Mary Bowser: Union Spy

Unverified photo of Mary Bowser

Not our Mary; but a photo often confused for her. I could not find any photos of Mary in specific.

So, I really wanted to do another LGBT woman to continue Pride Month, but the tragic attack in South Carolina, and the realization that today is Juneteenth, made me change my mind. Instead, I want to talk about a woman of color. And instead of talking about a fighter or a soldier, I want to talk about a spy.

I haven’t covered a female spy yet; I’ve mostly focused on women who took up arms or led armies. But spies participate in war just as much as any soldier or general, and though they may not be on the front lines, they risk their lives all the same. A captured soldier may sometimes rely on being taken as a prisoner of war and later returned home; but a captured spy is generally summarily executed. And the best spies are often those we don’t find out about until long after the war.

And so.

Meet Mary Bowser.

Mary was born a slave in or around 1839 in Richmond, Virginia. I tried to find out more about her parentage, but the only thing known is that she was born to a slave owned by the hardware merchant John Van Lew. John Van Lew was a ‘soft’ abolitionist, who freed Mary and eight other slaves in his will after his death in 1843. His daughter Elizabeth, who had been educated by Quakers and had strong abolitionist beliefs as a result, went even further. She used part of the Van Lew estate to buy the freedom of the freed slaves’ families (over the objections of her brother and mother).

Elizabeth Van Lew, Mary's patron and mentor.

Elizabeth Van Lew, Mary’s patron and mentor.

Mary, still a child, was retained in the Van Lew household as a servant; or, more likely, her mother was retained as a servant and Mary grew up in service (former slaves staying on as paid servants was common practice). However, Elizabeth, for reasons of her own, quickly took a special interest in young Mary. While most black Christians in Richmond received baptism at the First African Baptist Church, Mary was baptized in 1846, at St. John’s Episcopal Church, a largely white church to which Elizabeth belonged. And when Mary’s natural intelligence and quick wit shone through, Elizabeth paid for Mary to be educated at Anthony Benezet‘s school for black children in Philadelphia.

Mary studied hard, and reportedly had a near-photographic memory. She could read a page and be able to recite what was written, nearly word-perfect. After graduating in 1855, Mary was sent as a missionary to Liberia (Liberia itself was a nation founded a few decades earlier with the intention of repatriating former slaves back to Africa). However, Mary’s letters to Elizabeth reveal a deep homesickness – Africa was not for Mary, and she returned to Virginia in 1860.

There is some indication that her travel papers were not entirely in order, and Mary was arrested in Richmond under suspicion of being an escaped slave. She may even have been flogged. However, Elizabeth came to her rescue! Supposedly, Elizabeth had to claim Mary was her slave, and was made to pay a fine levied against owners who let their slaves out without a pass. Later in life, Mary would allude to having spent four months in a Richmond jail; this may be the incident she speaks of.

The church where Mary was baptized (and possibly married).

The church where Mary was baptized (and possibly married).

At some point, she met and fell in love with a man named Wilson Bowser, a free black man who also worked in the Van Lew household, and married him on April 16, 1861 – four days after the start of the Civil War. Several months later, Jefferson Davis would move the rebel capital to Richmond, and the city became overrun with Confederate soldiers, officers and politicians.

This presented a golden opportunity for both Mary and Elizabeth.

Elizabeth, using Christian charity as her shield, began to deliver food and medicine to captured Union soldiers held at Libby Prison. She also feigned several tics, such as muttering to herself and not making eye contact. As a result, many thought her insane and took less care to guard their words around ‘Crazy Bet.’

However, the greatest acts of espionage were performed by Mary.

Mary developed the persona of ‘Ellen Bond,’ a slightly dim but hard-working woman. ‘Ellen’ was brought on to help with several social events hosted by Varina Davis, wife of wealthy rebel leader Jefferson Davis. Mary performed her duties so well that she was brought on as house staff, full-time.

Yes, that’s right.

A former slave and highly educated woman was given access to the top levels of the rebel army because neither Varina nor Jefferson assumed a black female servant could read or had the intelligence to make sense of complex political or strategic conversations. This was exceptionally brave of Mary. As I mentioned above, armies are not kind to spies caught in their midst – and I seriously doubt Jefferson would have been inclined to show mercy to a black woman caught spying in his own house. Mary certainly would have known this. Her race, which had held her back all her life, presented her with one unique opportunity to be of incredible aid to the Union. And Mary took it.

