There's no one way to describe a Mississippi woman.
Some, such as Fannie Lou Hamer and Unita Blackwell, came from humble backgrounds and had little formal education, but made their mark in civil rights.
Others, like Leontyne Price and Eudora Welty, left legacies of music and literature.
Mississippi women have flourished in politics, law and sports. They have been pioneers in medicine and science. Mississippi women are advocates, philanthropists, educators and artists — you name it, and you’ll find a Mississippi woman who has done it and done it well.
In August, the United States will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, when women gained the legal right to vote. To recognize the anniversary, the USA TODAY Network is naming 10 women from each state and the District of Columbia who have made significant contributions to their states and country.
The women who were chosen were selected from a list of nominees — all U.S. citizens — who lived between 1920-2020 and made significant marks in the arts and literature, business, civil rights, education, entertainment, law, media, nonprofits and philanthropy, politics, science and medicine, or sports.
Mississippi's Women of the Century have inspired us to reach higher, work harder and push farther.
It was difficult to trim the list to just 10 names. We had to choose from dozens of nominees, like Grammy Award-winning songwriter Tena Clark; pioneering women like Dr. Mary Clark, who became a physician in the 1950s, when few women were in the medical field; Abbie Rogers, who established a program for children and adults with mental challenges in the 1960s; and Olympic Medal-winning athletes like Ruthie Bolton and Tori Bowie.
We didn't come up with the list on our own. We got input from our communities and ultimately, came up with the list below.
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.
Fannie Lou Hamer
Civil rights activist
Fannie Lou Townsend was born in Montgomery County, a rural area of Mississippi, where she worked on cotton plantations.
She quit school when she was 12 but continued learning to read through Bible studies.
She married Perry “Pap” Hamer in 1944 and raised two adopted daughters.
Hamer joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1962 and led voting drives and relief efforts. After registering to vote in 1963, she was fired from her job at the plantation where she and her husband worked for nearly 20 years. She also helped organize Freedom Summer activities.
Hamer helped found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and later the National Women’s Political Caucus. She also tried to run for Congress but was not allowed on the ballot. However, she was able to bring Mississippi’s civil rights struggle to the nation’s attention during a televised convention event.
She fought for racial equality in and out of the courtroom, despite being beaten, shot at and jailed. She was successful at forcing desegregation of Sunflower County schools.
A historical marker at Sunflower County Courthouse honors Hamer’s civil rights contributions. She and slain leader Medgar Evers were featured on a U.S postage stamp honoring civil rights pioneers.
Civil rights activist
Myrlie Louise Beasley was born in Vicksburg and raised by her grandmother, a retired teacher.
She was inspired to become an educator herself and attended Alcorn State University, where she met her husband, Medgar Evers.
The couple moved to the Delta and later to Jackson, establishing field offices for the NAACP. Evers worked alongside her husband, who was an NAACP field officer, while caring for the couple’s children.
Medgar Evers’ work made him the target of violence and death threats. On June 12, 1963, he was gunned down in his driveway.
Myrlie Evers continued to work for the NAACP after her husband’s death. The family moved to California, where Evers earned a sociology degree and married activist Walter Williams.
Evers-Williams continued to pursue justice for her slain husband, and in 1989, the prosecutor agreed to reopen the case against Byron De La Beckwith, who was tried twice in 1964 for Evers’ murder but never convicted.
De La Beckwith was convicted in 1994 and sentenced to life in prison.
Evers-Williams became the first female chair of the NAACP. She later established the Medgar and Myrlie Evers Institute in Jackson.
In 2013, she delivered the invocation at President Barack Obama’s second inauguration.
First female lieutenant governor in Mississippi
Evelyn Gandy’s life was one of political firsts. She was the first woman elected state treasurer, insurance commissioner and lieutenant governor.
She was born in Hattiesburg in southeastern Mississippi, where she graduated from the University of Southern Mississippi. She went to law school at the University of Mississippi where she was the only woman in her class. She became the first woman to edit the Mississippi Law Journal.
