It’s Women’s History Month—a time to celebrate the smart, brave, and defiant women who paved the way for future generations, inspiring each to reach higher and higher.
Of course, when we think about women in history, we tend to look pretty far back—to suffragists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, scientific trailblazers like Marie Curie, activists like Rosa Parks and Dolores Huerta, and other women whose names we learned in school. Their efforts are certainly worth remembering and celebrating. Each, in her own way, helped us get where we are today, which is miles and miles from where we started. But we still have a few miles to go before we can realistically say gender parity has been reached.
In the US, we have 21 women senators, which is actually a record number, and 83 women in the House of Representatives. (Put in perspective, about one in every five members of Congress is a woman.) The new president’s cabinet has four female members, out of 24, and only two at the Secretary level. In business, only 5.4 percent of CEOs at S&P companies are women (another record), and women comprise 9.5 percent of the top earners. Overall, women still only earn about 79 cents for every dollar that men earn.
Yes, women still have distance left to cover, but we’re well on our way to catching up. And, thankfully, there are plenty of modern role models and trailblazers with lessons to teach us about what it will take to get there.
Take, for example, the following five women, all of whom made recent headlines for their courageous actions, inspiring words, and spirit of perseverance.
A former Harvard law professor and the first female from Massachusetts to be elected to the US Senate, Elizabeth Warren has experience in both the legislative and judicial branches of government. So, she already had an expert perspective to share last month when she spoke out against Trump’s pick for Attorney General, Alabama senator Jeff Sessions. But Warren also decided to draw on words of wisdom from two other leaders, the late Coretta Scott King and the late Senator Edward Kennedy.
Warren began reading letters that King and Kennedy wrote in 1986, protesting Sessions’s failed bid for a federal judgeship. In these letters, King accused Sessions of racial bias and voter fraud, and Kennedy called him a “disgrace to the Justice Department.”
Before she could finish, Republican leaders exercised some creative thinking to shut her down. Citing the old and rarely invoked Rule 19, which bars senators from impugning one another, they forced her to yield the floor.
Rule 19 was created in 1902 as the result of a fistfight on the Senate floor. Since then, it has rarely been drawn out, despite plenty of “impugning” among members. Still, it was enough to silence Warren . . . but only until the session ended. By then, her speech and full copies of both letters were circulating the internet, accompanied by #LetLizSpeak.
The lesson for professional women: Speak your mind and your values, even when your opinion isn’t the popular one. Chances are, plenty of other people share your views and want to be inspired by your insights.
Even before winning five medals at the Rio Olympic Games last summer, Simone Biles was already a record-breaking athlete. The four-foot-nine gymnast, who turns 20 this month, is the first female gymnast since 1974 to win four consecutive all-around titles at the US National Championships. She’s also the first woman to be world champion for three years in a row, and she has 14 total championships medals—the most an American woman has ever won.
Biles’s Olympic performance made her a household name and a role model for girls and women everywhere. She took home four gold medals and one silver medal, which is impressive on its own. But her words might prove to be more memorable than her performance.
In an interview after winning the women’s all-around, reporters tried to compare Biles to some male Olympic superstars, to which she responded, “I’m not the next Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps. I’m the first Simone Biles.”
The lesson for professional women: You don’t have to think or act like men to succeed in sports, politics, business, or any other arena which has typically been male dominated. Every woman brings unique strengths and talents to the table, and has her own path to success.
A member of the Kurdish minority Yazidi group, Nadia Murad was 19 years old when ISIS forces rounded up her and other female members of her Iraqi village and sold them into sex slavery. Her mother was murdered, and she watched as male family members were killed in mass executions. She was bought and sold several times and repeatedly raped by ISIS troops.
Murad eventually escaped and now travels the word, speaking about genocide and sex trafficking in her ISIS-controlled country.
In 2015, the victim-turned-activist briefed the UN Security Council in the first-ever session on human trafficking. Last September, she became the first survivor of such crimes to be appointed as a Goodwill Ambassador for the UN. She was also named one of Time Magazine‘s 100 Most Influential People of 2016.
The lesson for professional women: Don’t let the past stand in your way. Celebrate the obstacles you have overcome, keep moving forward, and do your part to make the world a better place.
