Use code DAD23 for 20% off + Free shipping on $45+ Shop Now!
Our Brave Foremothers
Celebrating 100 Black, Brown, Asian, and Indigenous Women Who Changed the Course of History
Illustrated by Joelle Avelino
Formats and Prices
- Hardcover $20.00 $26.00 CAD
- ebook $11.99 $15.99 CAD
- Audiobook Download (Unabridged)
This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around April 11, 2023. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
Also available from:
In the beautiful pages of Our Brave Foremothers, discover an intergenerational, intercultural bouquet of Black, Brown, Asian, and Indigenous women lifted into the significance that they deserve. • From Etel Adnan to Mary Jones, Thelma Garcia Buchholdt to Pura Belpré to Zitkála-Šá, here are 100 women of color who left a lasting mark on United States history. Including both famous and little-known names, the thoughtful profiles and detailed portraits of these women herald their achievements and passions. • Following each entry is a prompt that asks you to connect your life to theirs, an inspiring way to understand their influence and the power of their stories. To consider on a deeper level the devotedness of Clara Brown, the fearlessness of Jovita Idár, the guts of Grace Lee Boggs, or the selflessness of Martha Louise Morrow Foxx. And to be as brave as we each can be—and then beyond that.
When we think about women's history, who do we consider, and who do we omit?
I was intimidated, as a little girl, when it was time to visit my older aunties. Their dimly lit living rooms, thick upholstered couches covered with yellowing plastic that stuck to the backs of my legs, faded photographic triptychs of Jesus, Martin, and JFK above the kitchen entryway—it was a constrained contrast to the colorful, cacophonous 1970s world outside their windows. Though no longer recent urban transplants, they retained many Down South mannerisms and admonitions: Don't interrupt (in fact, speak only when asked a question); sit up straight, young lady; go get your mama a cool drink—but don't leave that Frigidaire open too long and run up my light bill. . . . My younger self, a tomboy who would've rather been playing Wiffle ball with the boys on the neighborhood asphalt diamond, who squawked and guffawed over preteen stuff with my schoolmates, was forced into a rigid mold of respectful ladylikeness.
Little did I realize that these snippets of time and talk—tales of bills, bad boyfriends and churchgoing husbands, Jesus, wayward adult children getting into all kinds of trouble (not the John-Lewis-good-trouble kind of trouble, just baaaad trouble), Jesus, tsk-tsking about the war, fretting about the cost of chicken thighs, the latest thing the mayor wanted to do, the health or illness of relatives Down South, Jesus, and a whole lot of topics that went way over my head—were acts of women inserting themselves into history. Perhaps little h history, but as significant as any building block of a person's legacy. By just being alive and somehow managing to keep it together well enough to raise me, my older cousins, and the little ones coming up, by staying safe and sanctified and as whole as they could, these women embodied spirit, resilience, and bravery. Only decades later did I see that these women, my foremothers, forged a direct bridge to those who had come before.
It was this very foremother spirit that visited me on Christmas Day in 2019, waking me from sleep with a whisper to "tell my story." When that ancestral voice spoke to me—across centuries, I believe—I felt called to meet as many of these women in history as I could and to make them the center of a creative endeavor, which I called the Brave Sis Project. This soon expanded into a dignified pantheon of women—Black, Brown, Asian, Indigenous—all of whom had far too often been forgotten, ignored, or erased and, in many cases, were as anonymous as my aunties. In your hands, you hold only a petal of this ever-expanding, intergenerational, intercultural bouquet of women being lifted into the significance they deserve.
Our Brave Foremothers presents one hundred women who changed the course of United States history. Some of their names will be familiar, but many might be new to you. Following each profile is a prompt encouraging you to relate the story of every foremother to your own. It is my hope that, in reading about these women, reflecting on their influence, and embracing the prompts, you will kindle some of your own fire, power, and promise. I hope you become inspired to learn more: about them, about yourself, and about other women who have great stories to tell, even if they don't necessarily look like you. This is the book's offering: to help us impact the world in positive ways, as our foremothers did before us.
Delving into history from the stance of a charmed story collector and not an academic has been both a privilege and a challenge. These women live in my heart, and I can't feel so bad about my daily blues when I consider the devotedness of Clara Brown, the fearlessness of Jovita Idár, the guts of Grace Lee Boggs, or the selflessness of Martha Louise Morrow Foxx.