Her first foray into politics was in 1947, when she ran for and was elected to the Mississippi House of Representatives. She co-authored legislation that helped create the University of Mississippi Medical Center — Mississippi's first teaching hospital.
She also spent time in private law practice. At the time, only about 3.5% of lawyers were women.
From 1976-83, Gandy was lieutenant governor — one of the first women in the country to hold such a position. In this role, she labored effectively for improvements to education, economic development and health care, issues she fought for throughout her career.
She also was appointed commissioner of public welfare and hoped to continue her political career by twice running for governor.
She returned to private practice after a lengthy career in public service.
Civil rights advocate, first Black woman to receive law degree from the University of Mississippi
Born in Jackson and raised in Forest, Constance Slaughter-Harvey attended law school at the University of Mississippi. Despite death threats because of her race, she became the first Black woman to earn a law degree from the school.
When she was a staff attorney at the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights under Law, Slaughter-Harvey represented the families of two students killed during the Jackson State University massacre.
She filed a discrimination lawsuit that resulted in the hiring of Black highway patrol officers.
Slaughter-Harvey later became executive director of Southern Legal Rights, and after that, director of East Mississippi Legal Services, which helped minority and economically disenfranchised people.
She worked for the state in several capacities, leading the effort that led to voter registration by mail and at the Department of Motor Vehicles.
In 1995, Slaughter-Harvey worked for the Mississippi Democratic Party and has served on the Board of Trustees of her alma mater Tougaloo College, where she worked as an adjunct professor from 1970-2005.
She was the first Black judge in the state. She is president and founder of the Legacy Education and Community Empowerment Foundation, which works to provide youth and student enrichment and mentoring.
Author, journalist, photographer
Eudora Welty contributed much to Mississippi’s literary prowess, as an author, journalist and photographer.
Born in Jackson, Welty began writing at 11 and had a poem published in a children’s magazine.
Welty studied for her bachelor’s degree at Mississippi State College for Women and the University of Wisconsin. She later went to graduate school at Columbia University School of Business.
She began working in radio and as a columnist for The Commercial Appeal in Memphis. In 1944, she spent the summer writing book reviews for The New York Times.
Welty’s iconic photos illustrate the effects of the Great Depression across Mississippi for the Works Progress Administration, depicting the destitution and weight of extreme poverty.
She also photographed Blacks in Mississippi, who were often “socially invisible” in the pre-civil rights South.
Welty published her first book in 1941, but it was her 1970 novel, “The Optimist’s Daughter,” that won her a Pulitzer Prize in fiction.
Welty received many honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the French Legion of Honor and was the first living writer published in the Library of America series.
In 2018, she was honored with the inaugural marker on the Mississippi Writers Trail.
Born in Shubuta, Mississippi, Oseola McCarty had to drop out of school in the sixth grade to help support her family by taking up her aunt’s work as a washerwoman.
Her family moved to Hattiesburg when she was around 8. It was there she would spend nearly 70 years washing and ironing clothes to earn a living.
Although she never finished school and had little resources outside her modest income and a small home, McCarty scrimped and saved what she could to leave a surprising legacy.
McCarty, who died at 91, left $150,000 to the University of Southern Mississippi through a trust she established from her savings, to be used for scholarships for students needing financial assistance.
Her philanthropic efforts gained national attention and inspired others to donate to the school. More than 600 individuals and businesses contributed after learning of her monumental deed.
The university established an endowment to fund a scholarship in McCarty’s name.
McCarty’s generosity earned her an honorary degree from Harvard University and the Presidential Citizens Medal from President Bill Clinton.
Leontyne Price broke color barriers as the first Black to achieve global acclaim as an opera singer.
Price grew up in Laurel, Mississippi, where she was immersed in gospel music at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church. After graduating high school, Price attended the College of Educational and Industrial Arts in Wilberforce, Ohio.
Upon graduation, Price was awarded a full scholarship to study music at the Juilliard School in New York.
Price’s career as a soloist began when she performed in the Broadway show, “Four Saints in Three Acts.”
Price later performed in Dallas and became the first Black to sing at the world-famous La Scala opera house in Milan, Italy.
