Women’s History Month: 25 Women in Los Angeles History

March is Women’s History Month, an observation which traces its beginnings to the first International Women’s Day, declared in 1911. As of 2014, Los Angeles County was home to an estimated 5,129,169 women, making it home to more women than any other county in the US. As of 2010, the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim urban area of about 2,697 women per square mile, making it the urban area most densely populated with women in the country. Here are 25 women who’ve had an impact on Los Angeles and Southern California.


In 1959 and 1960, a curator of anthropology and paleontology at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History discovered a femur on Santa Rosa Island (today part of Santa Barbara County). Carbon dating shows them to be approximately 13,000 years old, making them the oldest human remains found thus far in the Americas. The skeletal remains were first known simply as the Arlington Springs Man, as they were found near Arlington Springs. They were later determined to have belonged not to a man but to a woman. Her given name, of course, is unknown as is anything about her life and she surely had no idea what historical significance she’d have thirteen thousand years after her life which makes the Arlington Springs Woman, none of which makes her less fascinating.

TOYPURINA (1760–1799)

Toypurina was a Tongva shaman who opposed Spanish colonialism in California. She was a ten-year-old resident of the village of Jachivit when the Spanish began constructing Mission San Gabriel Arcángel nearby in Whittier Narrows. Floods destroyed that mission in 1776 and it was afterward rebuilt in its current location, in what’s now the city of San Gabriel. On 25 October 1785, Toypurina participated in a rebellion which aimed to destroy the mission and kill the Spanish within. The plot failed, however, and the Spanish annulled her marriage, converted her to Catholicism, and married her to a Spaniard with whom she fathered four children. She died and was buried at Mission San Juan Bautista on 22 May 1799, near Carmel. Although her efforts to drive out the Spanish failed, she has long been celebrated as a figure of resistance and she’s commemorated in a mural in Ramona Gardens in Boyle Heights, another mural in Pacoima by an all-women art collective, and in an art piece by Judy Baca at the Baldwin Park Metrolink Station.


The birth name of the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island (today part of Ventura County but then still Los Angeles) is forgotten although the her “rescuers” named her Juana Maria. Most of the the Natives living on San Nicolas Island at the time of the conquest were murdered by otter hunters working for the Russian-American Company. In the wake of the massacre, commander of the Peor es Nada, Charles Hubbard, was commissioned to remove all remaining Nicoleños but one woman remained and lived alone on the island from 1835 until her discovery in 1853. Her tale was the inspiration for Scott O’Dell‘s award-winning children’s book, Island of the Blue Dolphins (1960). After she was found, the lone woman was taken to Mission Santa Barbara and seven weeks later of dysentery, on 19 October 153, she died and was buried in an unmarked grave in the Mission’s cemetery.

BIDDY MASON (1818-1891)

Bridget Mason
Bridget “Biddy” Mason

Bridget “Biddy” Mason was a real estate entrepreneur, philanthropist, and the founder of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church of Los Angeles. Mason was born a slave on 15 August 1818 and given the name “Bridget’ before being presented as a gift to a slaveowner named Robert Smith. Bridget and a group of slaves escaped from Smith and successfully petitioned a Los Angeles court for their freedom (California was a free state) in 1856. Bridget chose the family name “Mason” after Amasa Mason Lyman, a Mormon Apostle and mayor of San Bernardino.

Upon settling in Los Angeles, Mason worked as a midwife and nurse and purchased a home on San Pedro Street, then home to most of Los Angeles’s community of about 48 black residents. In 1866 she purchased real estate on nearby Spring Street. Over time she acquired more property, operating a shelter, a traveler’s aid center, and a school for black students. In 1872, she and her son-in-law Charles co-founded the city’s first black church, First African Methodist Episcopal Church, at 312 Azusa Street. 

Mason died 15 January 1891 and was buried in an unmarked grave in Evergreen Cemetery. A tombstone was added in 1989. Biddy Mason Park now hosts a commemorative art piece, Biddy Mason’s Place: A Passage of Time, created by Sheila Levrant de Bretteville.


Helena Modjeska (née Jadwiga Benda)

Helena Modjeska was a celebrated actress from Poland and the namesake of Modjeska Canyon, an unincorporated community in Orange County. She was born Jadwiga Benda in 1840 in Kraków to Józefa (Misel) Benda and an unknown man — possibly Prince Władysław Sanguszko. She was baptized Helena Opid, taking the family name of Michael Opid, a music teacher employed by her family.