But navigating the constantly evolving linguistic conventions is an unavoidable challenge, since most (but not all) of these foremothers lived during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and up to the mid-twentieth century. As viable as they may have been for the time periods, denominations such as "Negro," "Oriental," "homosexual," and "Caucasian" are so jarring that I use them only when absolutely necessary for historical accuracy. At the same time, it felt inauthentic to insert some of today's more inclusive descriptors and concepts into the chronicles of women who lived during a time when sex was conflated with gender; words such as "slave," "slave owner," and "prostitution" were used; there was little awareness about deadnaming; and LGBTQIA+ identities were considered a choice. I've tried to address these facts with sensitivity while maintaining historic fidelity, especially if the speech of the day was important to the story.
Regarding terms related to race or ethnicity, my timeline aligns with the "Power" movements of my childhood: Black people before the 1970s are generally referred to as African American (though at the time, many would've been called Afro-American). Absolute consistency is not the objective, however; sometimes I use the terms interchangeably in the same profile. This is a matter of style more than historic veracity. I've tried to let the geographic, linguistic, and chronological context of each woman guide my use of terms such as Native American vs. American Indian, or Latina vs. Hispanic—but I acknowledge that identity descriptors are often complex and personal.
Sadly, it's also important to note that factual evidence and records pertaining to women, and women of color in particular, have often been obscured and disputed due to the vagaries and lapses in record-keeping— or deliberately erased. You'll see that enslaved people did not regularly have last names because they were considered property, and dates of birth were entered haphazardly for many Black and Native American women because record-keeping was inconsistent—and sometimes intentionally negligent in the case of shackled, displaced, detained, or disregarded people.
So this is not meant to be a history book, but our storybook, something that is alive and in which you can also discover some of your being and life story. You may wish to read linearly from cover to cover, or you just as readily might flip the pages to find a story, illustration, or prompt that speaks to your interests and needs in a given moment. I recommend finding a beautiful notebook or journal for capturing your written reflections, visual creations, and inspirations that arise when reading the book and its prompts.
If learning about these women inspires you to investigate other stories, other erased or forgotten or underappreciated lives, particularly in your own family or community, all the better! It is my dream that together—each in our own space, and perhaps in some collective ways as well—we will write new histories, celebrate more deeply, love more authentically, explore more fully, and be as brave as we each can be—and then beyond that.
1898–May 29, 1983
Ada Blackjack didn't set out to be a castaway and a survivor. This simple-living Iñupiat woman merely hoped to earn enough money to retrieve her son from the Nome, Alaska, orphanage where she'd placed him after a divorce left her penniless.
Located above the Arctic Circle in Siberia, Wrangel Island is the last place on earth where woolly mammoths lived some four thousand years ago. In the early 1900s, it became the subject of international geopolitical conquest. Though she had no wilderness experience, Ada accepted the job of cook and seamstress on what became a disastrous colonizing expedition. She and four men set off for the large and barren island in September 1921.
"I thank God for living." —A.B.
Once they reached their destination, they discovered bleak and inhospitable land. As their sojourn carried forth, the explorers found themselves with dwindling rations, scarce game for hunting, and without hope that any rescue ship could penetrate the thick winter ice. The long and frigid arctic winters brought the party to the brink of starvation, and by the beginning of 1923, they were desperate. Three of the men set off for help one morning, never to be seen again. Ada was left with the one other crew member: scurvy-sick adventurer Lorne Knight. Though Ada learned to hunt and trap and administered medical care, Knight was verbally abusive. When he finally died, Ada didn't have enough strength to bury him, so she simply barricaded his tent against wild animals. Then it was just her and the cat, Vic.
Under such duress, Ada's will to survive kicked in—perhaps the Iñupiat ways of knowing and living imparted to her by her forebears were awakened within her. Her hunting skills improved; she erected a lookout platform from driftwood so she could watch for polar bears; and she even used animal carcasses to rebuild the boat. When Ada was finally rescued in August 1923, the crew members said she could have survived another year—not that anyone wished that!
After the celebration died down, Ada was accused of exaggerating her story, and the speculator who commissioned the expedition became famous for his account of the ordeal, even though he hadn't been there. Ada Blackjack's own diary fell into obscurity for many years, and she remained destitute for much of her life.
Try logging off your devices for two or three days to see what you can learn about yourself when you're not doomscrolling, watching TV, or burying yourself in your feed. (You can do it!)