Rebel capital where Mary worked.

Rebel capital where Mary worked.

Mary cleaned the Davis house, helped serve dinner and tended to various domestic tasks. And she also eavesdropped on Jefferson’s conversations with his cabinet, read his mail and generally kept her finger on the pulse of the rebel army. She would pass this information on to a baker named Thomas McNiven, who was also part of the Union spy network in Richmond. Every few days, Thomas would deliver bread to the kitchens, and Mary would take the opportunity to tell him what she had learned; intelligence which Thomas then passed on (Thomas would later write that Mary was one of his best sources of intelligence; the only other spy who came close to her in providing useful information was a prostitute named Clara; another woman underestimated by the rebels).

Unfortunately, Union records were destroyed to protect Mary and Elizabeth after the war, and Mary’s personal journal was lost in the 1950s. So we don’t know precisely what she told McNiven. However, according to surviving reports, some of her intelligence made its way to General Grant, and influenced his decision-making. So she definitely had an impact! I also personally suspect that every now and then, an important letter or map would mysteriously go missing from Jefferson’s office.

Lee's surrender to General Grant at Appomattox Courthouse; based on a woodcut by Alfred R. Waud.

Lee’s surrender to General Grant at Appomattox Courthouse; based on a woodcut by Alfred R. Waud.

Jefferson eventually realized someone in his household was leaking information, but Mary played her role as the slow servant so well that she was not considered seriously as a suspect. However, her partner, Thomas McNiven, was found out sometime in late 1864 or early 1865, and Mary knew the jig was up – everyone in the household knew she frequently spoke with Thomas, and suspicion fell naturally on her. Mary got out of there as quickly as possible, but she didn’t go quietly – she attempted unsuccessfully to burn down the Davis mansion on her way out. And when the Union army re-took Richmond, Mary’s mentor Elizabeth was the first person to raise the Union colors.

From here on out, unfortunately, not much is known about Mary. Elizabeth became a near-pariah in Richmond during Reconstruction. Even though her spy activities were largely unknown to her neighbors, they nevertheless knew she had supported the Union during the war. However, Mary’s wasn’t the last life she would influence – Maggie Walker, born to black Van Lew servants in 1864, would grow up to become the first black woman to charter a bank in the United States (among a long list of other accomplishments).

Maggie Walker, prominent black businesswoman.

Maggie Walker, prominent black businesswoman.

Mary did go on the lecture circuit, often speaking circumspectly about her espionage during the war; and there’s some evidence she also started a school and worked to educate former slaves and their children for many years.

Unfortunately, Mary was also smart enough to know which way the wind blew in post-Reconstruction Virginia. One of her only surviving letters speaks of her fear of white anger and resentment. She picked up in many residents what she called a “quiet but bitterly expressed feeling that I know portends evil,” and doubted the black community could advance in the South without federal protection.

The date of her death and the place of her burial are sadly unknown (though rumors exist that her descendants know precisely where she’s buried, but are keeping her grave a secret to protect it).

Mary shows up every now and then in pop culture. Lois M. Leveen, a Portland-based writer, has written a non-fiction column for the New York Times, “A Black Spy in the Confederate White House,” which she later expanded into the novel The Secrets of Mary Bowser. Ted Lange wrote a play, Lady Patriot, which focuses narrowly on the relationships between Mary, Elizbeth and Varina. The play was performed in Santa Monica in 2012, to fairly good reviews. And, in 1995, her hard work was recognized when she was inducted into the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame, two years after Elizabeth.


American Civil War Story

Recollections of Thomas McNiven and his Activities in Richmond During the American Civil War

The Root


Mino: The Dahomey Amazons

A Mino

A Mino


Welcome to Amazon Month, Week 3!

Today, we’re going to talk about a group of women often referred as the ‘Dahomey Amazons.’

As hard as I tried, I could not find the personal history of any of the Dahomey Amazons, and found only one or two names. So I’m going to depart a little bit from the format of this blog, and talk about a group of women rather than an individual woman.

The Fon are an ethnic group of Africans, living mostly in what is now Benin and Nigeria (the coastal region along the southwestern curve of Africa). In or around 1600, a Fon leader founded what would eventually become known as the Kingdom of Dahomey. Being situated on the western coast of Africa, Dahomey was uniquely positioned to deal with European slavers. And this they did, becoming both fabulously wealthy and deeply resented by the neighboring African kingdoms.

