Women's History in Alexandria

Throughout the centuries, women have made significant contributions to Alexandria. While these stories are important throughout the year, the City has officially observed Women’s History Month in March since 1998. Below includes a number of resources about women in our community.

Page updated on Sep 9, 2021 at 2:05 PM

Women's History in Alexandria

Throughout the centuries, women have made significant contributions to Alexandria. While these stories are important throughout the year, the City has officially observed Women’s History Month in March since 1998. Below includes a number of resources about women in our community. 

Walking Tours

Alexandria Women's History Walking Tour (2021)

Print this tour or follow it on your mobile device. We suggest allowing at least two hours for the complete three-mile walk, but you can follow smaller portions of the tour. This tour is provided courtesy of Alexandria Celebrates Women.

Women’s History Walk
Download the audio tour of your choice, for walks ranging from six blocks to four miles. This tour is provided courtesy of the Alexandria Commission for Women.

A Few Alexandria Women

Mary Louisa Slacum Benham

Mary Louisa Slacum Benham’s memoirs, written circa 1880, reflect back on her life in Alexandria, Virginia, as well as her marriage and her travels throughout the United States. The reminiscences transcribed here focus on her time in Alexandria, ca. 1802-1840.  

Margaret Brent

In 1654, Margaret Brent obtained the first patent (land grant) for a 700-acre tract north of Great Hunting Creek, now the site of Alexandria. 

Sara Gray

In 1861, Jane Crouch and Sarah Gray opened the St. Rose Institute to educate free black girls. They also both taught at the Hallowell School for Girls on Alfred Street and years later, when it opened in 1920, the Parker-Gray School would be named in part in honor of Sarah Gray.

Hannah Griffith

Hannah Griffith used her status, experience, and industriousness to make a new life for her and her eight young children in the late 18th century. Although her husband was a Church of England pastor, life changed dramatically in 1789 when she became widowed. Using her experience while serving as a "deputy husband" during the American Revolutionary War, she operated the prestigious Alexandria Coffee-House, which is one of the buildings that today are part of Gadsby's Tavern Museum.

Watch a lecture presented by Historic Alexandria Museum Educator Kristy Huettner

Read about Hannah Griffith

Mary and Emily EdmonsonThe Edmonson Sisters

Mary and Emily Edmonson, the teen daughters of a free Black man and an enslaved woman from Maryland, made the decision to escape enslavement on the schooner Pearl in April 1848. Mary (15) and Emily (13) were captured, along with all 75 others on board, and held at Joseph Bruin’s slave jail on the 1700 block of Duke Street to await transport to the New Orleans slave market. Their story and their father's efforts to free them became a call to action for the abolitionist movement.

Paul Edmonson's efforts to free his daughters brought him to New York City in the fall of 1848 and eventually to the Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn, led by the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher. Rev. Beecher took up the Edmonson's cause, preaching about the fate of the Christian, light-skinned Edmonson sisters should they be sold down south, and quickly raised Bruin's asking price of $2,250. By November 1848, Mary and Emily were free. The girls attended school, and Emily became an important member of the Anacostia community until her death in 1895.

Image: Mary and Emily Edmonson, Library of Congress.

  • To learn more, see the Heritage Trail Sign in front of the building that formerly housed the Bruin Slave Jail at 1707 Duke Street. A bronze sculpture of the Edmonson sisters by Erik Blome was dedicated on this site in 2010.

Grave of the Female StrangerThe Female Stranger

The story of the Female Stranger has enchanted locals and visitors in Alexandria for almost 200 years. While there are very few facts, two city locations are connected to the story: Gadsby’s Tavern Museum, where the story claims the lady passed away, and St. Paul’s Episcopal Cemetery, where the Female Stranger’s tomb remains today. No one knows the true identity of the woman buried here, but many theories have been suggested over the years.

Image: The Female Stranger's grave, at St. Paul's Episcopal Cemetery.

Shirley Lee (snorkel mask)Shirley Lee

Shirley Lee taught many fellow Alexandrians to swim at the local Johnson Memorial Pool. While lifeguarding in Washington, D.C., she discovered scuba diving and became the world’s first certified African American female scuba diver. Diving in diverse and exotic locations, she also explored the Henrietta Marie slave ship off the Florida coast. A founding member of the National Association of Black Scuba Divers, she was the first female in the Underwater Adventure Seekers, also receiving PADI’s 1,000 Olives pin for logging more than 1000 dives! 

