Profiles in Women’s History: Elizabeth Peratrovich

Posted by on Mar 24, 2021 in People and Culture, United States

In honor of Women’s History Month, btw is celebrating the accomplishments and contribution of women. This week btw takes a closer look at the life and achievements of Elizabeth Peratrovich, a Native American activist responsible for the first anti-discrimination law in the United States.

Who Was Elizabeth Peratrovich?

Elizabeth Peratrovich, a Tlingit Native American, was born in Petersburg, Alaska on July 4, 1911. She was the daughter of a Native American mother and an Irish father. She was adopted by a Presbyterian minister named Andrew Wanamaker and his wife, Jean. Alaskan Natives were not granted American citizenship until 1924, but even after that, Native American people were still not allowed to attend public school or enter certain buildings. In 1931, she married Roy Peratrovich, another Tlingit, and together they began fighting for equal rights.

The Road to Equal Rights

In 1941, a sign banning Native Americans from entering a building was the final straw for the Peratroviches. They reached out to Alaska’s territorial governor Ernest Gruening, who agreed with them. Together the three began a campaign  to pass an anti-discrimination bill through the Territorial Legislature in 1943.The measure failed with a tie vote of 8-8. The Peratroviches chose to put their children in an orphanage for a summer and travelled across Alaska to rally the support of other Alaska Native Americans.

When the bill came up for a vote again in 1945, the Alaska House of Representatives was ready to approve the bill and the public had formed strong opinions for and against anti-discrimination. When the time came for public comments, Elizabeth Peratrovich spoke eloquently in favor of the bill. She described the discrimination she and her family had faced, and she called on legislators to stand up for their constituents. Her comments worked: the 1945 Anti-Discrimination Act passed by a vote of 11-5. It was the first anti-discrimination law in the United States.

Peratrovich passed away in 1958, at the age of 47, from breast cancer.

Honoring Her Legacy

The state of Alaska still celebrates the anniversary of the law’s passage. February 16 is known as Elizabeth Peratrovich Day. Alaskans honor Peratrovich for her tireless fight for equal rights in their state. Peratrovich is also remembered through many monuments and awards, including the Elizabeth Peratrovich Award, which celebrates the leadership efforts of Alaskan Native American women. Many parks and buildings are named after her and several museums honor her with exhibits.

Although Peratrovich is well known and appreciated in her home state of Alaska, very few Americans in the lower 48 states know anything about her or her contribution to civil rights. In fact, a Native grantmaking organization in Colorado–First Nations Development Institute–is the first and only entity outside of Alaska to recognize February 16 as a holiday. Peratrovich was commemorated on a one-dollar coin in 2020.

Show What You Know Do some internet research of your own to find another example of  a woman who worked to achieve Native American equality in the United States. Write a biography of the person you chose.