously designated as “Alabama’s First Citizen” and inducted into the Alabama Hall of Fame.
Margaret Murray Washington (1865-1925) was born in Mississippi and spent much of her childhood living with a Quaker family. She excelled at school, and they encouraged her to become a teacher. By age 14, Washington was even offered a teaching position. In 1890, she became the Lady Principal at Tuskegee Institute, where she supervised the female students and faculty, and created curriculum geared towards women. She married Booker T. Washington a few years later, and was a key asset in helping him expand Tuskegee University. She also organized the Tuskegee Woman’s Club to empower women and uplift the community. They offered evening classes to make education more accessible, and organized people around social causes. During her time at Tuskegee, she merged local organizations to create the National Association of Colored Women. Throughout her years fighting for women’s suffrage and prison reform, Washington kept education at the center. In 1972, she was inducted into the Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame, and is known as one of the greatest African-American female leaders of her time.
Pattie Ruffner Jacobs (1875-1935) is originally from West Virginia, then Tennessee, and went to college at Ward Seminary (now Belmont University). When her father died in 1893, she and her mother went to live with family in Birmingham, Alabama. Jacobs traveled to educate and organize people around her social causes. In order to accomplish her reform goals, she recognized the need for women to vote. Jacobs became a prominent leader in the women’s suffrage movement across Alabama. She sponsored meetings, gave speeches, and offered financial prizes for essay competitions about women’s suffrage. From 1912-1916, Jacobs led the Alabama Equal Suffrage Association (AESA), and used her platform to present a petition to the state legislature. She attained more than 10,000 signatures for an Alabama women’s suffrage amendment on the ballot, which was rejected. Jacobs used this as an opportunity to pivot and join the movement for a national amendment. She resigned from the AESA and became an a lobbyist and auditor for the National American Woman Suffrage Association from 1916-1918. From 1918-1920, Jacobs went back to overseeing the Alabama Equal Suffrage Association, which she transitioned into the League of Woman Voters with the ratification of the 19th amendment. After women were guaranteed the right to vote nation-wide, she resumed fighting for social reforms such as abolishing child-labor and the convict-lease system. She was posthumously inducted into the Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame in 1978.
Helen Keller (1880-1968) is famous for her life of activism while being deaf and blind. Born in small-town Tuscambia, Keller’s legacy is preserved through museums and a statue at our country’s capitol. In 1903, an essay assignment turned into a series of magazine articles, which turned into her widely circulated autobiography The Story of My Life. As she became a well-known writer and speaker, many people wanted to hear her story of overcoming being blind and deaf, but she had bigger plans. She wrote extensively on economic, political, and international issues, and became an advocate for women’s suffrage, economic equity, and workers’ rights. Keller joined with other activists to create the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Throughout the 1920s, she became a key lobbyist and fundraiser for the American Foundation for the Blind. After her aid and friend Anne Sullivan died, Keller pivoted her career: she became a psuedo-ambassador for the United States. After World War II, both the American Foundation for the Blind and the State Department gave her funds to travel to more than 30 countries to rebuild the United States’ image in war-torn areas. Even countries that were antagonistic to the U.S responded positively to Keller. In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson gave her the Congressional Medal of Freedom. When she died, she was one of the most famous people in the world. In 2003, Alabama honored her by putting her on the 2003 state quarter.
Virginia Foster Durr (1903-1999) was born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, where she was witness to the segregated south and the strict expectations of southern women. When she was at Wellesley College in Boston, an icebreaker event led her to eat with a group of African-Americans. She initially protested being forced to participate, but learned more about segregation and racism and came to embrace the integrative culture there. In 1938, she was a founder of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare, a biracial coalition based in Birmingham that challenged racial segregation, and aimed to improve living and working conditions across the south. In the 1950s, Durr and her husband moved to Montgomery, where they became dedicated activists in the Civil Rights Movement. They worked directly with E.D, Nixon, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and Coretta Scott King. Because of their early and consistent presence in the movement, their home became a hub of civil rights meetings in Montgomery. Virginia Durr maintained her life of advocacy and local political activity well into her 90s. She is considered one of the earliest and most loyal champions of the Civil Rights Movement. You can read more about her in her autobiography Outside the Magic Circle.
Fran McKee (1926-2002) moved around throughout her childhood, but graduated from Phillips High School in Birmingham. After she earned a Chemistry degree from the University of Alabama, she began her career of breaking barriers for women in the military. She was the first of two women to graduate from the Naval War College/School of Naval Warfare. As she moved through the ranks, she was the first woman to serve in a variety of roles: Naval Security Group (1973), Chief of Naval Education and Training (1976), and Navy-Wide Director of HR Management (1978). McKee became a pioneer in expanding the role of women throughout the military. She served on the Committee to Study Equal Rights for Women in the Military, and became an advisor to various government entities developing roles for women in the military. She received the Legion of Merit Gold Star, the Meritorious Service Medal, the National Defense Service Medal with a Bronze Star, and the Daughters of the American Revolution Medal of Honor. On June 1st, 1976, she became our country’s first unrestricted female admiral–meaning she could command both men and women across naval bureaus. She was inducted into the Alabama Academy of Honor and the Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame (posthumously) and was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.
Monroeville native Nelle Harper Lee (1926-2016) is best known for her book To Kill a Mockingbird. As she wrote the story, racial tensions in the country were rising. The book allows readers to experience the segregated south through the eyes of a young, white girl. Millions of people have read the story and gained a better insight to the injustices of the racism and segregation. The impact of the story was immediate; when she finally published it in July of 1960, the book was an instant bestseller; she won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction just one year later. To date, over 30 million copies have been printed, and it was voted “Best Novel of the Century” in 1999 by the Library Journal. She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bush in 2007, the National Medal of Arts from President Obama in 2010. She was inducted into the Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame in 2019.
Marion native Coretta Scott King (1927-2006) she met a seminary student named Martin Luther King Jr. while studying in Boston. They got married and moved to Montgomery, Alabama, where she became an active community member. She encouraged his nonviolent philosophy, and pushed him to make it applicable on an international level. After her husband’s assassination, she preserved his legacy through the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta. She travelled around the world to speak about racism, sexism, and economic issues. In 1974, she formed a coalition of over 100 religious, labor, business, civil, and women’s rights organizations, which advocated for equal opportunity policies. In 1983, she connected more than 800 human rights organizations to form the Coalition of Conscience. They sponsored the 20th Anniversary March on Washington, which was the largest demonstration in Washington D.C at that time. She spent talking with prime ministers, presidents, Pope John Paul, and the Dalai Lama. She stood nearby when the Middle East Peace Accords were signed, and when Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s president. She is one of the most influential African-American leaders of the 20th century.
Janie Ledlow Shores (1932-2017) was born in Butler, Alabama. When she enrolled at the University of Alabama Law School, there were only four other female students. She graduated with honors, and started to practice law in Alabama. In 1965, she became the first female law school professor in the state. Nine years later, she was the first woman elected to the Alabama Supreme Court; this also made her the first woman to be elected to any appellate judicial position in the country. As she toppled gender barriers, Shores also took time to empower women. She preserved stories of Alabama women by serving on the Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame board. Today, she is remembered as a trailblazer for gender equality who led by both words and example. She was inducted into the Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame in 2020.
Tons of women have transformed Alabama into what it is today–many of whom are still fighting. So many of them went unnamed, but their legacies live on through fights for justice, equity, and peace. We may not know every story, but we know what they accomplished.