This year we lost many wonderful, inspiring women that need to be remembered and honored. Some of them died peacefully after living long, fulfilling lives however others suffered violent deaths and died much too young. InspiredByMyMom salutes these incredible women and their achievements. Their contributions are a part of herstory and need to be acknowledged as such. This is not a complete or exhaustive list of all the amazing women that have passed in 2016 but it brings some of them to the forefront and hopefully others to mind.
The year started with the shooting death of a newly inaugurated mayor in a Mexican town. Gisela Mota was 12 years old when she started attending political rallies and protests with her mother, who was a well-regarded activist. At 33 Gisela had already served as a federal lawmaker and had just been elected her town’s first female mayor. Upon taking office she declared that “her fight against crime would be frontal and direct”. The morning after her maiden speech, gunmen forced their way into her home and told her mother, Juana Ocampo, “we’ve been sent here with an order to kill, which one is she?” When Gisela identified herself, she was dragged towards the front door where she was shot at least four times. When her mother was interviewed after her death she said “I told her to quit the mayoral race, but she said, ‘Mama, if I don’t run who will?’”
Born Nelle Harper Lee in Alabama in 1926, this Pulitzer Prize winning novelist moved to New York City after college and, while working as an airline reservation agent, she began writing fiction in her spare time. Her debut novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” became an immediate success when it was published in 1960. The movie adaptation premiered to international acclaim just 3 years later. During her lifetime, she was active in her church and community and became famous for avoiding the spotlight of her celebrity. She often used her wealth to make anonymous philanthropic donations. In November 2007, then President George W. Bush presented Lee with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her “outstanding contribution to America’s literary tradition” at a ceremony at the White House. She was 89 when she passed away in early 2016.
Born in 1939 Japan, Junko Tabei was in the fourth grade when she experienced her first mountain-climbing experience to the summit of Mt. Nasu. In 1975, she became the first woman to climb Mount Everest. By 1992 she had become the first woman to complete the “Seven Summits,” reaching the highest peaks on the seven continents and went on to tackle summits in more than 70 countries. Diagnosed with stomach cancer four years ago, she continued to climb, both in Japan and abroad, and in July this year she took young people affected by the Fukushima nuclear disaster on an expedition up Mount Fuji. She passed away at 77 and is remembered as a pioneer who started the Ladies’ Climbing Club of Japan and broke with Japanese tradition when she left her young daughter with her husband as she went on climbs.
After already having been shot and repeatedly stabbed, British MP Jo Cox told others to stay away “Let him hurt me, not you” before being shot twice more in the head at point-blank range. Those are the chilling words her colleagues remember Helen Joanne “Jo” Cox uttering when she was murdered in June 2016. A British Labour Party politician, she had become a Member of Parliament (MP) just 13 months earlier. She had previously spent a decade working in some of the world’s most dangerous war zones as well as later becoming a senior adviser to an anti-slavery charity. The devoted mother, activist and politician was only 41 years young when her life was extinguished. The day after Cox died her husband set up a GoFundMe page named “Jo Cox’s Fund” in aid of three charities which he described as “closest to her heart”: the Royal Voluntary Service; Hope not Hate; and the White Helmets.
Simone Schaller was an American hurdler who competed at the Summer Olympic Games in 1932 in Los Angles and 1936 in Berlin. She is believed to have been the oldest living Olympian when she passed at 104 years of age in October. Born in Connecticut, her family moved to California where she began participating in high school athletics and joined the Los Angeles Athletic Association in 1932 so that she could compete on the track team. She made the 1932 American delegation and competed at the Summer Olympics finishing a controversial fourth. At the time, several people told her that they believed that she had finished in 3rd place but she never thought that to be true until seeing a picture of the finish in 1984, over 50 years later. Upon her return from the Berlin Games in 1936 she, along with her teammates, were given the key to New York City.
Leena Sharma had been trying to protect a 35 acre plot of farmland in central India and had complained to police that her uncle was using her land without authorization. The local revenue office determined that he had illegally encroached on the land but he did not see it that way and continued planting his wheat and grazing his cows on her property. Leena traveled from New Delhi in April to her ancestral village to lay claim to her land however the consequences of asserting her property rights proved deadly and her body was found in a remote forest about six miles away. The only thing this young woman wanted was what was rightfully hers but this 38 year old was murdered for trying.