To meet the demand for slaves, Dahomey developed both a martial culture and an economy largely based on fighting other nations, kidnapping civilians and then selling them to Portuguese, Dutch or English slavers (The fact that Africans participated in the slave trade should in no way be taken as an excuse for slavery as a whole. There’s no justification for slavery, and readers should keep in mind that, as awesome as the Dahomey Amazons were, their lifestyle was made possible by slavery).

Dahomey, in red

Dahomey, in red

Originally, the Dahomey Amazons were called the gbeto, and were dedicated not to war, but instead to hunting elephants. According to legend, they were complimented by King Agaja after a particularly successful hunt; wherein the commander of the gbeto said she appreciated the compliment, but would much rather hunt the most dangerous game. The king was so impressed by both her talent and her boldness that he agreed.

At first, the gbeto worked as palace guards and the personal protectors of the king. Many places in the royal compound were off-limits to men after nightfall, but the gbeto could come and go as they pleased. Around 1708, as the Dahomey military underwent a general expansion, the gbeto evolved into a woman-only squad of crack fighters.

A Mino with her spear and machete.

A Mino with her spear and machete.

At this point, I have to point out, as I often do on this blog, that much of what we know about the Dahomey doesn’t come from these women themselves, but rather from fascinated European traders and missionaries who wrote about their African travels. The parallels between these women and the classical Amazons were obvious to a 17th century European, and so they are often known as the Dahomey Amazons. However, that’s not what they called themselves. A woman who fought for the King of Dahomey called herself a Mino (a Fon word meaning ‘our mothers’ or ‘my mother’), and so that is the word I’ll use from now on.

Mino fought with a variety of weapons, but the most common were the spear, the musket and the machete. These weren’t the basic machetes you can find in a home and garden store – Mino machetes were reported to be three feet long, razor-sharp and required both hands to wield.

The Mino recruited from all quarters – capable-looking women taken in slave raids could become Mino rather than being sold, and a Dahomey man upset with a headstrong wife or daughter could also send her to the Mino.  Some of these headstrong women probably headed their fathers or husbands off at the pass, and went off to join the Mino of their own accord. For their part, the Mino didn’t really care – if you were a woman, if you were strong and if you were willing to fight to the absolute death, they’d take you.

Part of the joining rite for the Mino was a symbolic wedding to the Dahomey king. As a result, the Mino were forbidden to have children or marry another man (if caught with a lover, both of them were destined for a very quick execution). If we take the words of the European men who wrote about them at face value, the majority of the Mino were virgins, but I personally call shenanigans on that. The Mino weren’t a small squad of hand-picked women; at their height, they were thousands. Doubtless most Mino obeyed the order to not have children, but I can’t believe they weren’t as randy as any other group of soldiers. Get six thousand women in an army together, at least a few of them are going to come up with a few creative ways to enjoy sex without risking pregnancy.

A  Mino with the head of a slain enemy.

A Mino with the head of a slain enemy. Note the lack of shoes.

It should be noted that the actual joining rite for the Mino has since been lost to history; but the symbolic marriage aspect and the vows to which the Mino were beholden was something generally known. As such, I feel safe in assuming that, whatever else happened when a young woman became one of the Mino, a symbolic wedding was part of it. As this tradition developed, the Mino also became known as ahosi, meaning ‘king’s wives’ (though the word ‘ahosi‘ in specific can sometimes mean anyone in direct service to the king).

Mino training was not easy, and started as young as eight years old. The Mino understood they would constantly be judged against their male counterparts, and were absolutely determined to surpass them in every way. The Mino were disciplined, rigorous, and brutal. Part of their training exercises consisted of giving weapons to captured enemies, and then literally hunting them through the jungle. To the bloody death. Barefoot.

One missionary describes watching an exhibition, in which a group of fearless Mino run across thorns (still barefoot) and engage in a mock battle. The winning women were given thorn belts, which they wore proudly and with no outward sign of pain. Other writers describe watching teenage Mino recruits perform executions, an exercise intended to desensitize them to violence and killing.

Though the demands of Mino life were difficult, the benefits often made up for it. Mino women were wealthy, sharing in the spoils of war and receiving payment for their service in gold, tobacco, alcohol and even an allotment of slaves. A Mino could walk proudly down the street and expect everyone to get out of her path. Even touching a Mino was dangerous – if she didn’t kill you herself, you may very well face execution for your temerity.

