Get the latest
Recent Posts

Book of the Week — Inspiring Women

“I want to be remembered as a women who dared to be a catalyst of change.”

— Shirley Chisholm

Inspiring Women Portfolio: 25 Women Who Have Been True Catalysts for Change
Kathryn Hunter
Baton Rouge, LA: Blackbird Letterpress, 2020
N7433.4 H8655 I57 2020

Inspiring Women was created in celebration of the centennial anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote. The women featured within this portfolio come from many time periods, but all possess a radical spirit that seeks to create change in the world. The portfolio was organized by Kathryn Hunter of Blackbird Letterpress and printed during the 2020 Covid-19 Pandemic. In addition to the women in this post, the portfolio also features letterpress prints inspired by the likes of Nina Simone, Molly Ivins, Anita Faye Hill, Daisy Bates, Eleanor Roosevelt, Eugenie Clark, Flo Kennedy, Grace Hopper, Ida B. Wells, Janet Davison Rowley, Judy Woodruff, Lucretia Mott, Marsha P. Johnson, Michelle Obama, Patsy Takemoto Mink, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Susan B. Anthony, Susan O’Malley, and Sylvia Rivera.

For International Women’s Day, we celebrate these women who continue to inspire us even as the uncertain future unfolds.

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825 – 1911)

During the nineteenth century, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper became a household name. She was not only a poet, author, and lecturer, she was also a prominent abolitionist, suffragist and reformer. Though she was born free, Harper became an orphan at the age of three, following the death of her parents. Raised by her aunt and uncle, Harper grew up in a world of activism and education. Her uncle, an outspoken abolitionist, had established his own school in 1820 called the Watkins Academy for Negro Youth. There, Harper attended school until she was thirteen years old. By the age of twenty-one, she had already written her first small volume of poetry, titled Forest Leaves. Five years later, she left Maryland and became the first woman instructor at Union Seminary, a school for free African Americans in Wilberforce, Ohio.

Over the course of her life, Harper devoted most of her efforts to the anti-slavery cause. Her close association with William Still, known as the father of the Underground Railroad, provided Harper with ample support to continue writing. Her poems appeared in anti-slavery newspapers such as The Liberator and Frederick Douglass’ Paper. At twenty-nine, Harper had compiled her second small volume of poetry, Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects, featuring an introduction by abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. In addition to writing, Harper also traveled across the United States and Canada as a lecturer. Her lectures emphasized not only the anti-slavery struggle, but also the struggle for women’s rights and the temperance movement. She included observations from her travels in her writings and began to publish novels, short stories, and poetry focused on issues of racism, feminism, and classism. 

In 1866, Harper spoke at the National Woman’s Rights Convention in New York. Her famous speech entitled, “We Are All Bound Up Together,” urged her fellow attendees to include African American women in their fight for suffrage. She emphasized that Black women were facing the double burden of racism and sexism at the same time, therefore the fight for women’s suffrage must include suffrage for African Americans as well. 

Mary “May” Morris (1862 – 1983)

Often in the shadow of her famous father, Pre-Raphaelite artist and designer William Morris, Mary “May” Morris never truly received the recognition she deserved as an English artisan, embroidery designer, jeweler, and editor. The youngest daughter of the Morris family, May Morris learned to embroider from her mother and aunt. By the age of sixteen, she had enrolled at the National Art Training School — the precursor of the Royal College of Art. Following the family business, May Morris became the Director of the Embroidery Department at Morris & Co. and was responsible for the production of numerous designs, many of which were misattributed as her father’s work. Not only did young May Morris head the department, she also spent time editing her father’s poems

At a young age, May Morris became active in the Socialist movements spreading across the England. In 1890, she married British journalist and activist Halliday Sparling, who worked as the secretary of the Socialist League. Though they divorced only eight years later, Morris continued her own work as an activist. Dismayed by the fact that the Art Workers Guild prohibited women from joining their ranks, Morris, along with Mary Elizabeth Turner, co-founded the Women’s Guild of Arts in 1907. Other members included Agnes Garrett, Mary Lowndes, Marianne Stokes, Evelyn De Morgan, Georgie Gaskin and Mary J. Newill. 

May Morris lived with her partner, Mary Lobb, in a historic manor house in West Oxfordshire, England for more than twenty years. Lobb was initially brought on by Morris to work as the female gardener at Kelmscott Manor, but the two struck up a close relationship, and Lobb was invited to move in. The couple was fond of camping in the countryside and visited Iceland together several times. 

