These California locals helped shape history in the U.S. and the world.
California women have played a significant role in shaping every major industry within the U.S. and the world. They have ventured into outer space (hi, Sally Ride!), hold the second highest public office in the country (that’s you, Kamala!) and have taken on the industrial agricultural complex to ensure better conditions for its workers (thank you, Dolores Huerta). California is a relatively young state that has nurtured and challenged its residents to make their mark, and the women we celebrate on this list in honor of Women’s History Month have done just that.
One of Alta California’s earliest civil rights activists, Toypurina was a Tongva shaman who opposed Spanish colonialism in California. She was a 10-year-old resident of the village of Jachivit when the Spanish began constructing Mission San Gabriel Arcángel nearby in Whittier Narrows. Floods destroyed that mission in 1776 and it was afterward rebuilt in its current location in the city of San Gabriel. In 1785, Toypurina participated in a rebellion which aimed to destroy the mission and kill the Spanish within. The plot failed, however, and the Spanish annulled her marriage, converted her to Catholicism, and married her to a Spaniard with whom she fathered four children. She died and was buried at Mission San Juan Bautista on May 22, 1799, in what is now San Benito County. Although her efforts to drive out the Spanish failed, she has long been celebrated as a figure of resistance and she’s commemorated in a mural in Ramona Gardens in Boyle Heights, another mural in Pacoima by an all-women art collective, and in an art piece by Judy Baca at the Baldwin Park Metrolink Station.
Juana Briones de Miranda was a land owner, medical practitioner, and merchant who is recognized as the “Founding Mother of San Francisco” due to her work that helped establish the city, which was then known as Yerba Buena by its native population. Born in 1802 into a mixed-race family living in Santa Cruz, Briones de Miranda moved to the San Francisco area with her family as a young woman. She bore 11 children between 1821 and 1841 and adopted an orphaned Native American girl and eventually bought land in what is current-day North Beach, where she marketed her milk and produce to the sailors from whaling ships or those who arrived in port for the hide and tallow trade. She was also known for hospitality and skills in herbal medicine and midwifery. Later in her life, Briones purchased more land around Palo Alto, and emerged victorious in legal battles to retain her land when California became part of the United States.
Entrepreneur and philanthropist Mary Ellen Pleasant—widely considered to be the first African-American millionaire—made the bulk of her fortune in California after the Gold Rush. Her stated goal was to accumulate as much money as she could so she could help as many people as she could—and she lived up to that pledge with financial and legal support for African Americans who were considered fugitive slaves in other states, earning the reputation as the “mother of civil rights in California.” Pleasant blended in with the racism of the times by posing as a house servant in San Francisco, where she picked up tips for investing by listening to the conversations of white men in the house she worked at. She went on to establish boarding houses, laundries, brothels, farms, money-lending operations and restaurants. She also became a “one-woman social agency” that provided for the transportation of black men and women to California as part of an underground railroad and helped them gain employment and establish businesses when they arrived.
Born into slavery, Bridget “Biddy” Mason became an entrepreneur, land-owner, philanthropist and co-founder of first African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles. Mason was enslaved primarily in Georgia, where she learned domestic and agricultural skills, herbal medicine and midwifery taught to her by other female slaves. She moved to California with her slave owners in 1851 and was soon after granted freedom by a California court. As a free woman, Mason became a midwife and nurse who delivered hundreds of babies, which allowed her to become economically independent. Mason was able to save enough money to become one of the state’s first African-American women landowners. As a businesswoman, she amassed a relatively large fortune, which she shared generously with charities and used to feed and shelter the poor. She was instrumental in founding a traveler’s aid center, and a school and day care center for Black children, open to any child who had nowhere else to go. Because of her kind and giving spirit, many called her “Auntie Mason” or “Grandma Mason.”
As the first female lawyer on the West Coast, Clara Shortridge Foltz was a trailblazer in more than one way. Folz was so adamant about becoming a lawyer that she wrote the amendment that allowed women to pursue a career in law in the Golden State. As the first woman who passed the bar in California, Foltz was the first deputy attorney of a public defenders office and the first woman to run for governor of California. She also fought successfully to force Hastings College of the Law to allow women into its programs but was too impoverished by the battle to actually attend the college. Hastings College of the Law granted Foltz a posthumous degree of Doctor of Laws in 1991. Additionally, the primary social space inside UC Hastings's McAllister Tower student housing complex was christened the Clara S. Foltz Lounge. In 2002, the Criminal Courts Building in downtown Los Angeles was renamed the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center in her honor.
