When it comes to American history, Massachusetts certainly had an early foot in the door. The Pilgrims landed in Plymouth in 1620; America’s witchcraft trials started in Salem in 1692; the “shot heard round the world” was fired in Lexington in 1775; and it’s where, like a hot tea kettle (Boston Tea Party, 1773) tensions between the British and the American colonists boiled over into the American Revolution.
Looking at history through the lens of women who have made a mark, some big names quickly come to mind: Abigail Adams, Louisa May Alcott, Anne Sullivan and, more recently, Julia Child, Barbara Walters and Elizabeth Warren. Even women like Hillary Clinton and Amelia Earhart have connections to Massachusetts.
This year marks a significant historical milestone – the 100th anniversary of the passing of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the legal right to vote. In recognition of that, the USA TODAY Network has named 10 American women from all 50 states and the District of Columbia who have made significant contributions to their respective states and country, as Women of the Century.
We gathered a panel of women from throughout the state – all extremely knowledgeable and accomplished in their own right – who spent weeks learning about the many women in Massachusetts’ long history who have fought for equality, pushed the boundaries of science, educated the masses and contributed in countless other ways in so many fields.
The best challenge to have when tasked with picking 10 women (only 10!) to represent the Women of the Century for Massachusetts was having way too many women from which to choose.
The women considered were expected to have a track record showing outstanding achievement in the areas of arts and literature; business; civil rights; education; entertainment; law; media; nonprofits and philanthropy; politics, science and medicine; and sports. The panel tried to represent as many of those fields as possible. The women also had to have lived between 1920 and 2020, so that eliminated many women from the state’s early history.
In addition to that criteria, a lot of other factors weighed into the panel’s many discussions. For instance, should the women considered have been the first at something? Did they have to be born here? If they were, but left the state and made their marks in other states, does that count? If they went to college here but left, is that enough of a claim? Should they be a well-known person? Should their accomplishments have reached beyond the state’s borders?
In the end, the panel decided a list representing Massachusetts needed to be as inclusive and diverse as possible, giving voice to groups that historically may not have had one, shining a light on women who may not be a household name but whose accomplishments suggest they should be.
Undoubtedly, there are women who deserve to be on this list who are not. A different panel may have chosen a different list of 10 women. There may be a scientist or an artist or an educator or a politician you may have swapped out for the one on this list. They are all great, and we encourage you to tell us and our readers all about them.
And if you’re realizing you don’t know a lot of women on this list or, if pressed, you couldn’t come up with a list of 10 women from the past 100 years who have broken social expectations and kicked some serious butt, then we encourage you to look around. This state has many resources to educate you about women’s accomplishments.
Take a self-guided tour on one or all of the routes along the Boston Women’s Heritage Trail and learn about more than 200 women. Head down to New Bedford and take a free 60-minute guided tour of the Lighting the Way Walking Trail to learn about the many women who have made a difference in the SouthCoast region. Learn more about the women in Massachusetts who contributed to the suffrage movement at the Suffrage100MA website, and check out the calendar to find events throughout the year commemorating women.
To get you started, learn about these 10 history-making, inspirational women who have all made Massachusetts proud.
Jessie “Little Doe” Baird is a linguist who helped revive the Algonquian language of her ancestors that had not been spoken for more than 150 years.
Baird – the co-founder and director of the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project in Mashpee, Massachusetts, since 1993 and a citizen of the Mashpee Tribe of the Wampanoag Nation – started to create a dictionary in 1996 chronicling the tribe’s ancestral language as part of a research fellowship with MIT. The dictionary holds more than 11,000 words.
That work turned into an intertribal effort between the Mashpee, Herring Pond, Aquinnah and Assonet Wampanoag communities to bring the language back to life.
Although no one in the world spoke the language before Baird’s work for more than a century, there were many historical documents written in Wampanoag, including the first Bible ever published in the Western Hemisphere. Baird pored over any writing she could get her hands on to not only rebuild the language but to develop a curriculum with which to teach it to current and future generations. The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe opened an “immersion nest” preschool in its community, where children are taught solely in Wampanoag by those fluent in the language who learned from Baird.
