We lose many fabulously inspiring women every year and many of these are not mentioned in the numerous lists compiled by news agencies or on the Internet at year end. Inspired By My Mom wants to recognize the incredible achievements of women we lost in the past 12 months. These ladies need to be brought to the forefront of herstory and remembered for their contributions. This may not be a complete or exhaustive list but it is done with heart and includes women from various walks of life who made a difference during their lifetimes and continue to leave a mark on the world.
Dr. Frances Oldham Kelsey, who died this year at the age of 101, became a heroine for her role in saving babies from widespread birth deformities from thalidomide. She also gave rise to modern laws regulating pharmaceuticals and inspired a landmark law wherein the U.S. Congress passed legislation requiring drug makers to prove that new products were safe and effective. She was awarded the President’s Award for Distinguished Federal Civilian Service by President John F. Kennedy becoming the second woman to receive that award.
On November 13th of this year, Elsa Delplace threw herself over her 5-year old son Louis when Isil (ISIS) gunmen opened fire during an Eagles of Death Metal concert in Paris, France. At only 35 years old, she would frequently reflect that “you have to enjoy every moment, because every day is a lifetime.” Her 61-year old Chilean mother, Patricia San Martin, who fled the dictatorship of Pinochet, was also among the 89 people who died in the theatre. Rescue workers found her son Louis, who was covered in the blood of his mother and grandmother, as they evacuated the concert hall.
Civil rights pioneer Amelia Boynton Robinson was born Savannah, Georgia and her early activism included holding black voter registration drives in Selma, Alabama, from the 1930s through the ’50s. She championed voting rights for African-Americans and was brutally beaten for helping to lead a 1965 civil rights march, which became known as Bloody Sunday and drew national attention to the Civil Rights Movement. In 1990, she was awarded the Martin Luther King Jr. Medal of Freedom. In January 2015, Amelia was honored as a special guest at President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address and in March, at the age of 103, Ms Robinson held hands with the President as they marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to mark the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery march.
Born in Canada in 1959 and raised in California, Claudia Alexander said in a NASA interview that the Disney film Fantasia ignited her passion for other worlds at a very young age. When she landed an internship at nearby NASA’s Ames Research Center, she soon began sneaking into the space building. As a research scientist, she worked for the U.S. Geological Survey and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. She was the last project manager of NASA’s Galileo mission to Jupiter and, until the time of her death, had served as project manager and scientist of NASA’s role in the European-led Rosetta mission to study Comet Churyumov–Gerasimenko.
Born in Kielce, Poland in 1922 Ziuta Hartman-Rutenberg took part in the revolt against the Nazis as part of an underground resistance group and was one of the last surviving participants of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising . During her service in the ZZW (Zydowski Zwiazek Wojskowy) she worked as a courier and later fought in the ill-fated Warsaw uprising. Captured by the Germans, she was sent to Majdanek and Skarzysko before being shipped to Germany as a forced laborer in an ammunitions factory. She briefly returned to Poland after the war, making her way to Israel by way of France in 1952. In 2010, she was made an honorary citizen of Warsaw.
Miriam Schapiro was a pioneering feminist who played an important role in the development and the definition of feminist art. A writer, sculptor, and teacher, Miriam was born in Toronto, Canada and went on to receive her BA, MA, and MFA before moving to teach at Cal-Arts in Valencia where she convinced them to let her found the Feminist Art Program. Schapiro made a series of works in “collaboration” with historical female artists such as Frida Kahlo and members of the Russian avant garde. Her work is held in numerous international museums including New York, Boston, and Tel Aviv.
Jean Nidetch described herself as an “overweight housewife obsessed with eating cookies”. Born in 1923, she had tried various diets and pills that promised to take off the pounds but she always gained back the weight she lost. Her frustration led her to try something new and, in 1961, she decided to combine a sensible diet with group support meetings. Within two months, 40 women were meeting weekly to talk about their progress and keep each other accountable for what they ate. She incorporated Weight Watchers in 1963, which has continued to expand and is helping millions lose weight worldwide to this day.
Best known for her true crime work, author Ann Rule’s career path included working as a law enforcement officer as well as writing. Beginning in 1969, she wrote for True Detective magazine under the nom de plume “Andy Stack.” She is, however, best known for her book The Stranger Beside Me which is considered one of the definitive biographies of serial killer Ted Bundy. While volunteering at a suicide crisis hotline center in Seattle in 1971 she met Ted Bundy, a work-study student, and didn’t realize until a few years later that he was responsible for a series of murders. Ann went on to write several more books and, in April 2012, a crime detective reality TV show covered Rule’s successful effort to help a mother prove her daughter’s 1998 death was murder. The resulting book was In the Still of the Night.
