Amazing American Women

In honor of Independence Day last month, we asked you to tell us about American women who inspire you. You came back to us with some truly amazing ladies who’ve made their mark on everything from government and civil rights to medicine and sports. Is this your first time hearing some of these names? Don’t worry, you’re not alone — when we discussed them at our July social, many of us were shocked by how few we’d heard of before. Clearly, American “her-story” still has a long way to go. But there’s no question that the stories of our foremothers deserve to be told and celebrated, and we hope you’ll enjoy learning about these homegrown Wonder Women as much as we did!

Barbara Jordan (1936-1996)

Submitted by Stephanie Donowho

Barbara Jordan is a towering figure for Texan Democrats – especially those of us who often passed her formidable figure on the University of Texas campus, where her memorial statue stands amid the oak trees behind our student union. 

First elected to the US House of Representatives in 1973, she was the first Southern black woman to serve in the House and the first black person elected to the Texas Senate after reconstruction. In 1976, she also became the first female and the first black speaker to deliver the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention. 

She is remembered for her advocacy of fair lending practices, the expansion of the Voting Rights Act, and her strong opening statement during the Nixon impeachment upholding constitutional values. In 1994, President Clinton awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

After election day in 2016, I went to visit the Barbara Jordan statue, and reflected on some of her quotes emblazoned on the stones around her.

“I’ve always felt that as long as you are alive, you should be doing something that makes a difference. You don’t have to do big, gigantic things. Just do things incrementally that make a difference.”

These words helped push me forward then, and I’m proud and humbled to share a home state with the American woman who spoke them.

Bella Abzug (1920-1998)

Submitted by Carol Moore

“Battling Bella” was Bella Abzug’s nickname during her first run for Congress in 1970.  She was a labor lawyer, US Representative (D-NY), civil rights activist and a key figure in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s feminist movement.  

With Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm and Betty Friedan, she co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971 with the goal of increasing the number of women running for political office and being appointed to other civic positions.  The NWPC continues today to expand women’s participation in politics by seeking women candidates, running workshops and raising money for campaigns. 

The daughter of Russian immigrants, Bella was raised in the Depression and attended Hunter College and Columbia Law School on scholarships, graduating in the top of her class and on Law Review.  She practiced labor law in New York, married and raised two children, viewing politics “as my extracurricular work.” 

It was her political activism in civil liberties, peace and women’s rights movements that led her to run for Congress in 1970 representing Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Reflecting on her run a decade later, she said: 

My campaign slogan was, “This woman’s place is in the House – the House of Representatives.” That’s where that slogan came from, from my campaign.  Well, Congress, the media, they all went bananas. That was a shock. Nobody had ever run on a woman’s rights plank in their platform… I was the first organized feminist to run for political office, and although my platform dealt with such issues as the needs of the cities and ending the war in Vietnam, women’s issues were prominently emphasized. 

Bella Abzug (Lynn Gilbert, 1981)

In Congress, Bella fought for equal rights for women, to end the war in Vietnam and was the first Representative to call for Nixon’s impeachment.  In 1977 she left the House after an unsuccessful run for the Senate but, with her trademark big hats, continued to advocate for women to organize and mobilize for gender equality.  

Bella developed a Women’s Caucus for UN conferences believing women had to be present to impact on UN policies regarding women’s rights and social justice. But that’s not the only Women’s Caucus she had a hand in. On a visit to Paris in the ‘90’s, Bella encouraged the women in DA France to start the first DA Women’s Caucus, which in turn inspired us to start a DAUK Women’s Caucus in 2015! 

Bella co-founded the Women’s Environment and Development Organization (“WEDO”) and led it until her death in 1998. Continuing to encourage women to fight obstacles in their lives and careers, she believed in the strength of the women’s movement to change society. We owe her a tremendous debt for her work to open doors for women to advance in so many male-dominated institutions.

Evelyn Hooker (1907-1996)

Submitted by Laura Donohue

Dr. Hooker began teaching at the University of California, Los Angeles in 1940. In 1944, she befriended one of her students, a bright, young gay man named Sam From. Sam urged Dr. Hooker to study the relationship between homosexuality and mental health. She was inspired by her conversations with Sam and decided to put together a study. 

A woman who inspires me is Dr. Evelyn Hooker. She was a psychologist who was famous for working to remove homosexuality from the American Psychiatric Asociation’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM). The DSM is still widely used today by medical professionals to diagnose their patients. When it was initially developed, homosexuality was considered a mental illness. This was because they were considered ill-adjusted to mainstream society and developmentally inferior. 

She gathered two groups of men, one exclusively heterosexual and one homosexual, 60 men in total. She ran through three widely used tests with each participant, anonymized them, then asked trained psychologists to examine the tests and try to figure out which participants were homosexual and had features of mental illness. 

The psychologists, all men and experts in their field, were unable to identify the sexual orientation of the participants. Their guesses were no better than chance. She presented her findings in 1956 to the American Psychology Association’s convention in Chicago and was given an award by the National Institute of Mental Health in 1961. Homosexuality was eventually removed from the DSM in 1973. There’s no question that her contributions led to the removal of this “disorder” and created a major shift in how medical practitioners approach working with homosexuals.

American women athletes

Submitted by Steph Ryde

Throughout my childhood the women who most inspired me were athletes.  Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi’s UCONN Women’s Basketball Team’s National Championship wins (2001-2004) led to my first act of activism: writing to the local newspapers to say that it was unfair that the men’s championship had a front page spread while the women’s write-up was a paragraph somewhere towards the end of the section. 

I followed any women athletes that I could.  Brandy Chastian made us want to rip off our shirts and celebrate wins, while others showed us how to lose gracefully.  Today the US Women’s Soccer Team is inspiring the next generation of young girls as Mia Hamm inspired mine.  However, they have taken the next step of not only being role models in sport but also expressing their political beliefs and sticking up for what’s right. 

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