Pauli Murray (1910 – 1985)

From a young age, Pauli Murray had been breaking barriers. Poet, author, activist, organizer, legal scholar, Episcopal priest, and a member of the LGTBQ+ community, it seems that there was little to get in the way of Murray’s important work within the social justice movements of the twentieth century. Before graduating high school at the age of fifteen, Murray had been the editor-in chief of the school newspaper, the president of the literary society, class secretary, member of the debate club, and a forward on the basketball team. As a top student, s/he* was  certainly qualified to attend any top university in the country. Murray chose Hunter College — an all-women’s school in New York City — and went on to receive their BA in English Literature. While at Hunter, Murray was living in Harlem and there s/he rubbed with prominent figures in the Black community, including Langston Hughes, W.E.B. DuBois, Mary McLeod Bethune, Duke Ellington, and Cab Calloway. Meanwhile, Murray’s early poetry was being published in various magazines, such as The Crisis, a publication of the NAACP.

Murray continued their education at Howard Law School, focusing on destroying both “Jim” and “Jane Crow” discrimination — discrimination based on race and gender. While at Howard, Murray had proposed a challenge to the “separate” part of the Plessy vs. Ferguson (1896) Supreme Court decision as a violation of the 13th and 14th Amendments. Their professor just so happened to be on the team arguing segregation in education was a constitutional violation. Subsequently, Murray’s argument helped form the basis for Brown vs. Board of Education (1954). Murray went on to receive their JSD from Yale Law School, becoming the first Black American to do so. Murray was also the first Black woman in the United States to become an Episcopal priest. Murray administered their first Eucharist at the Chapel of the Cross on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill, just steps away from University of North Carolina’s campus—a school that had denied Murray entry based on their race.

In addition to all their work as a legal scholar and activist, Murray also published more than a dozen legal articles and five books, including Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family (1956) and a book of poetry titled Dark Testament and Other Poems (1970). Murray’s autobiography, Song in a Weary Throat: An American Pilgrimage, was published posthumously in 1987. 

*Following the guidance from the Pauli Murray Center, which uses both s/he and they/them pronouns when discussing Murray’s life. See the Center’s full explanation here.

Corita Kent (1918 – 1986)

Corita Kent was a visual artist, educator, and social justice advocate — recently recognized for her role in the Pop Art movement. At the age of eighteen, Kent entered  the Roman Catholic order of Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Los Angeles, which had the reputation of being very progressive and welcoming of creativity. Between 1938 and 1968 Kent lived and worked in the Immaculate Heart Community, teaching and later becoming the chair of its art department in 1964. Her classes at Immaculate Heart were an avant-garde mecca for prominent, ground-breaking artists and inventors, such as Alfred Hitchcock, John Cage, Saul Bass, Charles Eames, and Buckminster Fuller. Although Kent’s early artwork reflected her spiritual expression and love for God, it began to evolve and include references to not only Biblical verses, but also texts from advertisements, popular song lyrics, newspaper clippings, and literary works from authors such as Gertrude Stein, e. e. cummings, and Albert Camus

Kent was versed in a variety of painting styles, but her primary medium was silk screen, also known as Serigraphy. The emphasis on printing was partially due to her commitment to democratic outreach and affordable art for the masses. Her artwork, with its message of love and peace, became particularly popular during the counterculture movements of the 1960s and 1970s. However, as social unrest grew, Kent’s work became increasingly political, highlighting issues of war, poverty, racism, and injustice. During this time, tensions between the order of the Immaculate Heart and the church leadership were growing. The Los Angeles Archdiocese criticized the college as “liberal,” Cardinal James McIntyre used the term “communist,” while Kent’s work was suddenly deemed “blasphemous.” Due to this, Kent returned to a secular life in 1968, moved to Boston, and further embraced the anti-Vietnam War movement, Civil Rights, and Women’s Rights.

She remained active in social causes until her death in 1986. At the time of her death, she had created almost eight hundred serigraph editions, thousands of watercolors, and innumerable public and private commissions. Although critics and theorist previously failed to include Kent’s work as part of any mainstream canon, in recent years, Kent has gained increased recognition for her role in the Pop Art movement. As both a nun and a woman making art in the twentieth century, she was in many ways cast to the margins of the different movements she had been a part of.

