It’s no secret Philadelphia is full of history, or that women have been very much a part of it.
Throughout the eras, great names ring, from Betsy Ross and Harriet Tubman to Marian Anderson and Grace Kelly. And there are lots more who’ve made their mark — but aren’t quite household names.
Here’s a look at the lives of six notable women who spent time in Philadelphia over the past 200 years, including two abolitionists, a scientist, an artist, an athlete, and an activist.
Fanny Kemble (1809–1893)
Born in London into a family of stage actors, Kemble was an actress, writer, and abolitionist.
She moved to Philly when she married Pierce Butler, a wealthy Philadelphian whose grandfather was a U.S. senator from South Carolina and owned plantations in Georgia. The two spent much of their marriage arguing over the issue of slavery — Kemble speaking against it, while Butler’s fortune was tied up in it.
During one visit to Butler’s plantations, Kemble wrote down observations of the conditions for enslaved people. People didn’t get to read the detailed account until two decades later, as Butler wouldn’t let her publish it.
As her marriage began to fall apart, she moved back to London, and in 1848 Butler divorced her. Kemble returned to the States to settle the divorce, then started a new career doing popular dramatic Shakespeare readings internationally. She eventually moved back to Europe and died in London.
Her 1863 book, called “Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation,” is still considered one of the primary sources of info on Southern life during slavery.
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825–1911)
Baltimore-born Harper was a writer, activist, and lecturer who’s known as “the mother of African American journalism.”
Harper started her career as an educator, becoming the first woman to teach at Union Seminary in Ohio. She later moved to Pennsylvania and lived in the home of William Still, a Black businessman and major figure on the Underground Railroad, and helped enslaved people reach freedom.
Harper wrote poetry for anti-slavery newspapers and traveled the northern U.S. and Canada giving abolitionist lectures. She also advocated for women’s rights, broader education access, and temperance. Her written work includes several novels as well as numerous poetry collections, and she became the first African American woman to publish a short story when the Anglo-African Magazine ran her story “The Two Offers” in 1859.
Harper lived in what’s now Queen Village, and she is buried in Eden Cemetery in Collingdale.
Mary Engle Pennington (1872–1952)
Pennington, born in Nashville, was a chemist who pioneered refrigeration technology and transport of perishable foods. Her work helped make the food supply fresher and more affordable.
She attended the University of Pennsylvania and received a “certificate of proficiency” in chemistry in 1892 instead of a bachelor’s degree, since women weren’t allowed to have degrees at that point. After earning a PhD in chemistry, also from Penn, Pennington formed her own lab in Philadelphia where she studied bacteria.
She went on to work for the FDA, and she became the head of the Bureau of Chemistry’s Food Research Lab, the first woman to hold such a position. Much of Pennington’s career was spent educating both the government and the public on safe handling procedures for perishable foods.
Over the course of her life, she created food safety standards for the dairy industry, recommended standards for the construction of refrigerator cars, and oversaw refrigerator design.
Violet Oakley (1874–1961)
Oakley, who was born in New Jersey, was a muralist responsible for creating much of the art in the Pennsylvania State Capitol building.
Oakley attended art school in Philly, at PAFA and the Drexel Institute, and lived most of her life in Mt. Airy. While in her late 20s, she got her first Harrisburg commission: to paint murals for the Governor’s Reception Room. The work must’ve pleased state officials, because when the artist who was supposed to make murals for the Supreme Court and Senate chambers died, she was offered the commission.
Still the only woman among the artists commissioned for the Capitol, Oakley became the most prolific. She ultimately spent 25 years making 43 murals for the building.
Part of the American Renaissance movement, Oakley also illustrated for books and magazines, designed stained glass works, and created murals for Bryn Mawr, Sarah Lawrence, and Vassar colleges, as well as private residences.
She was active in the local arts scene in Philly, and lived openly with her life partner Edith Emerson, a fellow artist who directed the Woodmere Museum in Chestnut Hill.
Ora Washington (1898–1971)
Thought to have moved to Philly as a teenager, Washington set records in two completely different sports, and was considered the greatest African American athlete of her generation.
Widely known as the “Queen of Two Courts” (only in the Black press, as white media didn’t pay much attention to her at all), Washington was a dominant player in both tennis and basketball.
She got her start playing tennis at the Germantown YWCA, and she went on to win dozens of national tennis championships — her first national title came just a year after she started playing.
During her basketball career, she played for the Germantown Hornets and the Philadelphia Tribunes, a Black women’s team that was sponsored by its namesake newspaper. She led the Tribune Girls to 11 consecutive Colored Women’s World Championships.
Washington was inducted into the Black Athletes Hall of Fame in 1976, five years after her death.
Grayce Uyehara (1919–2014)
Born in California, Uyehara was a social worker and activist who pushed for a formal apology and reparations from the U.S. government for Japanese Americans who’d been interned during World War II.
Uyehara and her family were incarcerated at two different camps during the war, one in California and one in Arkansas. She moved to Philadelphia after the war and earned a master’s degree in social work from Penn.
Uyehara helped organize the local chapter of Japanese American Citizens League with her husband, and volunteered to be national director of the organization’s lobbying arm as the organization was pursuing redress. She was a strong force behind the effort, meeting with politicians, communicating with media, coordinating with civil rights groups, and organizing people across the country.
The Civil Liberties Act of 1988 passed, issuing a formal apology for Japanese American internment and paying $20,000 to each surviving person who’d been incarcerated in one of the camps.
Later in life, Uyehara stayed involved in the JACL and Philadelphia’s Japanese American community.