A group of Mino, having their picture taken during a visit to France.

A group of Mino, having their picture taken during a visit to France.

The Mino motto was Conquer or Die, and they meant it. Only the king himself could order a Mino to retreat from battle; if she ran from the front lines for any other reason, she would be summarily executed by one of her sisters on the spot.

Though some have interpreted the existence of the Mino to indicate that Dahomey culture was markedly gender equitable, other evidence suggests this might not be entirely the case. Dahomey society still had strict gender divisions. Though the Mino enjoyed a high social status, they were forbidden marriage and family life (a rule not imposed on male soldiers). There is some evidence that the Mino did not even consider themselves fully female – often, the Mino would refer to themselves as men. This probably isn’t an indication that the Mino should be considered transmen; but rather that the Mino took a unique approach to gender performativity.


In a nutshell, gender among the Dahomey was progressive in some ways (career options did exist for women) but regressive in others (the career options were limited, women had to choose between career and family). In this way, the Dahomey were much like any other complex society of the time; women had access to some areas but were barred from others.

Mino demonstrating their skills.

Mino demonstrating their skills.

It’s also important to consider the context I mentioned above: Dahomey’s economy relied on slavery. Their practice of conquer-kidnap-sell (which was something all African nations in the region engaged in at the time) meant that not only did the nation of Dahomey constantly need to protect itself from angry neighbors, the entire region dealt with the effects of male depopulation, as millions of men were sold into slavery. These unique pressures created room for the rise of the Mino.

At their height, the Mino were fully half of the Dahomey military strength, and the commander of the Mino directly advised the king on which nation to conquer next.

Unfortunately, though the Mino were unmatched among the other nations of Africa, they could not compete with the military might of 19th century Europe during the Scramble for Africa. In 1890, they tangled with several French settlements. At first, the Mino won several easy victories; as the French soldiers defending the fort were not prepared and had a hard time attacking women. Eventually, however, the French remembered they had Gatling guns and cannonballs, and attacked the Mino from the safety of their gunboats. Despite their overwhelming bravery, the Mino had no hope when it came to such weapons – their military technology was significantly behind Europe’s.

Mino as part of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show

Mino as part of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show

However, they made the French work for it. All told, Dahomey and France would fight twenty-four battles for Dahomey territory, and only advanced French technology ensured their victory. Had the Mino and their male counterparts been able to meet their opponents with equal weapons, likely the battles would have gone far differently.

But Dahomey fell to France in 1894, and only 50 Mino, out of nearly 4,000, survived. The French even passed strict laws once they achieved control, banning women from military service or even owning weapons. The majority of those women sailed for America, where they ended up joining Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.

As far as we know, the last surviving Mino, a woman named Nawi, died in 1979.

The Mino deserve a unique place in history – for though women have always fought, they’ve often done so while integrated into largely male units. Most female-only military units have been supportive, or last only for the duration of the current conflict. But the Mino existed as a distinct female military tradition of front-line fighters; something which cannot be found anywhere else (The Elk Scraper Society I mentioned in the entry for Buffalo Calf Road Woman is the only thing I’ve found which comes close).

The Mino occassionally show up in pop culture here and there (such as a unit in DLC for the the digital game Empire: Total War), but they have yet to make a significant appearance in fiction, film and TV. However, the rising school of Afro-centrist historical revisionism mentioned last week loves the Mino as much as they love Calafia; so here’s hoping these women get their own property soon!


Amazons of Black Sparta: The Warrior Women of Dahomey

Badass of the Week

From Eve to Dawn: The  Masculine Mystique

Smithsonian Magazine


Wives of the Leopard: Gender, Politics and Culture in the Kingdom of Dahomey

Calafia: Amazon of the Americas

Califia, Disney

Calafia, from the Spirit of California mural at Disney’s California Adventure

Welcome to Amazon Month, Week 2!

Today we’re going to depart a little bit from the nature of this blog, and cover a woman whom we know absolutely did not exist at any point in time. Not even in the vague sense of Mulan probably existing in some real way but then evolving into a literary figure. Her story is 100% fiction, written by a Spanish novelist inspired by the classical Amazons.


The story of Calafia (sometimes also spelled Califia or Khalifia), and what it inspired others to do, is so damn fascinating that it deserves to be told anyway! This entry will be half about Calafia, and half about the story of her story.

