Women Erased from History

It is exciting to learn about women erased from history and to bring their names and accomplishments into the public realm. The accomplishments of so many women were erased because of discrimination and were credited to men, sometimes because the women had to pretend to be men to be taken seriously and published their work under men’s names. At other times they were blocked from recognition because as women they were told they did not belong in the world of men. Always they were paid less than men.

Some new research by Joan Marie Naturale, a researcher of deaf history, illuminates the stories of four remarkable deaf women erased from history, some of who were pioneering astronomers and journalists, and all of who were early suffragettes fighting for women’s right to vote. Here are some of their stories.

Annie Jump Cannon was a pioneering astronomer. Naturale writes that Cannon, born in 1863, was one of the first women from Delaware to attend college and graduated valedictorian from Wellesley College. Deaf from a young age, she is credited with cataloging 350,000 stars at the Harvard College Observatory. She developed a unique system for ranking stars that is still used today—though it is named after Harvard, not for her. Cannon also fought for the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the US Constitution to give women the right to vote. She declared, “If women can organize the sky, we can organize the vote” and was a founder of the National Women’s Party.

Helen K. Watts, born 1881, and Kate Harvey, born 1862, were two deaf suffragettes in Britain who fought for women’s right to vote. Both were arrested and imprisoned in their struggle.

Laura Redden Searing, born 1840, was a deaf newspaper reporter and poet who published under the pseudonym of a man, Howard Glyndon. Naturale reports that in 1860 she became the earliest deaf woman journalist and interviewed General Ulysses S. Grant, soldiers on the Civil War battlefield, and President Abraham Lincoln. She wrote about women’s issues and campaigned for women’s right to vote, stating, “Having decided that black people do not belong to white ones, why not go a step farther and decide that women do not belong to men.”

Closer to our own time, Elizabeth Becker, writing for the New York Times, shares the stories of women who worked as combat reporters during the Vietnam War, but whose accomplishments were erased. Becker, in researching for her book on the women who pioneered new approaches to war correspondence during the Vietnam War entitled You Don’t Belong Here focused on three women: Kate Webb, Catherine Leroy, and Frances FitzGerald, whose names have been erased from public memory. While the names of young men who covered the Vietnam War, such as David Halberstam, remain in public memory, Becker notes that male journalists who wrote memoirs about their time in Vietnam either left out any mention of their female colleagues or belittled their accomplishments “no matter how many awards the women had won.”

Becker shares that in the mid-1960s when the war was raging, “newsrooms largely confined female reporters to the women’s-news section.” The three women who Becker researched “paid their own way to war, arrived with no jobs, no role models and no safety net.” They were not welcomed by male reporters and were treated with distain. Becker cites a memoir published in 1995 by Peter Arnett, a Vietnam War correspondent, as saying, “The prevailing view was that the war was being fought by men against men and women had no place there.” Here are some of the stories researched by Becker of Webb, Leroy, and FitzGerald.

Kate Webb rose to become bureau chief for United Press International in Cambodia, but there was no press release to celebrate this singular accomplishment. Webb was captured by the North Vietnamese and held captive for twenty-three days. She was honored at the time when she was released but then quickly forgotten. And she never wrote a memoir about her life, which is not surprising. Becker points out that women calling attention to their own work created intense backlash for them.

Catherine Leroy, a French photographer, was one of the few women combat photographers in the early years of the Vietnam War. Becker notes that Leroy pioneered an intimate style of combat photography to great acclaim. Her male colleagues were threatened by her success, filed shameless complaints against her, and got her press credentials stripped away by the Agence France-Presse. She fought back and regained her press card, but her colleagues dismissed or ignored her accomplishments in their memoirs about the war.

Frances FitzGerald wrote the Pulitzer Prize–winning book Fire in the Lake about the Vietnam War. The backlash from the war correspondents was intense as they claimed she was not qualified as a journalist to write such a book. Even Ken Burns, in his 2017 documentary about the Vietnam War, left her book off of his recommended reading list.

Becker closes her article with this lament: “The work of the women I looked to as role models has gradually slipped away from public memory. The women chroniclers of Vietnam were relegated to a footnote in history, denied their rightful place as pioneering war correspondents.” Becker has done an important service to history in bringing their accomplishments back to the light in her own book.


