Queens women trailblazers, because ‘It’s a big thing to be the first’

Before achieving historical fame, Helen Keller was  celebrated in Forest Hills, where she lived from 1917 to the late '30s with her teacher and friend Anne Sullivan, known as the "miracle worker." Photo Credit: Queens Historical Society

Helen Keller and Geraldine Ferraro are among the pioneers topping the list.

Before achieving historical fame, Helen Keller was  celebrated in Forest Hills, where she lived from 1917 to the late '30s with her teacher and friend Anne Sullivan, known as the "miracle worker."
Before achieving historical fame, Helen Keller was  celebrated in Forest Hills, where she lived from 1917 to the late ’30s with her teacher and friend Anne Sullivan, known as the "miracle worker." Photo Credit: Ezequiel De la Rosa

Part of our Trailblazing Women series, which also includes the pioneers of Staten Island and the Bronx.

The women of Queens just wanna have fun — and make history. Queens-bred entertainers Cyndi Lauper, Nicki Minaj, and Lucy Liu have certainly left an impact on American culture in recent decades, but amNewYork wants to shed light on the women who paved the way for them.

Queens historian Jason Antos said the borough is home to many women, including Hellen Keller and vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro, who have played leading roles in their careers and history at-large.

“They were very dynamic in that they were the first in their respective fields,” he said. “It’s a big thing to be the first.”

Below are just a few Queens bees who helped blaze trails for future generations.

Helen Keller (1880-1968)

Before achieving historical fame, Helen Keller was celebrated in Forest Hills, where she lived from 1917 to the late ‘30s with her teacher and friend Anne Sullivan, known as the "miracle worker."

“She used to do local talks and lectures for the deaf and blind in the Queens area,” said Antos. “Neighborhood people would come by to visit her. She was a known figure in the area.”

Left blind and deaf by an illness when she was 19 months old, Keller worked to learn — and later teach others — the words for and understanding of various objects through touch-lip reading, Braille, finger spelling, and other forms of communication. She eventually became an author, ambassador, humanitarian, and co-founder of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

Keller lived at 93 Seminole Ave. in Forest Hills, which is now the home of The Reform Temple of Forest Hills. There, she held parties, fundraisers and presentations. She also spoke at meetings at Public School 3, attended the First Presbyterian Church of Forest Hills and contributed to The Daily Star. In 1965, she was added to the National Women’s Hall of Fame during the World’s Fair in Flushing.

Keller’s legacy in Queens lives on in many forms, including via a mural created by street artists Crisp and Praxis in her honor in June. The 48-foot-wide and 4-foot-tall mural stands along the Long Island Rail Road’s Ascan Avenue underpass, reminding visitors, “The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision.”

Geraldine Ferraro, left, was a leader for the residents of Queens, where she spent the majority of her life.
Geraldine Ferraro, left, was a leader for the residents of Queens, where she spent the majority of her life. Photo Credit: Jason D. Antos/Queens Gazette

Geraldine Ferraro (1935-2011)

Although she was raised primarily in the Bronx, Geraldine Ferraro was a leader for the residents of Queens, where she spent the majority of her life. She kicked off her career as the Queens assistant district attorney before moving to the Special Victims Bureau, being elected as the president of the Queens County Women’s Bar Association, and eventually serving in the House of Representatives as the first congresswoman from Queens.

“She paved the way for so many female elected officials in this county since her run back in the early ‘80s,” said Antos. “She was a very prominent figure in the Forest Hills area. She was living there while she was running for vice president.”

Her list of accomplishments goes on. In 1984, Ferraro was the first woman to have a seat on the Democratic platform committee, and, later that year, she was selected by presidential candidate Walter Mondale to be his running mate as vice president — the first woman to do so.

Although she and Mondale lost the election to Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, her political activism for Queens residents never ceased. She continued to practice law, became an author, and served on the United Nations Human Rights Convention and the Fourth World Conference on Women.

Alice Guy-Blaché moved to Queens around 1907. While there, she became the first female studio movie director.
Alice Guy-Blaché moved to Queens around 1907. While there, she became the first female studio movie director. Photo Credit: Handout

Alice Guy-Blaché (1873-1968)

Originally from Paris, Blaché moved to Queens around 1907 with her husband Herbert Blaché, a camera operator. While there, she became the first female studio movie director.