Mary Ellen Pleasant
August 19, 1814–January 4, 1904
When Mary Ellen Pleasant was six years old, her mother disappeared, and she was sent to work as a domestic servant for a white abolitionist family in the free state of Massachusetts. Light-skinned, she was able to pass for white, as was her first husband, a merchant named James Smith. Thus privileged, they amassed a sizable fortune, which she inherited when he died four years into their marriage.
In 1848, she remarried, to John "J. J." Pleasant. Fearing for her safety due to her antislavery activism, she fled Massachusetts, first to New Orleans (where she may have apprenticed to "Voodoo Queen" Marie Laveau) and eventually to San Francisco in 1852, to join her husband and the Gold Rush boom. The couple worked to extend the Underground Railroad coast to coast in defiance of the state governor's wishes to rewrite California law and permit the capture and re-enslavement of free Black people. Using her inheritance, Mary Ellen provided money, food, and shelter to help people escape this fate. She also gave financial support to John Brown's foiled 1859 Harper's Ferry Raid. Indeed, when Brown was hanged for his conspiracy, the executioners found a note in his pocket that had Mary Ellen's first initial flipped: WEP instead of MEP. Whether a misspelling or deliberate, it likely saved her life as it disguised her identity and connection to Brown.
"I often wonder what I would have been with an education. I have let books alone and studied men and women a good deal." —M.E.P.
She also fought against discrimination, suing the San Francisco trolley companies several times in the 1860s and '70s over their refusal to pick up Black passengers. She even staged a streetcar sit-in in 1866. Her reputation earned her two nicknames: the Mother of Civil Rights in California and the Harriet Tubman of California.
Meanwhile, Mary Ellen continued to grow her fortune in San Francisco, opening a restaurant and several laundries and boardinghouses. Disguising herself as the cook or a domestic, she gained access to wealthy white Gold Rush merchants, who tipped her off to investment opportunities in gold and silver. Knowing that a woman would be scrutinized for such financial savvy, Mary Ellen placed her business dealings in the name of Thomas Bell, a boarder in her rooming house. The business partners amassed a combined fortune that neared $900 million in today's dollars.
Mary Ellen, Thomas, and the wife she found for him lived together in a San Francisco mansion that was the subject of much speculation. Some said it was a brothel; others said Mary Ellen practiced frightful voodoo rituals in the basement. Most enduring of the rumors was that Mary Ellen and Thomas were lovers—gossip that was perhaps bolstered by the fact that J. J. Pleasant had disappeared from the public record, whereabouts unknown. Despite the hubbub, Mary Ellen Pleasant rose up San Francisco's social register—until the Civil War ended, and she revealed herself to the community as a Black woman. Rejected and mocked (the newspapers referred to her as "Mammy Pleasant," a name that stuck), she was also sued by Thomas's widow after his death and left penniless.
Mary Ellen wanted her tombstone to read "Friend of John Brown," yet her wish was not granted until 1965. What are five things you would like people in future centuries to know about you?
March 13, 1774–February 20, 1864
The formidable Rose Fortune was born to Black Loyalists of African and South American descent who sided with the British during the Revolutionary War in exchange for the promise of emancipation. After the war ended, Rose's family was among the approximately three thousand Black Loyalists who were relocated to the British territory of Nova Scotia in present-day Canada. Rose's childhood is not well documented, but it's known that as an adult she had a business at the Annapolis Royal Wharf where she used a wheelbarrow to transport the baggage of new arrivals to nearby homes and hotels.
Rose became known on the waterfront as an honest, hardworking, and reliable businesswoman. Over time, she expanded her services, replacing the wheelbarrow with a horse-drawn wagon and escorting people to the docks for maritime departures. Rose was so good at keeping an eye on the waterfront that the community essentially considered her the police officer of Annapolis Royal, making her one of the first known women policing public safety in North America. No youthful horseplay, no drunken rabble-rousing, no foolishness allowed! She also helped runaway slaves reach freedom in Canada through the Underground Railroad.
"You come right along, jedge. No time to be sleeping now. Yo'all got to hold co'at in Digby, and yo'know right well you got to ketch that boat." —R.F.
To this day, there seems to be only one image of Rose: a watercolor sketch of a woman in profile holding a small basket and wearing a straw hat, a thick dress, a kerchief, and a heavy overcoat. She is caught midstride, looking purposeful. A memorial plaque at the Annapolis Royal Wharf reads, "The story of Rose Fortune epitomizes the perseverance of Black Loyalists who confronted prejudice and inequality to make a place for themselves in Canada."
