6 influential women who shaped Arizona history

By Copper Courier Staff

July 11, 2022

From breaking glass ceilings to championing for the rights of marginalized communities, these women’s stories are worth sharing.


The history books often overlook the critical contributions women have made to where we are today. From the right to vote to “Sesame Street,” these Arizona women helped create the world we know now—and some are still at it.

Here’s a look at six influential Arizona women who paved the way for us all.


Frances Willard Munds (1866-1948)

Arizona’s first woman senator

6 influential women who shaped Arizona history

Frances Willard Munds is a prime example of tackling your dreams no matter what chapter of life you’re in.

Munds was already 48 years old and a grandmother when she first took public office in Arizona: She was the state’s first woman senator when she was elected in 1915, and only the second woman senator in the United States at the time.

It should come as no surprise, however, that Munds’ work began long before her time in office. She began her professional life as a school teacher at 19 years old in Yavapai County. By the early 1900s, Munds was active in womens’ rights in Arizona—she was involved in the Arizona Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Arizona Equal Suffrage Association.

During her time in office she served on the state Committee on Education and Public Institutions and on the Land Committee.

Today, work is being done to remember Munds’ contribution to Arizona with a statue that will be placed on Wesley Bolin Plaza.

“I want the women to realize that they will have to make a concerted demand for the things they want, and not merely present a bill and ask someone to put it through for them. I want them to get into the battle themselves.”

Francis Willard Munds

Sandra Day O’Connor (1930-2023)

First woman to serve on the US Supreme Court

6 influential women who shaped Arizona history
Sandra Day O’Connor is sworn in before the Senate Judiciary committee during confirmation hearings as she seeks to become first woman to take a seat on the US Supreme Court, Washington, DC, September 9, 1981. (Photo by David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images)

Believe it or not, former US Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor initially had trouble breaking into the legal field, despite her remarkable capability and intelligence.

O’Connor grew up on her family ranch called the Lazy B, near Duncan, Arizona and graduated high school two years early. She began law school at Stanford University at 16. While there, she developed an impressive resume: She was on the board of editors for the Stanford Law Review, and completed law school in just two years.

Law school usually takes three.

O’Connor broke into her field by working for free for the county attorney of San Mateo, California. In the years that followed her profile quickly grew, she first served as Assistant Attorney General of Arizona, then in the state senate and the Arizona Supreme Court.

Today she is best known as the first woman Supreme Court justice, appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1981. During her time on the court she became known as an unpredictable vote—she reaffirmed Roe v. Wade through her swing vote on Planned Parenthood v. Casey and continued to promote women’s interests throughout her career.

“We don’t accomplish anything in the world alone and whatever happens is the result of the whole tapestry of one’s life and all the weavings of individual threads from one to another that create something.”

Sandra Day O’Connor

Dolores Huerta (1930-)

Labor and civil rights activist

6 influential women who shaped Arizona history
American labor activist and co-founder of the United Farm Workers of America (UFW) Dolores Huerta speaks on stage during a UFW rally, California, 1975 or 1976. She wears a poncho with the UFW logo. (Photo by Cathy Murphy/Getty Images)

If you’ve ever heard the chant ¡Si se puede! (Yes, we can!), you already know a little about Dolores Huerta.

Huerta is not from Arizona, but her impact on the state certainly makes her an honorary Arizonan. She organized boycotts against grapes grown using unfair and often unsafe labor practices in Arizona, and her most famous chant ¡Si se puede! was created during her time in the state.

Huerta’s activism really began in her 20s with her involvement with the Stockton Community Service Organization (CSO), during which time she founded the Agricultural Workers Association and met fellow activist Cesar E. Chavez.

Together, the two launched the National Farm Workers Association and began working to improve conditions for agricultural workers across the country. With Huerta’s help, farm workers were able to embark on some of the most successful boycotts in organizing history.

At the peak of the demonstrations, Huerta and her team were able to convince an estimated 17 million people to stop buying grapes—a move that led to the first farmworker union contracts.

At 92, today her work is not done. Huerta continues to engage with people across the country through campaigns that focus on the working poor, women, and children. Cities across the state, like Tempe, honor Huerta every year with a day of service.

“Every moment is an organizing opportunity, every person a potential activist, every minute a chance to change the world.”

Dolores Huerta

Mary Costigan (1879-unknown)

Arizona’s first licensed woman radio broadcaster

6 influential women who shaped Arizona history

Mary Costigan had a lot of jobs in her life; she helped operate a dry goods store, worked as an office worker, in a bank’s real estate insurance department, a cashier, an accountant, even an assistant to the county tax collector. The job she is most famous for, however, was in radio.

Costigan spent much of her adult life in the Flagstaff area; she moved there to be closer to her brother John, who was in failing health. Quickly, she took over running the Orpheum Theater and launched several other businesses, including a florist shop and Flagstaff’s first beauty parlor.

Costigan was only the second woman in the US to receive a radio broadcasting license in 1925 and brought Flagstaff’s first station to life. She operated what is now KUMA in Flagstaff (originally it broadcast under the call letters KFXY).

When she first launched the station, it operated from the backstage of the Orpheum.

According to historians, many of the downtown businesses in Flagstaff began broadcasting the new local station over loudspeakers so residents could come listen.


Annie Dodge Wauneka (1910-1997)

First Native American to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom

6 influential women who shaped Arizona history
Native American Annie Dodge Wauneka (right) receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom from United States Secretary of State Dean Rusk in Washington, DC, 1963. (Photo by Al Fenn/Getty Images)

Annie Dodge Wauneka’s tireless work within her tribe earned her the title “The Legendary Mother of the Navajo Nation.”

Wauneka’s interest in public health was kicked off by an influenza outbreak at her government-run school when she was eight years old. Thousands of tribal members, including many of Wauneka’s own classmates, passed away during the Spanish flu epidemic.

As she got older, Waunek studied public health and worked within her Navajo Nation to improve health standards and sanitation. She was the second woman to be elected to the Navajo Tribal Council in 1951, and in her three terms she hosted radio broadcasts, translated key medical terms, and explained how modern medicine could improve health outcomes.

Wauneka is the first Native American to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in 1963, and she continued her work up until her death in 1997.

“I’ll go and do more.”

Annie Dodge Wauneka

Joan Ganz Cooney (1929-)

6 influential women who shaped Arizona history
Puppeteer Caroll Spinney, Sesame Street co-founder and TV producer Joan Ganz Cooney, and Sesame Street cast members pose under a “123 Sesame Street” sign at the “Sesame Street” 40th Anniversary temporary street renaming in Dante Park on November 9, 2009, in New York City. (Photo by Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images)

Big Bird, Elmo, and The Grouch all have Joan Ganz Cooney to thank for their long-running PBS show, Sesame Street.

Cooney got her start as a reporter in Phoenix and went on to produce award-winning documentaries. Her work on a study called “The Potential Uses of Television in Preschool Education” was the catalyst for Sesame Street. It provided the basis for using public television to teach basic educational skills through children’s programming.

Since 1969, the characters on Sesame Street have taught kids about letters and numbers; the show even featured a multicultural cast well before its time. Today, the show can be seen in more than 140 countries across the globe.

“I thought [Sesame Street] was quintessentially American—very hip, very late ‘60s. I was absolutely stunned when a German production company asked me if I could do Sesame Street in Germany. It was absolutely the happiest surprise.”

Joan Ganz Cooney

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