Today is Women’s Equality Day! In this day and age, gender equality is not something we really think about on a daily basis. But as my husband and I plan the expansion of our family, hoping that one of our future children is a little girl, it is definitely an important topic to me. My hope is that by the time she becomes an adult that there will be no question of gender, of race, of orientation or of faith, but that she be judged as an individual and an individual alone.
Sadly, even in our modern world, women still face gender biases. To date, women still make cents on the dollar as compared to their male counterparts in the same positions. It was only about two decades ago that women could serve in active combat. A short fifty years ago a woman was generally expected, if she chose to work, to be a teacher, secretary or nurse. And only 65 years ago, a woman’s role was to become a wife and a mother and her identity was that of her children and her husband. A hundred years ago, with the United States just about to enter World War I, women didn’t even have the right to vote. A women was the property of her father and then her husband, expected to be a wife and a mother. And if you were a poor woman, you worked in factories were you had little to no rights – no paid vacations or sick leave, no maternity leave, no worker’s compensation, no labor laws or sexual harassment laws to keep bosses in check.
I have made it no secret that I am a history aficionado but one area that sparks passion inside of me is that of the brave women that fought so that I can have the rights and freedoms I have today. So on this Women’s Equality Day 2015, I’d like to introduce some women you may or may not know who in my opinion have helped shape our world of strong, independent women. It’s on the long side but how do you number down to a few when there are so many!
Many may know her as the wife of the second president of the United States, John Adams, and mother to president John Quincy Adams, but she was so much more. She urged her husband to “remember the ladies” in her letters regarding the founding of our nation. She served as his partner and equal. Throughout Adams presidency, she served as an unofficial adviser as evidenced by their letters where he sought her counsel on many issues, including his presidential aspirations. She truly was the woman behind the man.
Mercy Otis Warren
As the exception of her time, she was extremely politically active. Called “the Conscience of the American Revolution,” she was one of the chief intellectuals during the early days of our nation. She also laid out the principles of the Bill of Rights. During the years before the American Revolution, Warren published poems and plays attacking the monarchy’s authority, and urging colonists to resist the English.
Everyone knows of Paul Revere and his midnight ride. Few know he didn’t actually get to finish his historic ride as described in Longfellow’s poem. Even less know of a brave 16 year old girl, a heroine of the Revolutionary War whose ride to warn American colonial forces of approaching British troops eclipsed Revere’s. She rode twice the distance, as a woman and a teen. I’m not sure about you but at 16, my biggest accomplishment was Honor Society, not risking my life, committing treason against the crown to aid a budding nation in its fight for independence.
Elizabeth Jane Cochran
Under the pen name of Nelly Bly, she pioneered investigative journalism. Going where women were never expected to go for a career, her journalistic exploits included going undercover as a sweat shop employee, getting herself committed in 1887 to Blackwell’s Island insane asylum in New York so she could report on it from the inside, and traveling around the world in 72 days in 1889. Forget just women journalist, she paved the way for all investigative journalists.
If you grew up in the 90s, odds are you have heard of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. It highlighted the fictional exploits of a female doctor in the middle of the 1800s. But she represented a minority of women that sought to move beyond nurse to doctor. All pioneered by Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman in the Western world to earn her medical degree and practice as a licensed physician. Despite facing opposition from fellow students and the public at large, she became the first woman to graduate from medical school in the United States. She went on to create a medical school for women in the late 1860s, one that Dr. Quinn had she been real would have probably attended.
If you went through a high school history class odds are you know Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and their efforts to give women the right to vote. But I would be willing to bet that you probably didn’t hear about Alice Paul. She and her fellow suffragettes did what no other political or social change group had ever done before. They picketed a wartime president. They stood at a silent vigil holding banners asking why the president denied women the right to vote.
They stood at their posts to be harassed by those that passed by, to have rocks thrown at them and eventually to be arrested. In order to protest their incarnation, Alice Paul and her associates went on a hunger strike, like Gandhi, choosing to not eat. What was their reward? Their mouths were forced open, tubes shoved down their throats and liquid food poured into them to force feed these women. They endured this for days. It was not until one was able to sneak out a message and their story hit the newspapers that they were released. She and her group, along with others, worked tirelessly to ratify the 19th amendment, relying on men to pass it, giving women the right to vote – a right that was given to them 55 years after the end of salary were African American males were justly given the freedom to vote.