Around the year 1500 C.E., a Spanish author by the name of Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo wrote The Adventures of Esplandiána chivalric, historical romance in which the character of Calafia appears.

Her name is probably a derivation of the Arabic word for ruler, ‘khalifa’. However, Calafia was not Muslim – she was pagan. And she ruled over an island nation, populated entirely by women. Montalvo describes her as a tall woman, ‘as black of the ace of clubs‘ and surpassingly beautiful. She is also described as being a very wise ruler, who wanted to do the best for her people and thereby leave her mark on history.

A griffin.

A griffin.

Montalvo does not hold back when he describes Calafia’s kingdom – far beyond the Indies (Montalvo does not specify East or West Indies), full of gold (but no other metals), and well-protected from invaders by tall cliffs and other geographic features.

Oh, and griffins. Lots and lots of griffins, ridden by Queen Calafia’s Amazon warriors and trained to tear apart any many they came across.

And the name of this wondrous place? The island of California.

The rough outline of Calafia as she appears in Montalvo’s work is thus:

Radiaro, a Muslim man, somehow makes it past the man-eating griffins and is granted an audience with Queen Calafia. He requests aid from the pagan queen; his home city of Constantinople is overtaken by Christian invaders and he needs help to fend them off. Queen Calafia, thinking now is as good a time as any for a fight, agrees to help him. She marshals her army of griffin-riding warrior women and they sail from California to Constantinople.

At first, Calafia’s forces are successful, as the griffins gleefully snatch Christian men from the ramparts surrounding the city and destroy them. However, as the Muslim forces move in to take the city, the griffins don’t stop. They can only distinguish between male and female; they can’t tell Christian from Muslim, and keep up the snatch-and-eat until the Muslims are forced to retreat and Calafia calls her griffins back.

Whoopi Goldberg as Calafia

Whoopi Goldberg as Calafia

Calafia’s new strategy is to challenge the Christian king in Constantinople to a duel – single combat, winner-take-all. The King accepts, and brings his entourage out to meet Calafia and her entourage. There’s a bit of love at first sight between Calafia and one of the king’s sons, Esplandián himself. Calafia tries to show off and attract his attention, but Esplandián isn’t interested in a pagan woman who doesn’t know her place.

The next day, Calafia and her buddy Radiaro fight the king and Esplandián. Predictably for a book written by a 16th century Spaniard, the forces of Christianity prevail. Not only is Calafia defeated, but she converts to Christianity, marries a knight named Talanque and returns back to California with the intent of opening up the island to men. The story continues without her, but Calafia had captured the Spanish imagination, as The Adventures of Esplandián became wildly popular in Spain. Most readers sort of ignored Calafia’s end, and kept alive the idea of the pagan Amazon queen.

Among the readers was explorer and conquistador, Hernando Cortez (most famous for hastening the fall of the Aztec Empire and bringing Spanish influence to Mexico and the American West). He does not seem to have understood that The Adventures of Esplandián was fiction. Judging from his behavior, he seemed to think that Montalvo had written about a real place – and he was determined to find this fabled island of black Amazons decked out in gold and pearls.

After breaking apart the Aztecs and declaring himself Governor of Mexico, he funded several Spanish expeditions west, with the intention of finding California. When the leader of this expedition found Baja California, he at first believed he’d found an island. And more out of a sense of hope and optimism than anything else, he named the region ‘California’.

The 'island' of California.

The ‘island’ of California.

The name spread, with Spanish cartographers and explorers believing that the entire West Coast must be an island… because after all, that’s how Montalvo described it! As a result, many old maps often show Baja California and California as a large island. The captain of the expedition, Fortun Ximenez, was convinced he’d found the island of the Amazons, and really, really wanted to find the gold and griffins. He found neither – the griffins didn’t exist, and gold wouldn’t be discovered in California until 1848.

It does seem, however, that Ximenez kept wandering through California, asking the local tribes where all the women were, and was frequently told that a tribe comprised solely of women existed ‘somewhere over there.’ It’s possible the tribes were trying to get him to go away and leave them alone (or at least go mess with their enemies), and Ximenez kept up his ultimately fruitless search for quite awhile.

