The Women Who Made NYC History

Carianne Carleo-Evangelist and Christina Parrella

(Updated 02/19/2021)

Throughout history, many women in New York City have risen to national and international renown. Their significant achievements in the arts, politics and urban planning can be celebrated every day throughout the five boroughs. Read up on some of the City’s most prominent women and where to pay tribute to them.

Bella Abzug, at a 1971 press conference. Photo: Warren K. Leffler. Courtesy, Library of Congress

Bella Abzug

How she made her mark: Feminist, civil rights advocate and a three-term member of Congress, the Bronx-born Abzug spent much of her career pressing for women to have a central role in politics. Prior to her time in the House (1971–77), she spent two decades as a lawyer advocating for underserved populations. After taking the oath of office for the 92nd Congress, Abzug took a “people’s oath,” administered by Shirley Chisholm (see below), to recognize her continued work for all people.
Where to pay tribute today: Bella Abzug Park, a green space in Hudson Yards, and Bella Abzug Way, at the intersection of Bank Street and Greenwich Avenue. —Carianne Carleo-Evangelist

Cenotaph, Trinity Churchyard. Photo: Will Steacy

Caroline Schermerhorn Astor

How she made her mark: Wife of William Backhouse Astor Jr. and mother to John Jacob Astor IV, “the Mrs. Astor” created the famous List of 400, which included high-society families that represented the crème de la crème of New York money. (Absent was the Vanderbilt family, who the Astors considered “crass.”) She held society parties at her Fifth Avenue townhouse, now the location of the Empire State Building.
Where to pay tribute today: Uptown Manhattan’s Trinity Church Cemetery and Mausoleum, where the Astor family is interred in a vault. In Lower Manhattan, a 39-foot tall cenotaph honoring Mrs. Astor is set in the yard of Trinity Church. —CCE

Alice Austen House. Photo: Kate Glicksberg

Alice Austen

How she made her mark: A pioneering journalistic photographer who produced nearly 8,000 images over her lifetime, Austen was one of the first women on Staten Island to own a car. Her work documented life in the borough. During the Victorian Era, Austen chose to live with her girlfriend, with whom she remained partnered for 50 years. Austen was in attendance at the first Alice Austen Day, attended by approximately 300 people, on October 9, 1951. She died soon after.
Where to pay tribute today: Her former home, where she developed her images, is open to the public as the Alice Austen House Museum. —CCE

Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm announcing her candidacy for 1972 presidential nomination. Courtesy, Library of Congress

Shirley Chisholm

How she made her mark: Chisholm, a native Brooklynite, spent a lifetime advocating for equal rights on behalf of women and minorities. She was the first African American woman in Congress—elected in 1968—where she served seven terms in the House of Representatives. She was also the first African American to seek the nomination for president of the United States from one of the two major political parties, running as a Democrat in 1972.
Where to pay tribute today: Shirley Chisholm Circle, in Crown Heights’ Brower Park, and at Shirley Chisholm State Park, on the waterfront in Brooklyn’s East New York neighborhood. —CCE

Guggenheim Museum. Photo: Tagger Yancey IV

Peggy Guggenheim

How she made her mark: Credited with launching the career of Jackson Pollock, Peggy Guggenheim (niece of Solomon) is part of the famed Guggenheim art family. She supported many upstart artists and collected their works, which can be seen in Venice’s Peggy Guggenheim Collection. This put her smack dab in the middle of the modern art movement in the 20th century, as did her gallery’s 1943 show Exhibition by 31 Women, the first-ever dedicated to female artists in America.
Where to pay tribute today:Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. —Christina Parrella

Billie Holiday. Photo: Carl Van Vechten

Billie Holiday

How she made her mark: In the late 1920s, at the height of the Harlem Renaissance movement, Holiday began singing at jazz nightclubs in the neighborhood; she eventually scored a record deal in 1935. Her biggest hit? The song “Strange Fruit” (though it was considered too controversial for airplay). Throughout her career she performed all over New York City—around 30 times at the Apollo alone—and pioneered a jazz vocal style defined by her melodic phrasing and interplay with instrumentation. In short, she was one of the most influential singers of her time.
Where to pay tribute today: Apollo Theater. —CP

Washington Square Park. Photo: Alex Lopez

Jane Jacobs

How she made her mark: The author and urban activist frequently went head to head with city planner Robert Moses and his ideas for developing New York City. Jacobs and others successfully prevented Moses from building a highway that would have destroyed Washington Square Park (can you imagine?).
Where to pay tribute today: On Jane’s Walks, which occur the first weekend in May; Hudson Street, between West 11th and Perry Streets, which has been renamed Jane Jacobs Way; and Washington Square Park. —CCE

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Reservoir, Central Park. Photo: Will Steacy

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis

How she made her mark: Jackie O. began her historic preservation work during her first husband’s presidency, endeavoring to restore Washington DC’s Lafayette Square. She’s credited with helping save Grand Central Terminal and raising public awareness about New York City landmarks. The Municipal Arts Society renamed its annual award after her in 1994 to recognize her work in safeguarding Grand Central, Lever House and St. Bartholomew’s Church.
Where to pay tribute today: The main entrance to Grand Central Terminal is dedicated to Onassis. There’s also a permanent exhibit inside the station that’s focused on the preservation of Grand Central and her work. Central Park’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir was renamed in tribute to her after her death in 1994. —CCE