Józefa married her guardian, stage actor and director Gustaw Zimajer, who used the stage name “Gustaw Modrzejewski.” Their marriage wasn’t legal, however, since Gustaw was (unbeknownst to Józefa) already married to someone else. The couple produced two children, Rudolf and Marylka, the latter of whom died in infancy. Józefa made her stage debut in 1861 using the stage name Helena Modrzejewska, later shortened to Helena Modjeska. In 1865 she left Gustaw and spent the next eight years in Warsaw. In 1868 she married actor Karol Bożenta Chłapowski who, after the couple moved to the US in 1876, began billing himself as “Count Bozenta.” The couple purchased a ranch near Anaheim, then located in Los Angeles County, and formed a utopian colony. The Poles proved unsuited for communal life, however, and soon dispersed, with Helena opting to spend three years in England before returning to the US and becoming a citizen in 1883.

In the US she starred in some of the first American productions of Henrik Ibsen’s plays as well as works by Shakespeare and others. In 1893 spoke to a women’s conference at Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition which led to a travel ban in the Russian Empire. She was partially paralyzed by a stroke in 1897 but recovered and returned to the stage. She died in 1909, aged 68, in Newport Beach from nephritis. Her remains were sent to Kraków and buried in the family plot at the Rakowicki Cemetery.

Her colorful story was recounted in Life on the Modjeska Ranch in the Gay Nineties as well as her autobiography, Memories and Impressions of Helena Modjeska. Her Modjeska Canyon home, Arden, is a registered National Historic Landmark. He name was also leant to Modjeska Park, Modjeska Peak, and Modjeska Falls, California, as well as a caramel-covered marshmallow biscuit known as Modjeskas, a perfume, Bouquet Helena Modjeska, and the Modjeska Playhouse. A statue of her stands outside Pearson Park Amphitheater in Anaheim.


Harriet Williams Russell Strong (The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography, 1921)

Harriet Williams Russell Strong was an inventor, composer, historic preservationist, social activist, and advocate for water conservation. Strong was born Harriet Russell to Henry Pierrepont and Mary Guest Musier in Buffalo, New York. She was schooled at Young Ladies Seminary at Benicia, California and received private instruction as well. In 1861, the Russell Family moved to Carson City, Nevada where Harriet met Charles Lyman Strong, whom she married when she was nineteen.

The Strongs moved to Whittier where they purchased land from Pio Pico and founded an estate, Ranchito del Fuerte. After a series of business failures, Charles Strong commit suicide in 1883 leaving Harriet to raise their four daughters and maintain his properties which included mines and the estate. On the latter, Strong planted pampas grass, oranges, pomegranates, and walnuts. In 1887 she was granted a patent for a new design of dam and reservoir. She was honored at the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 and the following year obtained another patent for a method of water storage and debris impoundment.

In 1897, Harriet Strong purchased a 400 hectare tract on which were dug a number of artesian wells and upon which a pumping plant was constructed. Strong incorporated the property as Paso de Bartolo Water Company and served as its president. The role of the company’s treasurer and secretary were filled by two of her daughters. Four years later she sold the company. In 1918 she urged the government to build dams on the Colorado River to control floods, increase irrigation, and generate electricity.

Strong was also a music composer, published songs, and served as vice president of the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra Association. In 1927 she co-founded the Ebell of Los Angeles and served as its president for three consecutive terms. She was a member of the Friday Morning Club and Ruskin Art Club. She was the first female member of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce.

Harriet Williams Russell Strong died as a result of an automobile accident in 1926. She was 82 years old. She was buried in the Great Mausoleum, Sanctuary of the Beatitudes at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale. After her death, the Hoover Dam and the All-American Canal were constructed, employing Strong’s innovations. A street, Strong Avenue, runs between Workman Mill Road and Pioneer Boulevard in the unincorporated community of Rose Hills.


Clara Shortridge Foltz

Clara Shortridge Foltz was a lawyer, writer, public lecturer, magazine publisher, and suffragette. Clara Foltz was born Carrie Shortridge in Lafayette, Indiana to Telitha and Elias Shortridge, the latter a preacher and lawyer. During the Civil War the Shortridge family moved to Mount Pleasant, Iowa.

In 1864, when Carrie was fifteen, she eloped with a farmer named Jeremiah D. Foltz. The family moved to Portland before settling in San Jose in 1872, where she contributed articles to local newspapers. In 1876, Jeremiah abandoned Clara and their five children and she afterward began studying law, supported in part by a suffragette named Sarah Knox-Goodrich. She also gave public lectures, beginning in 1877, on women’s suffrage.

Foltz was prevented from taking the bar exam due to her being a woman. Foltz then authored a bill which replaced the words “white male” to “person” and in 1878 passed the examination and was admitted to the California bar. Felt applied to Hastings College of the Law but was initially denied due to her being a woman. Foltz sued the college, won, and was latterly admitted. In 1880, Foltz became the first female clerk for the State Assembly‘s Judiciary Committee.