Photo courtesy of manhhai (CC BY 2.0)

Women and Salary Negotiation: New Research

New research from Harvard Business School (HBS) professor Julian Zlatev and colleagues on women and salary negotiation reveals surprising results. I used to always advise my women coaching clients to negotiate for raises or promotions by having an outside offer in place to strengthen their negotiating position and to give them confidence to negotiate assertively. While this makes sense to me intuitively, this research now proves me (and many others) wrong. This new HBS research finds that the more empowered women feel at the negotiation table, the more likely they are to reach a worse deal or no deal at all. Kristen Senz, writing about this study, notes that the results held regardless of whether their negotiation partner was a man or woman. In fact, Senz reports that “when a woman with a strong outside option, such as a job offer from another company, is negotiating, the likelihood that the discussion will end in an impasse nearly triples.” Clearly, this research reinforces that women are still in a lose-lose position when negotiating.

This study, conducted by Zlatev of HBS, Jennifer Dannals of Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business, Nir Halevy, and Margaret Neale, both of Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, analyzed data from 2,552 MBA students and executives from five continents who took part in virtual and in-person classroom exercises in negotiation. In this study, 35 percent of the participants were women and 19 percent were senior executives. Senz reports, “Members of the group negotiated in groups of two: 43 percent of the pairs included a woman and a man, 43 percent were only men, and 14 percent were only women.”

In addition to the finding previously mentioned that the more empowered women feel at the negotiation table, the more likely they are to reach a worse deal or no deal at all, Senz reports that the study found

  • A more powerful woman triggers a more powerful backlash, likely based on ingrained stereotypes about how women “should” act.
  • In a corporate setting, the higher a woman rises through the company’s ranks, the more backlash she faces if she negotiates her salary assertively.
  • Neither assertiveness nor conforming to stereotypes leads to success in negotiation for women.

The researchers suggest that this lose-lose situation for women contributes to the dearth of women in the C-suite and the gender pay gap. For change to happen, organizations need to “reimagine their negotiation process,” says Zlatev. By this he means taking steps such as eliminating salary negotiations from the hiring process. Some companies, such as Reddit, have implemented this change, which makes certain elements of a compensation package, such as salary, non-negotiable. It seems clear that unless companies establish structural changes such as eliminating salary negotiations from the hiring and promotion processes, women are going to remain in this lose-lose situation.


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Pregnant Workers Fairness Act

Much has been written about the dramatic exit from the labor market of women with children. Add to the exit the numbers of women who are pregnant and cannot get accommodations from their employers that would allow them to stay on the job. While this is not a new problem for pregnant women, the need to keep women in the labor force to help our economy recover from the pandemic means we must take action. One major step would be to get much-needed federal legislation passed that would provide protections to both pregnant workers and employers.

Chabeli Carrazana, writing for the 19th News, explains that while pregnancy discrimination was outlawed in 1978, “vague language in the law about exactly how employers should accommodate pregnant workers has spawned numerous lawsuits, many of them unsuccessful.” Carrazana notes that the 1978 law also puts the onus on the pregnant worker to prove that the employer has been able to accommodate another employee in the same facility who is in a similar position. The author points out that because pregnancy is a complex situation, no two situations may be the same, and courts have held a very high standard for what qualifies as a “similar position,” thereby tossing out suits with examples that are “too dissimilar.”

Carrazana points out that the resulting confusion for both employers and workers has had a differential impact on low-wage workers who are predominantly workers of color and most vulnerable in jobs with fewer labor protections. The author cites Elizabeth Gedmark, the vice president of A Better Balance, an organization that set up a hotline for workers to call if they faced pregnancy discrimination, as noting a pattern in the calls they received: “Many of the pregnant people calling were working in low-wage jobs where they were told to take unpaid leave or encouraged to quit when issues of pregnancy accommodation came up.” Gedman explained that some employers were refusing to offer accommodations because the law did not explicitly require them to.

Pregnant workers who cannot get accommodations have to deal with serious consequences. Carrazana offers some examples:

  • The most obvious is the loss of employment with a family to support
  • The health of the mother and the fetus are at stake in cases like that of Tesia Buckles, whose employer refused to allow her to keep a bottle of water at her work station. Her pregnancy sickness meant she was throwing up a lot and needed frequent hydration. She felt she had to quit for the health of her fetus.
  • In another case, four women in one warehouse miscarried in 2014 after the site’s contractor denied requests for workers to carry lighter loads. One of these women had a note from her doctor and was denied a chair and lighter duty anyway. She miscarried for a second time in that job.

