Virginia — homeland to more than its share of significant contributors to art, history, politics, science, sports, and law – has a history replete with stories of human potential realized.
With the recent erection of the Maggie Walker monument in her hometown of Richmond, we celebrate the momentous accomplishments of an African American who called Old Dominion home. But Walker, the first female bank president to charter a bank in the United States, was also a trailblazer among women.
Virginia has produced some remarkable women over the course of its relatively young existence. Acclaimed musicians, such as Ella Fitzgerald and Patsy Cline, had roots in the Commonwealth. Novelist Willa Cather, recipient of a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, was a native Virginian. Nancy Astor, the first woman to take her seat in the British Parliament, was also a product of Virginia.
Here are but a few brief descriptions of some women from Virginia who transcended time and place to make their marks on history:
Anne Spencer – A renowned poet, teacher, and civil rights activist, Ann Spencer was an active member of the Harlem Renaissance, despite the fact that she lived in Lynchburg, Virginia. Her prolific poetry and activist spirit won her the regard of such intellectual luminaries of her time as W.E.B. Dubois and Zora Neal Hurston, as well as the distinction of becoming the first Virginian and second African American to be included in the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry (1973).
Spencer and her husband, Edward Spencer, worked with poet and civil rights leader James Weldon Johnson to establish a Lynchburg chapter of the NAACP. Their son, Chauncey Spencer, became instrumental in the formation of the Tuskegee Airmen.
Virginia Minor – Although Virginia Minor’s activism on behalf of voting rights for women took place in Missouri, she was from Caroline County, Virginia.
A former president of the Woman Suffrage Association of Missouri, Minor is best known for bringing suit against the voting registrar in St. Louis who barred her from registering to vote in 1872. Arguing that the Missouri law that prohibited women from voting violated the Fourteenth Amendment, Minor – represented by her husband – pursued the case all the way to the Supreme Court. In its ruling on Minor v. Happersett, the Supreme Court found that the Fourteenth Amendment did not protect women’s voting rights. Despite this blow to the cause of women’s suffrage, the Minor v. Happersett decision would be overturned in 1920 when voting rights were extended to women.
Mary Elizabeth Bowser – It was to the advantage of native Virginian Mary Elizabeth Bowser that the household of Jefferson Davis underestimated her while she operated undercover in the Confederate White House. A freed slave who worked as a servant for Elizabeth Van Lew, the famed Union spy, she went to work for the Davis family in support of Van Lew’s espionage efforts. It is worth noting that Maggie Walker also worked for Elizabeth Van Lew during her life.
Despite Bowser’s considerable education, residents and guests of the Confederate White House perceived her to be incapable of comprehending – much less conveying to Union operatives — the sensitive information exchanged in her presence.
Following the war, Bowser would devote her attention to teaching former slaves in Richmond. She eventually founded a freedmen’s school in Georgia.
All daughters of Virginia, these women were among the many whose impact has been felt far beyond their home state and over the course of generations. Dig a little deeper, and there is no doubt you’ll find a wealth of other female figures in Virginia’s history whose stories are sources of pride and inspiration.