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California's Inspiring Women That Were Missing from Your History Textbooks

California's Inspiring Women That Were Missing from Your History Textbooks

By California.com
April 06, 2021

  “I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels.” —Dr. Maya Angelou

Glass ceilings shattered and barriers conquered, the Golden State prides itself as home to world-renowned trailblazers. Celebrate women paving the way through challenge and triumph—California’s famous athletes, politicians, and artists prove that being determined pays off. Thankfully, modern history is moving away from solely his story, so it’s time we put the spotlight on California’s innovative women.

While history books overlook these strong female figures, you certainly shouldn’t. It’s time to discover women who continue to be a catalyst for change. 

The Most Inspirational Women You Didn’t Learn About 

Charlotte L. Brown was one of the first to legally challenge racial segregation in the country.

Charlotte L. Brown  

1839–unknown

92 years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus, Charlotte L. Brown took her own stand against racial injustice. By taking on San Francisco’s Omnibus Railroad and Cable Company, Brown forever changed the city’s transportation legislature.

On April 17, 1863—months before the Gettysburg Address—Charlotte boarded a horse-drawn streetcar and changed the course of history. The conductor refused to collect her purchased ticket, claiming that “colored persons” were not allowed aboard.

But, Charlotte was not going down without a fight. She clung to her seat and refused to move. After a white woman demanded that she leave, Charlotte was physically grabbed and removed from the vehicle.

Charlotte was unable to let these heinous acts go. She joined forces with her father and decided to sue Omnibus Railroad once African Americans obtained the right to testify against Caucasian Americans. Charlotte won the case and became one of the unsung Black Californians to help shape the state.

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Dorothy Arzner 

1897-1979

The world of cinema was forever transformed as soon as Dorothy Azner stepped onto the scene. This brilliant director rose to prominence at a time when men dominated every corner of the film industry.

Arzner began her career in 1919 as a silent film stenographer at the Players-Lasky Corporation—a renowned production company later re-titled Paramount Pictures. Due to her talent and determination, Azner defied all odds and earned a coveted spot among the most famous women in history.

Arzner’s work quickly gained recognition as she moved up the career ladder thanks to her screenwriting and editing skills. The 1927 film Fashions for Women—her directorial debut—was a breath of fresh air on the silver screen. Success was inevitable; Arzner went on to become the first woman accepted into the Director's Guild of America.

Arzner is also credited with the invention of the boom mic—an essential modern-day filmmaking device; so essential that it’s impossible to imagine a world without it.

Doña Juana Briones de Miranda was a Mexican American pioneer and one of the first three settlers in Yerba Buena before it became San Francisco.

Doña Juana Briones de Miranda

1802-1889

Doña Juana Briones de Miranda has a long list of impressive feats to her name. Born in Santa Cruz, she proved to have great potential from an early age. Despite never getting a formal education—and not knowing how to read or write—Briones successfully trained her nephew Pablo into becoming Marin’s most in-demand doctor.

When Briones sought divorce from her abusive husband Apolinario Miranda, she was granted spousal separation from the Catholic Church—a notion unheard of at the time. Briones dropped her husband’s surname and became involved in real estate, owning several properties in the Bay Area. Through her bravery, Briones embodied inspirational femalehood; she’s a legendary example for all women.

When it came to entrepreneurship, Briones was a natural. She skillfully marketed her lands’ produce to arriving sailors while also serving as a midwife.

Isadora Duncan freed ballet from its conservative restrictions and paved the way to modern dance.

Isadora Duncan

1877-1927

Known to many as the “Mother of Dance,” Isadora Duncan radically transformed a practice once labeled “strict” and “too structured”. Her sharp, innovative mind led Duncan to take the dance scene by storm with her free spirit and uninhibited personality.

The Bay Area native kicked off her career by teaching dance lessons to the local children in her neighborhood. Her lack of formal training never set her back. While other contemporary dancers opted for traditional techniques, Duncan moved in contrast—she emphasized the beauty of the unorthodox.

Duncan’s unique style gained traction worldwide, from Europe to the Soviet Union, people were enthralled with her form. Duncan also joined forces with Loie Fuller—another creative trailblazer in the industry—to showcase the magic of movement. The acclaimed dancer enchanted global audiences until her tragic death at the age of 50.

Besides being a poet and activist, Maya Angelou was also a filmmaker. Photo courtesy of Maya Angelou.

Maya Angelou 

1928-2014

Celebrated as one of the most brilliant minds of the 20th century, Dr. Maya Angelou left behind a legacy that shook society to its core. The renowned poet became one of San Francisco's first Black female streetcar conductors in 1944. Read about her fascinating life experience that she eloquently touches upon in her autobiography Mom & Me & Mom.

Angelou’s groundbreaking autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings propelled her to be recognized as one of the most inspirational women in history. Her tale of adolescence is as vulnerable as it is poignant—it shows readers how strength of character can help overcome trauma. In addition to being a civil rights activist, poet, and author, Maya Angelou also became the first African American writer to read at a presidential inauguration. 

The Dewey Monument in the center of Union Square is modeled after Alma de Bretteville Spreckels.

Alma de Bretteville Spreckels 

1881-1968

Renowned among Bay Area locals as “The Great Grandmother of San Francisco,” Alma de Brettevile Spreckles dominated the limelight as both a socialite and philanthropist. Her larger-than-life personality and appreciation for exquisite things in life made her one of the most influential art collectors in the U.S. Due to her striking beauty, she also posed as a nude model for art classes. One of her career highlights included modeling as the “Goddess of Victory” for Dewey Monument.

Rumor has it that since she was married to sugar magnate Adolph Spreckels, Alma inspired the phrase “sugar daddy.” Alma and her husband generously donated to San Francisco’s Legion of Honor museum. 

Leola King 

1919-2015

Recognized as “The Queen of the Fillmore,” Leola King was a true Golden State leader. She was the first woman of color to own and run a Bay Area nightclub, refusing to yield to San Francisco’s Redevelopment Agency. Having moved to S.F. in 1946, King spent the next 64 years jazzing up the town with her innovative ventures. Her nightclub, The Blue Mirror Cocktail Lounge, invited Louis Armstrong, Dinah Washington, and many more to perform. 

However, this wasn’t her first rodeo. King’s earliest venture was Oklahoma King’s Bar-B-Q. Her business was successful. She built a repertoire with her restaurant clientele; the nightclub was then frequented by the likes of her barbecue-loving guests.

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