What can be done? Carrazana notes that a bill, the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, has been languishing in Congress since 2012. The bill closes the loopholes in the original law and clarifies the responsibility of employers to provide accommodations. It removes the onus on workers to prove they need accommodation. The bill also uses inclusive language, such as “pregnant workers” to refer to all people who may become pregnant. The conditions may be right for this bill to finally be passed. A related bill, the PUMP for Nursing Mothers Act, is also getting attention in Congress as an attempt to “end the unintended consequences of a 2010 law designed to create accommodations for nursing mothers who needed break time to express breastmilk.” The original law provided so many exceptions to who was covered that some nine million workers were exempt from pumping protections. This needs to be fixed.

Let’s hope for movement on these common-sense protections to help women stay in the workforce.


Photo by Anna Sullivan on Unsplash

Women Erased from History: World War II

In an adapted excerpt from her forthcoming book, The Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler’s Ghettos, Judy Batalion writes about her discovery of the stories of dozens of women who fought in the Jewish resistance against the Nazis in Europe during World War II. Batalion shares that even as the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors who has a doctorate in women’s studies, she had never heard these stories or the names of these women fighters. While living in London in 2007 she visited the British Library to find out more about one Jewish woman she had read about as a child whose name and brave exploits she remembered. While hunting for material on this one woman, she stumbled upon a 180-page handwritten book entitled, Women in the Ghettos, written in Yiddish. This book detailed, many stories of “young Jewish women who defied the Nazis, many of whom had the chance to leave Nazi-occupied Poland but didn’t; some even voluntarily returned.” Batalion notes that some resistance narratives like these were published after the war but were sidelined or ignored and then forgotten. Batalion spent dozens of years in research archives and in living rooms across Poland, Israel, and North America reconstructing as many of the narratives as she could find of the Polish Jewish “ghetto girls” who

  • Paid off Gestapo guards
  • Hid revolvers in teddy bears
  • Flirted with Nazis and then killed them
  • Distributed underground bulletins and forged papers to ghetto inhabitants
  • Flung Molotov cocktails
  • Bombed train lines
  • Organized soup kitchens for starving ghetto inhabitants

What do we know about the Jewish resistance? Batalion writes that “more than 90 European ghettos had armed Jewish resistance units. Approximately 30,000 European Jews joined the partisans. Rescue networks supported about 12,000 Jews in hiding in Warsaw alone. . . . Women, aged 16 to 25, were at the helm of many of these efforts.” So-called courier girls connected the locked ghettos where Jews were imprisoned by slipping in and out of ghettos with information, hope, bulletins, false identification papers, and food. They smuggled pistols, bullets, and grenades in food packages and clothing. Because they were not circumcised like their brothers and were often educated in Polish public schools while their brothers attended Jewish schools and yeshivas, the young women were better positioned than their brothers to pass as Polish and work as spies.

It is important to say the names of some of these women so they are not forgotten. Here are some of the names and snippets of the stories of women Batalion has recovered:

  • Renia Kukielka was chosen for undercover missions as a courier girl after she escaped the ghetto where her family was imprisoned. She moved grenades, false passports, and cash strapped to her body and transported Jews from ghettos to hiding spots.
  • Bela Hazan got a job working as a translator and receptionist for the Gestapo and stole documents to deliver to Jewish forgers.
  • Vladka Meed smuggled dynamite into the Warsaw ghetto by passing bits of gunpowder through a hole in the wall of a basement on the ghetto border.
  • Hela Schupper dressed up as an affluent Polish woman and brought five guns and clips of cartridges to a militia in Krakow.
  • Ruzka Korczak in Vilna found a Finnish pamphlet about how to make bombs that became the underground’s recipe book.
  • Vitka Kempner blew up a German supply train after slipping out of the Ghetto with explosives under her coat.
  • Zelda Treger completed seventeen trips transporting hundreds of Jews out of ghettos and slave labor camps.
  • Haviva Reik and Hannah Senesh joined the British Army as paratroopers, helping thousands of Slovak Jews and rescuing Allied servicemen.

The legacies of these strong women can inspire us—but only if we know their names and their stories.


Photo courtesy of Cedric Labrousse

Five Benefits of Paternity Leave: New Research

New research published by McKinsey & Company reports on five benefits of paternity leave for families and employers and three ways to make paternity leave more attractive. For this study 130 new fathers and their partners were interviewed in depth across ten countries. The authors note that while heterosexual fathers were the focus of this study, many other kinds of families can benefit from parental leave. The findings of this research extend equally to all.