Rosalie Chris Lerman, born in Poland in 1926, was working as a forced laborer in a munitions factory when the Nazis took her mother to a concentration camp, never to be seen again. Soon afterward the Nazis sent her to Auschwitz-Birkenau with her two sisters. Miraculously, all three survived. Rosalie moved to the U.S. in 1947 with her husband, also a Holocaust survivor and WWII partisan fighter. She became a philanthropist and lecturer while her husband acted as the founder and chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. “Some survivors are traumatized, but having survived the war and Auschwitz, my mother felt like everything was possible and she was bound and determined to go out and do it” her daughter Jeanette said upon her mother’s death at 90.
Born in 1938 in Florida, Janet Reno went on to receive degrees from Cornell University and Harvard Law School. She spent several years in private practice before she was appointed State Attorney for Dade County, Florida in the late 1970s. She served in that position until 1993 and developed a reputation as tough, outspoken, unpretentious and liberal. Her cases ranged from political corruption to child abuse and she was active in various civic organizations. Janet Reno firmly broke new ground and made herstory in 1993 when she became the first woman to serve as U.S. attorney general and one of the two longest serving. Janet Reno died at her home in Florida on November 7at the age of 78 of complications from Parkinson’s disease, which she had battled since 1995.
Deborah Jin was an internationally renowned physicist who was one of the world’s foremost experts on how ordinary atoms and molecules change their behavior at extraordinarily low temperatures. She was known for creating what is sometimes called a new form of matter (fermionic condensate). In 2003, Deborah received a MacArthur Fellowship (commonly known as a “genius grant”) from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and in 2013 she was named the L’Oreal-UNESCO for Women in Science Laureate for North America. Born in 1968, Deborah was only 47 years young when she passed away at a hospice center in Colorado this past September surrounded by her loving family.
Among the 30 victims of January’s al-Qaida attack on a hotel and restaurant in Burkina Faso was 33 year old Leila Alaoui. A French-Moroccan photographer, she was best known for her powerful portraits of Moroccans and intimate, sensitive images of migrants and the displaced. Born in Paris in 1982, she studied photography at the City University of New York before spending time in Morocco and Lebanon. Her work explored the construction of identity and cultural diversity and has been exhibited internationally since 2009. At the time of the attack on her and her driver, Leila had traveled to Burkina Faso for an assignment covering women’s rights for Amnesty International.
Greta Friedman, who fled Austria during the war as a 15-year-old, was the woman in the iconic photograph shown kissing a sailor in New York City’s Times Square to celebrate the end of World War II on V-J Day August 14, 1945. She was a 21 year old dental assistant in a nurse’s uniform when she became part of one of the most famous photos of the 20th century. The two had never met but the young sailor spun Greta around and kissed her while the photographer snapped the photo. She did not see the photograph until the 1960s and, although her face is obscured by the sailor’s left arm, she immediately recognized her hair and uniform. She was 92 when she passed earlier this year but her image will live on for future generations to enjoy.
La Scala’s soprano Daniela Dessì wrote a message to her Facebook fans saying she had to cancel all her summer performances due to an undisclosed health problem. A month later one of the most notable figures on the international operatic scene was gone. Born in Genoa, Italy in 1957 she pursued her musical studies in piano and voice at the Parma Conservatory and at the Accademia Chigiana of Siena. In 1980, soon after graduation, she won first prize at the international “RAI Auditorium” competition which launched her career. She built up a repertory of some 60 operas ranging from Monteverdi to Prokofiev and appeared on the world’s major opera stages. She was only 59 years old when an aggressive form of cancer claimed her life.
Born in 1919, Princess Ashraf Pahlavi was the twin sister of the last Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. She was considered the “power behind her brother” and was active in the 1953 coup which led to him taking the throne. Known by the press as the “Black Panther” she was among the first Iranian women to discard the veil. During her brother’s reign she became a leading campaigner for women’s rights and literacy, as a member of the UN Human Rights Commission, the Commission on the Status of Women, and the International Consultative Liaison Committee for Literacy. She was also the head of the Iranian Delegation to the UN General Assembly. Like other members of her family, the Princess found herself the target of assassins in 1977 and, just two years later, her son was assassinated in Paris. She was 96 and the oldest living member of her family when she died at the beginning of the year.
Long-time journalist and American newscaster Gwen Ifill passed away at 61 having battled cancer for nearly a year. She was born in New York City and graduated in 1977 from Simmons College with a Bachelor’s degree in communications. During her career, she held jobs at The Washington Post, The New York Times, and NBC before ultimately landing at the Public Broadcasting Station (PBS) in the U.S. During her career she moderated two U.S. vice-presidential debates and, just last year, moderated a Democratic Party debate between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. In addition to receiving numerous awards, including the Peabody Award in 2008 and being inducted into the National Association of Black Journalists Hall of Fame, she received 20 honorary doctorates from universities around the world.