Her descendants remained in the stevedore and transportation business until well into the twentieth century. One of them, Daurene Lewis, became the first Black woman mayor in Canada when she was elected in Annapolis Royal in 1984.
If you were appointed head of your local peacekeeping force, how would you try to keep people abiding by the law? What would be the most important rules, and how would you enforce them?
Between 1899 and 1903–July 1, 1982
While New York City in the 1920s was the center of the Harlem Renaissance, it also became home to the first of several waves of Puerto Rican immigrants. The Jones-Shafroth Act granted US citizenship to Puerto Ricans in 1917, but cultural separation was common. Though some people at the time considered libraries to be spaces that upheld the glory of the English language and Anglo-Saxon culture, Pura Belpré had different ideas.
Hired as the city's first Latina librarian in 1921, Pura became a chronicler and champion of Puerto Rican folklore and the wonder of childhood. At the New York Public Library branch on 115th Street in East Harlem, she put on regular events, such as puppet shows and bilingual story hours, and introduced new traditions, such as the celebration of Día de Reyes. These efforts helped define the East Harlem branch as a cultural magnet of Latino New York.
She also wrote books; 1932's Perez y Martina is a charming tale of love between a cockroach and a mouse, and it was the first children's book published in Spanish by a mainstream press in the United States. As her career grew, she translated the folktales of her homeland into English, helping a new generation of Boricua New Yorkers learn that reading, literature, and storytelling belonged to them as well.
"To appreciate the present, one must have a knowledge of the past. . . . To know where we go, we must know from where we came." —P.B.
By the 1960s, libraries were not just places to read and borrow books but essential neighborhood centers, providing a range of social services to community members. Pura helped lead the newly established South Bronx Library Project, which integrated wraparound social services with library resources. For her many contributions, she received the NYC Mayor's Award for Arts and Culture in 1982, just months before her passing.
Today, the annual Pura Belpré Award, which was founded in 1996, is presented by the American Library Association to a Latinx writer and illustrator "whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth." The legacy of this inspiring cultural champion lives on.
Stop by your local library or community center to speak with a librarian, thank them for all they do, and check out what types of community events are hosted there.
Fannie Lou Hamer
October 6, 1917–March 14, 1977
Fannie Lou Hamer was born into a world of broken promises. The Fifteenth Amendment, passed in 1870, forty-seven years before her birth, promised suffrage for African American men— not women. The Nineteenth Amendment, passed when she was three, gave women the right to vote—but Black women's voting rights were still limited. Further, Jim Crow laws, discriminatory voting practices, lynching, and more kept the formerly enslaved disenfranchised, ostracized, and terrorized. It was time for a justice revolution, and Fannie, the twentieth and last-born child of Mississippi sharecroppers, was destined to make her mark.
Though academically promising, she could attend a one-room schoolhouse in rural Mississippi only in the summer, when cotton was fallow. One of her legs was damaged by a childhood bout with polio, and she was later subjected to involuntary sterilization, or, as the procedures were ruefully called, "Mississippi appendectomies."
"We been waitin' all our lives and still gettin' killed, still gettin' hung, still gettin' beat to death. Now we're tired waitin'!" —F.L.H.
In 1962, Fannie became active with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, gathering signatures for a petition to provide federal aid for African American families in need. She also worked with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee on voter reform. Fannie eventually rose to the role of field secretary and finally voted for the first time in 1963.
Fannie's heroism came at enormous cost. She was intimidated, detained, and even shot at. One of her adopted daughters hemorrhaged to death because the local hospital refused to admit her, as a way of punishing Fannie for her political agitation. An atrociously brutal police beating in 1963 left her nearly dead and with permanent kidney damage. Three days after this assault, the state field director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Medgar Evers, was assassinated.
Even in the face of such clear and present danger, Fannie's faith and her tenacious dedication to the rights of women, children, and Black people never wavered. She became an increasingly central figure in Martin Luther King Jr.'s Poor People's Campaign, helped organize the Freedom Summer voting drive in 1964, and cofounded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which protested the state's all-white delegation to the 1964 Democratic National Convention. She even ran for the Mississippi Senate in 1971.
Education and economic justice were also important causes to Fannie Lou Hamer. She cofounded the National Women's Political Caucus with Shirley Chisholm and Florynce "Flo" Kennedy); helped establish the federal Head Start program for early childhood education; and in 1968, formed the Freedom Farm Cooperative, where former sharecroppers could buy and farm their land collectively
Spirituals and other traditional songs gave Fannie and her peers courage in trying times. What song or poem inspires you most? Share it with people you know and see how it resonates.
