Over the millennia, there are thousands of women whose lives, talents and hard work have smoothed the path for others, thanks to their political bravery, their devotion to the needs of those they do not know and will never meet, their care for the earth and its resources, their skills in medicine or music or architecture or design.
As we sit down for turkey, stuffing and giving thanks, here’s my highly edited short list of cool women, any one of whom I’d love to have had lunch with — some of whom maybe I still can!
And, of course — my Mom. She met my Canadian Dad in France when she was 17, married him and moved from New York City to Canada, followed him and his film-making career to London, then back to Canada where she became a radio, television, film and print journalist. She traveled the world alone for years, from Afghanistan to Singapore, Fiji to Chile. We lived and traveled in Mexico, the first place she taught me the need to pay careful attention to other cultures. A multiple survivor of various cancers, and still kicking my butt, she taught me to be feisty, frugal, fearless and have fun.
I’d love to hear your votes!
Marie Curie. Everyone who’s ever gotten an X-ray owes a debt of gratitude to Pole Madame Curie, who, sadly died of leukemia from overexposure to radiation. Only four people have won two Nobel prizes; she won in 1903 for physics and 1911 for chemistry.
Nellie McClung, who won Canadian women the right to vote. She’s on the Canadian $50 bill and a bronze statue of her stands outside the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa, Canada’s capital. I dedicated my first T/S post, July 1, 2009, to her.
Lena Bryant, who emigrated from Lithuania in 1895 at the age of 16, and who founded Lane Bryant, by 1950 one of the U.S.’s most successful and earliest makers of clothing for larger sizes.
Virginia Apgar, a New York City physician and professor at Columbia University whose Apgar score for newborns, has since 1953, measured five key indicators of health within a baby’s first few minutes of life. She never married because “I never found a man who could cook.”
Suze Orman, who candidly admits she learned firsthand what it’s like to wear the leg-irons of consumer debt and who teaches women, especially, to take better financial care of themselves.
Alice Munro, a Canadian treasure, winner of this year’s Man Booker International Prize, and one of the world’s greatest living writers. I have met her, and she was as lovely and gracious as I’d hoped.
Jane Austen, who bequeathed to us some of the most enduring stories that still resonate centuries later.
Babe Didrikson Zaharia for being such a ferocious and multi-talented athlete long before anyone had heard of Title IX, civil rights or the Williams sisters.
Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan woman and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize who was fighting for the land years before it became fashionable to do so.
Sylvia Earle, aka Her Royal Deepness, whose passion for the oceans has made her the female equal of the much better-known late Jacques Cousteau.
Dian Fossey, one of several accomplished women (Jane Goodall, Birute Galdikas) who made saving monkeys a powerful and compelling argument, devoting her life to them.
Billie Jean King, for her many tennis accomplishments, and for taking on the impossibly sexist-chauvinist Bobby Riggs and kicking his ass. Young women today have no idea how prevalent his brand of contempt was for women athletes.
Emily Roebling, whose name should be legend. Her father-in-law John Roebling won the contract, but died of tetanus. Then her husband, Washington, was severely injured by having descended too many times into the caissons to watch the progress of the Brooklyn Bridge, the 8th wonder of the world, as it was known at the time. While he had to sit in their Brooklyn home watching construction of it out their windows, it was Emily — unheard of in the 1880s — who, without any engineering or mathematical training, took over heading up this complex project. She defended her husband publicly, also unheard of at the time, and went on to become one of New York State’s first female lawyers.
Nellie Bly, a crusading journalist who chose to spend time in an insane asylum to report on its appalling conditions, then did a wild round-the-world journey in record time, also to write about it. Bold, brave and way ahead of the days when “embeds” or other forms of immersive reporting were considered cool.
Rosa Parks, who had the guts to take a stand for civil rights when so few others dared.
Margaret Bourke-White, whose photograph graced the first cover of Life magazine, and who became one of the U.S.’s best-known and most-respected women photographers.
Margaret Sanger, who in the early 1900s fought for the rights of women to have access to and to use birth control, a phrase she is said to have originated.
Pema Chodron, a Buddhist teacher and writer, an extremely rare female leader in that world, whose books, and wisdom, have helped millions. A graduate of Miss Porter’s, a prep school in Connecticut, and Berkeley, she began her career as a schoolteacher and now runs Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia.
Annie Oakley, for escaping a crazy, impoverished childhood thanks to her guts and self-confidence. She learned to shoot so accurately because she initially shot game birds and sold them to local hotels for food, needing the money even as a teenager to survive. She met her husband, Frank Butler, when she beat him at a shooting competition. She became one of the nation’s best-known and widely-admired performers — until William Randolph Hearst, deciding to ride on the coat-tails of her fame, published articles in his newspapers slandering her. She took three years away from her career to fight every single one of them, and won. Here’s a biography of her by one of my favorite female historians, Glenda Riley. I also wrote about her in my first book.