Tennis legend Doris Jane Hart was born in Missouri and was only 15 months old when her parents noticed that she was walking with a limp. Originally misdiagnosed as rheumatism, an infection spread rapidly up her leg. her parents refused the doctor’s recommendation of amputation and an emergency operation was performed on the family kitchen table which saved her leg. At the age of 10, she started playing tennis with her older brother. By 16, Doris was ranked in the American top 10 women players and, in 1946, she had reached the world’s top ten, where she remained for the next decade. In the 1950s, Doris Hart triumphed in all four grand slam events in singles, doubles and mixed doubles (an achievement known as a career boxed set), winning 325 titles altogether, 35 of them in grand slam events.
Best remembered for her 1963 smash single “It’s My Party (And I’ll Cry If I Want To)” singer and song-writer Lesley Gore was only 16 years old when she was discovered by legendary music producer Quincy Jones. Her voice became the sound for youthful longing, and she recorded several other hits throughout the 1960s. One song that stood out was “You Don’t Own Me,” an unapologetic declaration that women are not objects that men can possess and control. Ironically it was written by a male songwriter. In early 2000 she began hosting episodes of a PBS documentary series called In the Life, focusing on gay and lesbian issues. She officially came out to the public at large on the show, something she said her work on the show inspired her to do so. The musician died of lung cancer in February at 68 years young despite being a non-smoker.
Countess Marie-José de la Barre d’Erquelinnes (a.k.a. Lady Marie-José Villiers) joined the Belgian Resistance in 1940 and, as a British spy, was high up on the Gestapo’s list of people they were determined to arrest. She first passed on details of enemy materiel to a friend at Christmas 1940 after Italian airmen, billeted at her family chateau, bragged about their new Cant 1007 aircraft. Working two days a week as a driver for the Red Cross Motor Corps, she could show her pass to break curfew. Her other “cover” was her job as organiser of a canteen for the poor in the Brussels suburb of Anderlecht. By October 1942, her network “Service Zero” had been betrayed and José went into hiding, darkened her hair, and, after a last fleeting meeting with her parents, fled to England and worked for Belgian Emergency Relief and then for the American Army as a liaison officer. It was in 1988 that she finally put pen to paper and wrote about her wartime experiences in her book Granny Was A Spy. She passed in February at 98 years old with few at her retirement home knowing of her past.
Fatima Mernissi was a Moroccan writer and sociologist, known for her pioneering work in the field of Islamic feminism. Born in 1940, she grew up in a harem in Morocco and was the first generation of girls who were allowed to go to school. As a sociologist and an Islamic feminist, she was largely concerned with Islam and women’s roles in it, analyzing the historical development of Islamic thought and its modern manifestation. Her first monograph, Beyond the Veil, has become a classic, especially in the fields of anthropology and sociology on women in Muslim societies. Her latest books included Islam and Democracy: Fear of the Modern World (2002) and Les Femmes Du Maroc (2009).
We knew her best as the model for the wartime poster “Rosie the Riveter” however her real name was Mary Doyle Keef and she was a 19-year old telephone operator in Vermont when her neighbor, Norman Rockwell immortalized her in 1943. The inspiring image debuted on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post and became a cultural icon of the United States, representing women who worked in factories and shipyards during WW II.
The first female beat writer in Major League Baseball, Alison Gordon reported on sports with a passion, a thick skin and a sense of humor. She needed all three in abundance, given that many of the people she covered didn’t think she belonged in a major league clubhouse simply because of her gender. Regardless of the resistance she faced, Alison worked the Blue Jays beat with the Toronto Star for five years starting in 1979, earning respect as an individual and helping to prove that women as a group belonged. She was also one of the first females allowed into a Major League Baseball locker room, which was controversial at the time, but paved the way for many other female sports reporters.
Joan Kagezi, a Ugandan lawyer and prosecutor, was shot dead on her way home from work by gunmen on a motorcyle. She had stopped at a roadside produce stand in a Kampala suburb Monday evening to buy some fruit when her assailants approached. Three of children were in her car at the time of the attack and witnessed the brutal murder. At the time of her death, she was the lead prosecutor in a trial involving 13 men accused of involvement in an al-Shabaab terrorist attack. She was also the lead prosecutor in the 2010 bombings that killed 76 people who were watching the World Cup finals. Joan Kagezi was also a long-time friend of the Women’s Initiatives for Gender Justice.
