Women's Innovation Center

Contributions of Virginia Women Have Changed Our World

Katherine Harwood Waller Barrett (Virginia.gov)

By Gayle E. Converse

Alexandria, VA – Throughout its history, Virginia has been (and is) home to countless accomplished, innovative (and often unrecognized) women. The Commonwealth has its share of outstanding female writers, musicians, actors, educators, artists, activists, advocates, entrepreneurs, philanthropists – any occupation or volunteer work imaginable. The following is a short list* of women who have lived or worked in Virginia – those who have made priceless contributions in STEM fields:

Katherine Harwood Waller Barrett

Katherine Harwood Waller Barrett of Alexandria and Stafford County was a prominent physician and social reformer. She became superintendent of the Florence Crittenden Mission – established in 1883 to assist unwed women and teenage girls who had children or were trying to leave prostitution.

Clara Barton

Famed for her Civil War nursing, her post-Civil War work to help document the many missing, and her founding of the American Red Cross, Clara Barton’s first Civil War nursing ventures were in the Virginia theatre.

Christine Mann Darden

Christine Mann Darden (NASA & North Carolina State University – Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering)

As a mathematician and aerospace engineer at NASA’s Langley Research Center for 40 years, Christine Mann Darden is internationally known for her research into supersonic aircraft noise, especially sonic boom reduction, and recognized for her groundbreaking achievement as the first African American woman at Langley to be appointed to the top management rank of Senior Executive Service. She is equally known for her efforts to inspire and educate generations of aerospace scientists and engineers.

Elizabeth Duke

Elizabeth Duke (Britt Leckman/FederalReserveHistory.org)

As a member of the Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors, banker Elizabeth Duke of Virginia Beach helped implement the Federal Reserve System’s response to the 2008 financial panic.

Mary Ann Elliott

Mary Ann Elliott of Fairfax County is a wireless and satellite telecommunications technology pioneer and a role model for women in her field.

Clara Adams-Ender

Clara Adams-Ender (thehistorymakers.org)

Chief of the U.S. Army Nurse Corps, Clara Adams-Ender of Prince William County was the first African American woman to command a major army base.

Ruth Coles Harris

The first African American woman to become a certified public accountant in Virginia, Ruth Coles Harris of Richmond was also the founding director of the Sydney Lewis School of Business at Virginia Union University.

Bessie Blount Griffin

Physical therapist Bessie Blount Griffin of Princess Anne County invented devices to help wounded soldiers and was a pioneer in forensic science.

Grace Brewster Murray Hopper

Grace Brewster Murray Hopper (James W Davis/FindaGrave.com)

Nicknamed “Grandma COBOL,” Grace Brewster Murray Hopper of Arlington County was a pioneer in computer science and the first woman to achieve the rank of rear admiral in the United States Navy.

Katherine Johnson

A talented mathematician, Katherine Johnson worked for NASA in Hampton for more than 30 years and calculated the trajectories for America’s earliest manned space flights and the first moon landing.

Georgeanna Seegar Jones

A pioneer in reproductive endocrinology, Georgeanna Seegar Jones of Norfolk helped lead pathbreaking research into fertility treatments for women.

Mary Jones

An expert in solid propellant rocket motor design, Mary Jones of Prince William County is a role model for women in engineering.

Sarah Garland Boyd Jones

Sarah Garland Boyd Jones of Richmond was the first African American woman to pass the Virginia Medical Examining Board’s examination.

Lillian Lincoln Lambert

Overcoming racial and gender prejudices, Lillian Lincoln Lambert of Mechanicsville became the first African American woman to earn an MBA from the Harvard Business School.

Vivian W. Pinn

Vivian W. Pinn of Lynchburg works to expand women’s health programs and leadership roles for women in medical research.

Maggie Lena Walker

African American businessperson and daughter of a formerly enslaved person, Richmond native Maggie Lena Walker opened the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank in 1903 and served as its president, leading it to become the Consolidated Bank and Trading Company of Richmond as it merged other Black-owned banks into the organization. Walker was the first woman to found and serve as president of a chartered bank in the United States.

Gladys Brown West

Facing the segregation of the 60s, mathematician Gladys Brown West worked in the nation’s aerospace and defense industries. As one of few Blacks at the U.S. Naval Proving Ground in Dahlgren, Virginia, West developed the satellite programs that led to the creation of today’s Global Positioning System, better known as GPS. As was the case for many American women, the contributions of Gladys Brown West were not fully recognized for most of her 42-year career. West will be further recognized as the NCWI hosts its Inaugural Gala on October 27, 2023. Tickets: www.women’sinnovations.org

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