When you think about it, female rights have been a relatively modern advancement. We only gained the right to vote in the last hundred years and while the 19th Amendment was adopted into the Constitution in August of 1920, it took some states over 60 years to ratify the Amendment. Mississippi didn't ratify the 19th Amendment until 1984.
In addition to gaining voting rights, women have also had to fight for occupational equality in earnings and opportunities, which according to the Institute For Women's Policy Research, is still skewed by 21 percent, with women earning 79 cents on the dollar of their male equivalents. We continue to fight all difficult and ongoing feats in our patriarchal society.
While we're far from done, there is a growing media surge seeking to empower women through a celebration of our achievements and accolades. By honoring women of greatness and bringing attention to the still-present gender divide, we are challenging the commonplace ideals of the past and bringing about a brighter future for all women.
The following fifteen women have broken through gender barriers, glass ceilings, and stereotypes to prove that their gender is not a handicap. These women serve as inspirational examples to those striving for equality in a male-dominated world. By promoting their accomplishments and shining a steady spotlight on successful female role models from all backgrounds, we're helping to create a culture wherein the women of our future will never know the gender-gap existed.
15 Muna AbuSalayman
Born in Philadelphia, Muna's upbringing was spent between Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, and the United States and she is changing things in her home country as well as abroad. She founded (and for five years she co-hosted) the popular Arabian television show, Kalam Nawaem (Speech of the Soft) which is hosted exclusively by women and pushes cultural boundaries by tackling controversial subjects including homosexuality, gender equality, and divorce. This position earned her the distinction of the first Saudi woman to ever appear on international television, though this came with its own challenges, including death threats after an episode was critical of orthodox Muslim behavior.
Not only does Muna have her own clothing line, of which her core customers are Muslim women, but she built the Alwaleed Bin Talal Foundation and serves as the Executive Director and Secretary General. The foundation works to promote dialog between Eastern and Western cultures, alleviate poverty through the empowerment of women and provide disaster relief.
As a recognized Young Leader by the World Economic Forum and the first Saudi Arabian woman to be appointed the position of Goodwill Embassador by the United Nations Development Program, Muna spends a lot of her time speaking (like her talk from TedxDeadSea) and promoting humanitarian causes. In a lecture given at Yale University, she pointed out that mothers gain a lot of experience raising children, they acquire skills like patience, multitasking, and management, and these shouldn't be neglected by employers and should be compensated financially.
14 Angela Davis
It seems the entire world rallied behind Angela Davis when she was put on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted Fugitive List. The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and John Lennon and Yoko Ono all wrote songs dedicated to Angela and the case. The United Presbyterian Church paid for part of her legal defense. She was later found not guilty and acquitted of all charges, her involvement having been that the 17-year-old courtroom shooter used weapons that had been purchased by Davis.
Angela didn't let the incarceration deter her activism. Instead, it emboldened it. Angela set out to abolish what she refers to as the “Prison-Industrial Complex,” and has suggested that community and education should be involved to solve some of the problems now handled by the incarceration industry. She helped to found Critical Resistance, a grassroots movement to abolish the prison-industrial complex and has pointed out that American racism can be measured by the disproportionate incarceration of African-Americans.
Her latest book, Freedom Is A Constant Struggle, was released in January and “illuminates the connections between struggles against state violence and oppression throughout history and around the world.” Plus, you can watch this video of her explaining why she won't be endorsing a political candidate in the 2016 election.
13 Johanna Sigurdardottir
At one point Johanna was the longest-serving member of Icelandic Parliament. In 1994, she ran for the chance to head the Social Democratic Party. She lost. But as legend tells, she raised her fist and affirmed, "Minn tími mun koma!" or “My time will come!” (Now a common Icelandic phrase.) And come it did when in 2009 she became the 24th Prime Minister of Iceland and our world's first openly lesbian head of government. Even Forbes took notice and named her one of the 100 Most Powerful Women in the World.
If that weren't cool enough, she has all but shut down the illegal industry in Iceland. In an effort to rid the country of dancers clubs, Kolbrun Halldorsdottir proposed a ban that led to the country's new law, which makes it illegal for a business to profit from their employees being naked. Halldorsdottir announced to the national press, “It is not acceptable that women or people, in general, are a product to be sold.”