At the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 she presented her idea for the public defender at the Board of Lady Managers — a concept now used to provide attorneys to criminal defendants throughout the country. In 1910 she became the first female deputy district attorney in the US. In 1911 she authored the Women’s Vote Amendment for California. In 1930, at the age of 81, she ran for governor of California.

In 1934 she died in her home of heart failure. She was 85 years old. Her cremated remains were interred at Inglewood Park Cemetery. Hastings College of Law posthumously granted Foltz a degree of Doctor of Laws in 1991 and a space in UC Hastings’s McAllister Tower was christened the Clara S. Foltz Lounge. In 2002, the Los Angeles’s Criminal Courts Building was renamed the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center.


Spirit of the Desert, by Painting by Corey Ench (2004)

Minerva Hamilton Hoyt was an environmentalist who advocated, in particular, for the desert. She was born in 1866 on a plantation in Holmes County, Mississippi and after marrying surgeon Albert Sherman Hoyt, moved with him to South Pasadena. There the socialites advocated for various civic causes, including the Los Angeles Symphony but Minerva developed a passion for the cacti and Joshua Trees (yucca brevifolia) which often decorated the yards of fashionable Spanish Colonial Revival homes

After the death of their infant son and then her husband in 1918, she increasingly focused her efforts on broadening appreciation of the desert, which also meant protecting it from being denuded by the would-be cactus poachers eager to transplant them to their yards. Beginning with the 1928 inauguration of the Garden Club of America, Hoyt began exhibiting desert plants to audiences in New York, Boston, London, and elsewhere, advocating for their preservation. In 1930 she founded the International Desert Conservation League. She also advocated for the creation of three parks: Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, Death Valley National Park, and Joshua Tree National Monument.

Mexican President Pascual Ortiz Rubio, who created a large cactus preserve at her urging, anointed Hoyt the “Apostle of Cacti” and in 1931 the Hoyt cactus (mammillaria hamiltonhoytea) was named after her. She died in 1945 and was buried at Mountain View Cemetery and Mausoleum in Altadena. In 1994, President Clinton signed the Desert Protection Act, adding over 80,000 hectares to Joshua Tree. In 2013, the US Board of Geographic Names named a peak within Joshua Tree “Mount Minerva Hoytand the Joshua Tree National Park Association annually presents recipients with the Minerva Hoyt California Desert Conservation Award.

JULIA MORGAN (1872-1957)

Julia Morgan
Julia Morgan

Architect Julia Morgan was a San Franciscan, but one who designed several notable buildings in Southern California. Morgan was born in San Francisco in 1872. She never married, had no public relationships, penned no biography, gave no interviews and most of what we know about her is through her work.

Morgan was the first woman to be admitted to the architecture program at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris. In 1904 she became the first female architect licensed in California. Her best known building in Southern California is La Cuesta Encantada, better known as “Hearst Castle,” which she designed for newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst and which was built in 1919 in San Luis Obispo County (where she also designed La Cuesta Encantada’s “Village Houses” as well as the Monday Club and Zegar Playhouse). 

In Los Angeles County, Morgan designed four YWCA buildings: The YWCA Harbor Area & South Bay in San Pedro, the Hollywood Studio Club, Long Beach YWCA (demolished), and the YWCA Padadena-Foothill Valley. In Riverside County she designed the YWCA Riverside County.

Morgan died 2 February 1957 and was buried in the Mountain View Cemetery in the hills of Oakland. Architecture remains a disproportionately-male field but nowadays the urban landscape which she helped shape is shared with buildings designed by local women including Alice Fung, Barbara Bestor, Cory Buckner, and landscape architect Mia Lehrer.

CHARLOTTA BASS (1874-1969)


Charlotta Amanda Spears Bass was an educator, newspaper publisher, civil rights activist, and politician. She was born in Sumter, South Carolina in 1874 to Hiram and Kate Spears, the sixth of eleven children. At twenty, she moved to Rhode Island where for about ten years she worked for the newspaper, The Providence Watchman.

Bass moved to California where she ended up working at The Eagle. After becoming its publisher in 1912, she renamed it The California Eagle and ran its operations with her husband, Joseph, until his death in 1934. At its peak it was the biggest black newspaper on the West Coast and Bass sold the paper in 1951 to further devote herself to political causes.

In the 1920s Bass had formed the Home Protective Association to challenge racial housing covenants in whites only neighborhoods. She also co-founded the Industrial Business Council, which fought racial discrimination amongst employers. She was the director of the Youth Movement of the NAACP and in the 1940s joined the Leftist Progressive Party. After serving as the National Chairman of the Sojourners for Truth and Justice she was nominated for vice president of the United States, running on the Progressive ticket with Vincent Hallinan with the message “Win or lose, we win by raising the issues.”