Paternity leave is becoming more available as more countries and companies offer the benefit to new fathers. The study notes that

  • Worldwide 90 out of 187 countries offer statutory paid paternity leave.
  • Four in ten organizations provide paid leave above the statutory minimums.
  • Yet less than half of new fathers take advantage of all the leave benefits offered to them because of concerns about damaging their careers.
  • Parental leave is also available from some companies for “parental bonding leave” or “secondary caregiver leave” for LGBTQ+ and adoptive parents, but the number of people utilizing these benefits is also small.

The results of this research show five benefits of paternity or parental leave for families and companies:

  1. Strengthened partnerships—The authors report that 90 percent of men interviewed noticed an improvement in their relationship with their partner. Partners reported positive impacts on their relationship that were less about dividing household tasks and more about their partner’s presence to provide emotional support and share childcare during the early days of baby care. The authors note that other research concurs that paternity leave is associated with greater relationship stability and reduced incidents of maternal postpartum depression.
  2. Shaped family dynamics—Research shows that early involvement by fathers in parenting through utilization of paternity leave set the foundation for more equal distribution of responsibilities over the years of childrearing.
  3. Bonding with their child—The study authors note that nearly half of fathers report dissatisfaction with the amount of time they have with their children. In contrast, research indicates that longer periods of paternal leave result in tighter bonds for fathers and children and more frequent engagement by fathers in developmental tasks and caretaking.
  4. Financial benefits for families—The authors note that paternity leave can level the playing field for working mothers and reduce the gender wage gap. When mothers are able to increase their wages in the short term by remaining in the workforce, the long-term financial well-being of the family increases.
  5. Increased happiness and fulfillment—This study found that many fathers reported feeling more productive, energized, and motivated to stay with their companies after taking paternity leave.

Despite the benefits of paternity leave, few men take as much leave as is available to them. One study participant explained, “The company was supportive, but the culture was not.” In other words, while the company may have had a policy in place, in practice the work culture looked down on them for taking time off. Encouraging use of paternity leave can increase employee engagement and retention, but nothing will change unless companies

  • Provide positive role models of men who take paternity leave
  • Ensure that promotions and career timelines are not negatively affected
  • Encourage flexible work arrangements for all employees, including men, to allow for fulfillment of family duties

For too long, talk of work-life balance has been focused on women trying to balance career and family life. Both men and women need the support of organizations to be productive and motivated workers in stable families.


Photo courtesy of Jon DeJong (CC BY 2.0)

Breaking the Glass Ceiling in Aerospace and Garage Space

The European Space Agency has set a goal of recruiting more diverse astronauts into its training program. Monika Pronczuk, writing for the New York Times, reports that currently only one woman, Samantha Cristoforetti, is ready to be sent on a mission to the International Space Station. Pronczuk points out that so far, 90 percent of all astronauts have been men, and the European Space Agency has sent only two women into space. The agency plans to recruit both women and people with disabilities to train for space travel.

Why this focus on diversity? Pronczuk quotes Lucy van der Tas, the agency’s head of recruitment, as saying, “You do not need to be a superman or a superwoman” to be an astronaut. In other words, being either a man or fully able bodied is not necessary. Weightlessness in space evens out the playing field for people with disabilities. Van der Tas explains that “when it comes to space travel, everyone is disabled,” and “just technology” will allow a wide range of people to participate.

Recruiting more women has its scientific benefits: according to Van der Tas, “Space affects us very differently, depending on age, gender and ethnicity.” It is time for the industry to have more data and experience with what those differences are to prepare for future space travel. The fact that the European Space Agency is recruiting more women and disabled people to participate in the eighteen-month selection procedure does not mean the criteria for success or the required training period of several years is any less rigorous. To be selected for even the shorter missions to the space station, recruits must

  • Have the necessary motor skills to work and leave the space station independently in an emergency
  • Be able to see and hear
  • Learn survival skills, how to run the spacecraft, master the Russian language, and must be able to spend up to eight hours underwater simulating weightlessness
  • Have some minimum educational training such as a master’s degree in natural sciences, medicine, engineering, mathematics, or computer science or have a test-pilot license and a minimum of three years of relevant work experience

In other words, not many of us would qualify, but for those who dream of space travel, the door is opening for more opportunity.

