As Cheddar celebrates phenomenal women during the month of March, we're taking a second to highlight a few trailblazers who have helped shape the world we live in. These women have had a significant impact on the arts in America.
Maud Stevens Wagner
Born in 1877 in Lyon County, Kansas, Maud Stevens Wagner is widely known as the first woman tattoo artist in the U.S. Wagner joined several traveling circuses and met her husband, Gus Wagner along the ride.
After being enamored by his full-body tattoos, she convinced Gus to teach her how to set ink to skin. She eventually became a master at the hand poke technique and was said to be one of the last known American tattoo artists to continue the art without a tattoo gun.
Together, the Wagners are credited with bringing tattooing to middle America from its origins on the urban coasts.
Zitkala-Ša was born in 1876, a member of the Yankton Dakota Sioux tribe. After being forcibly taken from the Yankton reservation in South Dakota to be taught in American schools, she learned white America had essentially no real knowledge about indigenous people and she set out to set the record straight.
She began writing personal stories and collected stories from other tribes, sending them to the nation’s most prominent magazines. As an author, Zitkala-Ša's first book fought against Native American stereotypes. Her commitment to telling Native stories continued when she co-authored the first American Indian opera, the Sun Dance Opera.
In 1926, Zitkala-Ša and her husband founded the National Council of American Indians, which she ran until her death in 1938.
A key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, Augusta Savage got her early start in the arts after realizing the soil in her hometown of Green Cove Springs, Florida, was full of red clay. Savage began sculpting toys for her sibling, catapulting her into local success.
A teacher paid Savage to teach her classmates how to sculpt, and she would eventually enter the West Palm Beach fair. There she secured a $25 prize for her sculptures and then it was off to New York to study the arts.
Savage also spent time studying in France before returning to Harlem where she continued her career as a renowned sculptor.
The Puerto Rican-born writer took an interest in the written word after relocating to New York City in 1920. After leaving a job in the garment industry for a position in a Harlem library — the first Puerto Rican hired by the New York City public library — Belpré’s love for books and storytelling became even more clear.
Belpré's bilingual skills made inroads into the growing Puerto Rican population in New York on behalf of the library system, and she would go on to author Pérez and Martina in 1932, one of the first English-language books by a Puerto Rican author written in English. She would earn further renown for collecting the first-ever English-language anthology of Puerto Rican folktales.
Anna May Wong
Anna May Wong was the first Chinese-American actress to be cast in American films, but as the first, she was often typecast in supporting roles that depicted Asian women as either passive or sexually aggressive. Furthermore, due to laws against interracial marriage and intimacy at the time, she would never be the romantic lead, being unable to kiss a white co-star on-screen. She took a stand and demanded more out of her career.
Wong would eventually leave for Europe to seek better roles and she became an international star. Eventually, she would become the first Asian American woman lead actress in a U.S. television series when she starred in The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong and received one of the inaugural stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960.
Video produced by Megan Pratz, Aly Ellis, and Bella Santos. Article written by Lawrence Banton.