Mar 242016
 March 24, 2016  Baha'i

12 Inspiring Women from Baha'i History |

This year for Women’s History Month, I’d like to share the stories of some of the women from Baha’i history that have inspired me.  They are community leaders, adventurers, educators, Civil Rights advocates, journalists, and a 16 year old martyr.  Also, don’t miss Ten Baha’i Women Every Person Should Know – it’s a fabulous article, and I’ve made sure not to duplicate her list, so read hers if you don’t want to miss anybody!

Disclosure: I received complimentary copies of books from the Crowned Heart series; however, all opinions are my own.

Bahiyyih Khánum (1846 – 1932)

Bahiyyih Khanum, Akka, 1895

Bahiyyih Khánum, Akka, 1895

The daughter of the Prophet-Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, Bahiyyih Khánum’s life story is intimately tied to the early history of the religion itself.  She was a young child when her Father was first thrown into prison and she endured with her family their subsequent exiles.  Her active participation and contributions to the development of the young religious community were unusual in a time and place where most women were deprived of education and cut off from public life.  During a period of crisis in 1921, it was she who took the helm of the international Bahá’í community, making her unique in religious history.  A wonderful book about her life and times is Prophet’s Daughter by Janet Khan.

Phoebe Hearst (1842 – 1919)

Phoebe Apperson Hearst

Phoebe Apperson Hearst, circa 1919

Living in California, of course, I have to mention Phoebe Hearst.  And yes, I do mean that Phoebe Hearst: American philanthropist, feminist, suffragist, and mother to media tycoon William Randolph Hearst.  One of my son’s little friends attends an elementary school named after her!  Phoebe Hearst was a major supporter of education, serving as the first Regent of the University of California, Berkeley and founding the museum that is today known as the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology.  She also contributed to the establishment of the National Congress of Mothers, which later evolved into the National Parent-Teacher Association.  Among Bahá’ís she is best known as an early supporter of the Bahá’í Faith in the US and the organizer of the first group of Bahá’ís from the West to travel to the East on pilgrimage to visit ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the Head of the Bahá’í Faith, then living under house arrest in Palestine. (Sources: Hearst Castle, The Journey West)

Louisa Mathews Gregory (1866 – 1956)

Louis and Louisa Gregory

Louis and Louisa Gregory, first interracial marriage among the Bahá’ís in the US

Louisa (Louise) Mathews was an white English Bahá’í who ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, then the Head of the Bahá’í community, encouraged to marry Louis Gregory, a prominent African American Bahá’í.  The two had met several years earlier in Egypt.  They married in 1912 in a quiet ceremony, becoming the first interracial couple among the Bahá’ís at a time when marriage between blacks and whites was still illegal in many parts of the US.  Their married life was difficult, as it was hard for them even to find a place to live together.  Louis’s work among the Bahá’ís often took him to the Deep South, where it was dangerous – indeed, impossible – for her to accompany him.  The two were forced to spend long periods apart, often causing rumors that their marriage was failing.  But the opposite was true.  Their marriage thrived for nearly forty years until Louis’s death in 1951.  Louis remarked that throughout their marriage they had “one spirit, one purpose…” Little has been written about Louisa, but you can find more about her in this biography of her husband.  (Sources: The Journey West, A Forbidden Marriage, Bahá’í Encyclopedia Project)

Martha Root (1872 – 1939)

Martha Root

Martha Root, source Wikipedia

From childhood, Martha Root was not like other girls.  She was not interested in cooking, knitting, or sewing – she preferred her books.  After a brief career in education she jumped into her life-long vocation as a journalist.  She became a Bahá’í in 1909, but it was after meeting ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in 1912 during his trip to the US that her life was truly transformed.  In 1915 she set off on what was to become the first of many around the world trips to promote the Bahá’í Faith.  After the passing of her father in 1922, she traveled continuously.  Throughout her life she met with world leaders in far flung countries (including Queen Marie of Romania, who became the first monarch to embrace the Bahá’í Faith) and introduced them to the principles of the young religion, often becoming the first Bahá’í to set foot in that land.  She visited every continent and taught the Bahá’í Faith wherever she went – writing newspaper articles, meeting with political leaders, and speaking at universities, women’s groups, peace congresses, and on the radio – all of this when she was already middle aged and in ill health because of a protracted battle with breast cancer.  Histories of Bahá’í communities around the world begin with “Martha Root first visited in…”  You can read more about her remarkable life in this biography. (Sources: Bahá’í Library, second article from Bahá’í Library, Bahá’í Blog)

Dorothy Baker (1898-1954)

Dorothy Baker

Dorothy Baker

Granddaughter of a prominent early Bahá’í in the US, Dorothy Baker was in her early life at times lukewarm in her commitment to the religion.  It was only after a health scare in 1929 that she dedicated her life to serving in the Bahá’í administration and spreading its teachings.  For 14 years she was a member of the national governing body of the Bahá’ís in the US, including several years as its first female Chair.  She served on nine national committees and visited countries throughout the Americas and Europe, where she was known as a powerful speaker.  In 1951 she was named a Hand of the Cause (as was Martha Root, above), one of the most distinguished offices in the religion.  You can read more about her in this biography.  (Source Bahá’í Blog)