1656–April 17, 1680
When European settlers arrived in the Americas, they brought with them infectious pathogens, such as the rabidly contagious and highly fatal smallpox, to which Indigenous populations had no immunity. Some scholars estimate that these diseases decimated up to 90 percent of some Native communities in South, Central, and North America. Several historians and epidemiologists posit that the diseases were willfully introduced to subjugate Indigenous peoples.
The young Algonquin and Mohawk girl who would later be known as Kateri was only four years old when her parents and brother succumbed to smallpox in 1660. Though she survived, the virus damaged her eyesight and left her face badly scarred. She was teased for her impairments and called Tekakwitha, which means "she who bumps into things."
"The poverty I am threatened with does not scare me, because so little is needed to give to the necessities of this miserable life and my labor could provide for it and I could always find some rags to cover me." —K.T.
Kateri was adopted by an uncle, and at age eight, she was groomed for marriage, per Algonquin and Mohawk tradition. Moved by the message of Christian missionaries, she defied the path set out for her and officially converted to Catholicism at age nineteen, against the wishes of her family. Facing hostility and threats to her life, she escaped persecution by traveling to the Mission of St. Francis Xavier, a Native American Catholic community near Montreal, Canada.
Consecrating herself to the Virgin Mary, Kateri received the sacrament of Holy Communion in 1679. In her new vocation, she instructed children in the catechism and attended to sick and older people. To prove her devotion, she practiced mortification of the flesh: fasting, sleeping on beds of thorns, and other repentances that Catholics associated with the expiation of sin. The combination of illness and deprivation may have been what led her to an early grave soon after her twenty-fourth birthday. The Jesuit priests who attended to her last rites attested that not an hour after her death, the pockmarks on her face miraculously disappeared, leaving her visage radiant.
In her biography, Father Pierre Cholenec's Catherine Tekakwitha: Her Life, it's said that Kateri appeared in prophetic visions to people in prayer in 1680 and in the subsequent two years. These sightings and other miracles, seen as the fulfillment of her deathbed promise to pray for her loved ones in heaven, form the core of her long-standing cult of dedication throughout the Americas. Canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012, she is considered an honorary patroness of Montreal, Canada; of Catholic Native Americans in the United States; and in Mexico, where the first convent for Native American nuns was established fifty years after her death. Known as the "Lily of the Mohawks," Kateri Tekakwitha is now celebrated as the patroness of ecology and the environment.
If you were a saint (of any or no religion), what would you be the patron of? What kinds of images or shapes would be in your stained-glass window?
January 26, 1944–
The 1960s were a time of enormous change in the United States, with Vietnam War protests, second-wave feminism, the civil rights movement, and other progressive causes rising and colliding during social and political upheaval. The unapologetically radical professor, philosopher, and author Angela Davis rejected the bourgeois aspirations of many midcentury Black Americans; the legacies of slavery, racism, and capitalism were too great to ignore. Today, she is one of the country's most respected political voices, but once upon a time, she was, to the FBI, Public Enemy Number One.
"Kennedy compiles short, eminently readable biographies of one-hundred Black, Brown, Asian, and Indigenous women in this interactive book…Activists, artists, athletes, and scientists all receive long overdue recognition in this attractive volume that is well-suited for public library and circulating reference collections. This engaging illustrated volume is well-suited to young scholars.” —Booklist
“At a time when women’s history is being lifted up, this accessible work will edify casual and academic readers and may be used as a reference for some.” —Library Journal
“An essential book that connects us to our past and current sisters and reminds us that each of our stories matters.” —Ruth Chan, illustrator and author
“A long overdue portrayal of inspiring hidden figures whose stories needed to be told to the world.” —Rokhaya Diallo, journalist, writer, and award-winning filmmaker
“Our Brave Foremothers sheds truth on old perceptions and gives us stories both informative and inspiring about women who paved the way for generations of women to follow.” —Audrey Edwards, former executive editor of Essence magazine and author of American Runaway: Black and Free in Paris in the Trump Years
“Our Brave Foremothers is the book that every family should have on their coffee table. It’s a visual encyclopedia of greatness for our future generation to know about the work done by these important women.” —Joy Cho, author and founder of Oh Joy!
- On Sale
- Apr 11, 2023
- Page Count
- 208 pages
- Workman Publishing Company