Did you know that Women’s History Month started out as a week-long celebration in 1981? Thanks to advocacy by the National Women’s History Alliance (NWHA), Women’s History Month was established by Congress in 1987. Its purpose is to celebrate the contributions of women and recognize the specific achievements women have made over the course of American history in a variety of fields.
NWHA has designated the theme of this year’s Women’s History Month as Celebrating Women Who Tell Our Stories. As part of this theme, we thought there’d be no better way to celebrate than to share the stories of some notable Indianapolis women in history. Here’s just a snapshot of some of the impactful women who have called Indianapolis home across history.
Emma Christy Baker
Emma became the first woman and the first African American woman to be a police officer for the Indianapolis Police Department in 1918. She served the Indianapolis police department for more than 20 years, focusing on the downtown area. Not only did she wear a badge and go on patrols, but she was also paid the same rate as her fellow male officers.
Learn more about Emma Christy Baker’s career in her Indiana Commission for Women feature.
Although she never resided in Indianapolis, Janet Guthrie holds a place in Indianapolis history by being the first woman to qualify for and race in the Indianapolis 500 in 1977. She raced three times, with her best finish coming in 1978 at 9th place when she drove with a fractured wrist. In all, the car racing trailblazer competed in 11 Indy car events and led the way for many female race car drivers after her.
Learn more about Janet Guthrie’s racing history on her official website.
You can’t mention food in Indianapolis without bringing up restaurateur and businesswoman Martha Hoover. Her creativity has sparked six different restaurant brands and led her to being nominated for Restaurateur of the Year by the James Beard Foundation six times. She’s been an anchor in the Indianapolis food scene since 1989 when she opened the first Café Patachou®, which now has five locations spanning the Indianapolis area.
Learn more about Martha Hoover’s career and restaurants on the Café Patachou® website.
A renowned journalist who became co-anchor of the NBC morning show Today at the age of 25, Jane Pauley was raised in Indianapolis and began her TV career at local station WISH-TV. She went on to co-anchor Dateline NBC and is currently the host of CBS This Morning. The mental health advocate has made a substantial impact in Indianapolis through the nonprofit healthcare system she lends her name to, The Jane Pauley Community Health Center.
Learn more about Jane Pauley on The Jane Pauley Community Health Center website.
As a child, Wilma was bedridden for many years due to pneumonia, scarlet fever, and polio, yet she overcame these illnesses to become a trailblazer for women in sports. She competed in the 1956 Olympics, held multiple world records, and became the first American woman to earn three gold medals in track and field during the 1960 Olympics. After her olympic career, she founded the Wilma Rudolph Foundation in Indianapolis to train underserved youth athletes.
May Wright Sewall
A leader of the women’s suffrage movement, May Wright Sewall was a high school teacher who began her suffrage work in the 1880s. She founded more than 50 organizations focused on women’s rights and education, including the Indianapolis Equal Suffrage Society, as well as authored History of the Woman Suffrage Movement in Indiana. Although her life’s work focused on earning women the right to vote, she sadly passed away one month before the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment.
Learn more about May Wright Sewall’s suffragette work in her Indiana Commission for Women feature.
Madam C. J. Walker
Born as Sarah Breedlove to sharecroppers who were enslaved before the Civil War, Madam C. J. Walker is now recognized by the Guiness Book of World Records as the first woman to earn a personal fortune of more than $1 million. In 1910, she moved the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company to Indianapolis, where it stayed for more than seven decades. Her philanthropy, activism, and advocacy set standards far and wide, with her efforts focusing on anti-lynching, empowering business women, and supporting the African American community.
Learn more about Madam C. J. Walker’s life and impact through her official website.
The seven women highlighted above are only a small portion of the impactful, powerful, and driven women who have shaped Indianapolis in one way or another across history. Let us know who you think belongs on it by sharing on your social media of choice and tagging Indy Maven.
Lindsay McGuire is a freelance writer, marketer, and podcast host who is passionate about volunteerism and community. You can find her on LinkedIn.
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