Having taught herself to read by age 3, Colleen McCullough was an acclaimed author best known for her family drama The Thorn Birds set on a remote sheep station in outback Australia which was made into an award-winning miniseries. Her career spanned four decades beginning with her first novel Tim written in 1974. She continued to write in several genres but it was her seven-book, intensely researched, historical series Masters of Rome that won her much acclaim, including plaudits from politicians including Bob Carr, Henry Kissinger and Newt Gingrich. She passed at the age of 77 while working on the sequel to her book Bittersweet which was published in 2013.
A pioneer in marine conservation and the study of shark behavior, Eugenie Clark “The Shark Lady” helped the public understand and appreciate the much maligned species. She learned to swim before the age of two, and got hooked on fish when, at the age of nine, she would visit the New York Aquarium on Saturdays. She would imagine what it would be like to be inside the shark tank swimming with them. Clark pursued her dream to be an ocean explorer, earning a B.A. in zoology in 1942 and a master’s and Ph.D. Few women were working in the male-dominated field of marine biology when she started out after WW II but she would become a role model and mentor to a generation of women. A pioneer in the use of scuba gear to conduct underwater scientific research and a veteran of more than 70 deep dives in submersibles, Clark continued diving into her nineties, even after being diagnosed with non-smoking-related lung cancer.
Farkhunda Malikzada was a 27-year-old observant Muslim Afghani woman who was lynched by a mob in Kabul in March. She was murdered after allegedly arguing with a mullah who falsely accused her of burning the Quran. Hundreds of angry civilians flocked to the mosque upon overhearing the mullah’s accusation. They dragged her out and started to beat her: she was thrown from a roof, run over by a car, and pummeled outside the mosque. The mob then set her body on fire and dumped it in the Kabul River while police looked on. At the time of the attack, she had just finished a degree in religious studies and was preparing to take a teaching position. Police investigations later revealed that she had not burned anything and her death led to 49 arrests, numerous convictions and eleven police officers receiving one year prison terms for failing to protect her while looking on at the mayhem resulting in her death.
Vera B. Williams was a writer and illustrator of children’s books that centered on the lives of working-class families, a highly unusual subject when she began her work in the 1970s. She was the daughter of immigrant parents from Russia and Poland who encouraged her when she showed an affinity for the arts from an early age. She was nine years old when one of her paintings, entitled “Yentas,” was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City as part of a program under the Works Progress Administration. She wrote and/or illustrated 16 books, including A Chair for My Mother and More, More, More Said the Baby, both of which earned prestigious Caldecott Honor citations. In many of her books, characters grapple with poverty, absent fathers and other hardships.
Born in 1918 in New York City’s Bronx, Gertrude Schimmel was the youngest of three children in a family of Jewish immigrants from Galicia. After graduation, Gertrude took the civil service exam for several city jobs. The NYPD (New York Police Department) called her up first and, in 1940, she became part of a historic class of 18 women – and 300 men – to join the police department. Through her early career she may have been hemmed in by sexism but overcame obstacles to become the NYPD’s first female sergeant in 1965 and went on to become its first lieutenant and captain. By the time Gertrude retired in 1981, she’d risen through the ranks of deputy inspector, inspector and finally deputy chief.
You may also want to look back at the women we paid tribute to that passed in 2014.
Awesome post Betty! I just love the stories you’ve shared and you have inspired me so much! I write about “everyday heroes” occasionally but up to now have limited that to contemporary examples and you’ve inspired me to occasionally include someone in history. My focus is resilience and so many of these women have certainly demonstrated resilience in a very big way. To take it a step further I intend to pay special attention to Indigenous women. Living in the Islands this has always been an issue for me because so many Hawaiian women deserve to have their stories told. I hope you don’t mind my sharing with you, but since you have so inspired me it just seemed like the right thing to do.
Thank you so much for your lovely comments & I truly appreciate your sharing with me. I believe that too many women & their achievements have been forgotten by history and I try to bring, at least some of them, to the forefront of herstory. If you would like to write a story for the blog or if you would like me to share a story that you post to your blog, please contact me & I would be very happy to do so. Have a lovely weekend and a fabulous 2016.
Once again, Betty, you have come up with an enormously inspiring collection of women’s stories. Thank you so much.
Thank you, Sue… I truly love bringing these women to the forefront of #herstory.
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