After Bass retired, she maintained a library in the garage of her home for the benefit of the community. She died in 1969 from a cerebral hemorrhage. She is buried alongside her husband in Evergreen Cemetery.


Christine Sterling

Christine Sterling was born in Chastine Rix in Oakland. She attended Mills College and studied art and design. After a brief marriage, she married her second husband, Jerome Hough and they moved to a house on Bonnie Brae Street in Los Angeles around 1920. After fathering two children, Hough abandoned his wife and children and soon after died, after which Chastine  widow chose the family name, “Sterling.”

In 1926 Sterling began a crusade to rehabilitate Olvera Street by transforming it into her romanticized vision of Mexican shopping district (Sterling never visited Mexico). After two years of effort but little to show, the city’s oldest standing residence, Avila Adobe, was condemned. Sterling wrote a history of the home and hosted a barbecue to raise funds for its preservation, which received donations from Los Angeles Times owner Harry Chandler and others. In 1930, Sterling’s “Paseo de Los Angeles” opened to the public.

Sterling’s next project was another western fantasy enclave, the walled China City, built in part from Hollywood set designs left over from The Good Earth. The original Chinatown had been demolished to allow for the construction of Union Station and the new China City opened to its northeast in 1938. Fire struck in 1939 and she rebuilt. Fire struck again in 1948 and she did not, but by then all of Little Italy had become a new Chinatown.

Sterling made the rehabilitated Avila Adobe her residence, offering tours, in later years with the aid of her assistant, Mario Valadez. In 1953 California acquired the home as part of El Pueblo de Los Angeles State Historic Park. In 1963, the “Mother of Olvera Street” died at home, aged 82.


McPherson Preaches
Aimee Semple McPherson

Aimee Semple McPherson was a Canadian-American evangelist, faith healer, radio pioneer, media celebrity, and founder of the Foursquare Church. She was born Aimee Elizabeth Kennedy on 9 October 1890 in Salford, Canada. After a revival meeting in 1907 she converted to Pentecostalism and in 1908 married the revival’s missionary, Robert Semple. During an evangelical tour of China, Robert died of dysentery.

Sister Aimee began speaking in tongues and leading tent revivals across the US and Canada and in 1917 she launched a religious women’s magazine, Bridal Call. After visiting Los Angeles in 1918 she decided to settle there and commissioned the building of the Angelus Temple in Echo Park, which was completed in 1923. In 1924, KFSG began broadcasting from the roof of the megachurch and the already hugely famous McPherson expanded her reach via the then-emerging technology.

In May 1926, Sister Aimee disappeared after going for a swim in Santa Monica. She resurfaced in Mexico five weeks later, claiming she’d been kidnapped and escaped from a shack where she’d been held for ransom. A theory circulated that the kidnapping had been a hoax designed to cover an affair she was having with a married church member. Sister Aimee maintained her innocence and eventually all charges against her were dropped but rumors of affairs continued to dog the thrice-married preacher, including one from actor Milton Berle.

Internal struggles within the church also vexed Sister Aimee. In 1927, her estranged mother left the church. In 1936, fellow evangelist Rheba Crawford Splivalo sued McPherson for $1,080,000, alleging she was a “Jezebel and a Judas” and thus unfit to lead her church. On 26 September 1944, Sister Aimee she died from an overdose of Seconal (secobarbital sodium) and other drugs, compounded by kidney failure. McPherson is buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale.

MARY PICKFORD (1892-1979)

Annex - Pickford, Mary_NRFPT_12
Mary Pickford

Mary Pickford was an actress, co-founder of the film studio United Artists, and one of the founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Though Canadian by birth, she was popularly known as “America’s Sweetheart.” Pickford was born Gladys Louise Smith in 1892 in Toronto to John Charles and Charlotte Smith. Her siblings Lottie and Jack also became actors. John Smith abandoned his family and died in 1898 from a workplace accident. When four years old, the Smith family was placed under quarantine and a visiting Catholic priest to baptize the children into his faith with young Gladys choosing the new name, “Gladys Marie Pickford.”

A stage manager who boarded at their home helped the children find work on the stage as actors and the family afterward toured the US by rail with the children appearing in various productions. The producer of The Warrens of Virginia, in which Gladys appeared, insisted on billing her as “Mary Pickford.” In 1909 she screen-tested for the Biograph Company which led to uncredited film roles. Exhibitors referred to the actress with an unknown name as “The Girl with the Golden Curls,” “Blondilocks,” and “The Biograph Girl.” After the success of Hearts Adrift (1914) she insisted on being billed by her stage name and paid in accordance with her rising popularity.