The concern is that not only are these clubs store-fronts for this type of illegal activity, but the women working in them are not choosing this work by free choice for occupational fulfillment, but more often than not to support substance addictions or to lessen their crushing poverty, both social issues that can be better served through a means other than this. It is also interesting to mention, as pointed out by Julie Bindel of The Guardian (she also deemed Iceland the most feminist country in the world), that no other country has outlawed this type of work for feminist reasons, only religious ones. When asked what she believes to be the most important gender issue of today, Sigurdardottir replied, “To fight the pay gap between men and women”.
12 Alice Waters
An alumni of University of California, Berkeley, Alice Waters emerged from college with a degree in French Cultural Studies and a taste of activism. When Berkeley tried to enact a campus-wide ban on political activism and involvement, Alice became involved with the Free Speech Movement. During her time at the University she also had the chance to study abroad in France, where she began cooking simple locally-grown foods. Both of these experiences would contribute to her future success.
The fact that Alice opened a restaurant, Chez Panisse, and it has become one of the most renowned and acclaimed restaurants in the world isn't even the coolest part, though Chex Panisse has been recognized as the Best Restaurant in America by Gourmet Magazine. It's not that she was the first women to be named the Best Chef in America by the James Beard Foundation. Or that Bon Appetit awarded her their Lifetime Achievement Award. What's the coolest is her advocacy for local, sustainable, organic food through her work as Vice President of Slow Food International and her founding of the Chez Panisse Foundation, which works to transform food programs in the public school system.
The Edible Schoolyard at Berkeley's Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School encompasses a one-acre garden and a kitchen classroom in which students grow, harvest and prepare their own food. That might not seem like much but these facilities have allowed Alice's program to teach students about agriculture and overhaul the school's lunch program, almost completely eliminating the processed foods served in the cafeteria. All while staying within budget, no less. What's exciting is that The Edible Schoolyard is seen as a viable model for agricultural education throughout the public school system. Edible Schoolyards now exist in New Orleans, New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Greensboro, North Carolina. When speaking about our relationships to food, Alice Waters was quoted as saying, “We've been separated from this experience through a kind of fast-food indoctrination that's been going on for the last 50 years. So we need to really come back to our senses and really understand, like most every other country in the world, that food is something precious."
11 Zainab Salbi
Zainab was born in Iraq and into the rule of Saddam Hussein. When she was eleven years old, her father was chosen as Saddam's personal pilot and because of this, the family was often forced to spend time with Saddam, who watched their every move. In an attempt to spare Zainab (now 19) from the tyranny of the regime, her mother sent her to America for an arranged marriage but this situation only brought more abuse. But Zainab didn't give up. Instead, her experiences fueled her desire to help other women.
In the early 1990s, Zainab and her newly wedded husband, Amjad Atallah, were moved to action by the injustices experienced by women in concentration camps of former Yugoslavia. Unable to find any humanitarian organizations meeting the needs of these women, the two launched Women for Women International with the goal of aiding women in war-ravaged countries.
In an excerpt from her book, The Other Side of War: Women's Stories of Survival and Hope, Zainab writes, "War is not a computer-generated missile striking a digital map. War is the color of earth as it explodes in our faces, the sound of a child pleading, the smell of smoke and fear. Women survivors of war are not the single image portrayed on the television screen, but the glue that holds families and countries together. Perhaps by understanding women, and the other side of war...we will have more humility in our discussions of wars...perhaps it is time to listen to women's side of history."
Through her direction as CEO, Zainab Salbi and Women for Women International reached more than 447,000 women in eight conflict-torn areas with training in rights education, helped many launch their own small businesses, and provided $120 million in aid and loans. The organization is still going strong, helping women around the globe, and Zainab continues her humanitarian efforts by spreading her message through multiple media outlets, which includes authoring books, working with celebrities like Oprah and Bill Clinton, giving TedTalks, serving as a contributing editor for the New York Times' sponsored blog Women in the World, and creating The Nidaa Show.
