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10 Trailblazing Women From San Francisco

Picture of James McIver
Updated: 2 November 2016

Many notable individuals have been leaders of innovation and creativity over the last century, inspiring the minds and talents of today’s generation through a wide array of disciplines. The lives and careers of the following Bay Area women exemplify the spirit of those contributions.

Dorothy Arzner, 1897-1979

Widely known as one of the few prolific female directors in cinematic history, Dorothy Arzner rose to prominence in a time when men dominated the film industry. Born in San Francisco, Arzner started her film career in 1919 as a silent film stenographer for Famous Players-Lasky Corporation, which would later be re-titled Paramount Pictures. She quickly rose through the ranks as a talented script writer and film editor before finally landing her first directorial position on the film Fashions for Women in 1927. The film was a success, empowering her to create the largest body of work by a female director to this day. Arzner is also credited with the invention of the boom mic, which allows more effective film audio capture from a distance. She lived out the remainder of her life with her partner, choreographer Marion Morgan, until her death at the age of 82.


Isadora Duncan, 1877-1927

Known to many critics as the ‘Mother of Modern Dance,’ Isadora Duncan imbued what was once a strict, structured world with a more free-spirited style. A native to the city of San Francisco, Duncan started her rebellious yet innovative career teaching dance lessons to kids in her local neighborhood to make extra money. Her technique was crafted without formal training and therefore stood apart from recognized methods. With what Lewis Mumford of the Cultural Critic called an ‘uninhibited vitality,’ Duncan’s unique dance style spread from the US to Europe and the Soviet Union. By touring with Loie Fuller, another well-known innovator in dance, she became a high profile entertainer all across the European continent. Duncan suffered a tragic death at the age of 50 by catching her scarf in the wheel of a car, which hurled her from the seat and broke her neck.


Maya Angelou, 1928-2014

One of the most artistically dedicated minds of the 20th century, Dr. Maya Angelou produced a vast body of work that has left a profound influence on American society. Although Angelou was not born in San Francisco, she was one of its first black female streetcar conductors in 1944. She sat in the office for two weeks to land the job because they would not give her an application. Afterward, she would explore a number of varied careers before becoming a writer and poet. She passed away at the age of 86 with more than 50 honorary degrees, seven autobiographies, three essay collections, and several books of poetry.


Dianne Feinstein, b. 1933

As San Francisco’s first female mayor, one of the first female US Senators, and the only woman to have presided over a US presidential inauguration, Feinstein is no stranger to being a leader. She has been a pioneering force in San Francisco’s political history for 46 years, helping to restore America’s largest cable car system, overseeing the 1984 Democratic National Convention, and authoring the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban that eventually ended in 2004. Feinstein is still serving on the US Senate, and at the age of 82, she is the oldest senator in office.


Dorothea Lange, 1895-1965

An acclaimed documentary photographer and photojournalist, Dorothea Lange humanized the 1930s Great Depression by showing the plight of everyday men and women attempting to survive the widespread poverty common during the era. Lange’s first portrait studio was opened in San Francisco after her and a female companion were forced to settle in the Bay Area after being robbed on a trip out of New York. Lange was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1941 for her work. She passed at the age of 70 from esophageal cancer, leaving behind an enduring photographic legacy.


Dian Fossey, 1932-1985

Dr. Dian Fossey was one of the world’s foremost experts on primatology, spending 18 years in the mountain forests of Africa studying gorillas. Born in San Francisco and graduating from San Jose State College in 1954, Fossey performed the majority of her zoological research in both the central African Congo jungle and the forests of Rwanda. Despite controversy regarding her interactions with local tribes and her gruesome murder in 1985, Fossey made incredible contributions to the field. She pioneered scientific landmarks in regard to gorilla societal structure and also had a movie released based on her best-selling publication, Gorillas In The Mist.


Carol Channing, b. 1921

Growing up in San Francisco after moving from Seattle, Washington in 1921, Carol Channing is an award-winning actress, singer, and comedienne. She has appeared in countless movies and plays over the course of her career, starting on the stage in 1941 until she recorded her last audiobook in early 2003. Her notable achievements include an honorary doctorate in Fine Arts, three Tony Awards, two Lifetime Achievement Awards, induction into both the Grammy Hall of Fame and the American Theatre Hall of Fame, and being the first celebrity to perform during a Super Bowl halftime.


Alice Waters, b. 1944

One of the most recognizable supporters of the organic food movement, Alice Waters has been a pioneering voice for clean eating since 1971 when she opened her famed restaurant, Chez Panisse. Although Waters herself was not a San Francisco resident, her profound impact on the Bay Area’s ‘green culture’ qualifies her as a noteworthy addition to the list. By organizing a network of local farmers along the peninsula to supply organic ingredients, she was able to start her mission for healthier cuisine. That mission later earned her the 2014 National Humanities Medal for her work on behalf of health food.