However, despite utterly failing to find the kingdom (queendom?) of Calafia, the name stuck – Spanish explorers kept labeling the area ‘California’ on their maps, even when cartographers finally realized the land was firmly attached to the rest of the North American continent and had nary a griffin in sight. Spanish settlers kept the name, referring to themselves as ‘Californios.’ And by the time the United States picked a fight with Mexico, the name had become permanently attached to the region, and California became the 31st state in 1850. Because of this, the American state of California, Baja California in Mexico and the surrounding regions have become linked to the mythical California – despite the fact that Montalvo never really described where Calafia’s island was, other than ‘really far away’ (using language meant to imply that you couldn’t get to California, it was a semi-mythical place).

A mural depicting Calafia

A mural depicting Calafia

Since then, Calafia has evolved into a symbol for women of color, especially Hispanic, Latina and black women, living in California and the Southwest. She’s become a favorite subject of folk art, often depicted as a black queen, sometimes surrounded by symbols of Californian identity.

Many Afro-centric historical revisionists wholeheartedly embrace the legend of Calafia, holding her up as a symbol of strong black womanhood and an indication that black people have lived in California for a very long itme. As her legend has evolved in this context, Calafia has been described as a Muurish woman, of direct African ancestry who ruled an empire stretching from Colorado to Mexico to Oregon. These stories usually leave out the griffins, instead focusing on a black African empire ruled by women which existed until the arrival of the Spanish. Again, there’s no archaeological evidence that this empire ever existed in the same land as Hollywood and Napa Valley; this is instead a legendary history.

Visitors to Disney’s California Adventure between 2001 and 2009 could watch Golden Dreams, a film about the history of California, narrated by Whoopi Goldberg as Calafia. In addition, a wide variety of places in California have been named after her. The collection of California university resources on Latin American history and culture is called the Calafia Collection; you can visit Calafia State Park in San Diego County or purchase wine from Calafia Cellars in Napa Valley; and even a Californian chapter of the Society for Creative Anachronism calls itself the Barony of Calafia (though why the barony’s heraldry includes a sea serpent and not a griffin, I couldn’t tell you!).


Atlantic Monthly, 1864

His Level Best: And Other Stories

Ms. Magazine

The New Pacific



Women on 20s: Four Short Stories

Currently in America, there’s a campaign to replace Andrew Jackson as the person featured on the $20 bill. After a first-round vote, the finalists have been narrowed down to four extraordinary women: Eleanor Roosevelt, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks and Wilma Mankiller. Rather than focus on a specific woman this week, I’d like to instead give you short vignettes on each of these four women, and draw attention to the Women on 20s campaign. The winner will get a much more in-depth biography!

Eleanor Roosevent

A blackand white photograph of a woman in her late 20s with  short dark hair. She looks directly at the camera, smiling slightly.

Eleanor Roosevelt

Often known for being the First Lady during her husband’s administration from 1933-1945, Eleanor had quite a distinguished career of her own, focusing on civil and human rights.

Born in 1884 in New York City, she suffered immense personal tragedy early on, losing her mother at age eight and her father just two years later. She lived with her grandmother for a time, then in London while attending finishing school. The headmistress of her school was an outspoken feminist who doubtless influenced young Eleanor’s views on women and equal rights. Upon her return to America, she met Franklin Delano Roosevelt, her fifth cousin – they quickly fell in love and were married in 1905 (then-President Theodore Roosevelt gave the bride away!).

The couple had six children between 1906 and 1916, though reportedly, Eleanor enjoyed neither sex nor motherhood very much. In 1918, she discovered her husband having an affair with his secretary. And though they chose to stay together, Eleanor made it clear she would no longer sleep with Franklin. From that moment, they became a political match, and Franklin began his career in politics soon after.

In 1921, tragedy struck again as Franklin fell ill with the polio which would leave him paralyzed from the waist down. He very nearly quit politics, but Eleanor persuaded him to not give up. She became one of her husband’s most ardent supporters, doing quite a lot of campaigning on his behalf.

However, Eleanor made time to pursue her own goals while also helping Franklin. In the 1920s, her chief cause was promoting women’s rights in the workplace. She allied with the Women’s Trade Union League, which successfully campaigned for a 48-hour workweek, a minimum wage and the abolition of child labor.

In 1933, Franklin became the 32nd President of the United States of America, and Eleanor the First Lady. The role of First Lady up till then had largely been a social one – hosting dinners, parties and similar events. Eleanor, however, refused to simply be a hostess for the duration of her husband’s administration. She redefined the role as a political one, and used her time in office to campaign for the rights of the poor, as well as civil rights for African-American voters (a task she was so successful at that she single-handedly shifted the African-American voting demographic from Republican to Democrat; a trend which persists to this day).

