Rhode Island has always been home to rebels and history makers.
From founding father Roger Williams’ banishment from Massachusetts Bay Colony, to Samuel Slater kick-starting America’s Industrial Revolution in Pawtucket, the smallest state in the nation is known for punching above its weight.
But we all know those stories by heart. Which is why this year, in recognition of the 100th anniversary of the passing of the 19th Amendment, we’re focusing on the voices that have so often been left out of history.
The USA TODAY Network is naming 10 American women from all 50 states and the District of Columbia who have made significant contributions to their respective states and country, as Women of the Century. You’ll find Rhode Island’s list below.
But first, let’s talk about how we got there.
Rhode Island, it turns out, is flush with history-making women. There’s Anne Hutchinson, who was also banished from Massachusetts Bay Colony and went on to found Portsmouth. And Mary Dyer, whose fight for religious freedom for Quakers in neighboring Massachusetts ended in her execution. There’s Ann Smith Franklin, sister-in-law of Benjamin Franklin, who became the country’s first newspaper editor back before there was even a real country. And Sarah Updike Goddard, who published Providence’s first newspaper.
To create our list, The Providence Journal assembled a panel of local women – all knowledgeable and accomplished in their own right – to, along with submissions taken from the public, put together a pool of Women of the Century candidates.
Clearly, we had our work cut out for us.
The women were expected to have a track record of outstanding achievement in the areas of arts and literature; business; civil rights; education; entertainment; law; media; nonprofits and philanthropy; politics, science and medicine; or sports. They also had to have lived between 1920 and 2020.
But in the interest of putting together the best list possible, our panelists had priorities of their own. So, as we convened in The Journal’s office in early February for the final conversation, we were sure to ask ourselves the following questions:
Is this list diverse? Does it accurately reflect the makeup of our state and are we giving equal consideration to the accomplishments of women of color, who often had to overcome additional obstacles and have not historically been given the same recognition?
Are we considering women from all backgrounds? Are we looking at women from middle- and working-class backgrounds, as well as women from means? And, if a woman is from means, how did she use that platform to benefit all women?
How much time did this woman spend in Rhode Island? Did she do the bulk of her work in Rhode Island for Rhode Islanders or in another state?
Clearly distilling this list wasn’t an easy task. It involved dozens of emails, hours of discussion, several rounds of voting and still, after all that, difficult decisions had to be made. Some, like Gov. Gina Raimondo, our state’s first female governor, made the top 15 but missed the final 10 by one or two votes. But ultimately, we believe we put together a list that Rhode Islanders, both women and men, can be proud of.
Who is your Woman of the Century? Did we miss a woman you think should be on our list? We’d like to hear from you.
Suffragist and advocate who helped found the National Women’s Party
If you’ve ever toured the Newport Mansions in Newport, Rhode Island, you’re familiar with the Vanderbilt name, but may have missed the family's connection to the women’s suffrage movement.
A prominent heiress in her own right, Alva Vanderbilt-Belmont shot to the top of society after marrying railroad baron William Vanderbilt, then promptly used her platform to become one of the most visible, influential and outspoken advocates of the women’s suffrage movement. She founded the Political Equality League, joined the National American Woman Suffrage Association, helped found the National Women’s Party and organized the first women’s suffrage picket in front of the White House.
She also broke societal norms of the time by becoming one of the few society women to get a divorce. She used Marble House in Newport (built for her by Vanderbilt, pre-divorce) as a headquarters for suffrage events. To this day, plates and saucers bearing the words “Votes for Women” are on display at Marble House. There’s even a museum named after her — the Belmont–Paul Women's Equality National Monument in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington, D.C.
Squaw Princess Red Wing
Native American historian
A member of the Narragansett and Wampanoag tribes, Princess Red Wing dedicated her life to preserving Native American culture and history in New England and educating the public. She helped preserve many Narragansett oral traditions through her storytelling, founded the Tomaquag Indian Memorial Museum in Rhode Island and served as a member of the Speakers Research Committee of the under secretariat of the United Nations.
Before becoming the Squaw Sachem of the New England Council of Chiefs in 1945, she brought awareness and respect of Native American culture to children across New England through summer camps in Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont and Massachusetts, teaching songs and Native American crafts. As Squaw Sachem, she presided over her tribe’s sacred ceremonies, ensuring those traditions lived on and thrived to be passed down through generations.
Margaret F. “Peggy” Ackroyd
Civil servant, advocate for women’s, children’s and labor issues
After being fired from her state government job in 1939 for being a woman, Margaret Ackroyd went on to try to protect other women from the same fate and ensure protections for the state’s most vulnerable residents, namely children and the poor. She went on to help establish the state’s first minimum wage law and labor standards.
She became the chief of the Division of Women and Children and the Commissioner of Minimum Wage for the Rhode Island Department of Labor and worked on the state’s Child Labor Law, the Minimum Wage Law, the Industrial Homework Law, the 48-Hour Law and the Equal Pay Law, revolutionizing the status-quo for Rhode Island’s labor force, particularly in the jewelry industry, where workers were often paid by what they produced rather than how many hours they worked.
She also founded the state’s Commission on the Status of Women and was The Providence Journal’s Man of the Year in 1971.
First woman to play professional baseball, known as the “Queen of Baseball”
Known in her time as the “Queen of Baseball,” Lizzie Murphy was the first woman to play professional baseball, but also broke ground for men and women in the sport by being the first person of any sex to play on both American and National League teams.
Growing up in Rhode Island, Murphy got into baseball when she was a teenager, and by age 17, knew she was good enough to be paid for her talent. She played against some of the best players of the time, including the Boston Red Sox and Satchel Paige, considered to be one of the best pitchers in the American Negro League, even scoring a hit off him while at bat.