In 1919, Pickford, D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, and Douglas Fairbanks co-founded the independent film production company United Artists. Pickford and Fairbanks married in 1920. Pickford’s popularity waned as she aged, no longer able to convincingly play children and ingenues and in 1921, she set up the Motion Picture Relief Fund, an organization to help financially needy actors.

Pickford and Fairbanks divorced in 1936 and in 1937 she married musician Buddy Rogers. She retired from public life, for the most part, and died in a Santa Monica hospital of complications from a cerebral hemorrhage in 1979, aged 87. She was interred in the Garden of Memory of the Forest Lawn Memorial Park cemetery in Glendale.


Dorothy Buffum Chandler (Source: Otto Rotschild)

Dorothy Buffum Chandler was a philanthropist and promoter of the performing arts in Los Angeles. She was born Dorothy Mae Buffum in 1901 in La Fayette, Illinois and moved with her family to Long Beach in 1904. Whilst attending a dance at Stanford University she met Norman Chandler, eldest son of Los Angeles Times publishing Chandler family, and the two married in 1922. In 1945, Noman became the publisher of the Times and remained in the position until he was succeeded by their son, Otis, in 1960.

In 1950, Chandler chaired a committee that organized a series of fundraising concerts that allowed the Hollywood Bowl to re-open, and afterward served as the president of the Southern California Symphony Association. From 1954 to 1968, Chandler served as a regent of the University of California. From 1955 to 1973, Chandler was director of the Times Mirror, parent company of the Times.

In 1955 she began a crusade to fund the construction of a performing arts center which led to her being featured on the cover of Time Magazine in 1964. In 1967, the Music Center opened in Bunker Hill, home to the Ahmanson Theatre, the Mark Taper Forum, and her namesake, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.  In 1985 she was awarded a National Medal of Arts from the National Endowment for the Arts. She died in 1997 and her ashes were scattered at sea. In 2005, the Walt Disney Concert Hall held a Dorothy Chandler concert in her memory.

ANNA MAY WONG (1905-1961)

Wong, Anna May_03
Anna May Wong, 1937

Anna May Wong was a fashion icon, social activist, and one of the first Asian-American movie stars. She was born Wong Liu Tsong in 1905 to parents Wong Sam Sing and Lee Gon Toy who ran a laundry service in Chinatown. At nine years old, Tsong began her attempts to become a film actress although her wish wasn’t granted until she appeared, uncredited, in 1919’s The Red Lantern.

As Anna May Wong, she appeared in more films — usually as either a scheming dragon lady or innocent “lotus blossom.” In 1922 she received top billing in The Toll of the Sea, the first film shot entirely in two-strip Technicolor process. In 1924 she stole the show as a Mongol slave in The Thief of Baghdad.  Frustrated with the limited roles available in Hollywood, she moved to the UK in 1928, and appeared in several films including the well-received Piccadilly (1929).

With the promise of better roles, Wong returned to Hollywood, only to be turned down from the lead in The Good Earth for being “too Chinese to play Chinese” — the role was instead played by Austrian actress Luise Rainer. Her last two starring film roles were in Poverty Row anti-Japanese propagandas, Bombs Over Burma and The Lady from Chungking. In 1951 she starred on The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong, the first television series to star an Asian-American.

Wong was planning on returning to film in 1961 with Flower Drum Song when she died of a heart attack in Santa Monica. She was 56 years old. Her cremated remains were interred in her mother’s grave at AngelusRosedale Cemetery in Pico-Union.

Since her death her name, Anna May Wong has inspired film retrospectives, awards (the Anna May Wong Award of Excellence), poetry (“No One Ever Tried to Kiss Anna May Wong”), plays (China Doll, The Imagined Life of an American Actress), books (Perpetually Cool: The Many Lives of Anna May Wong, Anna May Wong: A Complete Guide to Her Film, Stage, Radio and Television Work, and Anna May Wong: From Laundryman’s Daughter to Hollywood Legend), and films (Anna May Wong: In Her Own Words and Anna May Wong: Frosted Yellow Willows). She is also depicted in the statue, Gateway to Hollywood, an art piece meant to laud Hollywood’s diversity.


Aurora Castillo
Aurora Castillo

Aurora Castillo was an environmentalist and co-founder of the Mothers of East Los Angeles. She was born in 1914, one of four children, to Frances and Joaquin Pedro Castillo, who worked in a laundromat. Her mother dreamt of her becoming a bank teller but her teachers at Garfield High steered her, like all Latinas back then, into home economics to prepare them for lives as housewives. Castillo never married, though, and instead enrolled in business college. She also worked for dance instructor Trinidad Goni, who repaid her with dance lessons. Her interest in dance an interest in drama which she then studied at Los Angeles City College.

