Women’s History Month — Notable Women from Maryland

By: Grace Mottley

I spend a lot of time thinking about my grandmothers. Strong, independent women (each in their own right) they did work that paved the way for me, working at times when women didn’t traditionally work, raising families, and caring deeply about those around them. Like them, many of the women that came before us did something to make Maryland a little more fair, a little more just, and a little more free.

There are a lot of women we forget. It’s easy to latch onto historical women whom we know a lot about, and hold them up as the key drivers of history or liberation. The issue is not celebrating well-known women, but forgetting women from marginalized communities or spaces.

With that in mind, I set out to create a list of historical women that Maryland has somewhat or altogether forgotten. Some of these women are from marginalized communities, some of these women are from communities that (at the time) lacked focus on reproductive justice, gender equity, or racial equality.

All of the women I selected were chosen for their contributions to the state, and for their work related to the ever-intersectional web of reproductive justice. They are not the only women who have done important things, but women whose work I thought was unknown, but still important.

I encourage you to search for the woman from your county, and now that Women’s History Month has ended, to think about the work these and other women did to bring us where we are today.

Allegany County — Lillian C Compton

Lilian Compton served as the first female President of the State Teachers College at Frostburg (now Frostburg University).

Dwindling attendance led to attempts by the state to close the university altogether. Her personal work recruiting former soldiers and women helped keep Frostburg’s doors open, despite pushes to close the university.

Frostburg still remains open to serve residents of the Eastern Shore, thanks to her leadership and lobbying.

Anne Arundel County — Mary Church Terrell

Mary Church Terrell was a fierce advocate for racial and gender equality. The daughter of former slaves, she became an advocate for racial and gender equity, including the right to vote.

She was one of the first African-American women to earn a college degree, and taught in the first African American public high school in the nation, the M Street school in Washington, D.C.

Terrell picketed and marched for the right for women to vote, and after the passage of the 19th amendment, fought for racial equity. She went on to become one of the founders of the NAACP. While she was born in Tennessee, Terrell spent much of her adult life in Highland Beach, MD.

Baltimore County — Florence Riefle Bahr

Florence Riefle Bahr used art to educate on issues regarding racial justice, environmental racism, and the rights of children and the incarcerated.

She created letter-writing campaigns and marched in political and civil rights demonstrations, including the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous ”I Have a Dream” speech. She was arrested at an anti-war demonstration at the Pentagon in 1971.

Her sketches and paintings depicted some of the most significant moments of her time, including the Vietnam War and the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Baltimore City — Augusta Chissel

Augusta Chissel fought to improve the lives of Black women in Baltimore City.

She chaired a grassroots organization focused on issues of housing and public health, including clean air and sanitation.

After the passage of 19th Amendment, she worked to show Black women in Baltimore City how to vote, including penning a weekly column and creating voting rights-based organizations that showed women of color how to work around tactics to suppress the vote. Her work empowered generations of activists in Baltimore City and pushed suffrage groups to focus on the issues of Black women.

Calvert County — Harriet Elizabeth Brown

In 1930, Harriet Elizabeth Brown taught in a segregated school system. she realized that Black teachers were being paid less than white teachers, and fought for pay equity.

With help from Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP, Brown sued the Calvert County Board of Education for pay equity. The BOE ended up granting pay equity via settlement, before the case came to decision.

Brown’s work and advocacy inspired the Maryland Teachers’ Pay Equalization Act, which required all county education systems to pay teachers of all races the same for similar poisons. This was the first law in the country mandating equal pay for teachers of all races.

Caroline County — Dr. Enolia P. McMillan

Dr. Enolia p. Mcmillan was the first female president of the NAACP. She got her start teaching at a segregated school in Denton, MD.

After the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, she went on to become one of the first Black teachers in a white school in Maryland.

McMillan was crucial to leading fundraising efforts when the NAACP National Office was on the verge of bankruptcy. During her time as president, she also helped move the national office to Baltimore City.

Carroll County — Dorothy Elderdice

Dorothy Elderdice was an activist from Carroll County. Elderdice helped organize a group of Carroll Countians to join the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

She was an advocate for racial and gender equity in Carroll County and was an anti-war advocate. Elderdice fought for equity in Carroll County, regardless of opposition.

Even at 85, she led a walk-a-thon in support of the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, despite being outnumbered by counter-protesters. Her work and memory still inspire activists in Carroll County.

Cecil County — Sarah Fernandis

Sarah Fernandis was a social justice advocate from Port Deposit, MD. Fernandis went on to found the first Black social settlement house in the United States.