If you are alive and reading this, I can almost guarantee you have heard the name Eleanor Roosevelt. She was the longest standing First Lady in our history but what she did for women, children and civil rights far outweighs her being just First Lady. She fought for fair rights for workers, helping women and children in factories. She was an active champion of civil rights, supporter of the United Nations and was key in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
If you have seen Pearl Harbor or the Memphis Belle, the you understand the struggle and challenges our pilots faced in World War 2. The outstanding record of the Tuskegee Airmen was highlighted in Red Tails. But did you know that women were pilots in World War 2,following in Amelia Earhart and other pioneers footsteps. They were the WASPs (Women Airforce Service Pilots) and their founder and director was Jackie Cochran. She was the first woman to break the sound barrier, to fly a jet across the ocean, and to fly a bomber across the Atlantic. She still holds more international speed, distance, and altitude records than any other pilot, male or female.
Mary Eliza Church Terrell
A college degree is still a big deal for graduates and their families. Imagine being one of the first African-American women to earn a college degree? She went on to found what is now known as the National Association of University Women. At the suggestion of W.E.B. Du Bois, she was the first president of the National Association of Colored Women. She also served as a founding member of the NAACP and unsurprisingly was a suffragist.
Billie Jean King
Though I am sure many have heard of Billie Jean King but when you talk about women and equality, you must include her. She is best remembered for her defeat of Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes,”. But her defeat of Riggs started similar battles of the sexes around the United States and inspired young girls everywhere that they too could be equal not only in intellectual pursuits (many women had already done that) but in physical feats. She also founded the Women’s Tennis Association, the Women’s Sports Foundation, and World Team Tennis.
Personally, when I think of equality, my mind almost always goes to that of the ultimate glass ceiling – politics. When you can cross the barrier of making laws, you truly are taking a huge step to change laws that go against equality. Many women have entered this good ole boys club, but Chisholm was the first African-American woman elected to Congress, the first major-party black candidate for president of the United States, and the first woman to run for the Democratic presidential nomination – yep, before Hilary. And she wasn’t the first woman to seek a presidential nomination either.
If I’m speaking of politics, I must talk about Dianne Feinstein and that’s not just because she came from California. She went were women had not gone not once, not twice but five times. She was (1) the first female president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, (2) the first female mayor of San Francisco, (3) the first woman chair of the Senate Rules Committee and (4) the Senate Intelligence Committee, and (5) the first woman to preside over a presidential inauguration.
Sally Ride and Eileen Collins
Like many, for the last ten weeks, I have been fascinated and glued to the TV watching the amazing women of The Astronaut Wives Club. These women all represented strong women, all facing a terrible unknown as their husbands took to space – the frontier of the stars. Trudy Cooper, a pilot in her own right. Annie Glenn, an activist for multiple causes including her own personal battle of speech impairment, Betty Grissom who took on NASA and Rene Carpenter, who truly epitomized the evolution of a modern woman from the 50s through the 70s and beyond.
And these women to me were truly inspiring. And what their husbands did was awe inspiring. From Alan Shepherd’s journey into space as the first American to John Glenn’s orbit and every step that lead us to the moon, there is no denying what they did was impressive and frankly ballsy. What’s flabbergasting is despite the USSR sending a woman into space, beating Gordon Copper’s record for the longest time in space, it was not until 22 years after Alan Shepherd’s ground breaking flight that the United States saw a woman in space. That honor of breaking the NASA glass ceiling goes to physicist Sally Ride. Eileen Collins took it further becoming the first female commander of the space shuttle.
There are so many amazing women in history that have paved our way for the freedoms and rights we enjoy today. Women who brought us maternity leave, changed the work force where a woman doesn’t have to worry about being harassed and pressured sexually, where women have the option of working out of the home or the option to stay at home. Women who have become CEOs, doctors, lawyers, Supreme Court Justices and so much more. I hope you have enjoyed the very small sampling of these undeniable and incredible ground breakers. For me, on this Women’s Equality Day, as I reflect on where we have come from, I find myself excited for the day when we see a female President, a female Vice President, and I look forward to the day when we can say there is true equality for all.
Note: With the exception of the photos of Sally Ride and Eileen Collins, which I took at California Science Center’s Endeavor exhibit, the photos included are from Wikipedia. If you click on them, you can follow links to Wikipedia to learn more about these amazing women.