A few things we’d be missing without them: Grand Central, Washington Square Park, and dozens of masterpieces in our major museums
International Women’s Day is March 8, and of course, we celebrate women’s history all month long. So, we’re taking some time to recognize some of the women who have had an incredible impact on our home, New York City. These incredible New Yorkers have blazed trails, saved buildings and neighborhoods, crashed through all kinds of ceilings and often made the country (even the world!) a better place. (Because when New Yorkers have an impact, it tends to be far-reaching.) Read on for our list of women who changed NYC forever.
Emily Warren Roebling
That famous bridge in Brooklyn? It wouldn't have happened without this lady. Married to Washington Roebling, the chief engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge, Emily took over when he fell ill and could no longer supervise the project. (Apparently he watched its progress from the couple's home in Brooklyn Height via telescope.) Roebling was one of the first people to cross the bridge when it was done, which she did from the Brooklyn side, holding a rooster as a symbol of victory. You can find a plaque at the base of the bridge celebrating her leadership and contribution.
Brooklyn-born Shirley Chisholm was a trailblazer not just for New Yorkers, but for women and Black people around the country. An outspoken advocate for racial justice and women's rights, as a New York State Representative in 1968, she was the first African American woman in Congress, and later co-founded of the National Women's Political Caucus in 1971. In 1972, she sought the Democratic nomination for the office of President of the United States, becoming the first woman or Black person to do so for one of the two major political parties. In 1977, she became the first Black woman and second woman ever to serve on the powerful House Rules Committee.
Founder of the birth control movement, Margaret Sanger was a nurse who spent her entire career working to give women access to reproductive health information and contraception. Publisher of a feminist magazine and worker's rights advocate, she opened the first birth control clinic in 1916 in Brownsville, Brooklyn. In 1923 she opened a clinic staffed by women doctors and social workers, which went on to become the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis
While of course Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was known the world over as widow of John F. Kennedy, she became a New Yorker following his death and spent the rest of her life here. She is widely recognized as being a key force in saving Grand Central Terminal, which was slated to meet the same fate of the demolished Penn Station. As part of the Municipal Arts Society's "Committee to Save Grand Central Terminal" she was a vocal advocate for its preservation. The Committee's victory and its related Supreme Court decision, the New York City Landmark Law resulted in the protection of thousands of other historic buildings throughout the city.
Born in Philadelphia and landing in New York City by way of Baltimore, Billie Holiday had no formal vocal training, but went on to become one of the most celebrated jazz singers in the world. She worked with bandleaders Count Basie and Artie Shaw, and collaborated frequently with saxophonist Lester Young, a partnership that produced some of the duo's finest work. Holiday helped integrate the nightclub community in the city in the 40s and 50 and around the country, and her style and voice had a profound effect on night life.
Activist and urbanist Jane Jacobs' influence on New York was, and continues to be, profound. Author of the now-seminal urban planning text The Death and Life of Great American Cities, she famously went head-to-head with New York official Robert Moses to combat his program of "urban renewal." A resident of Greenwich Village, she is credited with helping to preserve its character and was a fierce advocate for quality of life and community-building in cities. She was instrumental in preventing the construction of the Lower Manhattan Expressway, which would have run through several downtown neighborhoods, radically changing them.
Like her fellow Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor was born in New York City (she's from the Bronx, Ginsburg hails from Brooklyn). And while Ginsburg did do some work in NYC (she taught at Columbia), Sotomayor spent the bulk of her career prior to joining the Supreme court working in The Big Apple. Under the city's District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, she prosecuted cases for crimes such as robbery, assault, murder and police brutality. Later in her career, she served as a U.S. District Court judge for the Southern District of New York City, and helped educate the next generation of legal practitioners as a professor at New York University and Columbia Law School. After serving on the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals, Barack Obama appointed her to the Supreme Court, where of course she wields incredible influence on not just the people of New York City, but the entire country. She has played a key role in upholding the Affordable Care Act and same-sex marriage in the United States.
Born into a life of privilege, Edith Wharton used her gift as a writer to chronicle and critique the world of high society in New York. In 1921, she became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize, for Age of Innocence. She was subsequently nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1927, 1928 and 1930. Other works of Wharton's include House of Mirth and Ethan Frome.
Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney
Born into the wealthy Vanderbilt family in 1875, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney was a sculptor and art collector. She became a champion of contemporary American artists, and when the Metropolitan Museum of Art refused her donation of her considerable collection of American work, she established the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1930. She was the leading patron of American art at the time of her death in 1942, and her personal collection of more than 600 works remains the core of the celebrated museum's holdings. Currently, the influential Whitney Museum of Art is home to more than 24,000 works by over 3,500 and is a major force in the art world internationally.
Activist and journalist Gloria Steinem has been a leading voice in the women's movement for more than 50 years. She co-founded New York magazine, as well as, in 1972, the trailblazing Ms. magazine, where she was an editor and writer for 15 years. She has been a leading voice for women's issues and rights including reproductive health and gender equality.
Dorothy Parker was one of the founding members of the Algonquin Roundtable, a group of writers, critics an intellectuals known for their keen observations and sharp wit—Parker, especially. A writer for the New Yorker, Vanity Fair and other publications, she penned fiction, poems, plays and more. Her wry, sometimes brutal takes on modern life exemplify an certain New York sensibility, and her influence is felt to this day.