In 1984 Castillo, nicknamed “La Doña,” co-founded the Mothers of East Los Angeles (MELA). MELA fought to stop the construction of oil pipelines, prisons, toxic waste incinerators, and waste treatment plants in working class neighborhoods and — in the case of the incinerator, Vernon. In 1995 she was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize for protecting East Los Angeles from toxic waste and environmental racism — the first Angeleno to receive the honor. She died in 1998. She was 84 years old.

BELLA LEWITZKY (1916-2004)

Bella Lewitzky

Bella Lewitzky was a modern dance choreographer, teacher, defender of artistic expression, and champion of performing arts in Los Angeles. She was born to Russian Jewish immigrants in Llano del Rio, a utopian socialist colony in the Antelope Valley. She later lived on a ranch in San Bernardino before moving to Los Angeles where she studied ballet and in 1934 joined Lester Horton’s Horton Dance Group. As the group’s lead dancer, she and Horton collaborated on Salome (1937) and Lewitzky married another member of the company, Newell Taylor Reynolds. Lewitzky appeared as a dancer in the 1943 film, White Savage.

In 1946 Lewitzky and Horton co-founded Dance Theater of Los Angeles and the two again collaborated, producing The Beloved (1948) and she choreographed, with Horton, in the film Bagdad (1949). She left the company in 1950 and worked as choreographer in two more films,  Tripoli (1950) and Prehistoric Women (1950). In 1951 she was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee and refusing to name names, informed the committee “I am a dancer, not a singer.”

In 1955, after giving birth to her daughter Nora, she moved to Idyllwild where in 1958 she became the founding chair of the dance department at the Idyllwild School of Music and the Arts (now the Idyllwild Arts Academy). She founded the Lewitzky Dance Company in 1966, which she directed until 1997, and created works including On the Brink of Time (1969), Kinaesonata (1970), and Greening (1976).

Lewitzky received honorary doctorates from California Institute of Arts, Occidental College, Otis Parsons College, and the Juilliard School. In 1991 she was a recipient of the Heritage Award from the National Dance Association. In 1996, she was awarded the National Medal of Arts. She had a heart attack after a stroke and died in 2004 at an assisted-care center in Pasadena. She was 88 years old.

ESTHER WONG (1917- 2005)

Esther Wong 1917-2005 asiansmakingmusic.tumblr.com
Esther Wong

Esther Wong was a restauranteur and music promoter who played a central role in establishing the Chinatown punk scene. Wong was born in Shanghai in 1917 as a child traveled widely with her father, an importer. The family emigrated to Los Angeles in 1949 after the communists came to power. Later, as proprietor of Madame Wong’s in Chinatown, she began booking punk, power-pop, and new wave acts after becoming aware of the burgeoning scene over at at “Atomic Nancy” Sekizawa’s Atomic Café in Little Tokyo.

Prior to punk Wong had focused on Polynesian acts (her husband George was Hawaiian), but audiences were small. Wong smelled opportunity and took a chance on the new wave and Madame Wong’s thus served as a venue for bands including The Alley Cats, Bags, Black Flag, Candy, Daniel Amos, Fear, Fishbone, The Go-Go’s, Guns ’n’ Roses, The Knack, Los Illegals, The Motels, Naughty Sweeties (whose single album was titled Chinatown), Oingo Boingo, The Ramones, The PlimsoulsThe Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Textones, The Twisters, X, and others. Soon, neighboring venue Hong Kong Café followed suit, booking bands like The Weirdos, Germs,The PlugzCatholic Discipline, The Mau Mau’sBags, UXA, The Smart Pills, Nervous Gender, and others. The so-called “Godmother of Punk” wasn’t actually a fan of the music, but her role booking the bands undeniably established Chinatown, along with Hollywood and East Los Angeles as important local punk centers. 

Madame Wong’s closed after a fire in 1985. Her other venue, Madame Wong’s West, in Santa Monica, closed in 1991. Esther Wong died at her home from emphysema and lung cancer in 2005. She was 88 years old.

CARMEN ZAPATA (1927-2014)

Carmen Zapata, 1982 (Source: Los Angeles Times )

Carmen Margarita Zapata was an actress born in New York City to a Mexican father and an Argentine mother in 1927. Zapata made her Broadway debut in the chorus of Oklahoma! in 1946 and went on to appear in over 100 film and television roles. She also performed as a comedian under the name suitably Anglo bastardization of her name, Marge Cameron. She married Ron Friedman in 1957, they divorced in 1963.