Price made her operatic debut in 1957 at the San Francisco Opera, and in 1961, Price made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
Price won 13 Grammy Awards and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award during her decades-long career. She was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the National Medal of the Arts and a lifetime achievement award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. Price retired from opera 23 years ago, but recently appeared in a documentary about The Met, “The Opera House.”
Fannye Cook was one of 10 children who grew up in a farming family in Crystal Springs, Mississippi. As a child, her curious nature led her to collect plants and animals she discovered around her home.
She was a pioneering conservationist who in 1932 helped establish what would eventually become the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, and the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science.
Cook graduated from the Mississippi University for Women and took graduate courses at George Washington University and the University of Colorado.
She taught history and English literature and worked at the Smithsonian Institute before returning to Mississippi to establish wildlife education and conservation in Mississippi.
Cook also was the first person to collect and catalog thousands of plant and animal specimens of Mississippi wildlife and led the effort to protect and restore the state’s natural resources. Researchers still consult her scientific collections and writings on snakes, salamanders and fur.
From 1935-41, she led a plant and animal survey funded by the Works Progress Administration, to preserve and display specimens throughout the state. Cook was director of the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science until she retired in 1958.
Margaret Walker Alexander
Poet, author, literature professor
Margaret Walker was an award-winning poet, author and professor of literature for 30 years at Jackson State University, a historically Black institution.
She was born in Birmingham, Alabama, and later moved with her family to New Orleans. She attended college in Chicago, then moved to Mississippi with her husband, Firnist, and their three children.
Alexander’s father was a Methodist minister and her mother a musician. Both instilled in her a love of reading. She was inspired by poet Langston Hughes, who, upon meeting her, encouraged her to continue writing poetry.
Her first novel, “Jubilee,” published in 1966, is regarded as “the first truly historical Black American novel,” said Crispin Campbell, a Washington Post contributor. It was also the first work by a Black writer to speak out for the liberation of the Black woman, according to PoetryFoundation.org.
Alexander founded the Institute for the Study of the History, Life, and Culture of Black People at Jackson State, where the Margaret Walker Center was established to preserve and promote Black history and culture.
She received many awards for her work, and in 1998, was inducted into the African American Literary Hall of Fame.
Civil rights activist
Unita Brown was born in Lula, Mississippi, where at 6 she began working in the cotton fields with her family.
At 19, she married Jeremiah Blackwell and the couple moved to Mayersville and started a family.
Blackwell got involved in civil rights because she saw how her son was attending school in the same decrepit conditions she had as a child. She helped file a lawsuit in 1965 to desegregate Issaquena County schools. The lawsuit was one of the state’s first successful desegregation cases.
She was introduced to civil rights leader Bob Moses and became a project director for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the 1960s, when she helped organize voter registration drives for Blacks. During that time, she said she was arrested at least 70 times.
She became Mississippi’s first elected Black female mayor in 1976.
She served as an adviser or appointee to Presidents Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.
Blackwell, who did not have a bachelor’s degree, earned a master’s degree in 1983 at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She later received a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant.
Women of the Century: They didn’t succeed despite adversity, but often because of it
50 states: Learn about notable women from every state
Who is your Woman of the Century?: Let us know
Recognizing women past and present: See all of our coverage
USA TODAY Network reporters Ellen Ciurczak and Cam Bonelli contributed to this report.
Thanks to the Mississippi panel: Cattie Beals of 2nd Chance Mississippi; Katie Blount of Mississippi Department of Archives and History; Daphne Chamberlain of Tougaloo College; Shundral Cole, an assistant U.S. attorney in the Mississippi Southern District; state Sen. Sally Doty; Hattiesburg City Councilwoman Mary Dryden; state Rep. Debra Gibbs; Bracey Harris of The Hechinger Report; Emily Havens of the Mississippi Grammy Museum; Debbie Skipper of the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting; and Petra Wingo of Hattiesburg's Community Development Division.
Sources used in the Women of the Century list project include newspaper articles, state archives, historical websites, encyclopedias and other resources.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Women of the Century Mississippi: List includes civil rights activists