53° Good Morning
53° Good Morning

5 NYC women who aren't famous, but should be

A Center for the Study of Women's History, dedicated to celebrating the crucial role that New York women played in our nation's social, political and cultural evolution, is due to open in 2016 at the New-York Historical Society Museum & Library.

The Museum will showcase the accomplishments of famous women as well as those of women not as widely known. In the meantime -- and in honor of Women's History Month -- we'd like to give a shout out to five super cool NYC women who deserve our recognition and respect.

Agent 355

"355" was the code for a woman who belonged to "The Culper Ring" of pro-Independence spies, which was most active between 1778 and 1781. Members were known by aliases and numbers and wrote in invisible ink to relay messages of benefit to the revolutionary forces, explained Karen Quinones, president of Patriot Tours, which gives Revolutionary War era walking tours of Manhattan.

Believed to be a member of a Loyalist family, 355 "went to balls and parties with British officers, where she gathered intelligence passed on to Gen. (George) Washington," Quinones said. 355's greatest coup was discovering that British officer John Andre was planning to obtain the fortification plans of West Point from Benedict Arnold to help the British capture the crucial citadel. "She ratted out Benedict Arnold!" crowed Quinones, which led to the capture of Andre (he was eventually executed) and exposed Arnold's treason.

While pregnant, 355 was busted by the British and jailed on 'The Jersey,' a prison ship in the East River notorious for its inedible rations and squalid, abusive conditions. "She died there," Quinones continued, her real identity speculated upon, but never revealed, and the fate of the baby boy she reportedly bore, unknown.

Anna Zenger, 1704-1751

Anna Zenger, the German-born wife of New York
Photo Credit: Farrar, Straus and Company

Anna Zenger, the German-born wife of New York Weekly Journal printerJohn Peter Zenger, was possibly the first female newspaper publisher in the U.S.

Her husband was tossed into NYC's "Old Jail" in late 1734, charged with multiple counts of "seditious libel" for criticizing the greedy British governor. British officials hoped to stop the Journal's publication by keeping Zenger in jail.

They hadn't counted on his wife, Anna Zenger, the mother of five children, who kept the paper going for nine months, until the jury returned a not guilty verdict for her husband in 1735.

The Zenger trial is a landmark in establishing the right of a free press to tell the truth, but it is also remarkable as "the first case of jury nullification," in the U.S., Quinones noted.

While Anna Zenger's contribution to establishing a free press is often ignored, her husband acknowledged her importance in his memoirs, Quinones said.

Charlotte Ray,1850-1911

Ray was the first black woman to receive

Ray was the first black woman to receive a law degree and the third woman of any race to complete law school in the U.S. But the twin stigmas of racism and sexism doomed her groundbreaking legal practice, though she paved a path for others.

One of seven children in a pro-education abolitionist NYC family, Ray entered Howard University Law School in 1869 by enrolling as "C.E. Ray" to obscure her gender. Graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1872, she faced monumental odds, as she began her career "just two years after the ratification of the 15th Amendment granting African American males the right to vote and almost a half century before women of any race were granted the same right," observed Valerie Paley, PhD, chief historian and vice president for scholarly programs at the New-York Historical Society.

Ray opened a law office in Washington D.C. but clients were reluctant to put their faith in any woman, much less a Black one. She abandoned the practice in 1879 and moved to New York City, where she taught school in Brooklyn, served as a delegate to the 1876 conference of the National Woman's Suffrage Association and joined the newly formed National Association of Colored Women.

Dr. Antonia Pantoja, 1922-2002

Social worker, activist and educator Dr. Antonia Pantoja,
Photo Credit: Handout

Social worker, activist and educator Dr. Antonia Pantoja, who helped catapult thousands of Latinos into college, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1996. The daughter of a single mother, Pantoja was raised by grandparents in Puerto Rico before arriving in NYC in 1944. She is best known for having founded ASPIRA in 1961 (a now national organization) to battle the high Puerto Rican dropout rate by fostering Latino pride and teaching leadership skills. (That she did: ASPIRA alumni include actor Jimmy Smits, ACLU director Anthony D. Romero and former Bronx borough president and mayoral candidate Fernando Ferrer.)

After establishing what eventually became the Puerto Rican Association for Community Affairs in the 1950s, Pantoja labored to decentralize the NYC schools, founded Boricua College and co-founded the Graduate School for Community Development. A proponent of self-improvement and community empowerment, she also worked to diversify public institutions and eliminate educational obstacles confronting kids from disadvantaged backgrounds.

In her autobiography that was published in 2002- the same year she died of cancer -- that Pantoja openly acknowledged she was a lesbian.

Dr. Susan (Smith) McKinney Steward, 1846-1918

W.E.B. Dubois delivered the eulogy at the funeral

W.E.B. Dubois delivered the eulogy at the funeral of Dr. Susan Smith McKinney Steward, the first female doctor in New York state and the third African-American woman in the U.S. to graduate from medical school. The seventh of 10 children, Steward was Brooklyn born and grew up on her father's prosperous pig farm at Fulton Street and Buffalo Avenue. She paid her own tuition at the NY Medical College for Women by giving music lessons and graduated in 1870 as the valedictorian of her class.

"At the time, women didn't even go to college!" yet she became a physician, said Brooklyn Borough Historian Ron Schweiger, who described Steward as "a real trailblazer."

Despite tremendous discrimination, Steward developed a thriving practice specializing in pediatrics and homeopathy on DeKalb Avenue, eventually opening another medical practice in Manhattan. She also served as resident physician and on the governing board of the Brooklyn Home for the Colored Aged and was also nationally active in the temperance, abolitionist and suffragette movements.


We're revamping our Comments section. Learn more and share your input.

News photos & videos