Settlement houses were spaces for low-income families and immigrants to find housing, healthcare, education, and job assistance. Fernandis started the first Black settlement house in Baltimore City and advocated for libraries, clinics, playgrounds, childcare, events, and even access to banking services for those she served.

Her work empowered hundreds of families to find safe, clean, independent homes in Maryland.

Charles County, Maryland — Ann Cipriano Rees

Ann Cipriano Rees is an advocate for women and children in Charles County. She has dedicated her life to philanthropic work protecting children and survivors of domestic abuse.

Rees has worked diligently to fundraise and build the first battered women’s shelter in Charles County, named after Gayle A. Cooke, a woman who died from domestic abuse in 2000.

Rees has always dedicated her life’s mission to serve Charles County and the needs of her community, encouraging other to get involved in local organizations and activism.

Dorchester County — Gloria Richardson

Gloria Richardson was the leader of the Cambridge movement, a civil rights struggle on the Eastern Shore in the 1960s.

Richardson helped plan protests, sit-ins, and freedom walks to the Dorchester County courthouse to protest. Ultimately, her organizing led to the signing of the “Treaty of Cambridge” which desegregated schools, and made huge steps for equality in Dorchester, including promoting police officers of color and attempting to address police brutality.


Richardson emphasized economic security for people of color and worked to radicalize other civil rights leaders. Her work for the movement was recognized, and she was one of 6 women seated on the stage at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

Frederick County — Claire McCardell

Claire McCardell is known as “the girl who defied Dior.” She was a fashion designer credited with creating sportswear for women. Her styles included accessible sizing, pockets, and clothing that was easy to move in, but at the time was considered risqué. She popularized strapless bathing suits and pedal pushers (pants similar to capri pants), and encouraged women to wear things that worked for their bodies.

McCardell was born and raised in Frederick, and attended Hood College, before moving to Paris to study fashion design.

Garrett County, Maryland — Martha Jachowski

Martha Jachowski was a pioneer for mental health services in Maryland. During her professional career, Jachowski worked for the Montgomery County Mental Health Association for 21 years. Her work centered on making mental health services available and accessible to all who need them. She is credited with creating the Montgomery County Hotline, a hotline for those in Montgomery County who need immediate mental health assistance and support.

After working for 21 years in Montgomery County, Jachowski moved to Swanton, MD, in Garrett County, where she became a community advocate and volunteer, still raising awareness for mental health issues.

Harford County — Elizabeth Forbes

Elizabeth Forbes was a suffragist who fought tirelessly for the right to vote. She began her activism in Havre De Grace, founding the Harford County chapter of the Just Government League. After becoming frustrated with the rate of progress from marches and protests in D.C., Forbes joined the militant National Woman’s Party, and joined their more aggressive efforts. In 1919, Forbes was arrested at an event where suffragettes burned President Wilson in effigy. She was arrested, and served a sentence of 5 days, becoming known in Harford County as “jailbird.”

Her continued organizing was also instrumental to the Maryland ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. At the signing, Governor Tawes granted Forbes the pen with which the ratification was signed.

Howard County — Laura Byrne

Laura Byrne was a suffragette who focused on organizing efforts within Howard County. She was a well-known and coeted speaker, and spoke all over Maryland, but focused her efforts on the people of Howard County.

Despite moving out of state several times when her husband lost jobs, Byrne was a fixture of the suffrage movement in Howard County, and even hosted other suffragette in her homes as they traveled throughout the state.

Kent County — Mary Jane Clark Howard, Anne Baker Maxwell, and Lillie Deringer Kelley

Mary Jane Clark Howard, Anne Baker Maxwell, and Lillie Deringer Kelley are the first documented women voters in Maryland in 1908. A small town called ”Still Pond” had recently incorporated, and had provided the right for any taxpayer over 21 to vote. Fourteen women, including two African-American had registered, but only Mary Jane Clark Howard, Anne Baker Maxwell, and Lillie Deringer Kelley actually voted. The three cast ballots in a local election for town commission, and twelve years later, women everywhere would get the right to vote.

Not much else is known about these three women, but their ground-breaking step in the voting rights movement was a step to political and economic independence for all Maryland women.

Montgomery County — Sonia Pressman Fuentes

Sonia Pressman Fuentes came to the United States as a Holocaust refugee, and became one of the feminist movement’s most eminent scholars and writers. She is credited as one of the founders of the second wave of feminism, and helped establish the National Organization for Women. She was also one of the first woman lawyers in the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

During her time at the EEOC, Fuentes was in charge of writing policy regarding the sexual discrimination prohibitions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Her work changed the workplace for women everywhere, and created safe spaces for women to find economic security for themselves

Prince George’s County — Charlene Mickens Dukes

Charlene Mickens Dukes was the first female president of Prince George’s Community College. During her time as president, PGCC’s curriculum expanded into a model for community colleges around the state. Her work has created public-private partnerships to enhance student experience and develop opportunities for growth. Under her watch, PGCC also developed unique and innovative programs to allow students to graduate high school with their diploma and an associate degree.