After the White House, Eleanor served as a delegate to the United Nations, where she continued her work for human rights, assisting in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a charter universally adopted by all member nations (though several Soviet states abstained).

She died in 1962 at the age of 78.

Harriet Tubman

A black woman with short black hair faces the camera with a stern expression. She wears a dark buttoned dress with a white scarf.

Harriet Tubman

Born into slavery as Araminta ‘Minty’ Ross sometime in the early 1820s in Maryland, Harriet Tubman is most known for her work on the Underground Railroad. She witnessed early on the destruction slavery had on the family, as three of her siblings were sold away, and her mother risked her life to keep her brother.

Harriet was put to work at age 5 minding the infant of friends of her white owners, and would be whipped whenever the baby cried. Harriet would carry the scars of these beatings for the rest of her life. One beating was so bad she suffered a permanent head injury, causing her lifelong bouts of narcolepsy, epilepsy, seizures and hallucinations.

Around 1844, she married a free black man, John Tubman. Somewhere around this time, she also changed her name for Araminta to Harriet (possibly to honor her mother, also named Harriet). However, the couple lived in fear of Harriet being sold away; or of their children being enslaved. In 1849, this threatened to become a reality when Harriet’s owner tried to sell her. Only his lack of success in finding a buyer and sudden death prevented the sale. However, her owner’s widow began selling many of the household slaves, and Harriet knew it was now or never.

After one unsuccessful attempt to escape with two of her brothers, Harriet escaped on her own. Aided by conductors on the Underground Railroad, Harriet eventually made it to safety and freedom in the Northern states.

However, Harriet could not forget those she left behind, and soon made plans to return in order to liberate more loved ones from slavery. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 meant slave-hunters could capture escaped slaves even in Northern states, and so Harriet extended her route to Canada.

All told, she rescued approximately seventy slaves. She was never caught, nor were any of her charges. She also provided a great deal of support to other escaping slaves, giving them advice and guidance. She ran her last trip in December, 1860.

During the Civil War, Harriet tirelessly supported the Union Army, working as a spy, scout and even once personally leading a military attack on a group of Maryland plantations. The raid was a success – the Union forces seized several thousand dollars’ worth of supplies, and over 750 slaves were liberated. She was also a voice in Lincoln’s ear, convincing him to allow black men to enlist, counsel he eventually took. Despite all her work, Tubman was never fairly paid by the government for what she had done.

After the war, Harriet worked various odd jobs, and in 1869, she married Civil War veteran Nelson Davis. However, they were often in financial difficulty, and survived due to community donations (including sale of a biography about her). She dedicated much of her time after the war to the cause of women’s suffrage, including suffrage for black women.

She died in 1913.

Rosa Parks

A young black woman in a black and white photograph. She wears glasses, and has a black and white striped shirt underneath a dark vest.

Rosa Parks

Though America lost Harriet Tubman in 1913, we gained Rosa Parks on February 4 of that same year. She grew up on a farm in Alabama with her mother, her maternal grandparents and several siblings. She attended several schools, but was forced to cut her education short when both her mother and grandmother fell ill and required Rosa to care for them.

She grew up in a Jim Crow climate, where she regularly witnessed white children being bused to much nicer schools than hers; her school was twice attacked by arsonists, and the KKK would march through her neighborhood. And though white bullies would sometimes attack Rosa, she would never back down, and would often (dangerously) fight back.

She married Raymond Parks in 1932, who was a card-carrying member of the NAACP. She finished high school in 1933, becoming part of the 7% of African-Americans at the time who successfully did so. However, she could not find suitable work, and often worked unstable employment as a domestic servant. In 1943, she, too became active in the NAACP. At one meeting of the Montgomery chapter, she became elected secretary by virtue of being the only woman in the room. However, she proved to be quite good, serving in this role until 1957.

In 1944, a young black woman was gang-raped by white men, and Rosa spearheaded a successful campaigns to get justice for Recy Taylor, the survivor.

As the Civil Rights movement gained momentum, one of the issues which Rosa’s local NAACP chapter paid attention to was the segregation of the bus system, and decided to protest the unfair rules.