Dame Zaha Hadid was a groundbreaking Iraqi-British architect. The ‘Queen of the Curve’ was known for her distinctive style of mingling sweeping curves and stark angles. Born in Baghdad in 1950, she completed her studies at the American University of Beirut and the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London before getting her start in the Netherlands. She opened her own firm in 1979 and, as her reputation grew, her buildings found homes around the world – the Guangzhou Opera House in China; the Sheikh Zayed Bridge in Abu Dhabi; and the MAXXI museum in Italy to name just a few. During her career, she also undertook some high-profile interior work creating fluid furniture installations as well as working with the clothing brand Lacoste. Just last year she became the first woman to be awarded the Royal Gold Medal from the Royal Institute of British Architects. Dame Hadid died of a heart attack in a Miami hospital where she was being treated for bronchitis.
Vera Rubin, the astronomer who helped find powerful evidence of dark matter by discovering that galaxies don’t quite rotate in the way they were predicted, died at 88 years old shortly before the end of the year. Her interest in astronomy began as a young girl and grew with the involvement of her father, an electrical engineer who helped her build a telescope and took her to meetings of amateur astronomers. She was the only astronomy major to graduate from Vassar College in 1948. When she learned that women were not allowed Princeton University’s graduate astronomy program, she instead earned her master’s degree from Cornell and her doctorate from Georgetown University. Rubin’s scientific achievements earned her numerous honors, including becoming the second female astronomer to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences. She received the National Medal of Science from President Bill Clinton in 1993 “for her pioneering research programs in observational cosmology”.
It’s a common practice in some villages in western Nepal — women who are menstruating sleep in a small hut or shed out of a fear they will contaminate the home or anger the Hindu gods if they remain indoors. A small hut is where Dambara Upadhyay died alone following the practice of Chhaupadi (menstrual exclusion). It was in the morning of the 4th day in the hut that family members discovered the 26-year-old had died. Her sister-in-law, Nirmala Upadhyay, says that Dambara’s death has led to immediate changes in their household. “I don’t know if God will punish us. I don’t know what other people do, but from now on we will stay home. We’re not going outside.”
Best known for her role as Princess Leia in the original “Star Wars”film Carrie Fisher died after suffering a heart attack just days before this year came to an end. In additional to Carrie’s life as an actress, producer, writer and humorist, she was a passionate mental health advocate. Having been diagnosed with bipolar disorder at 24, she disclosed her lifelong battle with the illness and her addiction issues in a 2000 television interview. The following year the National Alliance on Mental Illness honored Carrie for her contribution in helping end mental health discrimination and stigma. In 2006, Ms Fisher further opened up about her life and struggles in the one-woman biographical play “Wishful Drinking,” which was turned into a memoir in 2009 and then a documentary in 2010. Her mother said it for all on us on Facebook “I am grateful for your thoughts and prayers that are now guiding her to her next stop. Love Carries Mother.”
Just one day after Carrie’s death, her mother Debbie Reynolds died of a broken heart. According to Carrie’s brother, her last words were “I miss her so much, I want to be with Carrie.” Debbie Reynolds was a Hollywood legend – an actress, singer, businesswoman, film historian, and humanitarian. Born to poverty in 1932 Texas, the family moved to California where, despite their hardships, Ms Reynolds went on to starting and honing her career in music, film and television. In addition to winning numerous awards during her lifetime, in 2015 she won the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science for her outstanding contributions to humanitarian causes. At the writing of this post it has been reported that mother and daughter will be buried together.
Christina Grimmie was destined to be a star when she came in 3rd on Season 6 of the American version of “The Voice” two years ago. However, at just 22 years young, she was shot during a meet and greet with fans following a concert in Florida and died several hours later from her gunshot wounds. Her love of music was evident by age four and, by age ten, she played the piano and sang. In her early teens, she began posting videos on YouTube, interpreting the songs of other artists, before moving to Los Angeles to pursue her dreams. She opened for mega-star Selena Gomez on two consecutive U.S. tours before auditioning for “The Voice”. Christina was an animal rights activist and participated in fundraising events for the Humane Society. The Christina Grimmie Animal Medical Fund has been created in her honor.
You may also want to look back at the women we paid tribute to that passed in 2014 and 2015.