10 Women Who Changed San Diego Forever

After securing her historic win for Vice President of the United States, Kamala Harris heralded, “I may be the first woman to hold this office. But I won’t be the last.” Long before Harris, countless brilliant women throughout history have been paving the way for future generations. In honor of Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day, we’re highlighting 10 women who made history in San Diego. These exceptional women helped shape our vibrant and beloved city through their work in science, philanthropy, education and so much more. Read on to be inspired.

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Sally Ride


Going where no other American woman went before is an accomplishment only a few own. Sally Ride is one of the few. In 1983, astronaut and astrophysicist Ride became the first American woman in space aboard the space shuttle Challenger after beating out 1,000 other applicants to earn her spot in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) astronaut program. Born in Encino, California, Ride moved to La Jolla after her tenure at NASA and became director of the California Space Institute at the University of California, San Diego, as well as a professor of physics at the school in 1989. Wanting to share her passion for science and math with young girls throughout the county she created her own company in 2001 known as Sally Ride Science. Through this company she created educational programs and products to help and inspire girls and young women to pursue their own interests in the field of science and math. 

Ellen Browning Scripps 

Wikimedia Commons

A philanthropist at heart, well before she had money to share, Ellen Browning Scripps believed in promoting the welfare of others from her earliest years. It was this belief that led her to contribute a significant amount of her fortune, which was derived from the Scripps family’s newspaper empire, to local causes throughout San Diego. One of the first women to attend college in the United States, she completed her studies in 1858 at Illinois’ Knox College. After graduation, she took a position as a school teacher earning just $9 a month. Ellen joined her brother at the newspaper he started, writing a column, “Matters and Things”, which enabled her to tap into her great intellect and share her progressive thoughts on subjects like women’s suffrage and prohibition. One of few women to ever grace the cover of Time magazine, Scripps did so in 1926 at age 89, being named “most beloved woman in Southern California.” Her gifts to San Diego are far-reaching and ever-lasting, from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography to the La Jolla Public Library and Scripps Memorial Hospital and Metabolic Clinic — schools, hospitals, churches and history societies throughout the county were all recipients of Ellen’s inspiration and bountiful contributions. 

Audrey Geisel


Horton Hears a Who!, The Cat in the Hat, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Green Eggs and Ham — these are books we all love and share with our children. They’re also just a sampling of the 48 books that Theodor Geisel, affectionately known as Dr. Seuss, would write while living in La Jolla. Theodor died in 1991 and it was his wife Audrey Geisel who was appointed as the the overseer of his estate and guardian of his legacy. Audrey faithfully did that job and created her own legacy along the way. In 1993 she founded Dr. Seuss Enterprises, whose stated mission was to “protect the integrity of the Dr. Seuss books while expanding beyond books into ancillary areas.” In addition to running Dr. Seuss Enterprises, she devoted herself to philanthropy, supporting dozens of charitable organizations. She gave $20 million and thousands of her husband’s drawings and manuscripts to the University of California, San Diego, where the Geisel Library is named for both of them. Known as a strong businesswoman and advocate for causes she cared deeply about, Geisel’s contributions to the area of San Diego are immeasurable. 

Lucy Killea

Melissa Jacobs

Known as a “titan of public service in San Diego,” Lucy Killea tops the list of most respected elected officials for her integrity and fearlessness while in office. She tirelessly advocated for women and was a role model for standing up for your beliefs and being effective in bringing change. She was inducted into the San Diego County Women’s Hall of Fame in 2002.

Joan Kroc


Often dubbed “St Joan of the Golden Arches, Joan B. Kroc of Rancho Santa Fe, Ca was the widow of Ray A Kroc, the founder of The McDonald’s Corporation. Joan Kroc parlayed his fortune to become one of the greatest philanthropists of the 20th century. She was unconventional about her philanthropy and supported causes that were dear to her heart. Kroc also broke with tradition by giving away extraordinarily large amounts to social service organizations like the Salvation Army and National Public Radio upon her death. In total, Kroc donated more than one billion dollars. 

Kate Sessions

San Diego National History Museum

Walking through Balboa Park you’ll see a sculpture of Kate Sessions near Laurel Street Bridge. The sculpture honors her legacy as Sessions is best known as the “Mother of Balboa Park” and was instrumental in the planning and planting of Palm Canyon and The Aloe and Agave Garden. However, her seeds were planted literally and figuratively throughout San Diego County. A successful and tireless business owner, Kate operated nurseries in Coronado, Pacific Beach, Mission Hills and other locations throughout San Diego. In 1892 she contracted with the city to plant 100 trees a year for `10 years. As a matter of fact we have Sessions to thank for much of the exotic plants that we see throughout the county today such as jacaranda, poinsettia, bougainvillea and bird of paradise as she was the first to introduce them to the area. 

Mabel Bell

courtesy of Charley Buchanan

We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. Mabel Bell broke barriers and fought for the right of future generations of San Diegans. She was the first black resident to purchase property in La Jolla, a place where black people had previously been prevented from owning homes. An activist through and through, Bell founded the non-profit organization (SOFA) which stands for Strongly Oriented For Action, and campaigned for the creation of affordable housing in La Jolla. She used an alleyway near her home to help sick people and her humanitarian efforts led to her being acknowledged by her community after her death and naming the street Mabel Bell Lane. 

Margaret Wood Bancroft

San Diego Natural History Museum

Margaret Wood Bancroft lived a full life before passing away at the age of 93. From silent actress and socialite to naturalist and explorer, Bancroft had a strong work ethic and endless curiosity. In 1935, Bancroft led a small expedition to search for the legendary lost mission of Santa Ysabel in the Sierra de San Pedro Martir, Baja Califonria. She discovered cave symbols that contributed to archaeological study of the migration of ancient Native American tribes. Margaret was one of the original members of the Junior League and served as director of the Red Cross for many years. She was actively involved with the San Diego Natural History Museum, the San Diego Museum of Art, and the San Diego Museum of Man. She leaves behind an enduring legacy in the social and political life of San Diego County and the advancement of natural history and archaeological research in southern California and Baja California.

Ethel Bailey Higgins

San Diego Natural History Museum

Following your passion and forging a new career sometimes happens later in life. This was the case for Ethel Bailey Higgins who combined her photography skills and plant studies to launch a long scientific career at the age of 67. She had an interest in botany from her early years living in New England and her studies intensified when she moved to California. Higgins was named curator of botany at the San Diego Natural History Museum in 1933. She is believed to have initiated the first accession records for the plant collections. Known for her energetic and fearless spirit, Higgins worked at the museum well into her 90s. A life-long learner with a keen sense of both humor and curiosity, Higgins’ vast contribution to San Diego botanical science is unmatched. 

Judith Keep


Judge Judith N. Keep was a trailblazer for women in San Diego’s legal field. At a time when few than 5 percent of lawyers were women, Keep graduated valedictorian from the University of San Diego School of Law. She was nominated to become the first female District Court Judge for California’s Southern District, and later she became the District Court’s first female Chief Judge. Known in San Diego as much for her work as a mentor as she was for her work in the courtroom, Keep always made time to give back to her community and pass along her wisdom and experience to the next generation. 

––Aimee Della Bitta


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