Shirley Chisholm (1924 – 2005)

Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm grew up in New York to immigrant parents from Guyana and Barbados. As the oldest of four daughters, it was important that she pave the way for her younger sisters. While in high school, Chisholm won prizes for the debate team; in college, she graduated with distinction. Although professors had encouraged Chisholm to pursue a career in politics she initially resisted, due to a “double handicap” she perceived as having been both Black and a woman. Well aware of such racial and gender inequalities, Chisholm instead decided to join the local chapters of  the League of Women Voters, the (NAACP), the Urban League, and the Democratic Party club. Her resistance to politics did not last long, however, and in 1964 she ran for and became the second Black American in the New York State Legislature. Two years later, “Fighting Shirley” won a seat in Congress, representing New York’s 12th congressional district, centered inBedford–Stuyvesant. In her role, she introduced more than fifty pieces of legislation, focusing on issues of racial and gender equality, addressing poverty, and ending the Vietnam War.

In 1972, Chisholm ran in the primaries for the Democratic Party presidential nomination. Due to discrimination, however, she was blocked from participating in any of the the televised primary debates. Only after taking legal action was Chisholm allowed to make one speech. Despite this, students, women, and minorities from across the country followed the “Chisholm Trail.” Lack of campaign financing and contention from the predominantly male Congressional Black Caucus did not stop Chisholm from entering twelve primaries and receiving some ten percent of the delegates’ votes. Chisholm continued to be an active member of Congress, co-founding the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971 and, in 1977, becoming the first Black woman and second woman ever to serve on the powerful House Rules Committee. When Chisholm retired from Congress at the age of fifty-nine, she returned to education, teaching at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts all the while remaining committed to political organizing. Of her legacy, Chisholm said, “I want to be remembered as a woman … who dared to be a catalyst of change.

Over the course of her political career, Chisholm received many honors and awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which she received posthumously in November 2015.

Joy Harjo (b. 1951)

In 2019, poet, playwright, activist, and musician, Joy Harjo, became the first Native American to receive the award of United States Poet Laureate. Her prominent writing career, however, can be traced back several decades. Harjo was born Joy Foster in Tulsa, Oklahoma as the first of four children. Her father came from a famous Creek family, while her mother was a mix of Cherokee, Irish and French descent. Growing up, Harjo was surrounded by influential women who wrote songs, played instruments and explored other areas of art. Undoubtedly, these women inspired Harjo to explore her own creative side. Although Harjo recalls writing her first poem some time in the eighth grade, it was not until her later life that she began to write professionally. Instead, Harjo initially focused on painting and enrolled in the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. As a student, Harjo participated in what she calls the “renaissance of contemporary native art,” describing an active revision to how native art was to be represented in the United states. She joined all-native drama and dance groups, wrote songs for an all-native rock band, and began working closely with other Native American poets and writers. 

At the age of twenty-three, Harjo published her first book of poems called The Last Song and by 1980 released her first full-length volume of poetry entitled What Moon Drove Me to This? She went on to publish eight books of poetry, a memoir, two children’s books, several film scripts, television plays, and five albums of original music. As a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, Harjo’s artistic expression explores ideas around imperialism and colonization, along with their effects on violence against women. Furthermore, Harjo’s work highlights her cultural background and spirituality, reflecting on Creek values, myths and beliefs. For Harjo, art provides an opportunity to reflect on the wrongs of the past, not only for Native American communities but for oppressed communities in general. Her activism for Native American rights and feminism stem from her belief in unity and the lack of separation among human, animal, plant, sky, and earth.

Harjo currently lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma and teaches English and American Indian studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

For your own collection of inspiring women prints, please considering supporting the Blackbird Letterpress Shop


  • Carol Sandberg
    Posted at 17:15h, 08 March Reply

    All very inspiring women! Especially Shirley Chisholm and Sister Corita Kent, who have inspired me for decades.

  • Marnie Powers-Torrey
    Posted at 17:58h, 08 March Reply

    Terrific portfolio by and about inspiring women and post by an inspiring woman!

  • Pingback:Book of the Week — Biographium Fæmineum
    Posted at 12:02h, 30 March Reply

    […] but also establishing the rights of women in the Western world. Today, we continue to celebrate inspiring women as evidence of ongoing extraordinary female […]

Post A Comment