On a completely different note about another field, doors are also opening to women in the auto trades. One woman, Jessi Combs, provided inspiration to women to pursue their automotive dreams. Before her untimely death in a car crash in 2019 at the age of thirty-nine, her mission in life, described by Mercedes Lilienthal, was to help women follow their dreams in the auto trades. Described as a talented welder, fabricator, off-road racer, and television personality, Combs was a role model for other women who felt empowered to follow her example in the trades. Combs encouraged them to develop a thick skin to deal with the sexism they would inevitably encounter, work hard to master skills, and support each other to develop confidence. Combs’s legacy lives on through the Jessi Combs Foundation, which awards scholarships to women to learn the trades.

Once again, if you can’t see it, you can’t be it. But if you can see women succeeding in nontraditional fields, then anything may be possible for you and the girls and women in your life.


Photo courtesy of Samantha Cristoforetti (CC BY 2.0)

The Pay Gap in the Academe: New Research and Solutions

New research from the Eos Foundation’s Women’s Power Gap Initiative reveals a dramatic gender and race wage gap for professionals in higher education. This study examined publicly available information for 2,300 employees regarding the total compensation data of top earners in public institutions and private higher education institutions in 2017. The authors note that the wage gap persists despite the fact that women make up 60 percent of all professionals in higher education and have been earning the majority of master’s and doctoral degrees for decades. Despite these accomplishments, they noticed these alarming facts:

  • Women represent only 24 percent of the highest-paid faculty members and administrators at 130 leading research universities.
  • The findings of this study parallel those of other recent studies showing that women college and university administrators earn eighty cents for every dollar a man takes home.
  • While women represent 50 percent of medical school students, they hold just 12 percent of top-compensated positions within academic medical centers.
  • Women hold 7 percent of the top-compensated positions within athletic programs. The average compensation for head coaches of men’s basketball teams is 2.5 times higher than that for women’s basketball head coaches.
  • Women of color were “virtually nonexistent” among top earners at the subset of institutions that provided data on race. No female American Indians, Pacific Islanders, or Alaskan Natives were in this group, and only one man was. A minimal number of Asian employees were among top earners: fifty-one men and just three women.
  • Eleven of the 130 institutions studied have reached gender parity, with half of their top earners being women.

Why is pay parity important, besides the obvious answer that discrimination is unfair? The authors of the Eos study point out that colleges and universities are “role models for our future civic and business leaders, making diversity at the highest levels of leadership paramount.” They go on to state that higher education “could and should be the first to achieve gender parity and fair representation of people of color at the top” because organizations must include diverse perspectives to achieve the best results. They also point out that without equitable representation of women at the highest pay levels, the gender pay gap will never improve. In addition, the expression “you can’t be it if you can’t see it” means that women may not think about being senior leaders if they don’t see a significant number of women in those roles.

The findings and solutions offered by these researchers are relevant beyond higher education. Parity within corporations is important for the same reasons that it’s important within higher education. The authors point out that men also tend to dominate higher-earning fields beyond higher education, such as business, economics, natural science, technology, engineering, and math, where men account for 93 percent of the top earners.

The authors offer a number of solutions to the gender and race wage gaps that are useful beyond academia:

  • Organizations need to examine their institutional cultures and systematically change their hiring, retention, and advancement practices.
  • Institutions should ban the use of salary history as a component of the hiring process to ensure that women and people of color are hired on at pay levels equivalent to white men.
  • Conduct regular audits to root out unconscious bias. Hold staff and hiring committees accountable to equitable outcomes, not just hiring processes. In other words, it is not enough to recruit a diverse pool of candidates if the hires are not proportionate to the diversity in the finalist pools.
  • Make disaggregate diversity pay data transparent by releasing an annual report on the percentages of each demographic group within the highest earners.
  • Conduct regular pay equity analyses.
  • Make bold, long-term public commitments to reach equitable representation for women and people of color among the top-earning employees. Presidents should create annual benchmarks to work toward those goals.

The authors note that without transparent disaggregated diversity data at the institutional level and bold annual benchmarks that donors and boards hold institutions accountable for achieving, “we are just tilting at windmills.”


