Women Inspire: California Women Changing Our World. Part 1: Drive for Equality

Selections from a long-term exhibition at the California Museum that launched August 18, 2020. Developed in collaboration with California First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom, the exhibition is divided into two sections. The first, presented here, focuses on five significant eras in California women's history.  

Women Inspire (2020-08-16) by California MuseumCalifornia Museum


Extraordinary women enrich us. As civic leaders, teachers,and family members, they are everyday heroes who build strong communities. As scientists, artists, activists, and leaders in politics and business, they break rules and overcome obstacles to succeed. You've heard of some of the women featured here. Others will be new to you because their accomplishments have been overlooked. They are just a few of the many women whose achievements opened doors for future generations and who inspire us today. We honor them all.The work of creating a more equitable society continues, and it’s not just women’s work. Boys and men have a crucial role to play. Traditional definitions of gender also have hindered men, as well as people who identify as non-binary. Pushing back against convention and stereotypes will lead to greater opportunities for all of us.California women have made history, and they are doing so right now. You can, too.

Trailblazers (2020-08-18) by California MuseumCalifornia Museum


Strong women shaped the place we call California long before it became a state. For thousands of years, Native American women used the land’s rich diversity of resources to sustain their communities.Most of their stories are lost to history. Yet we know that some resisted the brutality of European conquest. Spanish and Mexican rule brought Hispanic newcomers, with men greatly outnumbering women. The Gold Rush lured immigrants from all over the world. Most were men, hoping to get rich and return home. The women of California—whether native born, brought here in slavery, or drawn here by the promise of new lives— needed grit, talent, and ingenuity to succeed in this place of both opportunity and danger.

Toypurina (1996) by Judith F. BacaOriginal Source: Judith F. Baca/SPARCinLA

Toypurina was a young medicine woman who in 1785 led a revolt of Tongva Indians against San Gabriel Mission. The missionaries had committed many assaults on Tongva people and their culture. Spanish soldiers captured the rebels and found Toypurina and three others guilty of leading the rebellion. She was baptized a Christian and banished.

Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton (c. 1870s) by Unknown photographerCalifornia Museum

María Amparo Ruiz de Burton was the first Mexican American to write a novel in English. Her second novel, The Squatter and the Don, tells the story of a Mexican American whose land is seized. It echoed her struggles and those of many Mexican Americans trying to keep their land after the U.S. takeover.

Biddy Mason (c. 1850s) by Unknown photographerCalifornia Museum

As a young enslaved woman, Bridget “Biddy” Mason and her children were taken to California, a free state. She petitioned the court and won her freedom. Mason saved her earnings as a midwife and invested in property. She became the wealthiest Black woman in Los Angeles and one of its most noted philanthropists.

Charley Parkhurst (1865) by Harper’s MonthlyCalifornia Museum

Charlotte Parkhurst ran away from an orphanage in boys’ clothing. Now known as Charley, Parkhurst came to California in the Gold Rush and became a noted stagecoach driver. The dynamic environment of early California gave Parkhurst the opportunity to embrace a different gender identity—and thrive.

Juana Briones (c. 1860s) by Unknown photographerOriginal Source: Point Reyes National Seashore Museum

Juana Briones, one of the first Mexican settlers of what became San Francisco, was a businesswoman and healer. She escaped an abusive husband by earning enough money selling milk and produce to buy her own land. When the U.S. took over California, she fought and won a legal battle to keep her 4,400-acre ranch.

They Fought for More Than the Vote (2020-08-11) by California MuseumCalifornia Museum

They fought for more than the vote

California women campaigned hard for the right to vote. Yet this was far from their only goal. They founded clubs across the state and championed issues of public good such as saving the redwoods and establishing kindergartens. Shut out of organizations run by white women, women of color formed their own clubs and advocated social and legal reforms. They also used the courts to fight segregation on streetcars and in schools. In 1911— eight years before the national suffrage movement culminated in the 19th Amendment to the U.S.Constitution—California became the sixth state to guarantee women the vote. But not all women. Native Americans and Chinese immigrants were excluded, signaling the long road ahead to equality.

Mary Ellen Pleasant (c. 1860s) by Unknown photographerOriginal Source: UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library

Mary Ellen Pleasant, born into slavery in the early 1800s, became an abolitionist and millionaire. After arriving in Gold Rush San Francisco, she became a cook and invested her earnings wisely. A century before the Montgomery bus boycotts, she successfully sued to desegregate San Francisco’s streetcars.