Clara Dunn (1869 – 1960)

Clara Dunn

Clara Dunn

Born in England, Clara Dunn migrated to the US in 1902 after suffering the deaths of both her husband and a young son.  Shortly after, she accepted the Bahá’í teachings and then in 1916 married Hyde Dunn, who was to become her companion throughout a lifetime of teaching the Bahá’í Faith first in California and later in Australia.  Clara and Hyde were the first Bahá’ís in Australia, where they lived in a number of different cities and welcomed interested people into their home for informal meetings that lasted late into the night.  Due to her role in nurturing the young Bahá’í community, she became known as Mother Dunn.  Late in life, in 1952, she also was appointed a Hand of the Cause.  (Source: Bahá’í Encyclopedia Project, Crowned Hearts series)

Crowned Heart series - Clara Dunn

In my research about all of the remarkable women in this article, I have relied on online articles or biographies for adults.  Yet for Clara Dunn I was pleased to find this beautiful children’s biography, part of the Crowned Hearts series of books for children about several prominent Baha’i women.  Through simple text and gorgeous watercolor paintings, it conveys the essence of her story to young readers.  With so few such books available, it is truly a treasure and highly recommended as a way to introduce children to the lives of these amazing women.

Corinne True (1861 – 1961)

Corinne Knight True

Corinne Knight True

Another Hand of the Cause was Corinne True, best known in Baha’i history as the “Mother” of the first Bahá’í temple in the West, located outside of Chicago.  As a young mother, the loss of five of her eight children sent her on a spiritual journey which eventually led to her acceptance of the Bahá’í Faith. Tasked by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá with the building of the temple at a time when the Bahá’í community in the US was still very young, Corinne organized meetings, gathered funds, and found the spot where the temple could be built.  Because of intervening world wars and economic depression, “Mother True” was an elderly woman when the temple was finally completed but will forever be associated with this historic building. (Sources: The Journey West, Bahá’í Library, Crowned Hearts series)

Crowned Hearts series - Corinne True

Another installment in the Crowned Hearts series is this wonderful children’s biography of True.  It tells of the sorrows and triumphs of her life in language that children can easily understand.  Its message and beautiful artwork speak to the heart and help children learn more about this beloved figure.

Lidia Zamenhof (1904 – 1942)

Lidia Zamenhof

Lidia Zamenhof

The daughter of Esperanto founder Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof, Lidia Zamenhof played a significant role in the promotion of the language and advocating a universal outlook at a time of increasing nationalism.  Born in Poland, Zamenhof was one of the first European Bahá’ís from a Jewish background.  She was also a well-known translator of Esperanto.  In her last years she returned to Poland to teach Esperanto and the Bahá’í Faith.  She was arrested by the Nazis because of her Jewish heritage and forced into the Warsaw Ghetto, where she is remembered for her efforts to obtain food and medicine for others.  She later perished in the Treblinka camp in 1942.  Her memory was honored at the US Jewish Holocaust Museum in 1995, which remembered the efforts of the Esperantists to help rescue Jews from persecution during World War II.  (Sources: Baha’i Library)

Amatu’l-Bahá Ruhiyyih Khánum (1910 – 2000)

Amatu'l-Bahá Ruhiyyih Khánum

Amatu’l-Bahá Ruhiyyih Khánum

Mary Maxwell, later known as Amatu’l-Bahá Ruhiyyih Khánum, was born into a prominent Canadian Bahá’í family.  Her mother, May Bolles Maxwell, was a star teacher of the religion, and her father, William Sutherland Maxwell, was a distinguished architect and later Hand of the Cause.  Ruhiyyih Khánum was the wife of Shoghi Effendi, who was the great-grandson of Bahá’u’lláh and head of the international Bahá’í community after the passing of his grandfather ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.  Ruhiyyih Khánum was Shoghi Effendi’s “shield,” his “helpmate,” and his “tireless collaborator.”  In her role as Hand of the Cause, she was critical in guiding the Bahá’í community after Shoghi Effendi’s death.  In 1964 she began what was to become decades of global travel to meet with dignitaries and encourage the growing Bahá’í communities on every continent, traveling to over 185 countries and territories.  She served as the representative of the Bahá’í community in public gatherings and meetings with international leaders, yet she was equally at home in remote villages and hamlets, meeting with and inspiring people from all walks of life.  (Sources: Bahá’í Blog, Baha’

Sarah Pereira (d. 1995)

