This story was republished with permission from Scalawag. Read the original story here.
This Women’s History Month, Scalawag presents a roundup of women who came before the historical figures you may have heard of: architects of civil rights law, Southern financiers, abolitionist visionaries, and folk music pioneers. This year, the National Women’s History Month theme is “celebrating women who tell our stories.” But who gets to tell our stories?
Who gets to be placed on a poster hanging in a classroom? Who are the go-to girls that teachers have to reassign students from so everyone doesn’t end up giving the same damn report? Hello, Helen Keller and Susan B. Anthony—you’re cool, but enough is enough.
Giants of the past and present do not fade into obscurity: they are pushed into the shadows and intentionally hidden there. Black queer and trans women have always existed—teaching, loving, surviving, thriving, often in the shadows they were forced into.
So, if you always wanted to be the student who presented their report on a historical figure that had your classmates shook, this is for you. Read about these Black women and gender-nonconforming folks in history, and share their stories.
1. Pauli Murray
Murray, who publicly identified as a Black woman and self-described as a “he/she personality” in correspondence with family members, refused to give up her seat on a bus 15 years before Rosa Parks. Using pronouns interchangeably, Murray would likely be considered gender-nonconforming in contemporary times, and is heralded by many as an early trans figure. He was also the architect of civil rights law as we know it, and a preeminent theorist of the converging biases of race and sex enshrined in law—what Murray called “Jane Crow,” or what we might now term as “intersectionality.” This month, we’re revisiting Murray’s unmistakable impact over the decades, and the ways so many have failed to see it until now.
2. Mama Gloria
Gloria Allen, who unfortunately passed away last summer at the age of 76, was a Black trans activist, icon, and elder known for transitioning well before Stonewall. While she made a career as a licensed practice nurse, Allen is best known for operating a free “charm school” for transgender youth in Chicago where, despite her prim and proper persona, she didn’t just teach etiquette and manners, but survival. Through lessons on hormones, street safety, makeup, and self-esteem, Allen provided a model of how to thrive beyond the statistics.
3. bell hooks
At Scalawag, we’re constantly learning that if we’re thinking about something, there’s a very good chance that bell hooks probably already thought about it too. As a Black, queer-pas-gay, fiercely feminist scholar, poet, and cultural critic, hooks authored more than 30 books in her lifetime. A native Kentuckian, hooks was a prophetic thinker who spoke to the root of Black feminism, race, sexuality, and more. She passed away in 2021 at the age of 69, and we’ve been mourning—and paying tribute to her work—ever since.
4. Odetta Holmes
Odetta Holmes, who passed away in 2008 at the age of 77 following a rich life of culture-making activism, songwriting, and performance, is by and large one of the most overlooked but deeply resonant pioneers of folk music. Dubbed the “queen of folk” by Martin Luther King Jr., she has been cited as a major influence over artists of her time like Harry Belafonte and Janis Joplin, to modern songwriters like Janelle Monáe and Rhiannon Giddens.
5. Maggie Walker
In 1903, the banking industry was about as white and male as it is today. But decades before the New Deal, a woman named Maggie Walker did something that no one in the U.S. has done before or since: she founded a bank run by and tailored to Black women. At a time when women were hardly present in the bank lobbies as customers, St. Luke’s Bank proved to be so successful that it survived The Great Depression.
Born to enslaved parents in Richmond, Virginia, in 1864, Walker uplifted Black women through a style of banking that was deeply personal, even for its era. We’re celebrating her story today as less of a depiction of 20th-century Black capitalism, and more of a rendering of what is possible when Black women can effectively channel their own money for personal and collective economic development.