Women's History Month: 12 Mothers Who've Made History in Los Angeles

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Making Herstory in LA

March 8 was celebrated as International Women's Day, with marches and demonstrations around the world, including one in front of the federal building in Downtown Los Angeles. The day honoring women and their accomplishments dates back to 1911.

In Los Angeles County, the majority of the population is comprised of women and girls, according to the latest census figures. There are countless women and mothers who have made history in Los Angeles. Today, we are presenting 12 of them, whose stout-hearted vision and hard work left an impact in our city:

 

Toypurina (1760-1799)

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The Native American medicine woman and mother of three, led a rebellion against Spanish colonization. She viewed the Spanish missionaries as a threat to her culture since the friars forbade the indians to hold their native rituals and dances. On October 27, 1785 after recruiting half a dozen villages, she led an attack againts the Mission San Gabriel Arcangel intended to kill all Spaniard residents. The operation was unsuccessful and she eventually married a Catholic man but her leadership and cultural preservation efforts were never forgotten.

 

Biddy Mason (1818-1891)

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Biddy Mason was an African-American nurse and a California real estate entrepreneur and philanthropist who founded the First African Methodist Episcopal Church. Born into slavery in Georgia, she was one of the first African Americans to purchase land in Los Angeles. The mother of three daughters amassed a relatively large fortune of nearly $3,000,000, which she shared generously with charities. Given her generosity, many knew her as "Auntie Mason" and "Grandma Mason".

 

Harriet Williams Russell Strong (1844-1926)

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A leading figure of the early women’s movement, Harriet Russell Strong became a widow with four daughters in 1883. Her husband left behind mines and lands in Southern California and Russell Strong managed his estate known as Ranchito del Fuerte in the San Gabriel Valley. In 1897 she drilled a number of artesian wells and installed a pumping plant. She made a study of water problems and proposed a succession of dams to conserve water. A few years later she was granted a patent for a dam and reservoir construction for which she received two invention medals. Her invention was a series of dams, one behind the other to be built in such a way that when the water filled the lower dam it would extend up to a certain height upon the lower face of the second dam and act as a support for the dam above it. She urged and convinced the government to use this method for the flood waters of the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon.
 

 

Christine Sterling

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Known as the “Mother of Olvera Street”, Christine Sterling orchestrated a one-woman campaign to save the Avila Adobe structure located on Olvera Street, which had once housed American luminaries and generals. In the 1920’s Olvera Street was a dirty, rundown area with a bad reputation. Sterling envisioned a beautiful plaza with a “Marketplace of Yesterday in a City of Today.” When the Avila Adobe house was scheduled to be demolished, she posted a sign and led a campaign that called on Angelenos to show honor and respect to the history of their city by “making sacred the spot where the city of Los Angeles was born.”

 

Mary Pickford

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The actress and co-founder of United Artists was known as “America’s Sweerheart”. In 1919, along with Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith co-founded the independent film production company, United Artists. As she aged, she realized acting roles and opportunities were scarce for aging actors and created the Motion Picture Relief Fund. She adopted two children with husband Buddy Rogers and received the second ever Academy Award for Best Actress.

 

Dorothy Chandler

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A prominent philanthropist, Dorothy Buffum Chandler promoted performing arts in Los Angeles with passion. She moved from Illinois to Long Beach with her family in 1904. In 1992, she married Norman Chandler, who was the eldest son of the Los Angeles Times publishing Chandler family. Chandler organized, among other things, a series of fundraisers to help the Hollywood Bowl reopen after it had closed due to financial problems and high debt. Then she focused her efforts in creating a performing arts center in Los Angeles. In 1967, the Music Center opened, housing the Ahmanson Theater, Mark Taper Forum, and her namesake, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Chandler had two children, Camilla and Otis.