Baird’s work has revived a language that would have otherwise been lost to time. You can listen to some of it here.
Julia Child – a cooking teacher, author and TV personality – wasn’t born in Massachusetts and didn’t move here until she was almost 50, but as anyone who grew up or was managing a household’s meals in the 1960s can tell you, she has as much a claim on the state as anyone else who spent more than a decade teaching people around Boston and the country that cooking is easier than you think.
Child, who PBS considers one of their icons and a cooking pioneer, graduated from Smith College in Northampton with a history degree in 1934, with nary an omelet or beef bourguignon in sight. She left the state, hoping to be a writer in New York and traveling the world for work with the Office of Strategic Services. She married her husband, Paul, and lived in Europe for six years.
It was in France that Child developed her cooking chops. She studied at Le Cordon Bleu, graduating in 1951. A year later, she met and collaborated with two French women who were working on a cookbook teaching Americans how to make French food. “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” wouldn’t be finished and released until 1961 but it was a huge hit and ultimately led to Child’s PBS show, “The French Chef,” produced at Boston’s WGBH.
The show was done live-to-videotape, and Child’s occasional accidents – not to mention her unique voice and accent – soon became her trademark as relatable “teachable moments,” for which she never apologized, just kept going. Child encouraged home cooks to use fresh, real ingredients before organic and farm-to-table were en vogue.
Child’s Cambridge kitchen is now on display at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. She is in the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
Eunice Kennedy Shriver, a member of the Kennedy family – long considered to be Massachusetts political royalty – was a dignified humanitarian and a tireless advocate, especially for those with physical, mental and developmental disabilities, who founded the Special Olympics in 1968.
“She literally changed people’s perceptions of an entire segment of society,” Larry Thayer, executive director of Cape Abilities, a Cape Cod agency serving the disability community, told the Cape Cod Times as he left Shriver’s wake in 2009.
Shriver was the fifth of nine children of Joseph P. and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy and was President John F. Kennedy’s sister. Their sister, Rosemary, was born with an intellectual disability that was worsened by a botched lobotomy her father made her get when she was 23 years old. For much of Rosemary’s life, she was basically hidden away at an institution. After their father’s stroke, Shriver reintroduced her sister to society and began to pressure her brother to include intellectual disabilities in his policy platforms.
Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who in her early years was a social worker with a degree in sociology from Stanford University, was determined to see people with intellectual disabilities be given more opportunity. If they had the same opportunities as the rest of society, she believed, they could achieve more than anyone believed possible. To that end, she started a summer day camp in her backyard in 1962 for young people with intellectual disabilities. There, they participated in sports and other physical activities. This eventually grew into the first International Special Olympics Games in Chicago in 1968.
Shriver also led the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation, where she accomplished creating President Kennedy’s Panel on Mental Retardation in 1961, developing the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development in 1962, establishing a network of university-affiliated facilities and intellectual disabilities research centers at major research universities across the United States in 1967, and creating major centers for the study of medical ethics at Harvard and Georgetown universities in 1971.
Shriver was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1984 by President Ronald Reagan. She is in the National Women’s Hall of Fame and Sports Illustrated gave her the first Sportsman of the Year Legacy Award in 2008.
First African American woman elected as U.S. Representative for Massachusetts
Ayanna Pressley is “an advocate, a policy-maker, an activist, and a survivor,” according to her website. She was the first African American woman elected in 2010 as an at-large member of the Boston City Council and the first African American woman elected in 2019 to represent the state as the U.S. representative for Massachusetts’s 7th congressional district.
Pressley, a Democrat who campaigned as a staunch progressive, is also a member of a group of first-term Democratic congresswomen informally known as “The Squad,” whose members – Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., form a unified front to push for change.