Granddaughter of slaves, Sarah Martin Pereira was a distinguished professor of languages and well-known teacher in the Bahá’í Faith.  Her parents, prominent African Americans in Cleveland, Ohio, were introduced to the Bahá’í Faith by Louis Gregory, husband of Louisa Gregory above.  Her father was a well-known lawyer and her mother second woman and first African American to serve on the Cleveland Board of Education.  A portrait of her mother Mary Martin appears in the excellent book Lights of the Spirit.  Pereira served on the national administrative body of the Bahá’ís of the US for many years and later was appointed as one of four Continental Counselors – a high administrative office – for the Bahá’ís of North America.  She was known for her commitment to scholarship and support of education.  In her later years she lived in North Carolina, and we were lucky enough to live close by.  We frequently gave her rides to local Bahá’í events, and one time as part of a fundraiser my sister and I helped her organize papers in her office.  I remember her as soft-spoken but to the point and always dignified with a gentle sense of humor.  (Source: Lights of the Spirit)

Magdalene Carney (1929 – 1991)

Magdalene Carney

Magdalene Carney

Magdalene Carney first heard of the Bahá’í Faith from Sarah Pereira (above).  She was a writer, Civil Rights advocate, and educator.  Also the granddaughter of slaves, she was committed to receiving the education they had been denied.  In 1969, she organized and led the peaceful desegregation of the public school system in Canton, Mississippi.  After becoming a Bahá’í, she served it tirelessly, including as a member of the national administrative body of the US and later as part of the International Teaching Centre in Israel.  The Magdalene Carney Bahá’í Institute in Florida was named in her honor and carries on her educational work.  (Source: Bahaikipedia)

Mona Mahmudnizhad (1965 – 1983)

Mona Mahmudnizhad

Mona Mahmudnizhad

A high school student, Mona Mahmudnizhad became known worldwide after her shocking execution at the age of 16 by the Iranian government for the crime of teaching Bahá’í children’s classes.  Members of the Bahá’í Faith have regularly faced persecution in Iran, the land of its birth, since its inception in 1844, but this persecution intensified in 1979 with the Islamic revolution.  From early on, Mona was known as an outstanding student who had genuine love for those around her.  In 1982 Mona and her father were among 40 Bahá’ís arrested in the city of Shiraz, as part of escalating arrests throughout the country.  In June 1983 Mona was hanged along with nine other Bahá’í women, ranging in ages from early 20’s to 54.  Her father had been executed earlier that year. I was just a child when Mona was killed, but I remember the electric effect it had on the Bahá’ís in our community, with many openly weeping when they heard the news.  Mona is remembered today as a model for Bahá’í youth everywhere because of her love, enthusiasm and dedication. According to one report, the government in Iran still fears the martyr they created more than 30 years ago.  The Bahá’ís continue to face persecution in Iran, including arrests, closing of businesses, denial of higher education, and desecration of cemeteries. (Sources: Bahaikipedia, Iran Press Watch, Bahá’í Chronicles)

Women's History Month Series on Multicultural Kid Blogs

Join us for our second annual Women’s History Month series, celebrating the contributions and accomplishments of women around the world. Follow along all month plus link up your own posts below! Don’t miss our series from last year, and find even more posts on our Women’s History board on Pinterest:

Follow Multicultural Kid Blogs’s board Women’s History on Pinterest.

March 1
A Crafty Arab on Multicultural Kid Blogs: 7 Women Artists Who Changed History
March 3
The Art Curator for Kids: Songs We Can See – The Art of Peggy Lipschutz
March 4
Kid World Citizen: Children’s Books about Women Scientists
March 7
Mama Smiles: Picture Books about Great Women in History Your Kids Need to Know
March 8
Hispanic Mama: 4 Latina Women Who Made It Happen
March 9
Discovering the World Through My Son’s Eyes: Spanish Children’s Book on the Life of Felisa Rincón de Gautier, First Female Mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico
Colours of Us: 28 Multicultural Picture Books about Inspiring Women & Girls 
March 10
Witty Hoots: Some Awesome Women in My Life
March 11
MommyMaestra: Women in World History Trading Card Template
March 14
Crafty Moms Share: The Thinking Girl’s Treasury of Real Princesses
March 15
The Jenny Evolution: Non-Fiction Books about Women for Kids
March 16
Discovering the World Through My Son’s Eyes: Celebrating Latina Authors
March 17
Living Ideas: Education Heroes of Indonesia
March 18
La Cité des Vents: Julie Victoire Daubie, First French Woman to Have the Baccalauréat
March 21
A Crafty Arab: 8 Remarkable Arab Women Artists
March 22
La Cité des Vents: Alexandra David-Néel
March 23
Peakle Pie: Grace Darling, a Heroine Who Changed the World
March 24
All Done Monkey
March 25
The Art Curator for Kids on Multicultural Kid Blogs
March 28
Creative World of Varya
March 29
Family in Finland
March 30
The Jenny Evolution
March 31
For The Love of Spanish

  5 Responses to “12 Inspiring Women from Baha’i History”

  1. A wonderful article! Thanks for sharing!

  2. Beautifully written Leanna! Last year we published a book on the lives of Dorothy Baker and Amelia Collins (and Tarazu’llah Samandari) for youth and junior youth and included their original photographs which have been professionally coloured. Here is a link for the book:

  3. […] Related Post: Inspiring Women from Bahá’í History […]

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Social media & sharing icons powered by UltimatelySocial