The creative force behind more than 700 buildings in California, Julia Morgan is an architect and engineer who helped pave the way for other women as the first female architect to be licensed in California. A San Francisco native, Morgan graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in civil engineering and then attended the prestigious architecture university Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris as its first female student. Upon her return from Paris, Morgan took employment with a San Francisco architect who was supervising the University of California Master Plan. Morgan worked on several buildings on the Berkeley campus, providing the decorative elements for the Hearst Mining Building and an early proposal for Sather Gate. She then struck out on her own with an office in the financial district and rose to prominence thanks to her knowledge of reinforced concrete structural engineering following the catastrophic damage of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. She restored and reinforced the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco to great acclaim, which prompted the Hearst family to hire her for multiple projects, including her signature project: the Hearst Castle in San Simeon. Throughout her career, she also designed many institutions serving women and girls, including several at Mills College in Oakland.
Charlotta Amanda Spears Bass, was the publisher and editor of the California Eagle from 1912 until 1951, a role that makes her the first African-American woman to own and operate a newspaper in the United States. She was also a civil rights activist and used her platform to focus on various other issues such as housing rights, voting rights, and labor rights, as well as police brutality and harassment. In 1952, Bass became the first Black woman nominated for vice president, as a candidate of the Progressive Party.
Born in Pasadena, Julia Child is a legend in the culinary world as a cooking instructor, author, and television personality. She is recognized for bringing French cuisine to the American public with her debut cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and her subsequent television programs, the most notable of which was The French Chef, which premiered in 1963. Her relatable approach to cooking and jubilant personality inspired millions to try her recipes and made her millions with her series of popular cookbooks that paved the way for the modern-day celebrity chef movement. Her kitchen is currently on display at the National Museum of American History and her private charitable Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and Culinary Arts continues to make grants to culinary causes from its Santa Barbara headquarters. Child died in 2004, two days shy of her 92nd birthday.
Los Angeles native Aurora Castillo was an American environmentalist and community activist who started her activism in her 70s when she fought against a planned prison being built in her predominantly Latino neighborhood of East L.A. She co-founded the Mothers of East Los Angeles in 1984, which successfully opposed a planned construction of a toxic waste incinerator and a state prison in Eastside Los Angeles, which would have been the eighth prison in the area. Castillo and the organization went on to fight numerous environmental and public health threats until her death in 1998 at the age of 84. The organization is partly credited with numerous important reforms that affect today’s city planning, including multilingual accessibility and environmental impact studies, and it is considered a model of the impact of community organizing. Castillo was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize in 1995.
Born in Norwalk, California, in 1926 to Japanese immigrant parents, Ruth Asawa overcame internment during WWII and went on to become one of the most acclaimed sculptors in the world. Her most prominent exhibit is a permanent display of 15 wire sculptures in the tower of San Francisco's de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park, and several of her fountains are located in public places in San Francisco. Her work is also featured in collections at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. She was an arts education advocate and the driving force behind the creation of the San Francisco School of the Arts, which was renamed the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts in 2010. In 2020, the U.S. Postal Service honored her work by producing a series of ten stamps that commemorate her well-known wire sculptures. Check out the official Ruth Asawa website for more information about her.
Louise C. Huebner was a psychic, astrologer, and the only woman to hold the position of Los Angeles County’s official witch. After moving to Los Angeles, she worked as an astrologer and was a frequent guest on local television and radio, earning local celebrity status. In 1968, she was presented with a certificate designating her as the official witch of Los Angeles County by then-Chairman of the Board of County Supervisors Ernest Debs. She thanked Los Angeles by casting a spell to increase the sexual vitality of Angelenos. She took advantage of the official designation in her writings and appearances until running into problems with other elected officials who objected to the title and asked her to give it up. Huebner threatened to reverse her sex spell and the county backed off. Huebner’s published works include a book titled Power Through Witchcraft and released a spoken word collaboration with electronic music pioneers Bebe and Louis Barron, titled Seduction Through Witchcraft. In 1970, Huebner was presented with a broom by the mayor of Salem, Massachusetts but by the mid-1970s had mostly vanished from public.
Dolores Huerta is a longtime labor leader and civil rights activist who co-founded what eventually became the United Farm Workers of America with César Chávez. She and Chávez worked side-by-side fighting for farmworkers’ rights and helped ensure workers received safety protections, health care and the right to unionize. She is credited with creating the signature protest phrase “Sí, se puede” (Yes, we can).