In 1972 — with actors Ricardo Montalban, Edith Diaz, and Henry Darrow — Zapata co-founded the Screen Actors Guild Ethnic Minority Committee. From 1973-1977, Zapata starred as Doña Luz on the US’s first bilingual children’s show, PBS’s Villa Alegre.  In 1973, she co-founded the Bilingual Foundation of the Arts (BFA) with Cuban-born Margarita Galban and Argentine-born Estela Scarlata. She ultimately produced over eighty plays for the BFA stage and additionally taught drama at the Academy of Stage and Cinema Arts and the East Los Angeles College Theatre Arts. In 1976, she co-starred on ABC’s short-lived East Los Angeles-set sitcom, Viva Valdez.

In 1993 Zapata was appointed Commissioner of the City of Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department. Zapata died on in 2014 from heart disease. She was 86 years old.

MITZI SHORE (1930-present)

Richard Pryor, Mitzi Shore, David Letterman, and Robin Williams

Mitzi Shore is the proprietor of Los Angeles’s oldest stand-up venue, The Comedy Store. As such she has nurtured, shaped, and developed the stand-up scene and helped establish Los Angeles as a center of stand-up. Shore was born Mitzi Saidel 25 July 1930 in Wisconsin. She married comedian Sammy Shore and the couple produced four children including Pauly “The Weasel” Shore, bro.

Before the modern era, in which stand-up comedians fill stadiums and release specials on Netflix every three days, comedians attempted to eke out an a living on Vaudeville or the Chitlin’ Circuit. By the 1960s they appeared as opening acts, talk show guests, at night clubs, coffee bars, resorts, folk clubs, &c. In 1972 the Shores and Rudy De Luca co-founded The Comedy Store in the former location of Ciro’s, in Hollywood. Shortly after, The Tonight Show moving from New York to Burbank, New York’s Improv (the inspiration for The Comedy Store) opened a location in Fairfax, and in 1979 the Laugh Factory opened, all helping cement Los Angeles’s importance in the growing scene.

The Shores divorced in 1974 and Mitzi Shore assumed control of the venue which in 1976 began hosting the annual televised special, HBO Young Comedians. In 1978 she opened a female-comics-only section, The Belly Room. After a six week protest by comedians she reluctantly capitulated to their demands to be paid and soon, paying comedians became common practice.

Today Mitzi Shore is 85 years old, suffers from Parkinson’s, and is no longer involved in the day-to-day business at The Comedy Store, which is run by her children.

LOUISE HUEBNER (1931-2014)

Louise Huebner, 1969 (Source: Michael Rougier)

Louise C. Huebner is a psychic, astrologer, and the only woman to hold the position of Los Angeles County’s official witch. Huebner began reading palms at a children’s carnival when she was ten. After moving to Los Angeles she worked as an astrologer and was a frequent guest on local television and radio, especially AM 570 KLAC, where she was a regular from 1965-1969.

In 1968 Huebner promoted a series of “happenings” at the Hollywood Bowl. At the first, the Folklore Festival, then-Chairman of the Board of County Supervisors Ernest Debs presented her with a certificate designating her the official witch of Los Angeles County. In return she cast a spell to increase the sexual vitality of Angelenos and presented Debs with a golden horn for personal use. In 1969 she published a book titled Power Through Witchcraft and released a spoken word collaboration with electronic music pioneers Bebe and Louis Barron, titled Seduction Through Witchcraft. Apparently some officials got uptight about the words “Official witch of Los Angeles” appearing on works which included instructions about how to have a proper orgy and then-County Counsel John D. Maharg asked her to rescind her title.  Huebner threatened to reverse her sex spell and the county backed off.

In 1970, Huebner was presented with a broom by the mayor of Salem, Massachusetts but by the mid-1970s had mostly vanished from public. For a time she operated Pasadena’s Mini-mall Antiques and Collectibles, after the death of her husband, artist Mentor Huebner, in 2001, oversaw the maintenance of his legacy.

NANCY VALVERDE (1932-present)

Nancy Valverde

Nancy Valverde is a barber and gender non-conformist. She was born in 1932 in Deming, New Mexico. When she was nine years old, she moved with her family to Lincoln Heights. As a child she picked apricots, cotton, and worked in a kitchen before she was even a teenager. She later worked as a delivery driver for a bakery in Chavez Ravine.

Nancy From East Side Clover – Trailer from L.A. A Queer History on Vimeo

When she was fifteen, before she identified as a lesbian, she began wearing boy’s clothing. When she was seventeen she was arrested for the first time for the crime of “masquerading” and sentenced to three months in prison. After release she was kicked out of the house by her mother. She went on to obtained a barber’s license and in addition to cuting hair managed an apartment building and helped raise the child of a woman who became her lover.

