Meet ‘Trailblazing Women’ of the Bronx you may not be familiar with

You know Cardi B. You know AOC. But do you know the women of the Bronx who paved the way for them?

“Every important movement or event that happened in the nation happened in the Bronx as well,” said Bronx Borough Historian Lloyd Ultan. “I always say it’s part of the heritage, and you have to pass it down as a legacy for future generations.”

In that spirit, amNewYork asked Ultan, 81, to shed some light on trailblazing women of the borough — from religious leaders to elected officials and even a Supreme Court justice.

Various places have been named for women in the Bronx including Hutchinson River Parkway named for Anne Hutchinson.
Various places have been named for women in the Bronx including Hutchinson River Parkway named for Anne Hutchinson. Photo Credit: Todd Maisel

Anne Hutchinson (1591-1643)

Her name may ring a bell, as the Hutchinson River, the Hutchinson River Parkway and PS 78 Anne Hutchinson are named after her. Born Anne Marbury in England in 1591, Anne Hutchinson developed her own ideas about Puritanism — ideas, inspired by controversial preacher John Cotton, that stood in opposition to the Puritan teachings of the time. After following Cotton to New England shortly after giving birth to her 14th child, Hutchinson wasted no time in making enemies.

“They expelled her from Massachusetts, and she fled to Rhode Island. And then after the leaders of Massachusetts were making efforts to incorporate Rhode Island into Massachusetts — that never happened — but just in case it did she fled to New Netherland,” Ultan explained. “She settled in an area just south of today’s city line on the western shore of the Hutchinson River, and she and her followers established a little group there. … But she never bothered to ask the local American Indians if she had their permission to do so.”

Hutchinson and her family were massacred by the Siwanoy in 1643.

It’s not clear just how many followers she amassed by the time of her death. While many of them were family members, there were certainly a significant number who were not.

“Obviously, here was an independent woman who had her own ideas about religion in a very religious age, and got followers and led them to the Bronx,” Ultan said.

“The Widow” Mary Pell (1730s – 1790s, estimated)

A hero of animals and humans alike, Mary Pell accomplished something that almost no other woman in New York City did until the early 1900s: she was elected to public office.

After the American Revolution, and after marrying a member of the high-profile Pell family, Mary made City Island her home. Not much is known about Pell before her marriage, Ultan said, as record keeping was sparse at best. What we do know is that she was forced to sell the farm after her husband died, and she relocated to the town of Eastchester.

“In those days, Eastchester straddled the current city line, so it went all the way up to Eastchester in Westchester County and down to the Eastchester section of the Bronx,” Ultan said.

She involved herself in the annual town meetings, and before long she was elected as the town’s "pounder" — that is, the individual in charge of operating the town’s animal pound. If the accomplishment weren’t unbelievable enough, she was elected three years in a row.

“Here’s a woman right after the American Revolution who’s elected to office. That’s extraordinary, that’s before suffrage. She kept the animal pound on her own farm, and basically animals who jumped the fence of other farms and started chewing crops on other people’s property were rounded up and she took care of them until they were claimed by the owner. Then, of course, the owners were fined and she kept the fine,” Ultan said. “As far as I know, there had been no other women, at least in the Bronx, who were elected to any office. She was way ahead of her time.”

Aileen B. Ryan (1912-1987)

Born in the Clasons Point section of the Bronx, Aileen B. Ryan “played a key role in clashes over some of the most heated social issues of the 1970s,” according to her obituary in The New York Times.

Ryan, a Democrat, who lived much of her life in Parkchester (the Parkchester Oval, formerly known as the Metropolitan Oval, has been renamed in her honor), spent 10 years as a teacher in the Bronx and entered the world of politics after the death of her husband, E. Gerard Ryan.

She was elected to the New York State Assembly in the late 1950s and served there for some six years before returning to the Bronx and running for the City Council.