10 Eunice Kennedy Shriver
Eunice's sister, Rosemary, suffers from an intellectual disability and though the two of them would swim and sail and ski together, Eunice quickly found that there was something terribly wrong with the overall view of the mentally handicapped. Abused, neglected and often institutionalized, Eunice decided to take action and show the world that these people, like her sister, had something more to offer. So she set up a summer day camp in her backyard and named it Camp Shriver. The goal of the camp was to empower these special children through sports and positive competition. Well, the idea took off and that little backyard camp quickly grew into the Special Olympics, which now touches the lives of over 4 million handicapped individuals in more than 170 countries.
Not only did Eunice found the Special Olympics but she used her political affluence (she's President Kennedy's sister) to develop numerous programs and organizations that advocate for the disabled. She helped found the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, which was later renamed in her honor. She also spearheaded the development of the President's Panel on Mental Retardation, which helped change the then-commonplace institutionalized treatment to one of community integration and support throughout the US and the world. And the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Center for Community of Caring, which she also founded, provides a K-12 educational program that focuses on disabilities and has been integrated by nearly 1,200 schools nationwide and throughout Canada.
9 Deborah Shore
Deborah began working with troubled youth in the 1970's and it led her to start Zocalo, a meeting place for homeless teens, in the basement of the Christ Center Church in Georgetown. What made Deborah's approach to counseling different was her willingness to talk with the youth, instead of at them. “We need to hear what young people are saying,” she said in a Washington Post interview, “We need to assume that they have some wisdom about their own lives, that they are the authors of their own transformation.” Her work to uplift these teens through empowerment is proven, as many of the kids she worked with were able to reconcile with their families.
It wasn't long before somebody took notice and a few years later Evangeline David and her husband, U.S. Ambassador David Bruce, donated a building to Deborah's charity and the nonprofit was renamed for their deceased daughter, Sasha Bruce. Armed with a new facility, the organization shifted its focus to long-term services for local runaways and troubled families in the Washington, DC area.
Sasha Bruce Youthwork now has a staff of 140 and helps approximately 1,500 troubled youth and 5,000 family members each year with their diversity of services including a 24 hour emergency drop-in shelter, transitional housing for participants and young mothers, GED assistance and counseling, which also reaches those in the juvenile corrections system.
When asked how she defines the success of Sasha Bruce Youthwork, Deborah replied, “I think it’s young people who are self-sufficient and able to live on their own, taking care of their responsibilities, their children if they have them, their rent. They’re able to make their way in the world as a contributor. And that they have some capacity for happiness, that they’re feeling some joy in their lives.”
8 Abbe Land
Abbe spent years serving as co-CEO for The Los Angeles Free Clinic, which provides no-cost and judgement-free medical services to hundreds of thousands of LA locals. The clinic offers quality medical and dental services, legal assistance, HIV testing, counseling, and prenatal care to their under-served patients in an effort to bridge the gap and help those in need. But she didn't stop there.
A one-man show, featuring a character named Trevor, by James Lecense would lead to the production of a movie by the same name and her eventual work with The Trevor Project. You see, the movie (which explores LGBTQ and suicide issues) garnered national acclaim, even winning the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film. And on the same evening that Ellen DeGeneres hosted a viewing of the movie on HBO, The Trevor Project was launched. Today, Abbe Land serves as Executive Director and CEO of the organization, which has provided hundreds of thousands of at-risk LGBTQ youth with suicide prevention and crisis counseling through the Trevor Lifeline, TrevorChat, TrevorSpace and Trevor Education Workshops. Through her work in medical services and suicide prevention, Abbe Land has saved countless lives.
7 Carolyn Porco
As far as making history goes, how about leading an interplanetary mission that has discovered seven new moons orbiting Saturn? And serving as an adviser on films like Contact and Star Trek for kicks? Carolyn Porco, whose resume made my head spin, has made numerous discoveries throughout our solar system. Her work on the Voyager Imaging Team led to capturing 'portraits of the planets' and gave us many breathtaking images, including the famous Pale Blue Dot, a perspective-altering image of Earth. Her and her team's work in imaging also led to the discovery of a hydrocarbon lake on Titan (one of Saturn's moons), eruptions on Enceladus (Saturn's sixth-largest moon), and a moonlet. Who knew those existed?
