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8 Immigrant Women Who Changed the History of the US and the World

For Women’s Month, BRZ is honoring all women. Whether it’s highlighting amazing women who have accomplished the extraordinary or highlighting the importance of women in US society as a whole. So far, we’ve focused on Latina women’s contributions to society (part 1 and part 2) and the Latina representatives who make us proud to say where we come from.

US society, however, is made up of immigrants from all over and it wouldn’t be fair to discuss only a single ethnicity or culture. Today, we are going to discuss women from all over the world who migrated to America and, despite the adversities and deprivations we’ve all experienced, made history and changed the world.

Because it is so diverse, American society has a multitude of examples to choose from, so we’ve narrowed it down to just 8 immigrant women who will inspire you:

Ilhan Omar, deputy

Ilhan Omar came to America with her family as a refugee, fleeing the Somali Civil War. She spent four years in a Kenyan refugee camp before receiving asylum in the US.

In 2016, she was elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives, making her the highest-ranking Somali-American civil servant in the United States and the first Somali-American state legislator.

In January 2019, Omar was sworn in as a deputy representing Minnesota’s 5th congressional district in the U.S. House of Representatives, becoming the first African refugee to become a member of Congress, the first black woman to represent Minnesota, and one of the first two American Muslim women elected to Congress (along with Rashida Tlaib). 

After Omar’s election, the head covering ban in the US House was changed, and Omar became the first woman to wear a hijab on the House floor.

One of her most notable accomplishments, in addition to all her work as a pioneer, was working as policy director for the NGO “Women Organizing Women,” which aims to involve women, including first-generation immigrants, in the political process and in the local community.

Ilhan Omar is part of the informal group known as “The Squad”, whose members form a unified front to push for progressive changes such as the Green New Deal and Medicare for All. Joining her on the squad are Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, psychiatrist

Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross was a Swiss-born psychiatrist who moved to the United States in 1958. She was a pioneer in near-death studies and author of the international bestseller “On Death and Dying” (1969), where she first discussed her theory of the five stages of grief, also known as the “Kübler-Ross Model”.

Dr. Elisabeth has conducted many workshops on life, death, grief and AIDS in different parts of the world. One of her greatest desires was to build a care home for abandoned babies and HIV-infected children to give them a lasting home where they could live until death. She tried this in Virginia in the late 1980s, but locals feared the possibility of infection and prevented the necessary re-zoning.

In 1994, she lost her home and many belongings, including photos, diaries and notes, in an arson suspected to have been started by opponents of her AIDS work.

Kübler-Ross was the first person to rethink the way we look at the terminally ill, she was a pioneer in palliative care, and the driving force behind the movement for doctors and nurses to treat hopeless patients with dignity.

Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross was inducted in 2007 into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, was named by Time as one of the “100 Most Important Thinkers” of the 20th century, and received nineteen honorary degrees.

Hedy Lamarr, actress and inventor

Hedy Lamar, from Austria, is always included in lists that cite women’s great contributions to humanity. If you have access to a blog, can read the words I am able to write, and have social networks on your cell phone, she’s the one we have to thank.

She was a Viennese actress and inventor who moved to Hollywood in the 1930s and became naturalized in 1953. She was once dubbed “the most beautiful woman in the world,” however, that label was not her favorite. She was much more than beauty; she was one of the inventors of a technology that allowed us to have WiFi, Bluetooth and CDMA.

Inspired by the workings of a piano, Lamarr and a songwriter friend identified a way to prevent German submarines from interfering with Allied radio signals during World War II, resulting in a frequency-hopping patent.

In addition to an enviable Hollywood resume, Hedy changed the course of communications history and things we haven’t even finished developing yet.

Madeleine Albright, former US Secretary of State

“There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help themselves”

Madeleine Albright

Daughter of a Czechoslovakian political refugee, Madeleine Albright was born in Prague, now the Czech Republic. She emigrated from Great Britain to the United States in 1948, seeking asylum.

She inherited an interest in international relations from her father and became the US ambassador to the United Nations. But what really marked her story, and that of the country, was when she became the first female Secretary of State and the highest-ranking woman in the history of the US government at the time. She was nominated by President Bill Clinton in 1996 and was unanimously confirmed by the Senate.

As Secretary of State, Albright played an important role in the 1999 intervention that separated Kosovo from Serbia, defying convention and bypassing the UN Security Council and engaging NATO. This part of the story is controversial, but she defended herself by saying, “What we did there wasn’t cool, but it was right.” In Kosovo today, Albright is considered a human rights hero, taking a stand against genocide.

