In observance of Women’s History Month, we pay tribute to some notable American Baha’i Women:
Keith Ransom-Kehler (1876-1933)
Keith Ransom-Kehler was born Nannie Keith Bean in Dayton, Kentucky in 1876. She was well-educated, receiving a bachelor’s degree in child psychology from Vassar College in 1898, and independent of spirit. Ransom-Kehler became a Baha’i in 1921 and, shortly after, gained recognition as a Baha’i speaker, writer, and administrator. She traveled extensively throughout the world lecturing on a variety of Baha’i topics and establishing a reputation as one of the most outstanding Baha’i speakers of the era.
In 1932, at age fifty-six, she traveled to Iran, the birthplace of the Baha’i Faith, at the request of Shoghi Effendi, the leader of the Faith at that time. In Ransom-Kehler, Shoghi Effendi found the strength, courage, and audacity that he hoped would persuade the Shah of Iran to remove the ban on the entry and distribution of Baha’i literature in that country and also to secure the lifting of all the limitations imposed on the Iranian Baha’i community. In addition, Shoghi Effendi gave her a second mission: to instruct the Iranian Baha’is in the proper functioning of Baha’i administration.
Ransom-Kehler traveled widely throughout Iran for more than a year and, according to Shoghi Effendi, “solidly welded the Baha’is of the East and the West.” Her repeated interactions with the Iranian government were not as fruitful, however, and she was unable to win basic freedoms for the Iranian Baha’is. She was fifty-seven years old and suffered from sciatica and other ailments. She had traveled tirelessly and almost continuously since 1929. She had no physical resistance to disease and in October 1933, after being exposed to small pox, she suddenly fell ill and died two weeks later. Describing himself as “sorrow-stricken” at her loss, Shoghi Effendi appointed her a Hand of the Cause of God, the first woman and only the second westerner to achieve that distinction.
(Read the full article about Keith Ransom-Kehler from the Baha’i Encyclopedia Project.)
Mildred Mottahedeh (1908-2000)
Mildred Mottahedeh was born Mildred Root in Seabright, New Jersey in 1908. She met and married Rafi Y. Mottahedeh, an Iranian-born importer, in 1929 and became a member of the Baha’i Faith that same year. The couple founded Mottahedeh & Company, which became world renowned for its reproductions of fine porcelain. Mottahedeh porcelain designs have graced the tables of places such as the White House, three Presidential Inaugurations, and the State Department.
In addition to being a business woman, Mottahedeh served at many levels on Baha’i administrative councils, including as a long-serving member of the International Baha’i Council. As an early advocate of the United Nations, she was present in San Francisco at the signing of the Charter and in 1948 became the Baha’i International Community’s first representative to the UN, a position she held until October 1967. Mottahedeh was also active in promoting social and economic development. In 1958, she and her husband established a foundation to support projects in the developing world. She was also instrumental in providing early support for the New Era High School and the New Era Development Institute in India.
“Her more than half a century of tireless endeavor in [Bahá'í] service involved her in teaching and administrative activities at the local, national, continental and international levels,” wrote the Universal House of Justice, the international Bahá’í governing council, in a message announcing her passing in 2000. “At the same time, she maintained a rigorous schedule as a business woman, a contributor to the arts, and a promoter of humanitarian works. To these manifold tasks, she brought the combined resources of a selfless spirit, a compassionate heart, a creative mind, a practical sense, and a leonine will tempered by humility, candor and wit.” (Read more about Mildred Mottahedeh from the One Country newsletter.)
H. Elsie Austin (1908-2004)
Helen Elsie Austin was born in Alabama in 1908 and grew up in Cincinnatti, Ohio. Her life dedication to righting wrongs began at an early age when she pointed out to her 98-percent-white classroom in Cincinnati that the textbook they were reading disparaged the contribution of Africans in world history. Austin was a pioneer in the civil rights movement, and in 1930 was the first African-American woman to graduate from the University of Cincinnati College of Law and the first African American woman to serve as Assistant Attorney-General of the State of Ohio. Austin had a successful legal career with several U.S. government agencies, including the U.S. Information Agency.
Austin joined the Baha’i Faith in 1934 at the age of 26. Inspired by the words of Abdu’l-Baha she spent a decade in Africa as a Foreign Service officer with the U.S. Information Agency. In addition to working on cultural and educational programs, she created the agency’s first women’s activities program in Africa. She served as a member of the National Spiritual Assemblies of the Baha’is of the United States (1946-53) and North and West Africa (1953-58), and of Local Spiritual Assemblies in five countries — the United States, Morocco, Nigeria, Kenya, and the Bahamas. She earned the title of “Knight of Baha’u'llah” for introducing the Baha’i Faith to Morocco.
After Austin’s death in San Antonio, Tex. in 2004, at age 96, the Universal House of Justice described her as a “dearly loved, keen-sighted, stalwart promoter and defender of the Cause of God,” and “the shining example of her sacrificial life will remain a source of inspiration to her fellow believers for generations to come.” (Read more about H. Elsie Austin from the Baha’i World News Service. Download a pdf profile on Elsie Austin from the Baha’i children’s magazine, Brilliant Star. Watch a memorial video on Elsie Austin: A Life of Faith, Progress and Service.)
Patricia Locke (1928-2001)
Born Patricia Ann McGillis on the Fort Hall Indian Reservation in Idaho in 1928, she was of Lakota and Chippewa heritage. She was a ground-breaking worker for the education of American Indians and played a leading role in the founding of seventeen tribally run colleges in the United States. She was also an influential advocate for the passage of federal laws increasing Indian tribes’ autonomy over their children’s education. Locke taught and lectured for more than forty years and worked to protect sacred Indian sites. She won a MacArthur Foundation fellowship for her lifelong work to preserve indigenous North American languages.
Locke’s son, Kevin, joined the Baha’i Faith in 1979. Patrcia Locke became a member of the Faith later in life and became the first American Indian woman elected to serve on the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United States. She served on the Assembly from 1993-2001 and in 2001, she was Vice Chairman.)
Locke’s Indian name was Tawacin Waste Win, which according to her daughter means “she has good consciousness-compassionate woman.” In 2005 she was one of ten women inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. (Read more about Patricia Locke from her profile in the National Women’s Hall of Fame.)