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In honor of Women’s History Month this March, Tahirih staff are honoring inspiring immigrant women activists, past and present, who have made an impact on immigrant rights and women’s rights in the U.S. and globally.


Black and white portrait of advocate Ernestine RoseErnestine Rose (1810 – 1892) was a feminist and freethinker who became very active in the suffragist and abolitionist movements in the United States. Born in 1810 in Poland the daughter of a rabbi, she refused to marry the man her father had chosen for her. She emigrated to New York in the 1830s and began to give lectures on topics like the abolition of slavery, religious tolerance, public education, and equality for women. By 1850, she was central to the women’s rights, anti-slavery, and free thought movements, and she was a friend and colleague of famous suffragists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Rose was elected president of the National Women’s Rights Convention in October 1854, in spite of objections that she was an atheist. In the late 1860s following the Civil War, she and her husband moved to England, where she remained active in the British women’s suffrage movement until her death in 1892. Because of her identities as a foreigner, a Jew, an atheist, a radical, and a woman, her legacy was largely forgotten for many years.


Black and white photo of Dr. Mabel Ping Hua LeeDr. Mabel Ping-Hua Lee (1896 – 1966) was a prominent women’s suffrage advocate who helped mobilize the Chinese immigrant community to support the women’s rights movement. Born in 1897 in Guangzhou, China, Lee was the daughter of missionary pastors and her father moved to the U.S when she was four years old. By the time she was 16, Mabel Lee was a known figure in New York’s suffrage movement. In 1912, Lee famously helped lead a women’s voting rights parade through New York on horseback. Known for her academic achievements, Lee became the first Chinese woman to earn a Ph.D. in economics. As a student, she continued her activism by writing feminist essays for The Chinese Students’ Monthly and she encouraged the education and civic participation of Chinese women of all ages.

Because of the Chinese Exclusion Act that prevented many Chinese immigrants from attaining citizenship and voting, Chinese women and many other women of color like Lee still did not have the right to vote after the 19th amendment was ratified. Nevertheless, she continued to advocate passionately for women’s suffrage and equal rights. She also later founded the Chinese Christian Center which served as a community center, offering vocational and English classes, a health clinic, and a kindergarten.


Black and white photo of Luisa Moreno.Luisa Moreno (1907 – 1992) was a Guatemalan-born labor organizer and civil rights activist who became one of the most prominent Latina women in the international workers’ rights movement. Moreno began organizing as a teenager after learning that women in her country were not allowed to attend university. In the 1920s, she moved to New York City where she helped support her family by working as a seamstress in a garment factory. Outraged by the poor working conditions, low wages, and discrimination, she soon became involved with a group of Latiné labor activists and participated in several strikes. In 1935, she became a professional organizer with the American Federation of Labor and advocated for workers across the country, particularly in the food and tobacco industries.

Moreno was also a vocal champion of Latiné civil rights. In 1938, she founded the El Congreso del PuebloL de Habla Española, or National Congress of Spanish-Speaking Peoples, which worked to mobilize people from Spanish-speaking countries in the fight for improved working conditions and fair treatment for all Latiné laborers. She was deported to Latin America in 1950 for her outspoken activism, where she continued to organize in Mexico, Cuba and Guatemala until her death in 1992.


Chien-Shiung Wu (1912 – 1997) was a Chinese American particle and experimental physicist who made significant contributions in the fields of nuclear and particle physics. She was christened the “First Lady of Physics” for her extraordinary accomplishments in the field. Over the course of her career, Wu became the first female president of the American Physical Society, the first female winner of the Wolf Prize in Physics and first female recipient of an honorary degree from Princeton University. She capitalized on her success to call for better treatment of women in science. In 1964, she spoke out against gender discrimination at a symposium at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “I wonder,” she asked her audience, “whether the tiny atoms and nuclei, or the mathematical symbols, or the DNA molecules have any preference for either masculine or feminine treatment.”


