On February 28, 1980, President Jimmy Carter signed a document proclaiming March 2-8 to be “National Women’s History Week”. In 1987, after much hullabaloo from those pesky women, March was officially proclaimed to be Women’s History Month by President Ronald Reagan, and women began to be written back into their rightful place in history.
“Dedicating the whole month of March in honor of women’s achievements may seem irrelevant today. But at the time of the conception of Women’s History Week, activists saw the designation as a way to revise a written and social American history that had largely ignored women’s contributions.” Julia Zorthian
Here are five women who changed the face of history, and deserve to be recognized on this Women’s History Month.
Katherine Johnson – Mathematician
Born in 1918, Katherine Johnson managed to achieve such legendary greatness as a “human computer” that we now know her story as told by Margot Lee Shetterly in Hidden Figures: The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race. Johnson was brilliant with maths and numbers, a skill that soon led her to working at the all-black West Area Computing section at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ (NACA’s) Langley laboratory in 1952. Johnson put her skills to use, doing trajectory analysis for astronaut Alan B. Shephard Jr.’s May 1961 mission Freedom 7, as the first American man into space. Johnson soon became the first woman on NACA’s (later to be NASA) Flight Research Division to receive credit as an author of a research project.
Without Katherine Jackson’s mathematical contribution, astronaut John Glenn’s 1962 orbital mission might never have been successful, with NASA marking it as ‘a turning point in the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union in space’.
‘I loved going to work every single day’ Johnson says, retiring after thirty-three years of working with NASA. Johnson paved the way for other African-American women who would go on to work for NASA, such as Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space. Johnson was played by Taraji P. Henson in the movie adaptation of the book alongside Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe, a film considered one of the top films of 2016.
Winnie Harlow – Model
Winnie Harlow is not a vitiligo spokesperson just because she has vitiligo, neither is she a natural hair expert just because it grows out of her head like that.
“I’m not in the dictionary under ‘vitiligo’”, Harlow said in an interview with Elle magazine, yet Harlow captured our attention as one of the models on the twenty-first cycle of America’s Next Top Model. We all adored her for her personal triumph over a skin condition that singled her out for bullying, harassment and dehumanisation. Harlow overcame both outward difference and inner turmoil – including suicidal thoughts – to become a well-known model worldwide. She is now an ambassador for clothing brand Desigual, and has taught us that outward difference must not stop us from knowing our value.
Khertek Anchimaa-Toka deserves a spot on this list, not just for her record-breaking history, but, equally, because she has been all but forgotten in Western historical records. Back when Russia was fighting a war of invasion with Germany, Khertek Anchimaa-Toka, a Tuvan living under Soviet control, became “the world’s first non-royal female head of state”, preceding famous female heads of state, such as Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff, Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf or Scotland’s fierce first minister, Nicola Sturgeon.
Zulaikha Patel (Student)
The natural hair movement of the past decade has redeemed the souls of black women worldwide. After centuries of colonial shame, we received showers of blessings and pride. We share, now, a pride in who we naturally are, as we wear our afro hair without the inherited shame of our mothers and grandmothers. Zulaikha Patel was a part of this movement last year when she challenged the authority of her school, Pretoria Girls’ High, an elite school whose rule specified that all hairstyles “should be conservative, neat and in keeping with the school uniform”.
Patel led a student protest after teachers, following the school’s rule, told black students to tame their “exotic” natural hair, sparking the flames of current racial tension within South Africa’s school system, and prompting students from other schools to demonstrate against rules that forbade their “exotic” hair.
Aged thirteen, Patel validated our claims that afro hair is back to stay, maybe, this time, forever!
In the age of Nicki Minaj, Beyoncé, Rihanna, Stefflon Don and a whole host of light-skinned black women still populating the media industry, the dark-skinned beauty is still an anomaly to be celebrated in its truest form. Back before the prominence of Lupita Nyong’o or Olivia Davis, dark-skinned black women were not considered beautiful enough in any media or social context. Alek Wek changed this after being discovered in London, a refugee fleeing war from South Sudan. Wek was “the first black model who didn’t conform to a Caucasian aesthetic, the first with an uncompromising, sub-Saharan beauty … her industry saw her as new and exotic – a savage beauty.”
Wek paved the way for the “black is beautiful” movement we currently enjoy today, with her defiant look, and her striking beauty, alerting us that black, in all its shades, is indeed beautiful.