Here at Sistory we hold this truth to be self-evident: The Future Is Female. We also hold this truth to be less evident yet equally true: The Past Is Female Too. In this series, we’ll introduce you to 5 women from the past who changed the world and never got their due until now. Ideally, they’ll all get statues one day, but for now, we hope you’ll consider honoring them with a t-shirt. (Order here).
It’s a mother of a season. Well, rather, it’s a season celebrating mothers – particularly a Biblically famous teenage mother – and we’re here for it. Moms rule. We’ve already written about some of history’s best royal momagers, but here are five more mothers you ought to know about.
Alberta Williams King (1904-1974) is a hometown hero for us, the organ player and choir director at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church and a teacher before she got married (female teachers were not allowed to be married, then). She suffered a difficult life, losing two of her grown sons in two years. She was also murdered by gunshot while she sat playing the organ in church. Before her untimely death, though, she raised three children to have healthy self-respect and Christian convictions; one of those children was Dr. Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., who clearly followed his mother’s moral example.
Dolly Sinatra (1896-1977) may be known as the mother of famous singer Frank Sinatra, but she was a powerhouse in her own right. Born Natalina Maria Vittoria Garaventa, she went by Dolly in America. Writer Gay Talese famously called her “a kind of Catherine de Medici of Hoboken’s third ward,” with eighty-seven godchildren and an army of political backers. She worked as a midwife, offering safe abortion services for Catholic women even though this was illegal and dangerous. She ran a saloon during Prohibition. She chained herself to City Hall to protest for women’s right to vote. And she became a powerful local leader, the Democratic head of the third ward, “counted upon to deliver six hundred votes at election time from her Italian neighborhood.”
Irena Sendler (1910-2008) was a Polish mother of three, but a protective mother figure to the 2,500 Jewish children who she smuggled out of the Warsaw Ghetto during the Holocaust. She would go into the Ghetto, tell parents what horrific fate likely awaited them and their children in the death camps, and convince them to entrust their children to her care so she could help them escape. She gave the children false identification documents and settled them in convents and orphanages. Crucially, she wrote down all the children’s real names and buried the list in jars in a garden so that someday they could learn their real identity. The Nazis arrested and tortured her, but she managed to evade execution after a guard was bribed, and she went into hiding until the war ended.
Lou Xioaying (1929- ) came from extreme poverty to do a heroic, caring deed. While scavenging in dumpsters for mere survival in Jinhua, China in the 1970s, she discovered an abandoned baby girl in the trash. Although she had a biological daughter and lived in poverty, Xioaying couldn’t leave the child; she took it in and adopted her, saving her life. Xioaying went on to save over 30 babies who had been abandoned in the trash, due to shifting cultural tides in China and, later, the one-child policy. She raised four of the orphans herself and others went to live with her family and friends. This year, finally, she was recognized for her service – at 88 years old.
Mary Thomas (1923-2010) was one tough mother. She raised nine children in the housing projects on the West Side of Chicago, battling city bureaucrats to keep her family together. When 25 members of the Vice Lords street gang showed up on her step to recruit her sons – known as “Draft Day” in their rough neighborhood – she opened the door. The gang leader said, “We want your boys. They can’t walk around here and not be in no gang.” Thomas replied, “There’s only one gang around here, and that’s the Thomas gang. And I lead that.” She brought out a sawed-off shotgun and a threat, and the gang left her kids alone (at least for a little while). After years of hard work securing as many opportunities as she could for her kids, despite the deck stacked against her, her youngest son would grow up to see another “Draft Day” – Isaiah Thomas was drafted in the NBA in 2011, and went on to become a Hall of Famer. (If you’re thinking this sounds like a great movie, it was).