By: Sarah the Doer
Growing up in school, children are taught about the U.S. Presidents and Founding Fathers, as well as the great men who shaped the arts and sciences. However, the textbooks include relatively little about the Founding Mothers. In fact, women seem to be largely written out of history because for thousands of years, their worth was tied to their roles as housewives and mothers. Many people still believe that this is all we’re meant to do.
Society has progressed by shining the spotlight on influential women like Oprah Winfrey, Malala Yousafzai, and Sheryl Sandberg. Their contributions to the world should be lauded. However, there are so many other impactful women alive today that most people don’t know about. Before we can hope to reach gender equality, women and men must educate themselves about the female leaders among us. We must stand on the shoulders of these giants until we burst through the glass ceiling.
The future is female, and here are just a few women leading us there:
At the age of 14, most girls are trying to survive freshman year of high school and dreaming of the day they’ll get their learner’s permits, but not the New-Zealand-born Dutch sailor Laura Dekker. In 2010, 14-year-old Dekker set off in her 38-foot boat to become the youngest female to circumnavigate the globe solo: a goal which she finished at age 16. Even the opportunity to attempt this feat was a challenge; the Dutch court blocked her mission and put her under the guardianship of child protection authorities for nearly a year before they determined that her parents were capable of approving her decisions. If you’re interested in learning more about her incredible journey, I recommend the movie Maidentrip. (Bonus: most of the film crew is female too!)
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
Africa has seen a never-ending cycle of war and oppression, but strong women like the continent’s first elected head of state, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, are working to improve it. Sirleaf served as the 24th President of Liberia from 2006 to 2018, and even won the 2011 Nobel Prize for Peace along with Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karmān for their efforts to further women’s rights. She spent time in exile and even came close to being executed for treason, but she continued to rally for peace for her country. And while her legacy is controversial, she has nevertheless overcame barriers in a region of the world where women have few, if any, rights.
Mae Carol Jemison
For Mae Carol Jemison, the sky is not the limit. Following in the footsteps of Sally Ride, the first female American to go to space, Jemison became the first African-American female to be admitted into the NASA’s astronaut training program. Five years later, in 1992, she boarded the Endeavour on mission STS47 and became the first African-American woman in space. If all this weren’t impressive enough, Jemison also earned her degree in medicine from Cornell, served on the Peace Corps, taught at Dartmouth, and founded not one, but two technology companies. I promise, she has the same number of hours in a day that you do… well, when she’s on Earth, that is.
There are very few things more cruel and de-humanizing than throwing acid at someone. When Monica Singh declined her boyfriend’s marriage proposal, he arranged for two men to attack her with a bucket of acid that corroded seven layers of her skin and nearly killed her. However, the resilient Singh didn’t give up on her goal to become a fashion designer. She has endured over 50 reconstructive surgeries, all while focusing on earning her Fashion Marketing degree at New York’s Parsons School of Design. She even started the international Mahendra Singh Foundation (named after her late father who funded her surgeries) to spread awareness about gender violence. “If my hands are working, my legs are working,” she said, “I can keep doing what I want to do.”
“Telomere” and “telomerase” may sound like gibberish words, but they’re actually the names of a chromosomal structure and an enzyme that are hugely important to preserving genetic information. Basically, when a cell divides, it’s critical that its chromosomes are copied fully without being damaged. Australian-American Professor Elizabeth H. Blackburn did vast research on this process, which earned her a Nobel Prize. Blackburn isn’t concerned with titles or awards, though; last year, she announced that she will step down from her leadership position at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies because she’d rather focus on “wider issues of science policy and ethics.”
Aung San Suu Kyi
True leadership is doing what’s right even in the face of adversity. Myanmar’s current State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi knows this all too well. In 1989, she led non-violent rallies and founded the National League for Democracy to fight the barbaric dictatorship of Ne Win, which got her placed under house arrest for two decades. She was offered freedom if she agreed to leave the country, but she refused. This act of defiance earned her the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, and once her custody ended, she rose in political power to become Myanmar’s equivalent of a President. To quote this New Yorker article about Suu Kyi, “Her moral clarity and graceful bearing long made her a potent symbol of human rights and nonviolence.”
If you’ve seen the Broadway musical Come From Away, then you’ve heard of Beverley Bass. The musical being based on her life, Beverly grew up wanting to become a pilot during an era when women hardly ever chose this career. Nevertheless, she became the first female captain for American Airlines, and also one of their first pilots to lead an all-female flight crew. During the tragic 9/11 attacks, she was enroute from Paris to Dallas and was ordered to land in Gander, Newfoundland, Canada as part of Operation Yellow Ribbon. They were the 36th out of 38 international planes that landed in Gander that day, a small town of 9,000 that doubled in size for the week. The most distinct memory of her time in Gander was of two elderly, local women that joined the passengers to keep them company… as emotions were high, one pulled an accordion out of her bag and started playing “God Bless America” which led to tears and hugs of hope and good wishes. Five days later, Beverly bravely resumed her flight to Dallas on the early morning of September 15 and told her crew and passengers upon descent, “Welcome to the United States of America.” Nothing, it seems, can keep Bass away from the sky.
Ruth Porat isn’t afraid to admit that she loves data. This is why she makes an excellent CFO for Alphabet, the parent company of Google. Her nickname at the company is “Ruth Vader,” (not to be confused with the equally impressive Ruth Bader Ginsburg,) because she’s relentlessly tough at enforcing transparency and financial discipline. This seems to have paid off, too: since Porat started the role in May 2015, shares have jumped more than 70%!
This 13-year-old English girl is being hailed as the “mini Mozart,” and it’s plain to see why. She was only 6 when she composed her first sonata, and 10 when she composed her first full-length opera. Deutscher’s incredible abilities are showcased in this 60 Minutes video in which she used four notes pulled at random to create a lovely tune on the spot. In another video, Deutscher lets us in on one of her secrets to success: she doesn’t watch TV, because it “ruins the mind and is a waste of time.”
Shirley M. Tilghman
Princeton University has long been considered the epitome of prestige and academic achievement. The same can be said of its 19th President, Shirley M. Tilghman, who held office from 2001 to 2013. Tilghman’s position marks a growing trend of female Ivy League leadership. Tilghman’s legacy included establishing a new college within the university, increasing diversity among the students and faculty, and replacing the funding system so that students were given grants from the endowment instead of loans (meaning scholarship recipients could potentially graduate debt-free). Since her presidency, she has returned to her professor position, where she’s making new discoveries in the molecular biology field of genomic imprinting. (Sounds like she and Blackburn would get along really well!)
So there you have it. These are just 10 of the many incredible women that we have the privilege of sharing a lifetime with today. I encourage you to go discover more of them, and share their stories with your friends and family. Our history textbooks may be patriarchal, but together we will “include women in the sequel!”
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