Right off the bat, let me say that this is NOT a complete list of badass NYC women. If you want to dive deeply into the history of women who have contributed notably to New York City, I recommend cracking the spine of “The Women Who Made New York” by Julie Scelfo. It’s a thick volume that details the lives of many remarkable NYC women. There should be more books like it. There also should be more places in NYC that pay homage to women. Out of the city’s 150 statues, only five statues depict historical women. The city is aiming to double that to ten, but there are still so many badass NYC women that should be publicly recognized.
Okay, I’ll stop ranting about this issue for now so we can get to the reason why you’re here. Here are some introductions to a few remarkable NYC women that should be on your radar and ideas on how you can honor them:
Shirley Chisholm was a boss. She went from being a nursery school teacher to being the first black Congresswoman in the House of Representatives to then becoming the first woman and black person to run for president. Although her presidential campaign didn’t get far, it doesn’t detract from Chisholm’s lifetime of working for the advancement of women and people of color. Her campaign slogan (and title of her autobiography), “Unbought and Unbossed” is something all politicians should live by.
One of the most interesting things about Chisholm is how she wanted people to view the bigger picture of her life. “I want history to remember me… not as the first black woman to have made a bid for the presidency of the United States,” Chisholm said in her autobiography, “but as a black woman who lived in the 20th century and who dared to be herself. I want to be remembered as a catalyst for change in America.” Remember Shirley Chisholm as you visit East New York’s Shirley Chisholm State Park or as you walk through Bedford-Stuyvesant, where Chisholm spent a lot of her childhood. Hopefully, in 2021, you can honor her even further by stopping by her statue in Prospect Park.
When the Roosevelts moved into the White House in 1933, there was no way Eleanor Roosevelt was going to be a traditional first lady. Merely being a glorified socialite would not suffice for her. Instead, Roosevelt redefined the role of first lady, taking it upon herself to be involved in politics and use her role as a platform to speak out about human rights issues in the U.S. and abroad. This being the early-to-mid-twentieth century, initially several people didn’t appreciate Roosevelt’s progressive stances on civil rights. But her work earned her the nickname “First Lady of the World” and she was even appointed as the first United States Delegate to the United Nations. She held that role until 1953, during that time helping to draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Roosevelt left her mark on several places in New York. Keep her in mind when you visit the United Nations Headquarters in Turtle Hill or strike a thoughtful pose with her statue at Riverside Park on the Upper West Side.
How would you like being alone tending to a lighthouse in the middle of a dangerous strait for 35 years? Yeah, that wouldn’t be my ideal job either. But this was life for Katherine Walker, who served as the lighthouse keeper at Robbins Reef from 1884 until 1919. Walker didn’t set out to be the person responsible for making sure ships could safely pass through the treacherous waters between Staten Island and New Jersey; that was initially her husband’s job. But as he died of pneumonia in 1886, his parting words were to “Mind the light, Kate.” So she did, until she was forced to retire at the age of 71. Between grueling physical work and prolonged isolation, being a lighthouse keeper was a difficult job. Walker was the only female keeper on the Eastern Seaboard, and she appeared to be the only person willing to be stationed at Robbins Reef. (Several men turned down the position in the years following Walker’s husband’s death.)
Interestingly, Walker became so comfortable living in near-isolation at the lighthouse that venturing to other parts of New York City made her uneasy. She was so attached to her lighthouse that during her retirement she would walk down to Staten Island’s coast to view Robbins Reef daily.
Pay homage to Walker as you pass the small lighthouse while riding the Staten Island Ferry.
Honestly, I debated whether or not I should put Edith Wharton on this list. Although she was born in a brownstone in today’s Flatiron District, for most of her life Wharton didn’t live in New York. And when she did live here, she didn’t particularly like it. In fact, Wharton made her mark as a writer highlighting pitfalls of being part of New York’s upper crust. But it was that critical eye for New York society which made Edith Wharton a badass. Wharton grew up in a culture that looked down on “intellectual” women, especially those who dared to try their pen at novel-writing. It took serious guts for Wharton to buck her upbringing and use her stories to critique NYC’s hoity-toity. Of course, New York society didn’t take too kindly to Wharton’s portrayal of them, but in the end it didn’t matter to her. Wharton found good company in her own circle of bachelors in Europe who appreciated her intellectualism. Not to mention, she was the first woman ever to win a Pulitzer.
Even though she abandoned the city to skip off to Europe for the majority of her life, the fact that she rebuffed society to follow her dreams is a classic New Yorker trait. Honor Wharton by penning your own novel in the Starbucks that was once her childhood home.
Any other badass NYC women you admire? Let me know who you would add to the list.
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