“She was kind of lost to history for many years. There were a couple books written about her in France … there was nothing written about her here in the United States where she had the majority of her career,” said Antos.

During her roughly 10-year tenure in Queens, Blaché founded the production company Solax Studios in Flushing where she created dozens of films. Through Solax, she contributed to the era of silent films until the company closed a few years later. According to the studio’s website, Blaché is also credited for directing the first film to be comprised solely of black actors: “A Fool and His Money.”

After her studio — located near the Lewis Latimer House — was shut down and she moved back to France, much of her work was credited to her male counterparts. A documentary about her life, called “Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché,” debuted in 2018 to showcase Blaché’s struggle for recognition. The documentary’s director, Pamela B. Green — a New Yorker herself — spent eight years uncovering the story.

“Blaché just got rediscovered in the last couple of years because there’s been a silent movie revival in the country,” Antos said.

Ethel Merman (1908-1984)

Born and raised in Astoria, Broadway queen Ethel Merman sang her way to a flourishing career in the heart of Manhattan. Although she got her start as a local favorite, singing for soldiers at special events and for New Yorkers at nightclubs, it was one performance at the Brooklyn Paramount Movie Theater that secured her spot.

Merman was in her early 20s when a producer named Vinton Freedley caught wind of a budding young star. After seeing her for himself, he convinced composer George Gershwin to hire Merman for her first Broadway performance in “Girl Crazy,” where her song “I Got Rhythm” is said to have stopped the show.

According to Kerry Breen, who is helping theater historian Jennifer Ashley Tepper with her fourth book in “The Untold Stories of Broadway” series, Merman never had voice lessons, and Gershwin allegedly told her never to get one after her debut performance.

“She had this insanely powerful, belting voice which was kind of unique at the time,” said Breen. “She’s credited with  starting the trend of a ‘brassy dame’ on Broadway, mostly because of that distinctive bold voice and an amazing sense of comic timing.”

Merman went on to star in movies such as “We’re Not Dressing” with Bing Crosby and “Kid Millions” with Eddie Cantor, as well as theater performances including “Anything Goes,” “Stars in Your Eyes,” “Annie Get Your Gun,” and “Happy Hunting.” She also originated the role of Mama Rose in “Gypsy,” and when she joined “Hello, Dolly” the music for Dolly Levi was rearranged specifically for her vocal range.

“Basically, for the majority of her 50-year career, she never turned down a role and she always brought everything to it,” said Breen.

Merman, Breen explained, set the standard for Broadway actors and attendees, as she rarely missed a show.

“Any time a notable star misses a performance or two, I hear someone grumbling, ‘Well, Ethel Merman never missed a show,’” she said.

Marie Maynard Daly graduated magna cum laude from Queens College in 1942 with Bachelor of Science in chemistry.
Marie Maynard Daly graduated magna cum laude from Queens College in 1942 with Bachelor of Science in chemistry. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Queens College, The City University of New York.

Marie Maynard Daly (1921-2003)

The mid-1900s were an indescribably difficult time to be a professional woman of color in any field, but that didn’t stop Marie Maynard Daly. The Corona native studied hard all the way through Hunter College High School, Queens College, New York University, and Columbia University to become the first black woman to earn a Ph.D. in chemistry.

“I first learned about Dr. Daly while completing my doctorate in chemistry and she is certainly an inspiration to me,” said Sibrina Collins, executive director of the Marburger STEM Center at Lawrence Technological University. “In the 1950s she investigated the relationship between cholesterol and heart attacks. Many pharmaceutical companies generate significant revenue to this very day from drugs to treat cardiovascular diseases.”

After getting her doctorate in 1948 from Columbia, where she mentored beneath the school’s first female senior chemistry faculty member, Daly embarked on cancer research. She published six peer-reviewed articles between 1949 and 1953 in two journals.

Daly eventually shifted her focus to cardiovascular issues, where she continued research to identify the relationship between cholesterol and heart attacks, and atherosclerosis, and hypertension. Along with conducting research, she taught others at Howard University Yeshiva University and created a scholarship for black students studying science at Queens College.

Li Yakira Cohen