Throughout history, men have been celebrated for their world-altering contributions to the arts, sciences, politics, engineering, leadership, and innovation. While they receive their due merit, women and their contributions are often sidelined, reinforcing a male-dominated narrative of historical events. In a call for inclusivity, March is known across several countries as Women's History Month, highlighting the legacies of trailblazers and leaders.
With an island with such rich history, Puerto Rico has produced strong, influential female icons. These are five women who have earned their spot in Puerto Rican history.
Mariana Bracetti Cuevas (1825-1903)
Mariana Bracetti Cuevas, nicknamed “Brazo de oro” (Arm of Gold) for her sewing skills, can be considered the Betsy Ross of Puerto Rico, for many believe her to be the one who crafted the first Puerto Rican flag—known as the “Bandera Revolucionaria,” or Revolutionary Flag.
A revolutionary herself, Bracetti also partook in the “Grito de Lares” and was even appointed as a leader of the Lares Revolutionary Council after the city was capitulated by rebels. The flag she designed was raised in Lares during the pro-liberation movement, and today belongs to the University of Puerto Rico.
Bracetti died in 1903 in Añasco under poverty. Despite this morose ending to her life, her efforts to liberate Puerto Rico from Spanish rule represent a chapter of nationalist pride for present-day separatists.
Lola Rodríguez de Tió (1843-1924)
Lola Rodriguez de Tió is remembered for writing the first version of “La Borinqueña” back in 1868 after being inspired by the “Grito de Lares”. Apart from writing the national anthem, she was the first woman in the island to establish herself as a poet, with some of her most famous works being My Offering (1880), Literary Works (1882), Claros y nieblas (1885), and several others. She has also participated in the Cuban Revolution and had worked with trying to unite the revolutionary movements of Cuba and Puerto Rico. She died in Havana, Cuba in 1924, and despite her version of the national anthem being changed to that of Manuel Fernández Juncos, her version remains very popular among independence advocates.
Concha Meléndez (1895-1983)
An educator, poet, and writer, Concha Meléndez was the first woman to belong to the Puerto Rican Academy of Languages. Melendez first received a bachelor’s degree in the University of Puerto Rico, then a master’s in arts from Columbia University, and a doctorate from the National University of Mexico. She has written several books and newspaper articles that were mainly focused on the study of Hispanic American Arts. Because of her research, she was awarded numerous prizes and recognitions from several schools and organizations, and most notably of all was the title of Humanist Lecturer of the Year in 1979.
Felisa Rincón de Gautier (1897-1994)
Apart from being well-known for her unique look of sunglasses, pearl necklaces, hand fan, and eye-catching earrings, Felisa Rincón de Gautier can most notably be remembered as the first woman to be elected mayor of San Juan and the Americas as a whole. Though she never finished high school, she was a firm believer in the suffragist movement and was also one of the first women to vote in the island. Before politics, she worked in many other professions, such as pharmacist, florist, and seamstress.
Known among locals as "Doña Fela," she first joined the Liberal Party of Puerto Rico before she joined the Popular Democratic Party, which was the party in which she ran for the mayoral race. Rincón served for 22 years and her administration is credited in making San Juan a major cosmopolitan center in the Americas and helping low-income communities by creating the “Escuelas Maternales”—known today as Head Starts.
Julia de Burgos (1917-1953)
The eldest daughter of 13 siblings, Julia de Burgos is regarded as one of the greatest poets of Puerto Rico, publishing more than 200 poems. Her works rely heavily on feminism, social justice, as well as personal struggles, patriotism, and the social struggle of the oppressed. Apart from her career as a poet, she was an activist who joined the Nationalist Party of Puerto Rico in 1936.
In 1939, she moved to Cuba, where she studied briefly at the University of Havana, and later went to New York City, where she worked as a journalist until her death in 1953. She was honored posthumously in 1987 by the University of Puerto Rico - Humacao Campus, which granted her an Honorary Doctorate in Humanities.