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Bad-Ass Historical Women of San Francisco

Updated: Mar 06, 2019 12:05
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It’s Women’s History Month! What does that mean? Well, that we had to make two holidays for the 50% of the world that does most of the work and then stick them in the same month. If that’s the kind of thing that ruffles your emotional feathers, I’ve got a group of ladies for you that are worth celebrating all year long. While you and I may not have agreed with some of their choices or actions, we can all agree: these women had balls.

In a city historically known for its weirdness, there were some who rose above in sheer, obstinate fortitude.

Theresa Sparks


from SFGate

Our first woman of note is still alive, so hurray, you can still be BFFs! Theresa Sparks serves as the Executive Director of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, was former President of the SF Police Commission, former CEO of Good Vibrations and has a bitchin’ last name. Clearly, she’s a hardworker. Even more so knowing that she’s transgender (and a parade leader), a Navy veteran and a trained engineer. Is anyone else feeling like a terrible underachiever?

Ah Toy (1828–1928)


I could make a number of comments on her name (it’s Anglicized so calm down) or the child slavery (you don’t have to calm down about that one), but I’d rather tell you about her fight with the law. Possibly SF’s first Chinese prostitute, she landed in what’s now Chinatown during the Gold Rush. She became madam of a brothel (Wavery Place, y’all), and consistently showed up in court over what I imagine were many different kinds of offenses. She died at 100, selling clams in the South Bay. Not those types of clams, normal clams.

Dian Fossey (1932-1985)


To be fair, Dian didn’t exactly spend most of her time in SF. She was busy teaching us about gorillas…in the mist. Not only was she learning about gorillas, she was learning about humans and paving the way for modern anthropology. Unfortunately, learning about humans means learning about terrible things so she began fighting against poachers and the governments who might protect them. NBD: she was living with the gorillas in the DRC when civil war broke out and she had to escape to Rwanda. Tragically, she was murdered in her camp under mysterious circumstances, presumably hacked to death by poachers.

Mary Ellen Pleasant (1814?-1904)


Mrs. Pleasant beez in the trap. While her exact personal history is a little unclear, we know that she moved to San Francisco in 1852 and passed for a white woman in a time when being black was “unpopular”. In a move known as Giving No Fucks, she ran with it and started opening profitable restaurants, then became a power dealer in the SF business world while simultaneously finding jobs for escaped slaves. She left the city for a while to help John Brown, came back and re-identified as a black woman, and received the nickname of “Black City Hall”. Unfortunately, she died in poverty after a series of lawsuits and commemorated by the smallest park in San Francisco. Read into that what you will.

Dorothy Arzner (1897-1979)


Do ya like movies? Talkies, even? Well, then you can thank Dorothy Arzner. She’s not only credited with the invention of the boom mic (the one that you see dudes with cargo vests holding that dangle down in spoof films), she was one of the first female directors…like ever. Her initial dream was to be a doctor (also bad-ass) but she rose through the ranks of film-making and even taught Francis Ford Coppola. All of this happened when women weren’t encouraged to leave the damn house and especially weren’t encouraged to be (gasp!) lesbians. But with the cool aplomb of a woman who knows what the hell she’s doing, Dorothy did it her way.

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Candace Cui - Actual Unicorn

Candace Cui - Actual Unicorn

At age 2, I was getting run over by a bike in an alley in China. At age 8, I was avoiding man-o-wars on Tybee Island. At age 14, I was overdrinking sweet tea while running through the woods barefoot. At age 20, I was learning Art History and how to drop it low. At age 25, I was making fun of drum circles at Dolores. At every age, I am charming the fuck out of you. Just wait, it'll happen.