Home 9 Changemakers 9 Leaders of Change – A Timeline of North American Women

Leaders of Change – A Timeline of North American Women

by | Mar 8, 2021 | Changemakers

In support of International Women’s Day 2021 theme #ChooseToChallenge, we at LFT hold up our hands in solidarity and appreciation to all the strong (and scrappy!) women who have challenged, and continue to challenge, unjust societal boundaries.

The subject is SO broad and SO far-reaching, this post is a mere snapshot that highlights a few heroines who have shaped North America into what exists today, and those that we bet will influence our future… we salute the challengers!!

Starting with:

the Abolitionists


From about 1830 to 1870 the abolitionist movement was an organized effort to end the practice of slavery in the United States. Slavery was mainly abolished in Canada in 1834, the same year it was abolished in the British Empire.

Two of the leading, most familiar female African-American abolitionists (of the many!) were Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman. Other challengers included Louisa May AlcottSusan B. AnthonyLucretia MottLydia Maria Child, and sisters Angelina Grimke and Sarah Grimke.

“Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.”

– Harriet Tubman, Abolitionist (1)

These women fought a tireless and dangerous battle to do away with slavery, and their contribution to the eventual success is a monumental victory. (*This victory is commonly celebrated on “Juneteenth” – June 19th – the date in 1865 that the Major of the Union Army landed in Galveston, Texas and informed slaves that the Civil War had ended and slavery had been abolished.)

Organizing petitions, boycotts, education, speeches, marches – many of the skills of strategy and organization these women learned and practiced in the abolitionist movement, they later put to use in the fight for women’s rights, including the right to vote, leading to:

the Suffragettes


“Suffrage” is the right to vote in political elections. “Women’s suffrage” is the right for women to vote in elections. “Suffragettes” were members of activist women’s organizations in the early 20th century who fought for the right for women to vote. The term was coined in Britain, but groups existed across the world.

These AMAZING women are the reason we are where we are today.

Did you know that even though women began to organize in 1848 to be able to cast their ballots in the issues that shaped their lives, their right to vote in National elections didn’t occur until 1918 in Canada and 1920 in the USA? And even then, Asian, Latina, Indigenous and other minority women were still unable to have their vote counted until 1952? But it wasn’t until the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965 that ALL women, of all races, in all areas, finally won the right to vote!! (2)

In Canada the women who championed the right for women to vote included: Emily Howard StoweEliza RitchieHenrietta Muir EdwardsNellie McClungLouise McKinneyEmily Murphy, and Irene Parlby

Key names to know in the USA were: Susan B. AnthonyAlice PaulElizabeth Cady StantonLucy Stone and Ida B. Wells

“We do not ask for the vote because we are antagonistic to men – far from it – we do not want the vote in order that we may vote against the men, the men are our fathers, husbands and brothers, their best interests are ours. We want the vote that we may strengthen their hands in all that stands for right and justice.”


~ Henrietta Muir Edwards, 1907

These scrappy and selfless women put up with threats, discomfort and harassment by staging (mostly peaceful) campaigns including petitions, strikes and marches. Eventually they earned the right for women to vote in local elections, then provincial and state, and finally federal. Shortly after, women began assuming positions of influence in civic offices, and their intelligence became further recognized.

Other contributing factors influencing the right to vote included: women’s active participation in the war efforts during WWI – no longer seen as being primarily docile, weak, domestic creatures (look up “Rosie the Riveter”! You won’t regret it.). Also, during the early 1900’s the prevalence of the ‘new woman’ was a common sight – women wearing loose fitting clothing, becoming academics, smoking cigarettes. . . These women played a part in progress by setting an example of a modern woman who could intelligently achieve status in the work force.

Beyond the Stratosphere

Due to loss of “manpower” during WWII, NASA’s predecessor NACA recruited many women to assume engineering and mathematician roles typically held by men. Though excluded from visible positions, some very intelligent women served as “human computers” (aka “performed highly complex mathematical calculations”) and played a vital role in advancing missions. For example, in 1962, women helped send the first American astronaut into orbit. Among the many human computers were African American women Mary JacksonKatherine Johnson, and Dorothy Vaughan who were recently portrayed in the movie “Hidden Figures”. Acceptance of women in these roles of science and maths, led to a greater acceptance of women in all roles that were traditionally believed to be male-only. This is especially remarkable progress considering there were laws in areas of the USA that prohibited African-Americans from being educated until the 1860s and 70s. (3) (4) (5)

“Girls are capable of doing everything men are capable of doing. Sometimes they have more imagination than men.”