Adele is a vocal powerhouse and a Grammy darling. The 28-year-old songstress has won more than a dozen of the golden statues, and it’s not hard to understand why. With her soulful voice and wide appeal, she has produced three mega-hit records, the latest of which—25—has sold more than 20 million copies since its release in late 2015.
But when Adele won song, record, and album of the year at last month’s Grammys, she believed someone else was more deserving: fellow nominee, Beyoncé.
So, Adele used some creative thinking, and her time in the spotlight, to right what she felt was a wrong. When she accepted the award for Album of the Year, she broke it in half and gave one piece to Beyoncé, calling her the “artist of my life,” In praise of Beyoncé’s album, Lemonade, Adele exclaimed, “You are our light. And the way that you make me and my friends feel, the way you make my black friends feel, is empowering. You make them stand up for themselves and I love you. I always have and I always will.”
Backstage, Adele was more brazen in her insistence that Beyoncé deserved the award. “My Album of the Year is Lemonade,” Adele reportedly told press, continuing:
For her to make such relevant music for that long of a period, I felt the need . . . it was her time to win. What the f— does she have to do to win Album of the Year? It was another side of her. Obviously, the visual is very new and the Grammys are very traditional, but this year I thought would be the year they go with the tide. Of course, I’m very grateful to have won it, but I love her. I felt she was more than worthy, and that’s pretty much it.
Adele and many other Beyoncé fans believe racial bias has caused Beyoncé to lose Album of the Year three times, all to white artists. In fact, the last black woman artist to win the top award was Lauryn Hill in 1999. Others suggest Beyoncé’s loss was a matter of vote splitting. Another hip-hop album—Drake’s The View—was also nominated for Album of the Year, and probably siphoned votes from Lemonade.
Whatever the reason, Adele certainly wins the award for classiest act. Her tribute brought tears to Beyoncé’s eyes, and to the eyes of many audience members and viewers, and reminds us that women are stronger when we support, encourage, and celebrate one another.
The lesson for professional women: Rather than competing with other women, collaborate with them and praise their good work. Share your spotlight and words of wisdom with those coming up the ranks behind you, and ensure that all women—regardless of race, religion, or sexual orientation—get recognized for their success.
The story of Katherine Johnson and NASA’s other Hidden Figures isn’t a new one, but the Academy-Award-nominated film has made it newsworthy once again.
In 1935, the NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, a precursor to NASA) hired five women to be their first human computer pool. These women did tedious and complex calculations by hand, for very little pay. After the attack on Pearl Harbor several years later, NACA began recruiting college-educated African-American women to join the team. At the time, they could be hired for less money than the white women.
By the time Katherine Johnson joined the team in 1953, she was already a trailblazer. She graduated from high school at age 14, and then from the historically black West Virginia State University at age 18. Then, she set her sights on graduate school at West Virginia’s segregated state college. In 1938, she was one of the school’s first three black students, and the only woman.
At NASA, Johnson helped calculate trajectories for space travel. The film focuses on John Glenn’s 1962 trip around the globe, for which Johnson’s job was to double-check and reverse engineer calculations created by the new IBM 7090. The team, and Glenn in particular, didn’t fully trust the machine, but they did trust Johnson. So, when the mission ended earlier than expected, Glenn specifically requested that she be the one to confirm the numbers.
Johnson worked at NASA until she retired in 1986. She was part of the Apollo program and helped provide calculations for the 1969 moon landing. In 2015, President Obama gave her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and last May, NASA built a computational research facility in her hometown, and named it in her honor.
As for the film, Hidden Figures didn’t win any of the three Oscars for which it was nominated, but the cast did get to present the award for Best Documentary. When Katherine Johnson joined them onstage, the audience gave her a standing ovation. Not so hidden anymore, huh?
The lesson for professional women: Ignore any perceived boundaries or glass ceilings. If you’re doing work that you’re good at and that you love, you’ll find your path to success. And in a time when we need more women in STEM careers, remember that if three black women could do it in the early 1960s, women can certainly do it today. They won’t even have to wait 50 (or more) years to get the credit.
Whether it’s women in history or women in the headlines, who do you think is worthy of celebration this Women’s History Month? And what lessons have you learned from these pioneers and role models? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.
Featured image attribution: Jason Blackeye (via Unsplash)