Image: Shirley Lee's snorkel gear, in the collection of the Alexandria Black History Museum.

Alice Morgan with portrait of MLK, Jr.Alice Morgan

Alice Morgan joins a legacy of African American women in Alexandria whose volunteerism and dedication fostered change and inspired others. For many, she is remembered for working with the City’s annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Service. Initiated in 1973, before the holiday was officially recognized, Alice volunteered as chair of activities for 34 years, retiring in 2008. She strove to provide opportunities for all ages to be involved, feel included, and learn the value and reward of public service. 

Image: Alice Morgan with a portrait of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Mary Muir's SamplerMary Muir

Mary Muir (1805-1881), daughter of Alexandria cabinetmaker John Muir and his wife Mary Lang, was 12 years old when she worked this sampler. As preparation for taking on adult responsibilities, it was important for girls of every social and economic level to learn how to sew. Girls from more well-to-do households were also expected to have skills in fancy needlework and create pieces suitable for framing and display such as this one. Likely taught by a needlework instructor, Mary used decorative elements similar to those found in other samplers of this time. The distinctive arcaded border of strawberries, the imposing house with blue columns flanked by quivering trees, extravagant cornucopias, a verse entitled “Religion” and a signature executed in four-sided stitch are all characteristic elements identified in a group of six schoolgirl samplers.

Image: Mary Muir's sampler, in the collection of Alexandria's History Museum at The Lyceum

Annie B. Rose at 1315 Duke Street (1970s)Annie B. Rose

Historic Alexandria owes much to Annie Beatrice Bailey Rose. A committed and vocal advocate, she was as passionate about preserving the history of African American Alexandria as about improving the lives of its current residents. A founder of the Alexandria Society of the Preservation of Black Heritage, she helped to open the Black History Resource Center, now the Alexandria Black History Museum. She also worked tirelessly to achieve National Historic Landmark status for 1315 Duke Street in 1978. Rose’s father, Rev. Lewis Henry Bailey, who had been trafficked through the building, inspired the name Freedom House Museum.

Image: Annie B. Rose at 1315 Duke Street, with two unidentified children (1970s)

Julia Wheelock

Julia Wheelock worked as a nurse at the Lyceum Hospital during the Civil War. Wheelock gave a vivid account of Alexandria during the war in her book, Boys in White, Experiences of a Hospital Agent in and Around Washington based on her diary entries. Wheelock’s career intersected new opportunities for women during and after the Civil War. She originally came to the Washington area to nurse her wounded brother, but after learning of his death Julia remained in the city and became an agent for the Michigan Relief Association. After the war, Julia stayed in the area for eight years, working for the Treasury Department.

Read more about Julia Wheelock:

Julia Wilbur

Julia Wilbur was a Quaker abolitionist from Rochester, New York, who came to Alexandria as a Freedmen's aid worker. She lived in Alexandria, Virginia, from October 1862 to February 1865. keeping a diary of her work and observances.

  • Julia Wilbur,  Diaries of abolitionist and relief worker Julia Wilbur, March 1860 to July 1866.

Additional Resources

Alexandria honors Suffragists tortured at Occoquan Workhouse with an Alexandria Heritage Trail marker, Suffragists and a Courtroom Decision in Alexandria, at the site of the former Alexandria Custom House (SW corner of Prince & St. Asaph streets). The marker, placed during Women's History Month in 2021 and dedicated in August 2021, commemorates the Occoquan Workhouse Suffragists who were tried and convicted at that location in Alexandria. The marker was sponsored by Alexandria Celebrates Women.

Girl Scouts
Learn about Alexandria’s first Girl Scout troops and the important role youth organizations have played in supporting girls in their formative years. “Tramping and Trailing with the Girl Scouts” is an online exhibit The exhibit is provided by Alexandria's History Museum at The Lyceum during Women's History Month in 2021.

Oral Histories of Alexandria Women
More than 75 Alexandria Women have been interviewed as part of the ongoing Alexandria Legacies oral history program. Find their stories here.

Buildings Named for Alexandria Women
Read In Her Honor: Remembering the Women Behind Alexandria’s Building Names. Remarks of Amy Bertsch to Alexandria Business and Professional Women (BPW), March 10, 2009, reprinted with permission.