– Katherine Johnson, Mathematician

Another leading lady in space is Canadian’s first female astronaut – Roberta Lynn Bondar, who flew aboard the American space shuttle Discovery in 1992. (She also holds the title as the second Canadian in space.) As a neurologist she was a pioneer in space medicine research and was the prime specialist on the mission. Following her time as an astronaut, she led a team of international researchers at NASA for a decade, further studying the effects of space on the body. She proved to future generations of Canadian girls what is possible… (6)

Side note: she also started the “Roberta Bondar Foundation”, which believes “the more we learn about our environment and the better we become at asking important questions, the better equipped we will be both to respond to change and to influence positive change.”

Domestic Science

Around the same time, women were also making strides in education and family matters. In 1889 in Canada, Adelaide Hoodless lost her infant son when he consumed tainted milk. Rather than spend her days mourning her loss, she was inspired to make sure that more women were educated in matters of domestic science, and pushed for home economics courses to be taught in public schools which helped ensure a better quality of life in homes nationwide. (7)

She founded the Women’s Institute, and worked with Lady Aberdeen, wife of the Governor General at the time, to help found the National Council of Women, the Victorian Order of Nurses, and the national YWCA.

“Educate a boy, and you educate an individual. Educate a girl, and you educate a community.”

– Adelaide Hoodless

Women’s Right to Choose

As women gained respect as individuals in society by holding these roles previously inaccessible to them, they were simultaneously tackling another unjust area where they had no control – the control of their own reproduction. Due to hard work and great efforts of many challengers, and most notably the leadership of Margaret Sanger, in 1960 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the USA approved the first commercially produced birth control pill in the world. Sanger initially commissioned “the pill” with funding from heiress Katherine McCormick. In a nutshell (according to Wikipedia) ‘Sanger popularized the term “birth control”, opened the first birth control clinic in the United States, and established organizations that evolved into the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.’

“When motherhood becomes the fruit of a deep yearning, not the result of ignorance or accident, its children will become the foundation of a new race.”

– Margaret Sanger (8)

Indigenous Women’s Rights

Though progress was being made in various areas, Indigenous women who married non-Indigenous men were struggling against losing their title as ‘Status Indian Woman’ under the Government of Canada. One early challenger against this law, was Mary Two-Axe Earley. She was a Kahnawà:ke Mohawk woman from territory adjacent to the St. Lawrence River, who married an Irish-American, therefore losing her Indigenous status. Once widowed, she was barred from returning to live on her reserve. This was a contributing factor to her lobbying to reverse this gender discriminatory law. (Indigenous men did not lose their status by marrying non-indigenous women.) She started her fight in 1966 and in 1985 she was successful. Though not perfect, the result of these efforts benefited Indigenous women and their descendants nation-wide, and set the ground work for further amendments to the Indian Act. (9)

“Now I’ll have legal rights again. After all these years, I’ll be legally entitled to live on the reserve, to own property, die and be buried with my own people.”

– Mary Two-Axe Earley, founder and vice-president of Indian Rights for Indian Women

Indigenous Rights

Other early activists for Indigenous rights include Jane Constance Cook, Ga’axstal’as. Ga’axstal’as was born on Vancouver Island to a Kwakwaka’wakw noblewoman and a white fur trader. Her upbringing with missionaries gave her strong literacy skills and a good understanding of both colonial and indigenous cultures, as well as legal systems. With colonialism tightening around the West Coast nations, Cook spoke out for First Nations retaining rights to lands and resources. She testified at the McKenna-McBride Royal Commission of 1914 and was the only woman on the executive of the Allied Indian Tribes of British Columbia in 1922. She is a challenger who remains a heroine in Indigenous communities still fighting for rights to traditional territories. (10)

Social Equality

“Social equality is the belief in equal justice under law for all people regardless of sex, gender, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, origin, caste or class, income or property, language, religion, convictions, opinions, health, or disability. Social equality is related to equal opportunity.” Source: Wikipedia

From land rights to social rights – we want to take a moment to recognize some of the challengers who have, and continue to, push the envelope to fight for change and equality across various social equality fronts. Sometimes the fight is just in showing up.

