12 Notable Virginia Women

From European Settlement to Today

Women have played important roles in the history of the commonwealth of Virginia - and Virginia has played an important part in the lives of women. Here are 10 women worth knowing (eight are included in the picture):
01
of 12

Virginia Dare (1587 - ?)

The first English colonists in America settled on Roanoke Island, and Virginia Dare was the first white child of English parents born on Virginia soil. But the colony later disappeared. Its fate and the fate of little Virginia Dare are among history's mysteries.

Captain John Smith saved by Pocahontas
An image reflecting the story told by Captain John Smith of being saved from Powhatan's death sentence by Powhatan's daughter Pocahontas. Adapted from an image courtesy of US Library of Congress.

Legendary rescuer of Captain John Smith, she was the daughter of a local Indian chief. She married John Rolfe and visited England and, tragically, died before she could return to Virginia, only twenty-two years young.

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Martha Washington
Martha Washington. Stock Montage/Stock Montage/Getty Images

Wife of the first United States President, Martha Washington's wealth helped establish George's reputation, and her habits of entertaining during his Presidential term helped set the pattern for all future First Ladies.

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04
of 12

Elizabeth Keckley (1818 - 1907)

Elizabeth Keckley
Elizabeth Keckley. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Born a slave in Virginia, Elizabeth Keckley was a dressmaker and seamstress in Washington, D.C. She became Mary Todd Lincoln's dressmaker and confidante. She became embroiled in a scandal when she helped a destitute Mrs. Lincoln auction off her clothing after the President's assassination, and in 1868, published her diaries as another attempt to raise money for herself and Mrs. Lincoln.

Clara Barton
Clara Barton. SuperStock / Getty Images

Famed for her Civil War nursing, her post-Civil War work to help document the many missing and her founding of the American Red Cross, Clara Barton's first Civil War nursing ventures were in the Virginia theater.

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Virginia Louisa Minor
Virginia Louisa Minor. Getty Images / Kean Collection

 Born in Virginia, she became a supporter of the Union in the Civil War in Missouri, and then a women's suffrage activist.  The key Supreme Court Decision, Minor v. Happersett, was brought by her husband in her name (under the law at the time, she could not sue on her own).

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07
of 12

Varina Banks Howell Davis (1826 - 1906)

Varina Davis
Varina Davis. Courtesy Library of Congress

Married at eighteen to Jefferson Davis, Varina Howell Davis became the First Lady of the Confederacy as he became its President. After his death, she published his biography.

Maggie Lena Walker
Maggie Lena Walker. Courtesy National Park Service

African American business woman, daughter of a former slave, Maggie Lena Walker opened the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank in 1903 and served as its President, leading it to become the Consolidated Bank and Trading Company of Richmond as it merged other black-owned banks into the organization.

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09
of 12

Willa Cather (1873 - 1947)

Willa Sibert Cather, 1920s
Willa Sibert Cather, 1920s. Culture Club / Getty Images

Usually identified with the pioneer Midwest or with the Southwest, Willa Cather was born near Winchester, Virginia, and lived there for her first nine years. Her last novel, Sapphira, and the Slave Girl was set in Virginia.

Portrait of Nancy Astor, about 1926
Portrait of Nancy Astor, about 1926. The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

Raised in Richmond, Nancy Astor married a wealthy Englishman, and, when he vacated his seat in the House of Commons to take a seat in the House of Lords, she ran for Parliament. Her victory made her the first woman elected as a member of Britain's Parliament. She was known for her sharp wit and tongue.

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11
of 12

Nikki Giovanni (1943 - )

Nikki Giovanni at Her Desk, 1973
Nikki Giovanni at Her Desk, 1973. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

A poet who was a college professor at Virginia Tech, Nikki Giovanni was an activist for civil rights in her college years. Her interest in justice and equality is reflected in her poetry. She's taught poetry as a visiting professor at many colleges and has encouraged writing in others. 

12
of 12

Katie Couric (1957 - )

Katie Couric
Katie Couric. Evan Agostini/Getty Images

Longtime co-anchor of NBC's Today show, and CBS Evening News anchor, Katie Couric grew up and attended school in Arlington, Virginia, and graduated from the University of Virginia. Her sister Emily Couric served in the Virginia Senate and was assumed to be headed for higher office before her untimely death in 2001 of pancreatic cancer.