Pressley grew up in Chicago but moved to Boston in 1992 to attend Boston University. She withdrew to help support her single mother but stayed in the Bay State, working as a senior aide to Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy II, volunteering for Sen. John Kerry’s reelection campaign and working for Kerry for 13 years in a variety of roles, including constituency director and political director.
In her first year as a city councilor, Pressley formed the Committee on Healthy Women, Families, and Communities, which addressed issues such as domestic violence, child abuse and human trafficking. To combat inequalities in her community, she worked with residents, advocates and other elected officials. Pressley earned the congressional seat after defeating 10-term Democratic incumbent Mike Capuano in the primary election and running unopposed in the general election.
In November, 2019, Pressley endorsed Sen. Elizabeth Warren for president, was named one of her three national co-chairs and became a prominent surrogate on the campaign circuit until Warren withdrew from the race after disappointing Super Tuesday results in March 2020.
In January 2020, Pressley revealed that she had been diagnosed with alopecia areata, resulting in the loss of all of her hair, which was notable because her hairstyle, Senegalese twists, had become part of her political brand. This started a national dialogue about identity and overcoming struggles.
In 2016, Pressley was named one of The New York Times’ 14 Young Democrats to Watch. In 2014, the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce named her one of their Ten Outstanding Young Leaders, and the Victim Rights Law Center presented her with their Leadership Award. In 2015, she earned the EMILY’s List Rising Star Award and was named one of Boston Magazine’s 50 Most Powerful People. She is also an Aspen-Rodel Fellow in Public Leadership, Class of 2012.
Critically acclaimed theater and opera director
Diane Paulus is a critically acclaimed and award-winning director of theater and opera, known as a leading force in the American theater.
Although she grew up in New York City, her connections to Massachusetts started when she received a degree in social studies from Harvard University and continued when she became the artistic director of Harvard’s American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.) in 2008.
Paulus has directed three Tony-winning Broadway musicals: “Hair” (2009), “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” (2012) and “Pippin” (2013), for which she also earned a Tony as director. She earned an M.F.A. in directing from Columbia University’s School of the Arts.
Paulus, who studied piano and danced ballet when she was young, developed a love of the arts through her parents – her father loved theater and her mom, opera. “My father was a producer of fine arts programming for WCBS in New York, but he began as a director. In fact, he met my mother, who was Japanese, following World War II, when he was in charge of the occupation entertainment corps,” she told The Star in 2011.
Many in the theater world, especially around Boston, will know Paulus from her revival production of “The Donkey Show,” performed since 2009 at the A.R.T.’s OBERON theater in Cambridge. The show is a fun, interactive version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” set in a disco. In 2015, Paulus directed the new musical “Waitress,” which was notable after it moved to Broadway and became the first Broadway musical with an all-female creative team.
A professor of the Practice of Theater in Harvard’s English Department, in 2014 Paulus was recognized as both a “Trailblazing Women in Entertainment for 2014” by Variety and one 50 Thought Leaders by Boston’s Magazine. She was also selected for the 2014 TIME 100, TIME Magazine’s annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world.
Journalist, newscaster and author
Gwen Ifill, the first African American and first woman to moderate a major television news-analysis show, was a journalist, newscaster and author. She was known as the moderator and managing editor of “Washington Week” and senior political correspondent for “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.” Ifill became co-anchor of the “PBS NewsHour” in 2013 until her death in 2016, part of the first all-female team to anchor a national nightly news program.
Ifill was a New York City native, but due to her father’s work, the family often moved, eventually settling in Springfield, Massachusetts. Ifill graduated from Springfield’s Classical High School and then from Simmons College in Boston with a degree in communications. The college honored Ifill in 2018 by unveiling the Gwen Ifill College of Media, Arts, and Humanities. The program is among the first in the nation to be named after a Black journalist. Ifill’s papers from 1970-2016 are also kept at Simmons College.
After graduation, Ifill worked as a reporter for three years at the Boston Herald, then known as the Boston Herald-American. She went on to work for the Baltimore Evening Sun, The Washington Post, The New York Times and NBC News. She was the best-selling author of “The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama.” She moderated two vice presidential debates – in 2004 between Republican Dick Cheney and Democrat John Edwards and in 2008 between Democrat Joe Biden and Republican Sarah Palin.