Celia Cruz (1925 – 2003) was a Cuban American salsa singer who brought new life, attention, and fans to salsa especially in the US. Celia was very vocal about her immigrant experience, and she spent the majority of her adult life in exile. She was vocal about her opposition to the Cuban revolution and was denied re-entry by Cuban officials in 1962. She joined other Caribbean migrants in New York City and helped lead the salsa boom. She recorded songs and albums that emphasized Cuban identity and pan-Latin American culture. She also used music as an avenue to discuss the sexism and racism experienced by Afro-Latinas. She’s remembered today for her contributions to salsa and representing opportunity and success for Latiné immigrants.


Calypso Rose (Linda McCartha Monica Sandy-Lewis) (1940 – Present) is a Trinidadian calypso artist known for revolutionizing the world of calypso for women through her activism of using her music and lyrics to target social issues such as domestic violence, sexism, and racism. For example, her 1955 song titled “Glass Thief” was the first calypso song denouncing inequality between the sexes. In fact, Calypso Rose is responsible for the renaming of the Calypso King competition to the more gender-inclusive title of Calypso Monarch in 1978, after winning the title with her song “I thank Thee” and after being the first female Calypsonian to win the competition in 1963. She lives in Queens, NY and continues to produce new music, collaborating with other legendary artists, such as Carlos Santana.


Azar Nafisi (1955 – present) is an Iranian American writer and professor of English literature. Her groundbreaking “memoir in books,” Reading Lolita in Tehran, has changed countless people’s perceptions of both the experiences of Iranian women and classic works of literature. Nafisi has lectured and written extensively in English and Persian on the political implications of literature and culture, the human rights of Iranian women and girls and the important role they play in the change process for pluralism and open society in Iran. She has been consulted on issues related to Iran and human rights by policy makers and various human rights organizations in the U.S. and elsewhere. She has also advocated against the persecution of Baha’is in Iran. In 2011, she was awarded the Cristóbal Gabarrón Foundation International Thought and Humanities Award for her “determined and courageous defense of human values in Iran and her efforts to create awareness through literature about the situation women face in Islamic society.”


Cecilia Gentili (1972 – 2024) was an Argentine American activist and actress known for her work in the immigrant and transgender rights movements. Growing up in Argentina in the 1970s, she experienced sexual abuse and discrimination as a child. She came to the U.S. in the early 2000s as an undocumented immigrant, where she struggled with homelessness, addiction, and was trafficked as a sex worker. With support, she received asylum in 2012 and became an activist. In 2019, she founded Trans Equity Consulting, a development consulting firm that sought to center trans women of color, immigrants, sex workers, and incarcerated people. Gentili’s activism was crucial in helping pass the New York state Gender Expression and Discrimination Act in 2019 and successfully fighting to defend trans protections for healthcare in the Affordable Care Act in a lawsuit. She also established a health care clinic COIN, which stands for Cecilia’s Occupational Inclusion Network. It raised millions of dollars for trans health care and developed statewide policies for the protections of trans people. Gentili passed away in February 2024.


Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (1977 – present) is considered one of the great writers of her generation and is a prominent voice in contemporary African literature. Born in Nigeria, Chimamanda Adichie studied medicine and pharmacy at the University of Nigeria. At age 19, in 1997, she came to the United States. In her books and writing, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie delves into themes of Nigeria, America, and the immigrant experience. A feminist, she addresses the issue of gender, comments on how women deal differently with immigration, and discusses the experience of abuse and the loneliness of an immigrant woman. In 2008, she was awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant. In 2009, Adichie gave a TED talk titled “The Danger of a Single Story” where she discussed her concerns about under-representation of various cultures. It has become one of the most viewed TED talks of all time, having amassed over 27 million views. In a 2014 interview, Adichie said on feminism and writing: “I think of myself as a storyteller, but I would not mind at all if someone were to think of me as a feminist writer… I’m very feminist in the way I look at the world, and that world view must somehow be part of my work.”


Halima Aden (1997 – present) is a Somali American fashion model and activist. She was born in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya and moved to the United States when she was 6. Halima broke boundaries at every stage of her career, becoming the first hijab-wearing model to be signed to a major agency, walk international runways, and appear on the cover of Vogue magazine. Soon after, Halima became a UNICEF ambassador, where she advocates for children’s rights and uses her platform to raise funds and awareness for the global refugee crisis.