In 1998, Albright was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. Albright was the second recipient of the Hanno R. Ellenbogen Citizenship Award given by the Prague Society for International Cooperation. In 2000, Albright received the Jan Masaryk Honorary Silver Medal at a ceremony in Prague sponsored by the Bohemian Foundation and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic. In 2010, she was inducted into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame.

Albright currently serves as a professor of international relations at Georgetown University and in 2012 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by US President Barack Obama. Albright also serves as director of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Albright holds honorary degrees from Brandeis University (1996), University of Washington (2002), Smith College (2003), Washington University in St. Louis (2003), University of Winnipeg (2005), University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (2007),[135] Knox College (2008), Dickinson College (2014), and Tufts University (2015).

She was selected for the inaugural 2021 Forbes 50 Over 50, comprised of entrepreneurs, leaders, scientists and creators over 50.

Mother Jones, activist

Born in Ireland, Mary Harris “Mother” Jones and her family left their homeland during the potato famine and ended up migrating to the US when she was 23 years old. Once named “America’s Most Dangerous Woman,” Mother Jones was famous for her success as a labor protest organizer and co-founder of the Industrial Workers of the World.

However, it was her ability to carry on in the face of disaster and loss that made her a legend: In 1867, she was left a childless widow and mother when her husband and four children died of typhoid fever, and just four years later, she was forced to to rebuild her life again after losing everything she owned in the Great Chicago Fire.

She helped rebuild Chicago and continued her work for labor causes. She suffered arrest and death threats because of this but managed to continue her work until her death, at nearly 100 years old.

Dr. Elizabeth Stern, Cervical Cancer Researcher

Elizabeth Stern was born in Canada but later immigrated to the US to study medicine. She is best known for her groundbreaking research on cervical cancer.

The disease, which was considered fatal before her time, became treatable after her work led to the detection and successful treatment of cancer. In 1963, she discovered a link between herpes and cervical cancer, and she was also the first person to report a correlation between long-term use of oral contraceptives and cervical cancer.

She is the one we can thank for the pre cancer screenings that are now included in our annual women’s health checkups, which detect any changes at an early stage and help prevent the serious advances of the disease for many.

Emma Goldman, anarchist

Emma Goldman was born in Lithuania to a Russian-Jewish family and emigrated to the US in 1885. She worked as a factory worker and soon became a political agitator with an anarchist ideology. Her first relevant participation in the cause was a peaceful protest, which turned into a strike in Chicago for the cause of an 8 hour work day regulated by law.

Emma traveled across the US with her anarchist beliefs and values, speaking to thousands upon thousands of people on topics ranging from women’s rights to free love. Goldman was arrested several times for “inciting a riot” and distributing birth control information.

A woman clearly ahead of her time.

In 1917, Emma was sentenced to two years in prison for speaking out against conscription. After her release, she was soon framed for yet another crime and deported to Russia, lest she be arrested again.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, writer 

Born in Nigeria, Chimamanda is considered one of the great writers of her generation and is a prominent voice in contemporary African literature. Adichie was born in the town of Enugu, Nigeria, the fifth of six children in an Igbo family. The daughter of a professor of statistics and the university’s first female registrar, she was raised in the university town of Nsukka in Enugu State. The family lost almost everything during the Nigerian Civil War, including their maternal and paternal grandparents.

Chimamanda Adichie studied medicine and pharmacy at the University of Nigeria and during this time she edited The Compass, a magazine run by Catholic medical students at the university. At age 19, in 1997, she came to the United States and felt “deeply irritated” (her words) at how Americans saw Africa as a monolithic place, and at the mixture of ignorance and arrogance towards the people who came from there.

In her texts and books, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie delves into themes of Nigeria, America and the immigrant experience. A feminist, she addresses the issue of gender, comments how women deal differently with immigration, and opens the discussion about the abuse that is experienced and the loneliness of an immigrant woman.

In 2008, she was awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant.

Adichie gave a talk titled “The Danger of a Single Story” for TED. It has become one of the most viewed TED Talks of all time, having amassed over 27 million views. In 2012, she spoke about being a feminist to TEDxEuston in her speech “We should all be feminists” which started a worldwide conversation on the topic and was published as a book in 2014. It sold millions of copies worldwide and was sampled for the 2013 song “*** Flawless” by African American artist Beyoncé.

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