7 Wild, Wonderful West Virginia Women

As we celebrate International Women’s Day, let’s take a look at some Wild, Wonderful West Virginia women who helped shape the history and personality of the Mountain State.

1. Mary Lou Retton

16-year-old gymnast Mary Lou Retton became “America’s Sweetheart” at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, nabbing 1 gold, 2 silver and 2 bronze medals — an accomplishment that prompted Sports Illustrated to name her “Sportswoman of the Year.” The Fairmont native also was the first American woman to win an individual all-around gold medal in gymnastics, the first WV woman to win gold at the Olympics, and the first woman to grace the front of a Wheaties box. Today she serves on the board of the Children’s Miracle Network and travels the world as a motivational speaker promoting fitness and nutrition.

Pearl S. Buck Birthplace Museum, WV

2. Pearl S. Buck

Pearl S. Buck is best known for her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Good Earth,” inspired by her time growing up in China with her missionary parents – but her roots are planted firmly in West Virginia. The Hillsboro native in 1938 became the first American woman to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. Buck was also an advocate for civil rights, women’s rights and the needs of the handicapped. Her home, now the Pearl S. Buck Birthplace Museum, is open for tours.

3. Harriet Jones

Born in 1856 in Pennsylvania but raised in Terra Alta, Harriet Jones was the first female licensed physician in West Virginia and one of the first women to serve in the state legislature. After earning her medical degree in Maryland, she opened a private practice in Wheeling in 1886. A founder of numerous hospitals and welfare institutions in the state, Jones is best known as a pioneer in the fight against tuberculosis and a champion for women’s rights. In 1924 she was elected to the first of 2 terms in the House of Delegates, serving Marshall County.

Belle Boyd, Confederate spy from West Virginia

4. Belle Boyd

Maria Isabelle “Belle” Boyd’s spy career started in 1861 when the 18-year-old shot a Yankee soldier at her Martinsburg home. She began smuggling Union activity information to Confederate General Stonewall Jackson, aiding him in his 1862 Shenandoah Valley campaign. She was imprisoned twice for her actions, and ended up marrying a Union naval officer. Two more marriages, a stint as an actress in England, and a published memoir of her escapades topped off her colorful life. Her childhood home, the Belle Boyd House, is now a museum.

Katherine Johnson, NASA mathematician and WV native

5. Katherine Johnson

White Sulphur Springs native Katherine Johnson became a household name with the release of “Hidden Figures,” the 2016 Box Office smash about 3 African-American women whose mathematical skills helped NASA win the space race against the Soviet Union. Johnson, a graduate of West Virginia Colored Institute (now West Virginia State University), was part of a team of female “computers” hired to calculate launch trajectories. Her work in 1962 helped John Glenn claim the title of first American to orbit the earth. In 2015 she was awarded the prestigious Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Jennifer Garner

6. Jennifer Garner

Golden Globe winner Jennifer Garner made a name for herself in the 2001-2006 TV spy thriller “Alias” and went on to star in critically acclaimed films like “Juno” and “Dallas Buyers Club.” She grew up in Charleston and frequently returns here to visit family, but that’s not where her state loyalty stops. She loves to talk about her love for her home state. (Check out the YouTube video of her singing “The West Virginia Hills” on the “Conan” show!) Garner also is an advocate for early childhood education and serves on the board for Save the Children.

7. Anna Jarvis

Mother’s Day owes its existence to the efforts of Anna Jarvis. The Grafton resident campaigned to get a national holiday declared in honor of her mother, Anna Maria Reeves Jarvis, whose Mother’s Day Work Clubs cared for families stricken with tuberculosis. During the Civil War, she expanded her humanitarian work to nurse both Union and Confederate soldiers. The first observed Mother’s Day took place May 10, 1908 at Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church in Grafton. Today the historic church is known as the International Mother’s Day Shrine – just down the road from the Anna Jarvis Birthplace Museum.

Read about more wild, wonderful West Virginia women at e-WV:

The West Virginia Encyclopedia >

This post was last updated on April 13, 2022