OPEN DOOR Trailer from maya santos on Vimeo

Over time Valverde became something of a butch icon, inspiring Raquel Gutiérrez’s performance, The Barber of East L.A.; appearing in the documentary On These Shoulders We Stand and Nancy from East Side Clover; informing the books Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians, Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginariesand Lavender Los Angeles; as well as Fieldwork’s installation, Open Door.


Sheila Levrant de Bretteville

Sheila Levrant de Bretteville is an artist, graphic designer, educator, and social activist. She was born in 1940 in Brooklyn and is mostly associated with the East Coast — but she did play a significant role in Lost Angeles’s feminist art scene. 

In 1971, Levrant de Bretteville founded the first design program for women at the

de Bretteville’s poster for the Women in Design conference held at the Los Angeles Woman’s Building in 1975. (Woman’s Building records, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution)

California Institute of the Arts. In 1973 she co-founded the Feminist Studio Workshop (located in Dogtown‘s Woman’s Building) with Judy Chicago and Arlene Raven. In 1980, Bretteville initiated the communication design program at the Otis College of Art and Design

Levrant de Bretteville returned to the East Coast and in 1990 she became the director of the Yale University Graduate Program in Graphic Design and the first woman to receive tenure at the Yale University School of Art. In 2004 she was awarded a Gold Medal from the American Institute of Graphic Arts. She also holds degrees from Barnard College and Yale, and Honorary Doctorates from the Moore College of Art and California College of the Arts She is a member of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences.

ARLENE RAVEN (1944-2006)

Arlene Raven

Arlene Raven was an author, art historian, critic, educator and founder of several feminist organizations. She was born Arelene Rubin in Baltimore, Maryland in 1944, to Joseph and Annette Rubin. Rubin earned an Artium Baccalaureatus from Hood College in 1965, an MFA in painting from George Washington University, and a PhD in art history from Johns Hopkins University in 1975. Like Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, she was primarily associated with the East Coast but also played a significant role in Lost Angeles’s feminist art scene. 

In 1973, Raven co-founded the Feminist Studio Workshop with Levrant de Bretteville and Judy Chicago. The same year she co-founded The Center for Feminist Art Historical Studies with fellow art historian Ruth Iskin. In 1976, Raven was part of The Lesbian Art Project. In the West Coast, Raven taught at the California Institute of the Arts, UCLA, and University of Southern California.

She also taught at Maryland Institute College of Art, Parsons The New School for Design, and The New School for Social Research. In the 1980s she was the chief art critic for the Village Voice. In 2000, Raven became critic-in-residence at the Rinehart School of Sculpture. In 2002, she received the Frank Jewett Mather Award for art criticism from the College Art Association. Raven died of cancer at her home in Brooklyn in 2006. She was 62 years old.

PAULA CRISOSTOMO (1949-present)

Paula Crisostomo is an activist known for her role in the historic East Los Angeles walkouts. Crisostomo was one of eight children born to Panfilo and Francis Crisostomo, in 1949. In 1967, she and others became dissatisfied with the substandard education they felt they were receiving in Eastside high schools.

paula crisosotomo
Paula Crisostomo

Inspired in part by a history teacher, Sal Castro, Paula Crisostomo, several college students, and groups including the United Mexican American Students and the Brown Berets developed a series of demands including bilingual and bicultural education, more Latino teachers and administrators, smaller class sizes, factually balanced text books, and better school facilities. They presented their demands to the Board of Education. Denied, Crisostomo and others led the “East LA Blowouts,” which affected schools in the Eastside communities of Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles, El Sereno, and Lincoln Heights — as well as Belmont High School in Westlake.

The walkouts were the largest in US history, and although few of their demands were met, the movement helped empower Chicanos as a political force and increase their solidarity with black nationalists, Students for a Democratic Society, and other groups. The events also inspired the 2006 HBO film Walkout (although in typical Hollywood fashion, Filipino Panfilo was portrayed by a Mexican-American actress and Paula was portrayed by a white woman). Paula Crisostomo also appeared in the PBS documentary Chicano! Taking Back the Schools. Today she serves as Director of Government and Community Relations for Occidental College.


California Bar Journal: A hundred years later, a trailblazer gets her due

The Hidden History of LA: Toypurina

Los Angeles Revisited: Harriett Strong in Whittier, Cal.

Los Angeles Times: Aurora Castillo; Advocate for East L.A.

Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft ContemporaryForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistCurbedLAEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRWWhich Way, LA?, at Emerson College, and the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on AmebaDuolingoFacebookGoodreadsInstagramMubiand Twitter.

Art Prints

3 thoughts on “Women’s History Month: 25 Women in Los Angeles History

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