While Murphy was the first woman to play professional baseball, she was not billed as a female player, with newspapers of her day recognizing her as “one of the guys” rather than an attraction. She retired from professional ball in 1935 at age 41, with a batting average of .300.
Matilda Sissieretta Joyner Jones
Opera singer, first African American to sing at Carnegie Hall
Often called “The Black Patti” after famous Italian opera singer Adelina Patti, Matilda Sissieretta Joyner Jones broke barriers for African Americans in entertainment, performing at the White House for President Benjamin Harrison and for members of the British royal family. She was also the first African American to sing at Carnegie Hall. She embodied the success African Americans could achieve after emancipation, as her father had been a slave.
After training at the Providence Academy and New England Conservatory of Music, Jones went on to create the Black Patti Troubadours, in part because of the racism she encountered when trying to secure venues in the United States. She starred in the traveling show for over 20 years, which also helped showcase the talents of other Black performers to predominantly white audiences. She traveled the world, performing in South America, Australia and Europe. Her performances were known for combining classic opera with popular music of the day.
A soprano opera singer, she was the highest-paid African American of her time, founding The Black Troubadours.
The Women of the YWCA Rhode Island
Young Women’s Christian Association
(Founded in 1867)
Following Rhode Island’s tradition of breaking barriers and accepting people of all backgrounds, the YWCA Rhode Island has, since its foundation, accepted women of all backgrounds, and in 1923 caused a national stir when it urged the YWCA USA to do the same.
Since then, YWCA Rhode Island has gathered under its roof diverse, trailblazing leaders from all major movements, from suffrage to pay equity, violence prevention to health care reform. The YWCA specializes in uplifting women from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds, including immigrants, members of the LGBTQ community, survivors of abuse and women of color.
The organization has been the foundation for many groups that are vital to Rhode Islanders today, including the International Institute (1921) which serves immigrant populations (now Dorcus/International); Travelers’ Aid (1894) serving Rhode Island's homeless (now Crossroads, RI); and the Rhode Island Rape Crisis Center (1973), now called Day One. YWCA Rhode Island served as the first home for Progreso Latino (1977), and was the home of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence. YWCA women also created The Way Out (1993), a support group for LGBTQQ youth (now Youth Pride Inc.).
Anna Cano Morales
Educator and advocate
Anna Cano Morales is an example of how a community can benefit from more diverse voices, and how everyone benefits when the needs of every group are being met. Using her background as a first-generation Colombian-American, Morales has served as a mentor within the Latino community of Rhode Island, particularly in Central Falls, where she mentored and advised the city’s first Latino mayor, James Diossa.
As a member of the Central Falls School Board of Trustees, she worked to involve the Latino community in decision making. She became the first director of the Latino Policy Institute of Rhode Island at Roger Williams University, where she used her voice to spotlight the Rhode Island Latino experience and to shape public policy.
In Central Falls, her work has boosted parental engagement in the Latino community, reducing teen pregnancy and dropout rates, and has helped encourage Latino leaders statewide.
O. Rogeriee Thompson
First African American to serve as a First Circuit federal judge
After a long and illustrious law career in Rhode Island, O. Rogeriee Thompson became the first African American and the second woman to serve as a First Circuit federal judge when she was appointed by President Barack Obama in 2009. She was confirmed by the Senate 98-0.
During her time as a district judge, she helped establish the state’s first Office of Court Interpreters to assist non-English speakers in their understanding of court proceedings, ensuring everyone in the state can access the highest quality legal representation, regardless of their language skills.
With degrees from Brown and Boston universities, Thompson got her start as a staff attorney with Rhode Island Legal Services, serving several stints in private practice along with years as Providence’s assistant city solicitor, an associate judge in Rhode Island District Court and an associate justice on Rhode Island Superior Court.
Architectural historian and preservationist
Antoinette Downing wrote the book, literally, on historic preservation in Rhode Island.
She helped preserve and publicize historic buildings in Newport and saved many historic sites from demolition both in Providence's College Hill area and around the state. She brought historic preservation to the fore and pushed urban renewal in ways that do not displace resident residents.
Working with the Preservation Society of Newport County, Downing co-authored a book, "The Architectural Heritage of Newport, Rhode Island," considered a landmark in architectural preservation. In a state flush with historic homes, Downing’s book "Early Homes of Rhode Island" still serves as one of the primary references for preserving homes from the country’s early history.
During her time as chair of the Rhode Island Historic Preservation Commission, she helped identify more than 50,000 historic sites across the state for preservation and helped to get more than 15,000 Rhode Island sites on the National Register of Historic Places.
Dorothy R. Crockett
First female African American lawyer in Rhode Island
The first African American woman admitted to the Rhode Island bar, Dorothy Crockett made headlines in 1932 when, at age 21, she opened a private practice in Rhode Island. Not only was she the first African American woman to do so, but she was one of the very few women of any background who was practicing law at that time.
Crockett interned under James M. Stockett Jr., a prominent African American lawyer in Providence, and spent several years as an attorney largely representing clients from that community. She often appeared in headlines in The Providence Journal and other newspapers at the time for her outspokenness on politics and civil rights.
Crockett’s relatively short but dynamic law career blazed trails, not only for African American women, but for women in general, at a time when very few women were even applying for admission into the Rhode Island bar. In fact, she was the last woman admitted to the bar for a decade, and the last African American admitted to the bar until 1970. The Roger Williams University School of Law has gone on to dedicate a classroom in her honor.
Sources used in the Women of the Century list project include newspaper articles, state archives, historical websites, encyclopedias and other resources.
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Who is your Woman of the Century?: Let us know
Recognizing women past and present: See all of our coverage
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Women of Century Rhode Island: 10 influential women in state history