In 2012, President Barack Obama awarded her the highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Huerta continues her work, traveling the country to advocate for legislation that promotes equality and civil rights, and speaking to students and others about social justice and public policy. Huerta has received numerous awards for her community service and advocacy for workers’, immigrants’ and women’s rights, including the Eugene V. Debs Foundation Outstanding American Award, and the United States Presidential Eleanor Roosevelt Award for Human Rights. April 10 is Dolores Huerta Day in California.
A Sacramento native, Joan Didion launched her writing career in the 1960s after winning an essay contest sponsored by Vogue magazine. She went on to a critically acclaimed writing career that focused on the 1960s counterculture movement and the promise and perils of California, her home state. Her writing tackled other tough subjects like political unrest and foriegn wars, and she is credited with being the first person to write a mainstream media article suggesting the Central Park Five were wrongfully convicted.
Her most personal and acclaimed work was captured in The Year of Magical Thinking, an examination of grief after losing her husband and dealing with her daughter’s serious illness and death. She won the 2005 National Book Award for the work, and it was adapted for the Broadway stage in 2007 as a one-woman production starring Vanessa Redgrave. Didion died in late 2021, not long after the publication of her last book, Let Me Tell You What I Mean, in early 2021. Read more about her in an obituary from The New York Times.
Nancy Pelosi has racked up a laundry list of firsts in her political career. Despite not running for office for the first time until she was 47, Pelosi became in 2007 the first woman to be speaker of the U.S. House, a position that puts her second in line to the presidency. Pelosi is the first woman to lead a party in Congress with her leadership of the House Democrats since 2003, serving twice each as House Minority Leader (2003–2007 and 2011–2019) and as Speaker (2007–2011 and since 2019).
Pelosi began her political career in San Francisco not long after she and her husband moved there in 1969 with their five children. In 1976, she was elected as a Democratic National Committee member from California, a position she would hold until 1996. She was elected as party chair for Northern California in January 1977, and four years later was selected to head the California Democratic Party, which she led until 1983. She won in a special election in 1987 for the 5th Congressional District in the heavily Democratic district, a position she has held with little opposition since then. In Congress, she has long championed LGBTQ rights, pushed for stricter gun regulations and supported Obamacare.
Born in Long Beach, California, Billie Jean King is a true trailblazer in the tennis world and the fight for gender equality. She won 39 Grand Slam tennis titles in singles and doubles and spent a considerable portion of her career breaking through the glass ceiling in the sport. King founded the Women’s Tennis Association and the Women's Sports Foundation and pushed for equal pay for female athletes, helping elevate the sport of women’s tennis globally. In 1973, she threatened to boycott the U.S. Open over pay issues and persuaded the tournament to become the first to offer equal prize money to men and women. That same year, 90 million people worldwide watched King defeat Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes,” a key moment in sports history generating respect and recognition for female athletes. King has received multiple honors throughout her career and post-retirement, the most notable being the USTA National Tennis Center in New York City being renamed the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in 2006.
Angela Davis is an American political activist, philosopher, academic, scholar, author, and professor emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz. A Marxist, Davis was a longtime member of the Communist Party USA and is a founding member of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism. She is the author of over ten books on class, feminism, race, and the U.S. prison system.
Davis was a prominent activist against the Vietnam War and left-wing figurehead and was hired in 1969 as an acting assistant professor of philosophy at the University of California, Los Angeles. She was soon fired by UCLA’s Board of Regents due to her Communist Party membership and then reinstated by a court who ruled the termination illegal. She was then fired again for her use of inflammatory language. (She didn’t return to a UCLA classroom until 45 years later.) In 1970, guns belonging to Davis were used in an armed takeover of a courtroom in Marin County in which four people were killed. Davis was prosecuted for three capital felonies in connection with the incident but was acquitted of all charges in 1972.
Davis has continued her activism in the ensuing years, much of it focused on the abolition of prisons. In 1991, she joined the feminist studies department at UC Santa Cruz, where she became department director before retiring in 2008. Since then she has continued to write and remained active, as detailed in this New York Times Style Magazine feature by Nelson George.
Sally Ride, a Stanford University-trained physicist, became the first American woman in space in 1983 and the youngest U.S. astronaut as a crew member of the space shuttle Challenger. Later, she served on the committees that investigated the 1986 Challenger disaster and the Columbia disaster in 2003, the only person to serve on both. Ride went on to become the director of the California Space Institute at UC San Diego and worked there as a professor of physics. In 2001, she started her own company, which aimed to inspire girls and women to pursue careers in STEM professions. It has since transformed into the nonprofit Sally Ride Science at UC San Diego. Ride is also heralded as the first known LGBT space traveler. After her death, it became public knowledge that she was in a long-term relationship with former tennis pro Tam O’Shaughnessy.