 

Aurora Castillo

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A fourth generation Mexican-American, Aurora Castillo could not accept the news that plans for an eighth prison in East Los Angeles were underway by the state of California. She felt the predominantly Latino community that she loved so much was fast becoming a penal colony so she met with her pastor and two other women to oppose the new prison. Her motivation and leadership led to the creation of The Mothers of East Los Angeles (MELA), a community organization fighting to protect East Los Angeles from environmental and public health threats. The community named her “La Doña” and followed her guidance organizing marches and protests condemming the prison. The city eventually decided to relocate the jail to another city. Castillo never had children but her organization offered mothers an opportunity to advocate for a safe environment for their children.  

 

Bella Lewitzy

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This dance choreographer, teacher and performer co-founded the Dance Theater Los Angeles which was one of few institutions in the United States to house both a dance school and theater under the same roof. Born to Russian and Jewish parents, Lewitzy moved to Los Angeles in the early 1940s where she studied ballet and became the lead dancer at Lester Horton’s Horton Dance Group. She worked as a choreographer in many films and in 1990, upon receiving a $72,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), she crossed out the Anti-Obscenity rule, which gave the NEA the freedom to restrict art that it considered obscene in any way. Lewitsky sued the NEA and the clause was ruled unconstitutional which allowed her to have the grant reinstated. Following the ordeal, Lewtisky gave the New York Times an interview in which she said: “I've been struggling in dance for 28 years. To exist merely to exist is stupidity. To exist to make art is a pretty grand act” Lewitsky had one daughter, Nora, who grew up to continue teaching Lewitsky’s dance technique.

 

Esther Wong

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The “Godmother of Punk” was given that name for good reason. Upon arriving in Los Angeles from Shanghai, Wong became a promoter of Punk Rock and New Wave music. She owned Madame Wong’s in Chinatown which she transformed into a power-pop palace where notable bands performed for years, including The Ramones, Guns N’ Roses, The Police and Red Hot Chili Peppers. Wong was known to be fierce and had a short temper. She once stopped a show until two members of the Ramones cleaned up bathroom graffiti. The no nonsense businesswoman had two children and eventually opened a second Madame Wong’s concert venue in Santa Monica.

 

Louise Huebner

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Los Angeles County’s only "official witch” began reading palms at the age of ten. She promoted a series of “happenings” or performances at the Hollywood Bowl, beginning in 1968. During the first Folklore Festival, she was presented the title of official county witch. As a gesture of gratitude, she cast a spell during a presentation at the Hollywood Bowl to increase the sexual vitality of the residents of Los Angeles. When a county counsel threatened to take away the title from Huebner citing what he considered inappropriate sexual material in one of her published books, Huebner countered with a threat to reverse her sex spell. At that point, the county backed off. Huebner had three children with husband Mentor Huebner.

 

Paula Crisostomo

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Along with fellow college classmates and under the direction of her history teacher Sal Castro, Paula Crisostomo developed a list of demands to the Board of Education. Among them, bilingual and bicultural education, more Latino teachers, smaller class sizes, factually balanced text books and better school facilities. When her set of requests were denied, she led the East Los Angeles walkouts–– a series of 1968 protests by Chicano students. Even though only a few of the demands were eventually met, Crisostomo’s movement helped empower Mexican-Americans or Chicanos as a political force. She currently works as a school post-secondary education school administrator.

 

Gloria Molina

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Jesus Gloria Molina is the first Latina in history to be elected to the California State Legislature, the Los Angeles City Council, and the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. The LA Times once described her reputation as one of “picking fights, but she also picks her fights”. Molina was instrumental in helping Aurora Castillo kill a proposed prison in East L.A. in the 1980s. She spoke and acted against large government pensions and perks and budget practices. She was termed out of the LA County Board of Supervisors in 2014 but continues to be known as a leader who constantly looks out for Los Angeles' underserved and low income population, of which she was once one herself as the daughter of immigrants with nine other siblings. Molina has one daughter, Valentina.

Anabel Marquez