Women’s History Month
As Women’s History Month draws to a close, I’ve been thinking of the many women I admire, whether it’s family, friends, or historic figures.
In the past, I’ve struggled to acknowledge my own accomplishments or played down my achievements. Thinking back, I noticed this pattern in other women as well as myself. So many of us shy away from compliments or are acknowledged by someone and respond, “It was nothing.” These responses subtly discount our value, experiences, and gifts.
Today, I want to highlight women who stood up, spoke out, and made a difference—a few outstanding women who rose to the occasion, made a difference, and helped advance not only women but also their communities. Their efforts forged a path for future generations.
I would love to hear from you about the women who have made a difference in your lives. Please feel free to list them in the comments section below.
Born into slavery, Harriet escaped from the South through the Underground Railroad, traveling over 90 miles. She returned to the Underground Railroad as a “conductor” to help other enslaved people. With her code name, “Moses,” Harriet carried out 13 rescue missions, helping roughly 70 people escape to freedom.
She was active in the abolitionist and social justice movements, where she often gave speeches on women’s issues, including advocating for the right to vote.
Ms. Tubman served as a cook, nurse, scout, and spy for the North, where, along with Colonel James Montgomery of the Union Army, she led a military operation that freed over 700 enslaved people in South Carolina.
In 2021, she was inducted into the U.S. Army Military Intelligence Corps Hall of Fame for her work with the Union Army during the Civil War.
Ms. Tubman has two national parks named after her: The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park, in Maryland, where she was born, and the Harriet Tubman National Historic Park, in Albany, New York, where she lived until her death in 1913.
Edith Windsor was a plaintiff in the Defense of Marriage Act (a.k.a. DOMA). She sued the United States government for not recognizing her partner, Thea Spyer, who died in 2009, as her partner. Because their marriage was not recognized as legitimate, the government said she needed to pay estate taxes estimated at $350,000.
Her court battle led to the Supreme Court, which ruled that DOMA was unconstitutional for not recognizing same-sex marriages.
Ms. Windsor’s struggle and this landmark victory led the path to legalizing same-sex marriages. She was also an activist for the LGBTQAI community and championed women in the tech industry.
Judy contracted polio and began using a wheelchair as a young child. At five years old, her school sent her home because they considered her wheelchair a fire hazard. This type of discrimination had a profound impact on her and inspired her to create change.
When she was in her twenties, she sued the New York Board of Education when it denied her a teaching license because they were afraid she wouldn’t be able to evacuate her students in an emergency. She won her case and became the first teacher in the state to use a wheelchair.
Ms. Heumann is known as the “Mother of Disability Rights.” She helped develop and pass several disabilities laws, including Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which “prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in programs conducted and funded by the government.” This was the first civil rights disability law enacted in the United States. It became law in 1973.
“Some people say that what I did changed the world,” Huemann wrote, “But really, I simply refused to accept what I was told about who I could be. And I was willing to make a fuss about it.”
You can find more information on Ms. Heumann here.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Ruth Bader Ginsburg was an associate justice on the United States Supreme Court for 27 years.
She was the second woman and the first Jewish woman to be appointed to the high court. A lawyer who graduated first in her class at Columbia University, she was a trailblazer for women’s rights, gay rights, and the poor and disenfranchised.
Ms. Ginsburg briefed and argued most of the major sex discrimination cases in the 1970s. She was successful in five of the six cases.
In United States vs. Virginia Military Institute (or VMI), Ginsburg stated the male-only admission policy violated the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution. In 1996, the Supreme Court struck down VMI’s long-standing policy. It was considered a landmark decision in the continual advancement of women’s equality.
Ms. Ginsburg (affectionally referred to as RBG) became a symbol as an advocate and protector of equal rights for women, working throughout her entire career (over 50 years) to end sex and gender discrimination.
A Native American from the Crow Nation who is tribally enrolled in the Northern Cheyenne Nation in Montana, Bethany studied fashion design at the Fashion Institute of Design and Technology in Los Angeles.