Caroline Severance (c. 1900s) by Unknown photographerOriginal Source: Library of Congress

Caroline Severance was a leader in the clubs movement, which encouraged women’s political awareness and launched many into public life.
Her interests were broad, from free kindergartens to world peace. She cast her first vote in the election of 1912 after campaigning for women’s suffrage for over 60 years.

Maud Younger (c. 1900s) by Unknown photographerOriginal Source: Library of Congress

Maud Younger was born into a prosperous San Francisco family but worked as a waitress and identified with working-class women. She helped establish the San Francisco Wage Earners' Suffrage League to ensure that suffragists didn't overlook working women. Her leadership helped win the eight-hour workday for women.

Delilah Beasley (c. 1910s) by Unknown photographerCalifornia Museum

Delilah Beasley was a historian and journalist who brought attention to the barriers African Americans faced. Her book The Negro Trail-blazers of California was based on nine years of research and interviews. With a weekly column in the Oakland Tribune, she chronicled the Black experience.

Tien Fuh Wu (c. 1910s) by Unknown photographerOriginal Source: Cameron House

As a child, Tien Fuh Wu was sold by her father to pay his debts in China. Sent to San Francisco, she escaped to the Presbyterian Mission House, a refuge for enslaved girls and women. Wu learned English and attended college. She returned to the mission, and for decades helped other women escape slavery.

Activists of the '60s and '70s (2020-08-11) by California MuseumCalifornia Museum

Activists of the '60s and '70s

The women’s rights movement of the 1960s emerged from the experiences of the previous two decades. During World War II, the shortage of male workers opened new opportunities for women in California’s shipyards and aircraft plants— industrial jobs usually held by men. However, racial discrimination typically kept women of color in lower wage jobs. And once the war was over, most female welders and riveters were shunted back into low- paying “women’s jobs.” From the start, the women’s rights movement pursued multiple goals—workers’ rights, sexual liberation, an end to the double standard in divorce and child custody, reproductive justice, and access to education. As a result, a broader range of leaders emerged to inspire future generations.

Angela Davis (1974) by Everett Collection HistoricalOriginal Source: Alamy Stock Photo

Angela Davis is a leading voice for women of color. Inspired by the Black Power movement, she joined the Black Panther Party. She was arrested as an accessory to a courtroom shootout. Her imprisonment inspired a movement to “Free Angela,” before she was acquitted. She is a leader in the movement to abolish prisons.

Tillie Hardwick (c. 1980s) by Unknown photographerOriginal Source: Native American Heritage Commission

Tillie Hardwick, a Pomo Indian, successfully fought to make the government keep its promises to her community. In 1958 her tribe was slated to lose federal recognition in return for improved infrastructure and job training. When her son was denied benefits, she sued, and won. The government restored her tribe's status.

Dolores Madrigal (1975) by Unknown photographerOriginal Source: NBC Universal Archives

In 1973, Dolores Madrigal (left) went to the hospital to deliver her baby. She didn’t know until later that she had been sterilized and could never have another child. She and nine other mothers sued, claiming the hospital systematically sterilized Spanish-speaking women without their consent. They lost, but the case led to bilingual consent forms.

Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon (c. 1950s) by Unknown photographerOriginal Source: AF archive/Alamy

Phyllis Lyon and Dorothy “Del” Martin met in 1950, fell in love and began a life of LGBTQ activism. They co-founded the nation’s first lesbian social and political organization and helped found the first gay political club. They first married in 2004, when San Francisco allowed same-sex marriage. They had a second ceremony in 2008, when the state legalized their union.

Judy Chicago (2019) by Greg Sorber/Albuquerque JournalOriginal Source: Alamy Stock Photo

Artist, educator, and author Judy Chicago founded the nation’s first feminist art program at CSU Fresno in 1970. At the California Institute of the Arts, she and artist Miriam Schapiro established Womanhouse to create female-focused art. Chicago’s famous work The Dinner Party commemorates women’s accomplishments through history.

They Redefined Feminism (2020-08-11) by California MuseumCalifornia Museum

They redefined feminism

Women in the '90s expected to succeed—and bumped into the barriers still in the way. Violence against women and sexual harassment became key issues. Some women focused on the underrepresentation of women in government and ran for office. In 1993,California became the first state in the nation to have two women senators. Other women expanded the focus of feminism by challenging conventional notions about sexuality and standards of beauty. Female scholars who examined the experiences of women in marginalized groups saw that systems of discrimination intersect. For example, a Latina encounters different forms of sexism than a white woman does. A disabled or gender-nonconforming person experiences still other forms of sexism.

Laura Aguilar (c. 1990s) by Laura AguilarOriginal Source: Laura Aguilar Trust

Laura Aguilar was a pioneer of Chicana photography. She challenged traditional definitions of beauty and focused her camera on people of color, as well as people with disabilities and those in the LGBTQ community.

Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer (1992) by Paul SakumaOriginal Source: Associated Press

In 1992 Californians became the first in the nation to be represented by two female senators with the election of Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer. Feinstein is the top Democrat on Judiciary Committee and was the first woman to chair the Select Committee on Intelligence. In 34 years in Congress, Boxer was an advocate for families, children, consumers, and the environment.

Laura Sobrino (c. 1990s) by Unknown photographerOriginal Source: Laura Sobrino

Laura Sobrino proved that women could be a force in the male-dominated world of traditional Mexican mariachi music. She played with the nation's most prestigious musicians. She was musical director for an all-female mariachi group and taught the music she loved in schools and colleges.

Kimberlé Crenshaw (2019) by Mohamed BadarneOriginal Source: The Heinrich Böll Foundation

A leading scholar and civil rights advocate, Kimberlé Crenshaw challenges the notion that all women have a common life experience. In 1989, she coined the term "intersectionality,” which describes how an individual’s multiple identities affect the way she experiences discrimination.

Billie Jean King (2006) by California MuseumCalifornia Museum

Thanks to Billie Jean King, women’s tennis became a major professional sport. As a player, she won 39 Grand Slam titles. As an advocate, she championed equal pay for women athletes. In the decades since confirming her sexuality in 1981, King has become a champion for LGBTQ visibility.

Online Generation (2020-08-16) by California MuseumCalifornia Museum

The online generation

Tweets from the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements rally support for change online and in the streets. In California, where many of the most popular digital tools were invented, and far beyond, hashtag activism spreads messages faster and farther than ever before. Social media campaigns have pressured companies to change sexist advertising and raised awareness worldwide about issues such as the kidnapping of girls in Nigeria. But these digital tools also can be used as weapons by online abusers trying to intimidate women with hateful and violent messages. This raises an important question: How much can social media change the world and what will that change look like?

Shonda Rhimes (2016) by Evan Golub/ZUMA Press, Inc.Original Source: Alamy Stock Photo

Shonda Rhimes is one of the most successful creative forces in the entertainment business. She is best known as a television show runner—creator, head writer, and executive producer—of the medical drama Grey's Anatomy. In 2018, she helped launch Time’s Up, which fights sexual harassment in blue-collar workplaces and in Hollywood.

Isa Noyola (2019) by Unknown photographerOriginal Source: Isa Noyola

Isa Noyola is a transgender activist and a leader in LGBTQ immigrant rights. In 2015, she organized the first transgender protest against the deportation of undocumented LGBTQ immigrants. She has been a leader at the Transgender Law Center and in the #Not1More campaign. She also founded El/La Para TransLatinas, a nonprofit serving transgender Latinas.

Susan Fowler (2019) by Rita QuinnOriginal Source: Getty Images

Just after Susan Fowler left her job as a software engineer at Uber, she wrote a blog post that upended the company and sparked a larger debate about work culture in Silicon Valley. In her 2017 post, she detailed sexual harassment and said managers had failed to act. It led to 20 people being fired, and set the stage for the CEO’s ouster.

Opal Tometi, Alicia Garza, and Patrisse Khan-Cullors (2015) by Slaven VlasicOriginal Source: Getty Images

Writer and community activist Alicia Garza was in Oakland when she learned that the man who killed Trayvon Martin was acquitted. She wrote on Facebook, “Our lives matter, Black Lives Matter." Los Angeles artist and activist Patrisse Khan-Cullors read Garza’s post and added the hashtag “BlackLivesMatter." With the help of New Yorker Opal Tometi, a civil rights movement was born—one proud to have many faces rather than a single leader.

Yara Shahidi (2020) by Sthanlee B. Mirador/Sipa USAOriginal Source: Alamy Stock Photo

Actor and activist Yara Shahidi founded Eighteen x 18 to encourage young people to vote in the 2018 congressional election 2018—the year she cast her first ballot. She is best known for her role on the television comedy Black-ish and its spin-off Grown-ish.

Credits: Story

This online exhibit is drawn from a California Museum exhibition that was developed in collaboration with California First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom. It builds on an earlier installation, California’s Remarkable Women, which was conceived by former California First Lady Maria Shriver that launched in 2004. The California Museum thanks Maria and Jennifer, two visionaries who are always working to empower women, for their leadership.

Ellen Hartigan-O’Connor, UC Davis
Mary Ann Irwin, Cal State East Bay
Lisa G. Materson, UC Davis
Brenda E. Stevenson, UCLA

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Google apps