In honor of Women’s History Month, I share with you my five most admired American women. Dynamic and diverse, my fab five are versatile females who defied convention and sidestepped traditional boundaries. From the outspoken survivor, to the fashionista turned politician, to a daughter carrying on her father’s legacy, these courageous women exemplify the American role model. Gutsy, generous, innovative, and graceful under pressure, Molly, Margaret, Odetta, Millicent, and Marlo inspire me. With accomplishments spanning over eighty years, each one is determined and driven, feisty and fabulous, colorful and full of character.
Here are five unique individuals who make me proud to be an American woman.
1. Margaret “Molly” Tobin Brown (1867-1932) Gutsy and gallant, “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” didn’t mind rocking the boat to rescue men stranded in the water when the Titanic sank, wrapping her fur coats around them to keep them from freezing. She encouraged the other women in the lifeboat to row to keep their circulation going and their spirits high. She established The Titanic Survivors Committee to raise money and clothing donations for the victims of the disaster and stayed with the survivors after all the emergency organizations were gone, using her knowledge of foreign languages to reunite survivors with their families. Margaret had experience in philanthropic causes before the Titanic disaster including literacy programs, the Riverfront Park Project, which built a playground and summer school for indigent children, and the rights of women and workers. She worked in soup kitchens to help feed miners and their families in Colorado, and was involved in the establishment of the first juvenile court in the country. American women can be proud that France awarded Margaret the French Legion of Honour for her work during WWI in aiding French and American soldiers, and for her activism and philanthropy in America. Known for her humor, she answered the well wishers of her Titanic survival: “Thanks for the kind thoughts. Water was fine, swimming, good. Neptune was exceedingly kind to me and I am now high and dry.”
2. Margaret Sanger (1879-1966) Innovative and controversial, Margaret Sanger decided to become a nurse after caring for her dying mother who had survived eighteen births and succumbed to tuberculosis and cervical cancer. An avid proponent for birth control, she defied the Comstock Law of 1873 by distributing literature about contraception. In 1916 she opened the first family planning clinic and birth control clinic in Brooklyn, founded the American Birth Control League in 1921, and the National Committee for Federal Legislation on Birth Control in 1928. Some labeled her a racist because of her association with women in the KKK, but her work in Harlem providing family planning to minority women earned her the respect of many in the black community, including W.E.B. Du Bois and the Urban League. Sanger’s work culminated in our modern day Planned Parenthood. She believed that a lack of contraceptive information kept women submissive and said, “Against the State, against the Church, against the silence of the medical profession, against the whole machinery of dead institutions of the past, the woman of today arises.”
3. Odetta Holmes (1930- 2008) Artist and activist, Odetta was a classically trained vocalist turned folk singer whose work in the civil rights movement spanned over fifty years. Famous for her renditions of folk, spiritual, blues, and work songs, she was dubbed “The Voice of the Civil Rights Movement.” She participated in the March on Washington in 1963 and the march to Selma in 1965 with Martin Luther King, Jr., who called her the “Queen of American Folk Music.” She sang for John Kennedy in 1963 on the nationally televised show “Dinner with the President,” and was scheduled to perform at the 2009 inauguration. When I saw Odetta in concert at a small college in New Jersey in the early 1970s, her commanding stage presence was awesome and her voice was earthy and elegant, full of the weight of the world. America showed its appreciation by awarding Odetta the National Endowment for the Arts’ National Medal of Arts in 1999 and the Library of Congress’s Living Legend Award in 2003. “No one can dub you with dignity. That’s yours to claim.”
4. Millicent Fenwick (1910- 1992) Fashionable and feisty, Millicent Fenwick was already in her 60s when she was elected to Congress in 1974. Her eloquent language and commitment to public service sparked my interest in politics when she visited my high school in 1975. Fenwick’s involvement in human, civil, and consumer rights began when she was the war news editor at Vogue during WWII, citing Hitler as the reason she became interested in politics. She was appointed to the United States Commission on Civil Rights in 1958, the New Jersey State Assembly in 1969, and became the director of the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs in 1972. She was a member of The National Conference of Christians and Jews, the NAACP, and president of The Society for Prison Reform. Millicent Fenwick was the original maverick, famous for voting against her own party, being more interested in social justice than party politics, and holding a 99 percent attendance rate in Congress, prompting Walter Cronkite to dub her “The Conscience of Congress.” “I have come to believe that the one thing people cannot bear is a sense of injustice. Poverty, cold, even hunger, are more bearable than injustice.”
5. Marlo Thomas (1937- ) Funny and philanthropic, That Girl Marlo Thomas introduced us to quirky Ann Marie, the first single career girl to grace television. She championed the cause of gender equality in her 1970s book for children, Free to Be… You and Me. That collaboration with famous friends like Shel Silverstein, Mel Brooks, and Diana Ross was so popular that the book was recently made over to bring its message into the 21st century. Marlo worked with Gloria Steinem in the 70s to further the cause of the Women’s Liberation Movement, and for years has carried on her father’s work with St. Jude Children’s Hospital. She has been awarded an Emmy, a Golden Globe, a Grammy, and the George Foster Peabody Award, which recognizes public service by organizations or individuals in the media. Husband Phil Donahue describes Marlo’s tenacity: “I mean, her brain catches fire and she just reaches out. She does not air-kiss life. She grabs it and it’s very impressive, really.” Modest about her early success, Marlo said, “It was so unusual for a young woman in her 20s to have power that I seized the power, but tried not to flaunt it.”
America has been blessed with outstanding female figures from its inception and these five women represent only a few in our celebrated history. They inspire us as women and Americans to remember the principles that founded this country. Margaret Sanger dedicated her life to women, believing, “Woman must not accept; she must challenge. She must not be awed by that which has been built up around her; she must reverence that woman in her which struggles for expression.” Millicent Fenwick personally inspires me in her statement, “To learn to do what you don’t want to do when it’s got to be done- that’s one of the most useful lessons a human being can learn.” And Odetta describes our American fortitude: “You’re walking down life’s road, society’s foot is on your throat, every which way you turn you can’t get from under that foot. And you reach a fork in the road and you can either lie down and die, or insist upon your life.”
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