Mickens Dukes was unanimously voted to serve as the president of Maryland State Board of Education in 2011, and served three one-year terms.

Queen Anne’s County — Mary Edwardine Bourke Emory

Mary Edwardine Bourke Emory’s writings helped preserve the legacy and history of Maryland’s Eastern Shore. After losing her family’s historic home, Bloomfield Manor, Emory wrote “Colonial Families of the Eastern Shore History” in 1900. Her book documented the changes, politics, and economy of the Eastern Shore at the time. She was able to earn enough money from her book to regain ownership of her family home from the county.

Emory is not a traditional activist, but at the time, her journey was still new to many women. The example she made of earning her own income, independent from men, to raise a family, and save her home shows the heart of the work we do to allow women to write their own destinies.

Somerset County — Anna Ella Carroll

Anna Ella Carroll was an anti-slavery advocate and the “invisible member” of President Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet. During the war, Lincoln sent Carroll to the western front to spy on the South and help devise battle plans. Her reports and plans helped defeat the South in many major battles that led to the end of intervention of the European nations on the behalf of the South.

After the war, Carroll became an anonymous columnist who championed Reconstruction and efforts to improve the lives of freedmen. She wrote all of her life, even in old age, advocating for the women’s right to vote.

St. Mary’s County — Margaret Brent

In 1648, Margaret Brent was the first documented woman in the colonies to formally request the right to vote and to claim land. A businesswoman, ready to solve the problems of the women around her, Brent owned land, sold cattle, and attempted to use the courts to resolve issues of debt and land ownership.

At the time, financially independent single women were practically unheard of. Beyond her singleness, Brent’s demands for legal status and recognition of her work were the beginning of long-away calls for suffrage, equal pay, and financial rights for women. Her work is not what many would call traditional reproductive justice, but demanding the right to provide for yourself and your family is the key to economic security, a fundamental aspect to all justice. No pictures of Brent exist, just paintings and drawings done by scholars and artists.

Talbot County — Mary Bartlett Dixon

Mary Bartlett Dixon was one of the first women to attend John Hopkins University School of Nursing, After graduation, she was commissioned to help start the first hospital in Easton, MD. She worked as a nurse and helped build a permanent location for the hospital. She went on to chair the committee for the Maryland Association for the Prevention and Relief of Tuberculosis focused.

Dixon was also a well-known suffragette, known for picketing for the passage of the 19th Amendment. Once Woodrow Wilson took office, Dixon was among the women chosen to speak to the new president, urging him to ratify the amendment and grant women the right to vote.

Washington County — Grace Snively

Grace Snively was a medical educator and community activist dedicated to protecting women of color and their health. In 1950s Hagerstown, Snively helped the American Cancer Society encourage Black women to get pap smears. She was able to educate her community, change community perceptions around sexual and gynecological health, and help save women’s lives.

Later in her life, she also became an advocate for voting rights for people of color in Western Maryland, helping to push voter registration and even becoming a chief judge on the Washington County Election Board.

Wicomico County — Mary Layfield Nock

Mary Layfield Nock was the first woman from Wicomico County to be elected to the Maryland General Assembly.

She sponsored and endorsed ground-breaking legislation, including the Juries Act, which allowed Maryland’s women to serve on juries. She also advocated for making Maryland one of the first states to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.

Layfield Nock went on to become the first female President Pro Tempore of the Maryland Senate. Her work advocating for women still serves women to this day, and has inspired others to run for local public office.

Worcester County — Ilia Fehrer

Ilia Fehrer was an environmentalist whose life mission was to protect and save Maryland’s bays. She was instrumental in the establishment of The Maryland Coastal Bays Program, an organization that works to education Marylanders about the environment, and protect and conserve the bays and wildlife within them.

Later, as a member of the Assateague Coastal Trust, she fought to protect the island and conserve its beauty. Her success means that Marylanders can continue to enjoy the beautiful beaches of the Eastern Shore. Assateague holds an annual beach walk in remembrance of Fehrer each year.

Beyond protecting wildlife, Fehrer fought against air and water pollution, ensuring that her community could safely access key necessities of life.

The political leader of the pro-choice movement in Maryland.