In a 2009 TedTalk, Carolyn spoke about the possibilities associated with the eruptions on Enceladus. “So we have, possibly, liquid water, organic materials and excess heat. In other words we have possibly stumbled upon the holy grail of modern-day planetary exploration, or in other words an environment that is potentially suitable for living organisms. And I don't think I need to tell you that the discovery of life elsewhere in our Solar system, whether it be on Enceladus or elsewhere, would have enormous cultural and scientific implications. Because if we could demonstrate that genesis had occurred – not once but twice, independently, in our Solar system – then that means by inference it has occurred a staggering number of times throughout our Universe in its 13.7 billion year history.”
6 Lynsey Addario
Lynsey has repeatedly put her life on the line for her photography. She describes her captivity in Libya, where she and three of her colleges were held for five days, "Physically we were blindfolded and bound. In the beginning, my hands and feet were bound very tightly behind our backs and my feet were tied with shoelaces. I was blindfolded most of the first three days, with the exception of the first six hours. I was punched in the face a few times and groped repeatedly." Later that same year she was strip-searched by Israeli soldiers who openly mocked her and forced her repeatedly through an x-ray machine, even though she was pregnant.
So why in the world does she do it? Because the goal of her photography is to make people care about these desperate situations. To make people care enough to bring change. And that takes her to some of the most dangerous and war-torn conflict areas on the planet. Since her early work in Cuba and Argentina, she has photographed Afghanistan, Iraq, Darfur, Republic of the Congo, Chad, Haiti, Libya and Pakistan. In 2009, her sacrifice was rewarded with the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting. And not only has she written a memoir, It's What I Do: A Photographer's Life of Love and War, but she also shares photos on Instagram.
5 Aung San Suu Kyi
When General Ne Win, head of the Burma Socialist Programme Party regime, announced a change in the already impoverished country's currency to favor his lucky number, college students in Yangon (who would lose their tuition savings) took a stand. Little did they know that they would be joined by an entire nation and the protests would last the better part of August. But what began with pepper spray and riot police would quickly turn into martial law, a ban on gatherings of more than five people, soldiers raping protesters, and eventually authorities opening fire on protesters. Soldiers entered the Rangoon General Hospital and shot nurses and doctors found attending to the wounded.
When the smoke finally cleared, Aung San Suu Kyi delivered a speech to half a million people at Shwedagon Pagoda and became a symbol of fortitude and nonviolence for the future of Burma. She took the position of General Secretary for the National League for Democracy and her party won 81% of the seats of Parliament in a democratic vote, but the military refused to relinquish its power. Aung San Suu Kyi had come to Burma to help her ailing mother but her political involvement caused the regime to withhold visas for her husband and their two sons. She was given the option to leave Burma and never return but saw that her people needed her. Eventually this led to her spending fifteen of the next twenty one years either imprisoned or under house arrest. Finally and after much international pressure, Aung San Suu Kyi was released and while the current constitution would prohibit her from running for the presidency because her husband and children are foreigners, she would later be appointed the position of State Counsellor (a position similar to Prime Minister) which was created for her in spite of the constitution.
4 Helen Clark
On Forbes 2016 list of the World's Most Powerful Women, Helen's number twenty two. (Can you imagine even making that list?) She served as the 37th Prime Minister of New Zealand and was the first woman elected in New Zealand through a general election. Helen used her three consecutive terms to do great things for the people of her nation.
The economic programs initiated during her service include the award-winning Kiwibank, the New Zealand Superannuation Fund (comparable to our Social Security fund), the New Zealand Emissions Trading Scheme (which caps the amount of polluting emissions allowed then allows over-offending companies to purchase emission 'permits' or unused pounds of emissions, from green ones) and KiwiSaver (a national savings program where participants contribute a percentage of their income with the long-term aim of home-ownership, retirement or security in financial hardship).
The Working for Families package increased the minimum wage 5% a year, created District Health Boards, offered interest-free loans to students, set new qualifications for secondary schools, introduced a number of new tax credits and initiated a fourteen week parental leave, and was initiated as a result of Helen's policies.