A leading lady in television and film, Sandra Oh@Iamsandraohinsta, a Canadian-American, born to immigrant Korean parents, holds many titles, including the first Asian woman to win 2 Golden Globes and the first Asian woman (and first Canadian!) to host the Golden Globe Awards in 2019: “I said yes to the fear of being on this stage tonight because I wanted to be here to look out into this audience and witness this moment of change. I’m not fooling myself. Next year could be different. It probably will be, but right now, this moment is real.” (11)

Cecilia Chung is an Asian-American trans woman who is a civil rights leader and activist for LGBT rights, HIV/AIDS awareness, health advocacy and social justice. In 2013, she made headlines by making San Francisco the first city in the country to pay for gender reassignment surgery for uninsured transgender patients. This set the precedent for what is possible for this underrepresented minority. Through her appointment to the Health Commission, she was also able to provide training around transgender issues called “Transgender 101”. (12)

Born in 1990, Annie Elainey, @Annieelainey is a Latinx American YouTuber, speaker and writer who is queer and disabled. She uses her social media platforms to advocate for accessibility, body positivity, and media representation of marginalized communities. Her mission is “to create content that uplifts the narratives of marginalized communities, using creative expression and authenticity to advocate for the equal rights of diverse communities and fighting prejudice.” (13)

Environmental Movement

Recognizing Indigenous land protectors like Ga’axstal’as sets a precedent for female environmental leaders of yesterday, today and tomorrow – those who are actively fighting for the rights of the planet. Since the Industrial Revolution began in the 1760s, it’s been more than a bit of a landslide of overconsumption of resources, resulting in necessary change that needs to evolve into policies, and most importantly, to behaviour. Protection of the environment is protection of ecology, health and human rights.

There are many voices currently working hard to get the urgent message across to policy makers, and to the people in Canada and the USA. Here are a few that have accepted to take on the challenge:

Courtenay Howard @Courtghoward, who, among other titles, is president of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE) who helps to coordinate MD-advocacy on climate-health across Canada and has been involved in work on active transport, plant-rich diets, integrating health impact assessments into environmental assessments, carbon pricing, coal phase-out, and the health impacts of fracking. (14)

Mary Mattingly @Marymattingly, a Brooklyn-based artist whose work explores issues of sustainability, climate change and displacement. Her manifesto proclaims “that art and utopian thought can cultivate systemic social change. Art can transform people’s perceptions about value, and collective art forms can reframe predominant ideologies.” (She also founded Swale, an edible garden on a barge in New York City, circumnavigating public land laws and allowing anyone to pick free fresh food. Swale also instigated and co-created the “foodway” in the Bronx in 2017 which allows people to publicly forage – the first time in over 100 years. It’s currently considered a pilot project.) (15)

Annett Rozek @Terramerra, the chief scientific officer at a Vancouver cleantech/ agtech leader that offers natural and plant-based chemicals (from plants like rosemary, wintergreen and neem trees), as replacements to current unsustainable and toxic synthetic chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Fusing science, nature and AI to transform agriculture as we know it, per Rozek “Nature has all the solutions for the problems we are experiencing. All we need to do is understand it.” (16)

Autumn Peltier @Autumn.Peltier, a “water warrior” – an Anishinaabe Indigenous clean water advocate from the Wiikwemkoong First Nation on Manitoulin Island, Ontario, Canada. She is a world-renowned water-rights advocate and a leading global youth environmental activist. In April 2019, Peltier was appointed Chief Water Commissioner by the Anishinabek Nation and has spoken about the issue of contaminated water on Indigenous Reserves in Canada at the United Nations. For her activism, Peltier was nominated for the International Children’s Peace Prize in 2017, 2018 and 2019. (17)

Katherine Kellog@Going.Zero.Waste, is a role model as the founder of Going Zero Waste (goingzerowaste.com) – a lifestyle website dedicated to helping others live a healthier and more sustainable life. She started her journey practicing many low-waste habits for financial and health reasons. And then started her blog because she wanted people to know they could save money, be healthier, AND be more eco-friendly. “It seemed like a no-brainer and I wanted to help people make this transition easy and fun.“ She’s also a spokesperson for plastic-free living for National Geographic, Chief Sustainability Officer at the One Movement, and author of 101 Ways to Go Zero Waste. ⁠ Follow her and other zero-wasters for daily inspiration on how change can start at home, with you. (18)

When women hold roles of authority and power, society reaps the benefits – resources get properly allocated to education, family and healthcare.

Though there are still miles to go in areas of justice and true equality, each generation bears witness to improvements on the previous.

With awe and gratitude – we celebrate all the challengers!


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March 2021