A native of San Carlos, California, Kathryn Bigelow is the first female to break the glass ceiling with her 2010 win for the Academy Award for Best Director for her film The Hurt Locker, a tense portrayal of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Bigelow won numerous awards for the film but she shied away from attention that focused on her gender as a way to normalize the presence and achievement of women in filmmaking. “If there’s specific resistance to women making movies, I just choose to ignore that as an obstacle for two reasons: I can’t change my gender, and I refuse to stop making movies,” Bigelow said in 2010. “It’s irrelevant who or what directed a movie, the important thing is that you either respond to it or you don’t.” Bigelow’s films also include Near Dark (1987), Point Break (1991), Strange Days (1995), K-19: The Widowmaker (2002), Zero Dark Thirty (2012), and Detroit (2017).
Writer Amy Tan’s stories and best-selling novels, including The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife, introduced the struggles of Chinese Americans to the mainstream. Born in Oakland, she began her career as a language development specialist, then turned to fiction writing in her 30s, opening a window into the Chinese American experience, particularly the dynamics between mothers and daughters. Over the past four decades, she has seen her writings translated into 35 languages and adapted for the stage and screen, most notably The Joy Luck Club in 1993.
Judy Estrin was a young Stanford graduate student who helped develop the networking protocols that formed the basic architecture of the internet as part of a team led by Vint Cerf, who is widely known as the “Father of the Internet.” Her first entrepreneurial endeavor was Bridge Communications, a company she co-founded that went public in 1985 and sold to 3Com two years later for more than $200 million. Another internet video streaming company she co–founded, Precept Software, was acquired for $84 million by Cisco in 1998, who named Estrin its chief technology officer. She has since gone on to launch five additional startups and has written about technology and society.
Sally Lerner was the director of computer facilities for the Stanford University Graduate School of Business when she co-founded Cisco Systems as the result of a project among Stanford students and faculty to better connect all the school’s computer systems. She co-led the company with her former husband, Len Bosack, until she was terminated in 1990. Bosack quit the company in solidarity and the two sold all of their Cisco stock for $170 million. She used the money from its sale to pursue interests in animal welfare and women’s writing.
Born to a Jamaican father and South Indian mother in Oakland, Kamala Harris is the current vice president of the United States. She is the first female vice president and the highest-ranking female official in U.S. history, as well as the first African American and first Asian American vice president. Harris began her legal career in the Alameda County District Attorney’s office and then the San Francisco District Attorney’s office and San Francisco City Attorney’s office. Her first elected position came in 2003 when she was elected district attorney of San Francisco. She went on to serve as the attorney general of California from 2011 to 2017 and as a United States senator representing California from 2017 to 2021. Harris became vice president upon being inaugurated in January 2021 alongside President Joe Biden, having defeated the incumbent president, Donald Trump, and vice president, Mike Pence, in the 2020 election.
Susan Wojcicki is one of the founders of Google and its first marketing manager. She has served as CEO of YouTube since 2014 after convincing Google to acquire the emerging social media company in 2006. A Silicon Valley native, she allowed Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin to set up their first office in her garage in Menlo Park while she held a job in marketing at Intel Corporation in 1998. She joined the company in 1999 and was instrumental in creating marketing programs, Google Doodles, Google Image Search and its AdSense program. As CEO of YouTube, she has helped grow the company into a social media juggernaut, reaching 2 billion logged-in users a month who watch 1 billion hours a day. There are localized versions of YouTube in 100 countries around the world across 80 languages.
Taught by their father and mother on the public courts of Compton, Venus and Serena Williams became tennis champions and Olympic gold medalists, with Serena often mentioned as the greatest athlete of all time. The two women ushered a new era of athleticism and heavy hitting in the sport and broke barriers for female athletes of color. Despite experiencing significant racism in a sport not known for diversity, elder sister Venus become the first Black woman to be ranked No. 1 in the modern tournament era and she fought successfully for equal prize money from both the French Open and Wimbledon. Serena has surpassed Venus in accomplishments with a record 23 Grand Slam singles titles and dominance in the sport that has rarely been seen. The two are also accomplished fashion designers, entrepreneurs and entertainment producers, having served as executive producers of the acclaimed 2021 film King Richard, which portrayed their rise to fame.