3 Melissa Hillebrenner Kilby
Melissa is the Director of the United Nations Foundation's program, Girl Up. The program has nearly half a million advocates and “efforts help the hardest to reach girls living in places where it is hardest to be a girl”. Plus they've identified five core areas where efforts are most effective: education, health, safety, leadership and documentation, as many girls don't have birth records, which helps them direct services. So not only does the organization help girls attend and stay in school, provide health services, prevent and protect girls from gender-related violence, offers skill-building workshops to ensure employment opportunities, and helps girls attain their birth records, something many of them don't have, but Girl Up also partners with the United Nations to bring programs to Ethiopia, Guatemala, Liberia, Malawi, and India.
Another global concern in the fight for girls are those being married young, commonly as young as fifteen. In a Harvard National Review article, Melissa talked about factors that contribute to the marrying off of young girls, “The reality is that it’s not so simple for parents living in poverty who can’t afford to feed their families; for parents who depend on income from their adolescent children; for parents who weren’t educated themselves and are unable to see past the immediate challenges of survival to imagine a different life in the long term.”
In the close of her article, Melissa talked about the future for girls, “What the girls of the world need now is action, resources, and partnerships. Awareness is the first step and I am impassioned and emboldened by this groundswell of interest. The groundswell needs to become a wave, and this wave needs to wipe out the old norms and the old excuses, bringing resources, dollars, and solutions to wipe the landscape clean and start anew for girls. It will take all the efforts we have, and we need to act now, because 62 million girls are counting on us all".
2 Rangu Souriya
The first girl Rangu saved from human trafficking was a thirteen-year-old bonded laborer who was being held by a Delhi businessman. Through her social work, she learned of rescuers who were rescuing trafficked children in Nepal but would find many children there from India but had no way to help them since they were from out of the country. “...when I went back home to Panighatta Tea Garden, I came to know about many girls from our villages who had left for work to bigger cities and never came back home.” Sadly, traffickers pose as recruiters and suitors, luring girls away from impoverished families. There have also been cases where women have been sold into trafficking by their husbands.
After saving that first girl, parents of missing children began flocking to Rangu but there was no funding for the expenses of finding, rescuing and transporting the girls home. After borrowing all she could from family and friends, Rangu made the decision to use a loan for what was supposed to be a small business and sold ten cows of her own (a major source of her income) to fund further rescues. So engrossed in her new-found purpose, Rangu did not realize when she had defaulted on the loan and was arrested for her failure to repay the funds. Today, Rangu is the founder of Kanchanjunga Uddhar Kendra and has used her organization to rescue over six hundred children from brothels, traffickers, and bonded labor. While the group also rescues boys, 95% of the children freed are female, a reflection of the vulnerability of girls in many global situations.
When the BBC contacted Ziauddin Yousafzai, a schoolteacher, about finding a young blogger to journal an account of life under Taliban rule, Ziauddin had a hard time finding anyone willing. No wonder considering the Taliban had so far banned television, music, education for girls and shopping for women and even more terrifying, as the militants took control of the valley they beheaded police officers and hung them in the town square. Eventually, after a few prospects fell through, Ziauddin suggested his own daughter, Malala, who would write under a pseudonym to protect her identity. In the following years, Malala would reveal her identity and openly speak in support of education for girls. She became the first Pakistani girl to be nominated for the International Children's Peace Prize and was awarded Pakistan's first National Youth Peace Prize.
But with the recognition came threats: some were made on social media, some were published in newspapers and others were slid under the door of their home. While riding a bus with her friends, a Taliban shooter shouted at the group, "Which one of you is Malala? Speak up, otherwise I will shoot you all," and when identified, Malala was shot, a bullet going through her head, neck, and shoulder. Two other girls on the bus were wounded as well. A portion of her skull had to be removed to relieve the swelling pressure on her brain and the surgery to remove the bullet took five hours. Miraculously, Malala made a full recovery and her experience brought international attention, a wave of concern and compassion, which has helped her further advocate for her cause. Upon her acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize, Malala became the youngest Nobel laureate in history.
There are amazing women doing amazing things everywhere: helping neighbors in their community, empowering others and supporting one another, changing the world. Every one of these women makes me damn proud to be a girl...and to look for opportunities to help others. The days of girl-on-girl competition, judgment and harassment are over. It's time to lift each other up--in the name of oppressed women and girls across the globe. It's a great time to be a girl!