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A R T I C L E S* &* S P E E C H E S

CELEBRATING WOMEN OF COURAGE AND VISION

Courtesy of the National Women's History Project

National Women's History Month is celebrated in thousands of schools, communities and workplaces across the nation. March was designated as National Women's History Month years ago by Presidential and Congressional Resolution. This historic celebration reminds us of the importance of continuing to fill in the pages of our history that remained absent until the national effort to retell the stories of all women's lives.

The theme for National Women's History Month 2001 is Celebrating Women of Courage and Vision. This theme reminds us of how women's work, energy, thought, and spirit built the world we live in today.

What is courage? How do we define it? Is it an acquired trait? Does it come with practice? How do we manifest courage in our own lives?

I ask these questions as I think of the lives of the women we honor today. Without a doubt, none of them expected to be singled out and celebrated as a woman of courage and vision. Yet, each has demonstrated the courage to pave new paths, to push past what was considered safe or appropriate. In so doing, they have created an expanded vision of what is possible for all of us to achieve.

Today we honor six 20th Century women who represent several generations and a wide range of achievement and success. The lives of these women will be recognized in order of their birth. In this way we can see that although their lives and work differ tremendously, there is still the sense of having an expanded vision passed from one generation to the next.

The first woman we honor is Lillian Smith. She is the only one of the six honorees to be born in the 19th Century, actually in 1893. Yet, her vision is one we continue to work toward as we begin the 21st Century. Lillian Smith used her enormous talent as a writer to educate America about the poisonous outcome of racism.

Smith was born to a prominent family in Jasper, Florida. She loved the South. It was her birthplace, her home, where she lived and worked. It was her inspiration.

Still, she courageously challenged some of the most ingrained assumptions of her class and culture. In 1949 she published Killers of the Dream, a book of brilliant essays that systematically identify, challenge, and dismantle Southern racist traditions, customs and beliefs.

Lillian Smith's great courage is obvious in her vision of an integrated society where all human beings are treated with equal justice and respect. In 1956, on the first anniversary of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which challenged segregated busing, Smith was honored by the women who organized the boycott.

Born a decade after Smith, a young woman from the state of Utah, would also develop her own vision of the power of equality and justice for all.

Esther Peterson was born in 1906 and reared in a traditional Mormon home that nurtured her sense of discovery and learning. Throughout her life she would work as labor educator, lobbyist, government official, corporate executive, and always as an advocate for working women and men.

When we think about how laws get changed, we should consider the successful campaigns Esther conducted. She championed the equal pay law for working women and truth in advertising labels for consumer protection. Her ability to negotiate and build coalitions inspired and encouraged all who knew her.

In 1981, Esther Peterson's courage and vision were acknowledged when she was honored with the highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Still her work continued and in 1993, at age 87, she was named as a representative to UNESCO where she continued her visionary work.

The third woman we honor today, La Donna Harris, knew Esther Peterson. LaDonna compares Esther's compassionate courage and tireless dedication to that of Esther's good friend, Eleanor Roosevelt. Both Esther and Eleanor could be counted on to support groups and fledgling organizations that were often marginalized on the mainstream Washington agenda. Yet, LaDonna Harris, with the support of people like Esther Peterson, was able to launch a successful political movement that would eventually change the consciousness of America about the condition of American Indians.

LaDonna Harris was born on a Comanche allotment in Temple, Oklahoma to a Comanche mother and Irish-American father. She was reared by her maternal grandparents who gave her a traditional Comanche upbringing. She married Fred Harris who first served in the Oklahoma State Senate before being elected to the United States Senate. On the campaign trail, LaDonna learned how to navigate within the difficult world of politics. In 1970, she founded Americans for Indian Opportunity, a national multi-tribal organization devoted to developing the economic opportunities and resources of all American Indians.

In 1980, LaDonna Harris took the bold step of becoming the Citizen's Party candidate for Vice-President of the United States. She ran on a platform of progressive policies to support the rights of those with little political power including children and the mentally ill.

In recent years, Harris has expanded the AIO to meet current needs of Native American groups such as the "American Indian Ambassadors" program, which provides one-year fellowships for Native American students. The participants are instructed in tribal values and modes of government and encouraged to define themselves and become leaders for the 21st Century.

Although, Shirley Jackson, the fourth woman we honor today is from a different culture and background than LaDonna, they both draw on the power of their cultural heritage to define, engage, and transform the society in which they live.