Dorothy Parker. Courtesy, Dorothy Parker Society

Dorothy Parker

How she made her mark: Parker’s witty works were initially dismissed as being unserious. Eventually, however, she contributed fiction, poetry and reviews to publications like Vogue, Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, where she served on the editorial board. She was also the lone female member of the original Algonquin Round Table, an unofficial gathering of acclaimed writers who ate lunch together at the Algonquin Hotel (at least five other women became regular or semi-regular attendees). When she passed away in 1967 she bestowed her literary estate to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated months later.
Where to pay tribute today: Algonquin Hotel Times Square. —CP

Courtesy, The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Martin Seck

Abby Aldrich Rockefeller

How she made her mark: Rockefeller (married to oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller Jr.) began collecting the works of influential artists—including Vincent van Gogh, Edgar Degas, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso—in the mid-1920s. By 1928 her collection had grown into what was known as the Topside Gallery, on the seventh floor of their massive home at 10 West 54th Street. Her philanthropic work and interest in art was a force behind the creation of the Museum of Modern Art in 1929. She served on the museum’s board from 1929 to 1945.
Where to pay tribute today: MoMA’s Sculpture Garden, designed in 1953 by Philip Johnson and landscape architect James Fanning, is named for her. —CCE

Eleanor Roosevelt. Courtesy, Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library & Museum

Eleanor Roosevelt

How she made her mark: A human rights advocate and born-and-bred New Yorker, Roosevelt is perhaps best known for her support of racial equality and in helping expand roles for women in the workforce. She was outspoken on many issues; publicly opposed some policies of her husband, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt; and held her own press conferences to which only female reporters were invited. She continued fighting for equal rights after her husband died in office—chairing the UN Human Rights Commission, serving on the board of the NAACP and promoting women’s issues.
Where to pay tribute today: The Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College, set in the former New York City home of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt; the Eleanor Roosevelt Monument in Riverside Park. —CP

The Sanger Clinic, 46 Amboy Street, Brooklyn. Courtesy, Library of Congress

Margaret Sanger

How she made her mark: A nurse turned activist whose work on women’s health issues gave way to the formation of Planned Parenthood, Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in Brownsville, Brooklyn, in 1916. She was arrested for distribution of pamphlets that promoted contraception as well as for the opening of the clinic, which violated state law. NYU continues to gather her papers some 50 years after her death.
Where to pay tribute today: Margaret Sanger Square is at the intersection of Mott and Bleecker Streets, where Planned Parenthood’s Margaret Sanger Center is located. Sanger’s original Manhattan clinic is landmarked, but it is now a private home (located at 17 West 16th Street) and closed to the public. —CCE

Gloria Steinem. Courtesy, Gloria: A Life

Gloria Steinem

How she made her mark: After graduating from Smith College, Steinem moved to the City in 1960 to become a journalist. Early assignments included undercover work as a Playboy Bunny; she later joined the staff at New York magazine, where she was the only female on staff. She covered politics and began to be recognized as an emerging feminist leader. In 1971, she co-founded Ms. magazine—the first publication of its kind to be owned and operated by women—with Dorothy Pitman Hughes. She also worked alongside NYC icons including Bella Abzug, Shirley Chisholm and Betty Friedan to raise the profile of women’s issues, helping found the National Women’s Political Caucus with them.
Where to pay tribute today: You can pay tribute to Steinem at the wooden bench in Central Park dedicated in honor of her 80th birthday (it’s close to the Met Fifth Ave). —CCE

Grand Central Terminal. Photo: Tagger Yancey IV

Edith Wharton

How she made her mark: Born into a world of privilege that she later went on to critique in her writing, Edith Wharton became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction; she took the award in 1921 for her novel The Age of Innocence. The book portrays her hometown, New York City and the dalliances of upper-crust society. Her celebrated novels The House of Mirth and The Custom of the Country similarly comment on New York City social life. Her work is said to have influenced the style of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis.
Where to pay tribute today: Much of Wharton’s NYC world is lost to history, though a plaque commemorates her childhood home at 14 West 23rd Street. Grand Central Terminal, Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue were prominent locations in her work. —CP

Whitney Museum of American Art. Photo: Julienne Schaer

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney

How she made her mark: A sculptor, prominent society figure and patron of the arts, Whitney supported women in the art and was vital in the creation of the 1913 Armory Show. She established the Whitney Studio Gallery in 1908 and the Whitney Studio Club in 1918, which evolved into the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1931. (This was only after the Met declined to accept her 25-year collection of more than 500 works of art.) The museum’s original location is now home to the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture. Four generations of Whitney women have served on the Whitney Museum’s board.
Where to pay tribute today: Whitney Museum of American Art; and her Greenwich Village studio (8–12 West 8th Street), which has landmark status. —CCE

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