Learning to sew from the matriarchs of her family, she now has her own brand, B. Yellowtail, where she creates clothing inspired by her heritage in the Cheyenne and Crow tribes. Through her brand, she’s raising social awareness while also being an authentic leader of her culture in fashion.
Her work has helped raise money for such causes as the Dakota Access Pipeline (No-DAPL).
In 2021, Bethany founded the B. Yellowtail Collective, a group of Native artists from different tribes and peoples to create economic opportunities on various platforms.
Johnson worked at NASA during the early space program as a mathematician.
With her work in orbital mechanics, she helped calculate the path of Freedom 7, which sent Alan B. Shepard, the first American astronaut in space, into orbit and safely home.
She then helped analyze and verify the flight of John Glenn and assisted with Apollo 11, which landed on the moon.
Her story, along with her female colleagues (Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan) at NASA, was recently made into a film entitled Hidden Figures, based on the book of the same title.
Katherine Johnson has won several awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. In 2016, NASA dedicated a building in her name at the Langley Research Center.
Known for her pioneering research on chimpanzees in the 1960s, Jane Goodall has spent most of her life helping endangered species and the earth.
In her research, she discovered primates made tools (once thought only associated with humans) and that chimpanzees were not vegetarian, as once thought.
a global community conservation organization where their approach is to bring communities into the fold of conservation and, in doing so, “improves the lives of the people, animals, and the environment.”
She has also created Roots and Shoots, whose goal is to bring “youth from preschool to university age to work on environmental, conservation, and humanitarian issues.”
Ms. Goodall is a United Nations Ambassador of Peace and has won numerous international awards, including the Benjamin Franklin Medal in Life Science.
An advocate for girls’ education in her homeland of Pakistan, Malala has been fighting for equal and quality education ever since she was a young girl.
She and her father, Ziauddin, spoke out about the need for girls to be empowered and demanded their right to an education.
When her identity was revealed in 2012, the Taliban shot Malala on her school bus for speaking out against the restriction of female education.
She survived and now lives (along with her family) in England where she continues to advocate for girls’ rights to free, quality education.
She founded the Malala.org where the organization “invests in education activists and advocates who are driving solutions to barriers to girls’ education in their communities.”
Malala has spoken at the United Nations and is the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.
We Can All Contribute
All of these women created a new path for what they believed in, and in doing so, fostered change from which we have all benefited.
But here’s the thing: women’s accomplishments don’t have to be something we perceive as grand or beyond our grasp.
It’s about having the courage to follow one’s passion, embracing our true selves, and honoring what we bring forth into the world.
There are many ways we can contribute to our world, whether it’s lending a helping hand to someone in need or tending to a garden.
The Power of Art
When I was living in New York, my mother came to visit. We treated ourselves to the Broadway show Master Class, which is about the famed opera singer Maria Callas.
I remember sitting in anticipation as the lights dimmed in the auditorium, knowing the magic theater creates.
That evening, I was transported on Maria’s journey (portrayed by actor Zoe Caldwell)—the triumphs, struggles, and loneliness of her life.
When the play ended, my mom and I walked out of the theatre into the bustle of Times Square, and we didn’t speak a word.
We walked in silence through the frenzied streets of New York City back to my place, where we discussed the profound impact the play had on both of us.
This is what great art has the capacity to do. It’s an opportunity to transform and transcend, offer a different perspective, or create more empathy and greater understanding towards ourselves and humanity.
Zoe Caldwell and the other actors didn’t know this happened to my mom and me, but that’s also the beauty of it.
I offer my experience as an example. You never know how one action, performance, or act of kindness can help change a person for the better, creating a ripple effect of transformation, goodness, empathy, or compassion.
When we listen within, we can honor our gifts and move toward what we know deep within our hearts we are here to do. The women I listed above did just that—they were true to themselves.
If we have the courage to be vulnerable and trust in where our heart is leading us, if we believe in ourselves and the Universe enough to bravely align with our true essence, then we are living a life filled with our own unique power: a reverberating heartbeat that is felt in everything around us.
When we listen to the quiet voice inside saying, Yes, you can, and nurture that voice with love, kindness, wonder, and grace, we claim ourselves. We embody our gifts and our power. From there, anything is possible.