In 2015, Ifill was awarded with the National Press Club’s highest honor, the Fourth Estate Award. She was posthumously awarded the John Chancellor Award from the Columbia University School of Journalism and the Walter Cronkite Award for Excellence from Arizona State University. She was honored for her work as a journalist by the Radio and Television News Directors Association, Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center, The National Association of Black Journalists, Ohio University, Boston’s Ford Hall Forum, and she was included in Ebony Magazine’s list of 150 Most Influential African Americans. The U.S Postal Service honored Ifill in 2020 on the 43rd stamp in its Black Heritage Forever Stamp series.
Ifill died in 2016 at age 61 after being diagnosed with cancer.
First female chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court
Margaret Marshall was the first female chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, writing the pioneering decision allowing same-sex marriage in Massachusetts – the first state to do so in 2004.
Marshall was chief justice from 1999 to 2010, having been appointed by Republican Gov. Paul Cellucci. Before that, she was appointed an associate justice of the state’s Supreme Judicial Court in 1996 by Republican Gov. William Weld. She was the second woman to serve at that level of court and the first to be a chief justice in the court’s 300-year history.
Marshall was born and lived in South Africa, where she was an anti-apartheid activist in her early years, until coming to Massachusetts in 1968 by way of Harvard University. She graduated from Harvard with a master’s degree in education and later earned a J.D. degree from Yale University.
From 1976 to 1989, she was an associate and a partner in private practice at the Boston law firm of Csaplar Bok. From 1989 to 1992, she was a partner in the Boston law firm of Choate, Hall Stewart, to which she returned in 2012 after retiring from the court. From 1992-1996, she was general counsel to Harvard University. After her retirement until 2016, Marshall also served as the senior fellow of the Yale Corporation, the first woman to hold the position.
In the course of her term on the court, Marshall wrote more than 200 opinions. She wrote the decision in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health that declared that the Massachusetts Constitution does not permit the state to deny citizens the right to same-sex marriage.
“I always try to say, ‘Don’t thank me, thank the Constitution,’” Marshall told Jim Braude on Greater Boston in 2019, explaining her response to those who express appreciation for her role in the case.
Kip Tiernan, an advertising and public relations writer-turned social activist, was at the center of the fight for economic and social justice for nearly three decades, helping found many places in and around Boston, but most notably Rosie’s Place, Boston’s first shelter for homeless women.
She also founded the Boston Food Bank and co-founded the Boston Women’s Fund, Health Care for the Homeless, Community Works and Poor People’s United Fund. She established the Ethical Policy Institute, a multi-disciplinary community of people engaged in political analysis, economics and community.
Tiernan was born in West Haven, Connecticut, but lost both of her parents by the time she was 11 and was raised by her grandmother, who set Tiernan’s foundation of giving back by feeding soup to the needy during the Great Depression. She came to Boston in her early 20s, where she pursued a career in and excelled at being an advertising writer.
In 1974, Tiernan founded Rosie’s Place in response to the increasing numbers of women without services in the area. The need to feed shelter residents led her to collect and distribute food out of her station wagon, eventually evolving and growing into The Greater Boston Food Bank today.
Rallying employees at a 2008 Greater Boston Food Bank event, Tiernan said, “As a self-styled nonprofit junkie, I frequently ask myself if I am a do-gooder, or a good-doer. And then I look at you, sloughing along through these grapes of wrath, and I can say with you and to you, we are not do-gooders. We are good doers. And what we do, we do well. We have learned that compassion is not a smiley face, but a discipline that we will carry with us all the days of our lives.”
In 2011, Tiernan died of cancer at home in Boston at age 85, leaving her partner of 15 years, Donna Pomponio.
The Kip Tiernan Memorial was dedicated in 2018 on Dartmouth Street between Boylston and Newbury streets.
