5 Michigan Women Who Made History

Civil rights activist Viola Liuzzo with four of her five children. Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons

By Lisa Hayes, Glennisha Morgan

February 28, 2023

The ‘Gander is highlighting trailblazing women from Michigan during Women’s History Month—and the rest of the year, too.

Claressa Shields 

5 Michigan Women Who Made History
THE TITAN GAMES — Season: 2 — Pictured: Claressa Shields — (Photo by: Art Streiber/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

Flint native Claressa Shields is ranked as the world’s best active female middleweight boxer, and is ESPN’s pick for best active female boxer, pound for pound. She’s the only boxer in history—male or female—to hold all four major world titles in boxing simultaneously, in two weight classes.

She first made history as the first American woman to win gold in boxing while also becoming the first American boxer ever—male or female—to win gold in back-to-back Olympic games. Affectionately called T-Rex, Shields has also held the titles of undisputed female lightweight boxer, undisputed female middleweight boxer, and unified female super middleweight boxer.

The 27-year-old “Greatest Woman of All Time (GWOAT)” was introduced to boxing by her father, who was in prison during the years when Shields was age two to nine. After his release, he told her about boxer Laila Ali—but also insisted that the “men’s sport” was off-limits to his daughter until she was 11. With her grandmother’s encouragement to not accept restrictions based on gender norms, Shields started boxing with a coach at Flint’s Berston Field House—and the rest is history.

Grace Lee Boggs

5 Michigan Women Who Made History
LOS ANGELES, CA – JUNE 16: Documentary subject Grace Lee Boggs speaks on stage at the “American Revolutionary” premiere during the 2013 Los Angeles Film Festival at American Airlines Theater on June 16, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Amanda Edwards/WireImage)

The daughter of Chinese immigrants, the late Grace Lee Boggs was a prominent Detroit activist, intersectional feminist, writer, and speaker. Boggs studied at Barnard College and Bryn Mawr, and received her PhD in philosophy in 1940. Influenced by Marx, Hegel, and Margaret Mead, Boggs dedicated her life to social activism. Boggs’ focus was on marginalized groups, such as people of color and women, and in 1979 she and her husband—African-American auto worker and political activist James Boggs—helped create the National Organization for an American Revolution.

They went on to found the Boggs School, which was centered around nurturing young critical thinkers, and Detroit Summer—a multicultural intergenerational youth program. In 2015, when Boggs was 100 years old, she died in her beloved city of Detroit. President Barack Obama issued a statement praising her work, saying Boggs “understood the power of community organizing at its core.”

Viola Liuzzo 

5 Michigan Women Who Made History
(Original Caption) 3/29/1965-Detroit, MI- Huddled together on a couch in their home are four of slain Viola Luizzo’s five children, after learning of their mother’s death (3/26). The children (L-R) Anthony Jr., 10, Sally, 6, Penny, 18, and Tommy, 13, will be supported and educated with the aid of a foundation being set up by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Anthony Luizzo, husband of the Civil Rights Worker who was killed by a sniper’s bullet in Alabama, is an agent for Teamster Local 247 in Detroit.

Civil rights activist Viola Liuzzo moved to Ypsilanti in 1941, when her father—a WWI veteran whose right hand had been blown off in a mine explosion—applied for a job assembling bombs at Ford Motor Co. Prior to living in Michigan, the white family had lived a transient life of poverty throughout the segregated south, and when they eventually found a home in Detroit in 1943, they further witnessed a city starkly segregated by race.

As an adult, Liuzzo joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and helped organize Detroit protests and civil rights conferences. In 1965, she traveled south to march for civil rights and help register Black voters in Selma, Alabama. While driving a Black activist from Montgomery to Selma, she was murdered by members of the Ku Klux Klan. She was the only known white female killed during the civil rights movement. She had five young children.

The day after Liuzzo’s murder, President Lyndon B. Johnson went on television to announce the arrest of the four Klan members who killed her. Her funeral, held at the Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Detroit, was attended by Martin Luther King Jr., Michigan Lieutenant Governor (and later, Governor) William Milliken, Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa, UAW president Walter Reuther, and United States Attorney Lawrence Gubow.

Michigan Governor George Romney (father of politician Mitt Romney) said in a New York Times article that Liuzzo, “gave her life for what she believed in, and what she believed in is the cause of humanity everywhere.”

Liuzzo’s murder led Pres. Johnson to order an investigation into the Ku Klux Klan, and encouraged legislators to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

“[We’re] going to change the world. One day they’ll write about us. You’ll see.” – Viola Liuzzo to her friend and fellow activist, Sarah Evans

5 Michigan Women Who Made History
Viola Liuzzo with four of her five children. Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons

Aimee Stephens

5 Michigan Women Who Made History
Transgender activist Aimee Stephens, sits in her wheelchair outside the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC, October 8, 2019, as the Court holds oral arguments in three cases dealing with workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation. – Thomas Rost, owner of RG & GR Harris Funeral Homes in Garden City, Michigan, is at the center of a US Supreme Court case involving allegations of transgender discrimination by a former employee. Born a boy 58 years ago, Aimee Stephens worked for the Detroit funeral home for six years before telling her employer she wanted to be issued a female uniform. Two weeks later, she was fired by her boss, Thomas Rost, who said: “This is not going to work.” In defending his decision, Rost cited his Christian values and the need to avoid upsetting customers in mourning. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

A former funeral director, Aimee Stephens was fired from her job in 2013 after she announced to her colleagues that she was transgender. Upon being fired, Stephens filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which sued the funeral home, stating her employer had violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964. However, a district court ruled in the employer’s favor. Fortunately for Stephens, she won her appeal of that ruling at the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, in Cincinnati. The funeral home challenged the Sixth Circuit’s decision, and in June 2020 the US Supreme Court ruled that the landmark civil rights law protects LGBTQ workers from workplace discrimination. Stephens, who died in 2020, hailed from Redford Township.

Christina Koch

5 Michigan Women Who Made History
U.S. astronaut Christina Hammock Koch, member of the main crew of the expedition to the International Space Station (ISS), looks on prior the launch of Soyuz MS-12 space ship at the Russian leased Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, Thursday, March 14, 2019. (AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky)

Christina Koch, a native of Grand Rapids, became a NASA astronaut in 2013. A graduate of North Carolina State University, Koch holds a Bachelor of Science in electrical engineering and physics and a Master of Science in electrical engineering. The electrical engineer recently served as flight engineer on the International Space Station for Expeditions 59, 60, and 61. With a total of 328 days in space​, she also set a record for the longest single spaceflight by a woman.


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