“I’m a Southern girl, but I’m a thinking girl.”-Yolande Betbeze, Miss America 1951
International Women’s Day, held on March 8, is a global celebration to honor the achievements of women throughout history. Throughout the history of Mobile, there are several women who stand out for their accomplishments. These women have defied traditional roles and acted as trailblazers, paving the way for future generations. These are seven of their stories.
Alva Belmont, Suffragist
Ava Belmont, a native resident of Mobile, was a wealthy socialite who used her influence to advance the rights of women. During her early life, Belmont was educated in France but then later moved to New York City where she met and married her first husband, William K. Vanderbilt, grandson of the railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt. After her second husband, Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont, passed away in 1908, she devoted her life to advocating for women’s rights. In 1909, Belmont founded the Political Equality Association, which was associated with the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Belmont took over the leadership of the National Women’s party in 1920, after the passing of the 19 Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. However, Belmont refused to vote until there was a female candidate in the running for president. In 2016, on Equal Pay Day, President Barack Obama established the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument in Washington D.C, in order to preserve the history and to recognize all of those who fought for gender equality.
Karen Mayson Bahnsen, LSU Golf Coach
Karen Mayson Bahnsen has been the head coach of the women’s golf team at LSU since 1985. In her 33 years as head coach, she has qualified for the NCAA Championship Tournament 11 times and led the Lady Tigers to an SEC victory in 1992. Bahnsen, a graduate of McGill-Toolen Catholic High School, was a star golf player and won the title of both a state and national high school champion in 1979. After graduating from McGill, Bahnsen continued her passion for the sport at Louisiana State University, where she was the first woman ever to receive a scholarship for golf. After graduating in 1984, she was named the head coach of the LSU women’s golf team. In just her second year of coaching, she had the number one player in the country on her team, five team titles and a top 10 NCAA Championship finish. Bahnsen is currently a Women’s Golf Coaches Association Hall of Famer and an inductee of the Mobile Sports Hall of Fame.
Fannie Motley, a native of Monroeville, Alabama, was the first African-American to graduate from Spring Hill College in 1956. She graduated with a Bachelor of Science and honors in both history and English. After graduating, Motley went on to be an elementary school teacher in the Mobile County School System. After some time in Mobile, Motley moved to Cincinnati with her husband, where she continued to teach for 24 years. Along with teaching, she also earned a Master’s degree in counseling from Xavier University. In 2004, Spring Hill College awarded Motley with an honorary doctorate of humanities and established the Fannie Motley Endowed Scholarship with the hopes of continuing to further diversity among students.
Kathryn Patricia Hire, Astronaut
Retired U.S. Navy pilot, Capt. Kathryn “Kay” Hire, has experienced the journey of a lifetime by traveling to space not once but twice. Before starting high school, Hire was inspired by an article she read about the first woman starting naval flight training in Pensacola. After graduating from Murphy High School, she went on to receive her Master’s degree in space systems and worked as a space shuttle engineer for NASA. Hire was presented with the opportunity to apply for the astronaut program, and in 1995 she became a part of the elite group. Hire is the first woman from Mobile to become an astronaut. Her commitment to challenging herself and advancing her career is an excellent example of how women are opening doors and serving as trailblazers for women of the future.
Lillian Belle George, Jazz and R&B artist
Lil Greenwood was born in Prichard, Alabama. She started her career as a teacher, but later decided to pursue her dream of becoming a singer. After her husband left with the military, she packed up everything and left for San Francisco. In San Francisco, she sang at the Purple Onion Club and even had the opportunity to record for the Modern and Federal labels. In 1956, she was asked by American composer, Duke Ellington, to perform as a soloist in his orchestra. After performing with Ellington, she recorded singles for several smaller labels. In 2007, she recorded the CD “Back to My Roots” with David Amram.
Augusta Evans, Novelist
Growing up in Columbus, Georgia, Augusta did not receive a formal education, but her love for reading was established at a young age. After her family suffered from bankruptcy, they moved from Georgia to San Antonio where she experienced the vibrant surroundings of the Mexican War. These experiences and surroundings inspired Evans to write her first book, Inez at fifteen. At 18, she wrote her second book, Beulah, which sold over 22,000 copies during its first year of publication and as a result established her as Alabama’s first professional author. Her most successful work of literature, St. Elmo, sold one million copies within four months. Evans was the first women in the United States to earn $100,000 from her writing.
Yolande Betbeze, Miss America
Yolande Betbeze, an activist for civil rights and the winner of the 1951 Miss America Pageant, was far from the stereotypical beauty queen. Betbeze quickly sparked controversy among the Miss America organizers when she refused to fit into a small bathing suit for a pinup style photoshoot saying “I am a singer, not a pinup”. She also publicly criticized the Miss America pageant for excluding minorities and picketed for civil rights. Betbeze fought hard for gender and race equality within the pageant community and her actions proved to be essential in progressing the Miss America program far beyond beauty to focus more on leadership and intelligence.