As you might have guessed from this post’s title, March is Women’s History Month! Too often the lives of women in history go unsung and unnoticed. However, if we dig deeper, we’ll find incredible women with stories of bravery, innovation, ambition, and heroism.
I thought this month of recognition would be the perfect opportunity for a few special guests and the Behaviorists to share a little bit more about the women in history who’ve inspired us as individuals. From political leaders to pop stars to investigative journalists, the list of women below is as diverse and inspiring as the women who’ve contributed to it.
It seems fitting that in the midst of election season I share with you all a woman who gives me strength, sustains my social justice work, and inspires me daily—Fannie Lou Hamer. A Black woman voting rights activist and leader, Lou Hamer stood at the front lines during a time where to be Black and be a woman was to face a constant threat of violence. It was hearing her 1964 speech at the Democratic National Convention that connected me to her power as a black woman and revealed to me the shoulders that I stand upon in this work. As Fannie Lou Hamer so honestly stated “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” I’m honored to carry on her fight, to share her name, and to celebrate her legacy this month and throughout the year.
Selena (also known as Selena Quintanilla-Pérez) was a Tejano star who blasted into the music scene in 1986, when she was only fifteen years old, after winning the Tejano Music Award for Female Vocalist of the Year. Not slowing down for an instant, she steadily put out recordings until 1995, when she was tragically shot and killed by the president of her fan club (a friend and previous employee). Even then, her crossover album, Dreaming of You, achieved widespread success posthumously. Growing up, I must’ve seen the movie version of her life starring Jennifer Lopez a dozen times, and my best friend’s mom who was also my high school Spanish teacher loved to play Selena in her classroom. It wasn’t until recently, when I started listening to her music again, that I thought about Selena’s life and the impact she had on an entire genre of music. In just a few short years, she managed to singlehandedly bring Tejano music to a mainstream audience. She didn’t let anyone tell her what to do because she had a vision for herself and her art, and she stuck to it. I hope to always bring that level of integrity and self-confidence to my own art!
I admire Madam C. J. Walker (born as Sarah Breedlove), who was known as “the first female self-made millionaire in America.” In the early 1900s Sarah began developing a line of beauty and hair care products for African American women. As she gained success, she also became a philanthropist and activist. I love the quote from her saying, “I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. From there I was promoted to the washtub. From there, I was promoted to the cook kitchen. And from there, I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations. I have built my own factory on my own ground. ” I don’t know of a much better example of a strong female entrepreneur who proves that you can overcome adversity and follow your dreams.
I’ve always been inspired and fascinated by the life of Julia Child. In my own life, I love to evolve. I love to become a different person every few years—still the same person deep inside but taking on a new role or another pursuit. On my 100th birthday, I want to look back at a life made up of different chapters rather than one long story about a singular passion. Julia Child seems to have lived her life in that way. From a government agent of sorts to a world-class chef to a TV star and more, she was constantly evolving. It was her work in the culinary arts that initially attracted my attention, though. Throughout my time in the catering and food service industries, I read and watched so much of her material. But it was something she said in her later years that stuck with me the most. She is well known for having condemned the modern-day “fear of food” in America, as she called it. My own relationship with food has been complicated over the years. I always try and remind myself of Julia’s lesson that delicious, indulgent food is a joy—not something to fear. This pioneer lived a very full ninety-two years without skimping on the butter!
In 1967, Kathrine Switzer became the first woman to officially enter the Boston Marathon. She entered by using her first and middle initial and last name. During the race, she was mostly encouraged by the other runners (all male) but was harassed and physically attacked by the race manager, demanding she leave his race. Because of her courage and determination to prove that women can also run long distance, women were eventually allowed to officially compete in the Boston Marathon and later, the Olympic Games. It is amazing to me that not that long ago, women were not allowed to compete in athletic competitions. The marathon, and running in general, has really grown since then, with 43% of marathon runners being female in 2013 compared to only 10% in 1980. I am thankful to Kathrine Switzer and other inspiring women who paved the way for women, such as myself, to be able to know the confidence and strength that running a marathon can instill.
She graduated third in her class from Stanford’s law school in the early 1950s, but the only paid position she could find in the field was as a legal secretary. She instead took an unpaid position as a prosecutor. She proved herself working her way up to the top, literally of the legal profession, as the first woman justice appointed to the highest court in the land. I had the privilege of interning at the Supreme Court of the United States when I was 18 and observed that Justice O’Connor was wise, pragmatic, deferential to the law yet never an ideologue. When her birthday came around, I sent her a card, and she took the time to interoffice a thank you back to me. Years later when I was in law school at ASU, Justice O’Connor came through Phoenix promoting her book about her childhood growing up on a cattle ranch in the Southwest. I spotted her outside of the event and said hello. She was so gracious, spending several minutes conversing and then as she was told she needed to go into the event she took me along with her family into a packed Barnes and Noble. Justice O’Connor will go down in history as a trailblazer, but she was also a rarity as a jurist, a moderate able to cross traditional party lines on issues while maintaining consistency in her opinions. Equally admirable is her humility and her ability to balance family with her career. For all of this, I greatly admire Justice O’Connor and am ever grateful for the huge strides she took on behalf of women. She is one of the greatest figures in modern American history.
Diane Rehm is someone whom I profoundly admire, and have ever since I wrote a paper on her back in high school. An award-winning journalist with a storied career, Rehm has interviewed a multitude of idols and icons — from world leaders like President Bill Clinton and Archbishop Desmond Tutu to cultural figures like actress Julie Andrews and novelist Toni Morrison — for her radio show The Diane Rehm Show. In 1998, Rehm’s career could have ended when she was diagnosed with spasmodic dysphonia, a neurological voice disorder that affects the quality of her speech. Instead of calling it quits, she sought treatment, returned to her radio job and raised awareness for the condition. I can’t imagine losing something so integral to my career, like my sense of touch or the use of my hands, or even what I would do if that happened. Rehm plans to retire later this year, but I will always admire her courage, perseverance and talent.
Eleanor Roosevelt holds a special place in my heart and always will. Surviving a difficult, unhappy childhood made her delve into anything that would help others. She sought out fulfillment in a public life of her own and never relied on her position as First Lady.
She was no ordinary First Lady, reshaping and redefining the role for herself and for future First Ladies. Her greatest achievement was getting the United States to join and support the United Nations. She also became one of its first delegates—chairing the UN Commission on Human Rights and overseeing the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Her stance on racial issues raised eyebrows, but that did not deter her. She worked for most of her life to make it okay for women to be in the workplace, and for that and so much more, she’s my choice for a woman I admire more than any other throughout history.
What women in history do YOU look up to? Share your own contribution in the comments!