“Now in those days, the New York City Council had a provision for each borough: two councilmen at large," Ultan said. "And each party could only nominate one, in an effort to get some Republican representation at the City Council. That was later declared unconstitutional but nevertheless she was consistently elected the councilman at large for the Bronx.”

She served as councilman-at-large from 1963 until 1986, when the position was declared unconstitutional.

“She was an extremely influential person, and a very hard worker and had a very winning smile, she was always smiling. She worked very, very hard and going throughout the entire Bronx, seeing what people wanted and then trying to get it through the Council. She was on the land-use committee and became the chairman,” Ultan added.

According to the Times obituary, she dedicated much of her career to education and consumer causes and was a champion of public library funding.

“Her legislative triumphs included the sponsorship of a law to require dairies to place dates on their milk cartons. Another law she sponsored mandated that supermarkets must list unit prices as well as package prices,” the obituary read.

Anne Bancroft (1931-2005)

On June 8, 2005, the bright lights of the Great White Way dimmed for one of the most prolific performers to ever come out of the Bronx: Anna Maria Italiano, better known as Anne Bancroft.

A first-generation American, Bancroft came from humble beginnings. She was born in 1931 to two Italian immigrants: Michael, a dress pattern maker, and Mildred, a telephone operator. She was raised in the Belmont section of the Bronx, graduated from Christopher Columbus High School and proceeded to make her way through several acting programs.

She amassed a stunning show business career, including more than 80 film credits, more than 53 television credits and nine Broadway credits. She also was not shy on the awards front: She took home the Tony for best actress back-to-back in 1958 and 1959 for “Two For the Seesaw” and “The Miracle Worker,” respectively. She also claimed four best actress Oscar nominations and one win for her role in “The Miracle Worker.” Add to that six Golden Globe nominations and two wins, two Emmy wins and a slew of lifetime achievement awards. Oh, and she played Mrs. Robinson in "The Graduate," too.

“She is immortalized in film, and it shows how a person from the Bronx who comes from middling economic circumstances … could, by hard work and talent, make her own way to the top,” Ultan said. “There’s not a question in my mind she is among the greats in her profession from the Bronx.”

From 1964 until her death, she also was married to iconic performer, filmmaker, and writer Mel Brooks. In a 2010 interview with The Associated Press, Brooks recalled meeting her for the first time at a rehearsal. “From that day, until her death on June 6, 2005, we were glued together,” he said.

Sonia Sotomayor (1954-present)

It’s near impossible to find a more inspiring, more American, more Bronx tale than that of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor — and she hasn’t forgotten her roots.

“She is a rabid Yankees fan,” Ultan said, laughing. “The first time it was noticed, she was spotted in the so-called ‘judges chambers’ section of the stadium and cheering loudly when [Aaron] Judge hit a home run, slapping everybody with high-fives all around her. Just a couple weeks ago, she visited Yankee Stadium and was photographed with Aaron Judge.”

The proud Bronxite, who taught at NYU School of Law as an adjunct professor from 1998 to 2007, has already made her mark on the court since being nominated by President Barack Obama in 2009. In the landmark 2012 case, she ruled to help uphold most of the Affordable Care Act; also that year, she joined Justices Roberts, Kennedy, Ginsburg and Breyer in striking down Arizona’s anti-illegal immigration law.

“She also happens to be a real champion of education, especially childhood education. One of the things that she did was she helped raise money for the new Bronx children’s museum,” Ultan said. 

The Bronxdale Houses were a challenging beginning for Sotomayor. Her father dealt with alcoholism, and her mother “sacrificed, worked very hard as a nurse to pay for her to go to Cardinal Spellman High School, which cost tuition,” Ultan said. “Her mother raised her and gave her her values.”

Those values — including never forgetting where she cam from and doing what she can to lift others up — are part of her legacy in the making. They’re also shared by a long list of Bronx women leaders who came before her, and serve as a foundation for those yet to come.