Some narratives have Rosa too tired to move at the end of a long work day. And while Rosa was tired, she was more tired of injustice. Her refusal to move was a deliberately calculated move to force the bus driver to enforce these unfair rules on her (thereby bringing attention to the injustice). This he did, having Rosa arrested and taken to jail.

She was bailed out the next morning, but the Montgomery Bus Boycott had begun. Rosa was eventually convicted of violating the municipal segregation laws, and charged $14 in fines. This, she refused to pay, and appealed her case. A young reverend, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., then a relative unknown, rose to prominence leading the 381-day boycott of the Montgomery bus system. The boycott eventually ended when the Supreme Court ruled in Browder v. Gayle that these laws were unconstitutional.

Though Rosa had by now become a symbol for the Civil Rights movement, that very notoriety made her (and her husband) unemployable. She eventually moved north to Detroit, where she found a system of segregation that, while not official and legal, was no less insidious. However, she provided crucial assistance to John Conyers, then running for Congress. Upon Conyers’ election, Rosa was hired as his secretary, a job she would hold until 1988.

Rosa’s new cause was housing fairness, as she saw how housing inequality and ‘urban renewal’ programs disparately affected blacks and other people of color. She worked for this cause, and many others, until her health eventually declined to the point where that became impossible.

She passed away in 2005.

Wilma Mankiller

Wilma Mankiller

Wilma Mankiller

Perhaps the least well-known woman on this list, I personally can think of no better person to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill.

She was born in 1945 in Talequah, on Cherokee Nation land in Oklahoma. Her father was a full-blooded Cherokee and her mother Dutch-Irish who nevertheless adopted Cherokee customs and lived in Talequah with her family.

Her father was extremely poor, relying on a small patch of land to survive. However, this land was seized by the US Government (along with the land of 45 other Cherokee families) to expand Fort Gruber. In 1956, the family left Oklahoma and settled in San Francisco.

She married at age 17, to an Ecuadorian college student named Hector Hugo Alaya de Bardi, and had two children with him. She attended Skyline College, then San Francisco State University, finally graduating with a degree in social sciences from Flaming Rainbow University in Oklahoma.

In 1969, she participated in the occupation of Alcatraz Island, a year-long protest meant to call attention the seizure of Native lands. The protest had a solid legal footing – several treaties guaranteed that unoccupied federal land belonged to the Native tribes, and Alcatraz had not operated as a federal prison for six years. Unfortunately, Wilma and her companions did not succeed, as they were eventually forcibly removed by government agents.

However, Wilma did not let this failure dull her activist spirit. She became dedicated to the idea of helping her people.

In 1977, she divorced Hugo and moved back to the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma. In 1983, she was elected deputy chief of the Cherokee Nation, and inherited the role of principal chief when her counterpart took a job with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. She was elected principal chief in her own right in 1987, and served until 1995 (she is often credited with being the first female principal chief of the Cherokee Nation… though it’s doubtless that some of her female ancestors may have also served in similar leadership roles, as Cherokee culture has a long tradition of female leadership).

During her tenure, Wilma was dedicated to improving life for residents of the Cherokee Nation. She worked closely with other community leaders, as well as the United States government, on a variety of programs meant to foster community involvement. She completely redefined tribal relationships with the US government, founded schools, improved tribal health care and increased tribal enrollment to nearly three times what it had been. Her work was not without controversy, but she can be fairly said to have made all her choices with an eye towards making life better for her people.

She married again in 1986, to a full-blooded Cherokee named Charlie Lee Soap; where they lived on Wilma’s ancestral land (the acreage taken several decades before by the government).

In 2010 (after already suffering bouts of myasthenia gravis, a kidney transplant, lymphoma and breast cancer), Wilma was diagnosed with the disease that would kill her – pancreatic cancer. She died in April of that year, leaving behind not only the legacy of a leader who broke gender barriers, but as a symbol of Native resilience in the face of attempted genocide. In 1830, then-President Andrew Jackson worked very hard to pass the Indian Relocation Act, by which the settled tribes of the American South, among them the Cherokee, were to be forcibly relocated east of the Mississipi. This eventually led to the Trail of Tears, in which 4,000 people died during a 21-day forced march from Tennessee to Oklahoma. And yet the Cherokee, as a people, survived. As such, I think it more than fitting for Jackson to lose his place on our money and for Wilma Mankiller to replace him.

However, all four of these ladies are extraordinary, and I encourage you to visit Women on 20s and vote for your personal favorite!