Four Women Changemakers You May Not Know

March 22, 2021
Photo of Emma Tenayuca smiling on a green background with an illustration of strikers and the headline "Striking for Fair Wages, Emma Tenayuca."

Emma Tenayuca.

By Ashleigh D. Coren of the National Portrait Gallery and Sara E. Cohen of Because of Her Story 


This Women's History Month, we are sharing four new videos highlighting women who organized their communities to make change. Their work improved healthcare, working conditions, government support, and literacy. 

Note: Spanish versions of these videos are available on the Smithsonian YouTube channel.

1. Care for the Community 

When Regina Lee was growing up in New York City's Chinatown, her parents had to take a day off work and travel to another neighborhood to get her dental care. When Lee was a college student at New York University, she volunteered for a health fair organized by Dr. Thomas Tam. Lee and her fellow volunteers learned that cases of tuberculosis had gone undiagnosed in the community, and many women had never had a mammogram or pap smear. Chinatown residents needed doctors who spoke Cantonese and understood their cultural backgrounds. Lee, Dr. Tam, and other activists raised money to build a free clinic, the Charles B. Wang Community Health Center, which still exists today.   

2. Striking for Fair Wages  

Photo of Emma Tenayuca smiling on a green background with an illustration of strikers and the headline "Striking for Fair Wages, Emma Tenayuca."

Emma Tenayuca.

In the 1930s in San Antonio, Texas, Mexican Americans and Mexicans made up 40% of the city's population. Many worked seven days a week as pecan shellers. Pecan shelling was one of the lowest-paid industries in the United States, with pay between one to four dollars a week on average. Plus, fine dust from the pecans put workers at risk of tuberculosis and asthma. When owners threatened to reduce pay, the workers elected Emma Tenayuca to lead their strike. For five years prior, Tenayuca had joined strikes and organized workers, including joining the national Worker's Alliance of America. When police arrested large numbers of the striking pecan shellers, they gained national and international attention, forcing plant owners to concede and provide higher wages. 

3. Bringing Books South 

In 1913, 22 students at Howard University in Washington, D.C., founded Delta Sigma Theta to become beacons for educational and social uplift for African Americans. The sorority's National Library Project, which began in 1937, furthered this mission. The success of the National Library Project later inspired similar educational access programs for African Americans in communities throughout the American South. In the early 1950s their literacy advocacy expanded globally. The sorority, with the help of notable member Dorothy Height, donated to the library fund at the University of Delhi in India.

4. Stopping Traffic in Vegas  

Activist Ruby Duncan and caregivers from Nevada Welfare Rights Organization led two 1971 marches on the Las Vegas Strip. Public figures, including actor and activist Jane Fonda and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, joined in. These marches exposed the plight of under-resourced Nevadan families to the American public and pushed the state government to change their policies. Duncan and fellow marchers went on to establish the nonprofit group Operation Life. For almost two decades, Operation Life provided childcare, health services, and ran a food cooperative for mothers and their families.  

Ashleigh D. Coren is the women's history content and interpretation curator at our National Portrait Gallery. Coren's work at the museum is centered on using portraiture to facilitate nuanced conversations on the history of women in America. 

Sara E. Cohen is the digital audiences and content coordinator for Because of Her Story, the Smithsonian American Women's History Initiative. She shares lesser-known histories of women through this website, the Because of Her Story newsletter, and Smithsonian social media. 

This project was made possible with the support of the Women's Suffrage Centennial Commission.