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Four Historic Women with Disabilities

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Four Women with Disabilities from History You May Have Overlooked 

Women with disabilities are powerful, complex, and accomplished people with valuable insights. Unfortunately, many famous women from history have had their disability identity erased from their legacy in the historical record. By highlighting women with disabilities from history, we honor these women’s legacies and send a message to today’s women with disabilities that they have the power to be tomorrow’s leaders.

With that in mind, here are four women with disabilities from history you may have overlooked:


Harriet Tubman. Most famous for being a conductor on the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman was an escaped enslaved woman who dedicated her life to assisting other enslaved people escape to freedom. She acquired several disabilities as a direct result of her enslavement and had frequent headaches, narcolepsy, and seizures throughout her life. More recently, academics are beginning to highlight the role her disabilities played in her prominence as a freedom fighter.

Frida Kahlo. Frida Kahlo was a famous Mexican painter whose work centered around themes of pain, self-image, and beauty. While most people know Frida Kahlo’s imagery and bold self-portraits, her experience with chronic pain is consistently erased from accounts of her life. After a childhood experience with polio and a severe bus accident, Frida Kahlo often used a wheelchair and many times painted from her bed. Some critics believe that it is this experience that makes her work so powerful.


Fannie Lou Hamer. Born into a poor sharecropper family in rural Mississippi, Fannie Lou Hamer found her calling as a voter’s rights activist when she was in her mid 40s. Hamer also had polio as a child, the effects of which were exacerbated by a later brutal altercation with police in a Mississippi jail. This experience adds a new dimension to Hamer’s most famous quote, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”


Kitty Cone. A fierce leader in the Independent Living Movement, Kitty Cone was a white lesbian disability rights activist and credited for being the “organizational brains” behind the Section 504 Sit-In protest in 1977. The sit-in is widely recognized as the longest non-violent occupation of a government building in United States history. In her oral history of Section 504, Cone notably states “I am thankful for my disability. I feel like the constraints and the choices that it has given me have made me who I am. And, you know, I like who I am.”