Civic leader and champion of civil rights
Melnea Cass’s motto in life was: “If we cannot do great things, we can do small things in a great way.”
Cass – a nationally acclaimed civic leader and champion of civil rights – may have started out with modest means, her father a janitor and mother a domestic worker, but she would come to be known as “The First Lady of Roxbury,” “Roxbury’s Elder Stateswoman,” and even “Dr. Cass,” for all of her honorary degrees. She was a pillar of Boston’s African-American community for half a century and received honors throughout her life such as “Massachusetts Mother of the Year” and “Grand Bostonian.”
Melnea Jones was born in Richmond, Virginia, but her family moved to Boston’s South End when she was 5 so she could get a better education. She attended school in Massachusetts until returning to Virginia to graduate as valedictorian of a Catholic school for African and Native American girls. She returned to Boston and was a domestic worker in and around the city for several decades. She married Marshall Cass in 1917 and was encouraged by her mother-in-law to participate in political and social activities.
Deeply involved with the community, Cass was a regular volunteer for community efforts in Boston’s South End and Roxbury neighborhoods, including being a founder of the Boston local of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a national organization that developed and sustained African American communities all over the country. One of her main causes was fighting to desegregate Boston Public Schools, using her positions as a board member and president of the Boston chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). For 17 years, she was the president of the Women’s Service Club, which developed programs providing training, counseling and housing for young women seeking domestic employment.
As a young woman, Cass assisted women with voter registration after the passage of the 19th Amendment. She was the only female charter member of the board of Action for Boston Community Development; a charter member of Freedom House – a nonprofit, community-based organization dedicated to human rights and advocacy for African American rights in Boston, and a member of the Board of Overseers of Public Welfare for Boston.
The mayor of Boston proclaimed May 22, 1966 as “Melnea Cass Day,” in honor of her 70th birthday and years of volunteerism. More than 2,000 people joined the celebration. Melnea Cass Boulevard in Roxbury bears her name, as does the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Melnea A. Cass Swimming Pool and Indoor Recreation Arena.
Cass died in 1978. Her papers are held at Northeastern University. She is commemorated on the Boston Women’s Heritage Trail.
Aeronautical engineer, first woman to lead the Air Force
Sheila Widnall is a fluid dynamicist, an aerospace researcher and professor at her alma mater, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. When she took the position of U.S. secretary of the Air Force in 1993, she became the first woman to lead a branch of the U.S. military. She served in that position until 1997.
An aeronautical engineer by training, Widnall is internationally known for her work in fluid dynamics, specifically in the areas of aircraft turbulence and spiraling airflows. The Widnall instability is named for her work on how unstable waves develop in turbulent fluid flows.
Widnall, who was born and raised in Tacoma, Washington, earned bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees from MIT in the 1960s. She was one of 20 women in her freshman class of 1,000 students. She started teaching there after graduating in 1964, earning full professor status in 1974. She was the first woman faculty chair from 1979 to 1981. She returned to the school as a professor in aeronautics and astronautics after retiring from the Air Force in 1997 and still teaches there.
Widnall was nominated by President Bill Clinton and confirmed by the Senate to head the Air Force, where she oversaw the budget, acquisition of weapon systems, administration, and research and development at a time when the services were enduring sharply reduced budgets. She streamlined acquisition processes and explored privatization alternatives for virtually every function, from computers to base services to depot maintenance.
Widnall was a member of the Accident Investigation Board for the Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003.
In 1987, Widnall was given the Boston Museum of Science’s Washburn Award. In 1988, she became the first woman to serve as president of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. She was named the New Englander of the Year by the New England Council in 1996. In 1998, she was given the Women’s International Center’s Living Legacy Award. The National Academy of Engineering named her the 2009 NAE Arthur M. Bueche Award recipient. She was honored “for a remarkable academic career in fluid dynamics combined with the highest levels of public service, and for championing the role of women in engineering.” Widnall is in the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
Sources used in the Women of the Century list project include newspaper articles, state archives, historical websites, encyclopedias and other resources.