If Shirley Jackson had been born a decade earlier, discrimination and segregation probably would have denied us the opportunity to benefit from her extraordinary mind and resulting scientific research. As a theoretical physicist, she expanded the scientific knowledge about particle physics to predict the existence of subatomic particles and the forces that bind them together. Although that may sound highly technical, her discovery has resulted in a reassessment of fundamental scientific assumptions and transformed the technology and thinking of the 21st Century.

Shirley Jackson was born in 1946. Both her parents nurtured her curiosity and sense of discovery. As a little girl, she was introduced to stories about Benjamin Banneker, a free African American who lived in the 18th Century. Banneker was a scientist and mathematician who helped survey the land, plan the streets, and select the building sites of Jackson's hometown, Washington DC. Jackson learned early in her life that as an African American female she would need determination, tenacity and courage to succeed against the barriers of prejudice.

When Shirley attended MIT, the world of physics opened to her. Yet, she experienced the separation and loneliness of being one of the very few African American students on campus. To remedy this problem, she co-founded the Black Student Union, which helped MIT begin a conscious effort to diversify its campus.

In 1973, Jackson made history by becoming the first African American woman to graduate with a Doctoral Degree from MIT. Since that time, the many "firsts" attached to her name demonstrate her courage to break through all boundaries and succeed. In 1997 as chair of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, she spearheaded the formation of the International Nuclear Regulators Association. This forum was created for officials to examine issues and offer assistance to other nations on matters of nuclear safety.

Today, Shirley Jackson is president of Rensselaer (Rens-a-leer) Polytechnic Institute, one of our nation's oldest and finest science and engineering research universities. She continues her vision of promoting unlimited possibilities for future generations.

The last two women we honor today, Ellen Ochoa and Maya Lin, were born a year apart in the second half of the 20th Century. Their visions were shaped by opportunities and ideas unknown to previous generations.

Ellen Ochoa was born in 1958. Demonstrating extraordinary achievement, she graduated top of her class at San Diego State University, and earned Masters and Doctorate Degrees from Stanford University. Her Doctoral work led to a patented optical system used today in manufacturing. This system is used in manufacturing to inspect intricate parts for quality control.

On a nine-day mission aboard the shuttle, Discovery in 1993, Ochoa made history when she became the first Hispanic woman in space. She is a role model for all to try their best in everything they do. Ellen is a scientist, inventor, astronaut, classical flutist, wife, and mother of two little boys. Clearly these descriptors are not in order of importance, but all demonstrate her courage to succeed.

Ellen's vision of America is, and I quote, "One of journey and discovery--of many groups and individuals who share common dreams and challenges, even as their differences help shape our American culture."

The last woman we honor today is one whose vision will certainly help define the 21st Century. Maya Lin was born in 1959. Her parents emigrated from China and taught at Ohio University. When she was a 21-year-old student at Yale, her design for the Vietnam Memorial was chosen from over twelve hundred proposals. The controversy that ensued was ugly and unwarranted. Yet, Maya Lin defended her work with extraordinary grace and courage. Her vision manifests itself in the Vietnam Memorial, one of America's most significant monuments, with the names of those who died in the war chiseled into a wall of black marble slicing through the earth. The Civil Rights Memorial she designed in Montgomery, Alabama, pays tribute to fallen Civil Rights workers. Like the Vietnam Memorial, the names of those honored are chiseled in stone, but this monument creates the appearance of a stone table with water flowing over the sculpture as if rising from the earth itself.

Both monuments not only witness the past, but honor the outcome in the present. Maya's vision is strongly influenced by the Earth Artists of the 1960's and 1970's. She credits her Asian-American heritage as the source of her ability to combine the influences of East and West as well as reason and intuition to manifest within her architectural designs. Her strong concern for the environment is demonstrated by her use of recycled, living, or natural materials in her work. Her vision is clearly one of expansive respect for past, present, and future generations.

These six women, Lillian Smith, Esther Peterson, LaDonna Harris, Shirley Jackson, Ellen Ochoa and Maya Lin, demonstrate the importance of acting with courage and pursuing a vision. Their courage, demonstrated with individual acts, has collectively helped build the spirit of America. They have helped create a vision of new hope and possibilities for generations to come. Let's celebrate this spirit of possibility not only in March, but throughout the year.

Written by: Molly Murphy MacGregor, President and Cofounder, National Women's History Project

Related NWHP articles:

The National Women’s History Project (NWHP) is a non–profit organization dedicated to recognizing and celebrating the diverse and historic accomplishments of women by providing information and educational material and programs. For more about NWHP, as well as to find out about National Women's History Month events in your area, please see their website at www.nwhp.org.