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Gender Bias Still Strong in Economics

Ben Casselman of the New York Times writes that a body of evidence has been building for awhile that shows a deeply ingrained gender discrimination in the field of economics. Casselman notes that studies in recent years have shown that

  • Women are less likely than men to be hired and promoted as economists.
  • Women face greater barriers to getting their work published in economic journals.
  • Gender and racial gaps in economics are wider and have narrowed less over time than in other fields.

In response to the findings from these earlier studies, Casselman reports that the American Economic Association commissioned a survey of more than nine thousand current and former members to ask about their experiences in the field. Their report, published in 2019, found that

  • A large number of harassment and sexual assault cases exist.
  • Only one in five women reported being “satisfied with the overall climate” in the field.
  • One in three believed they had been discriminated against.
  • Nearly half reported that they had avoided speaking at a conference or seminar because they feared harassment or disrespectful treatment.

A new study conducted by Dr. Alicia Sasser Modestino and Dr. Justin Wolfers, in a working paper soon to be published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, found that women received 12 percent more questions than men when presenting papers at economics conferences, and they were more likely to get questions that were patronizing or hostile. Modestino and Wolfers gathered this data by recruiting dozens of graduate students across the country to attend hundreds of economic presentations and record what happened. While research presentations at conferences are collegial and respectful affairs in other fields, Casselman notes that they resemble aggressive gladiatorial battles in the field of economics. This hostility is perhaps a key reason why Modestino and Wolfers found that “half of women are saying they don’t even want to present in a seminar.” In fact, another study found that women accounted for fewer than a quarter of the economics talks given in recent years, with racial minorities even more underrepresented.

As mentioned previously, the disrespect that women experience when giving presentations results in women wanting to avoid speaking. This dynamic, in combination with the fact that women are less likely to be invited to present their research in the first place, has long-term consequences for women’s careers in economics. Casselman points out that economists need to disseminate their research at conferences to build their reputations and get feedback on their work. The field of economics has a lot of work to do if the talents of women and racial minorities are to be heard and valued. The culture of conferences could become less hostile and aggressive, and the biases in hiring, promotion, and publication need to be identified and weeded out. A lot of valuable ideas and talent are being lost.


Photo courtesy of Financial Times (CC BY 2.0)

More Barriers Fall for Women

Being the first woman to do something seems to be happening more frequently now across a wide spectrum of roles and industries. It is important to take this moment to notice and mark them. We know there is no guarantee that opportunities will stay open to women unless we stay vigilant. Here are some recent “firsts” for women.

Jane Fraser

Jane Fraser will become the first woman chief executive of an American megabank, Citigroup, in 2021. Emily Flitter of the New York Times writes that Citigroup is one of the four largest banks in the United States. Fraser has occupied several global senior leadership roles at the bank in recent years. As research has shown, though, women are often given top corporate jobs when an organization is in trouble. Fraser is no exception as she takes over as CEO of Citigroup in the midst of serious regulatory and financial problems at the bank.

Rashida Jones

Rashida Jones will become the first Black woman to take charge of a major television network, MSNBC. She has held several senior roles and advanced steadily up the ladder at MSNBC. As president of the network, she must now figure out how to retain viewers who found a safe space there for their rage about Donald Trump now that he has left office.

Suzanne Clark

Suzanne Clark became the first woman to lead the US Chamber of Commerce as chief executive. Her appointment became effective in March 2021. Lauren Hirsch explains that the CEO of the Chamber of Commerce is one of the most powerful jobs in business. Clark’s appointment ends a twenty-four-year run by Thomas J. Donohue, who focused his power on backing the Republican Party for much of his tenure. Clark intends to shift the chamber to be an advocate for bipartisan moderation. Previously, in her role as president of the chamber, she helped start the Equality of Opportunity Initiative, which aimed at closing racial wealth gaps.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala became the first woman and first African to serve as director-general of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in March 2021. As Ana Swanson writes, “Dr. Okonjo-Iweala takes the helm of the W.T.O. at a particularly difficult time for the global trade body. . . . It has fallen short on several of [its goals].” Swanson also points out that “the organization’s system for dispute settlement also remains crippled after challenges from the Trump administration.”

Maral Javadifar, Lori Locust, and Sarah Thomas

Maral Javadifar and Lori Locust became the first women to coach in the NFL Super Bowl, and Sarah Thomas became the first woman to work as a Super Bowl official in 2021. Change is slow in the NFL, but some is happening.

Claire Cain Miller reminds us that progress and achievements “can be taken away if we don’t work to sustain it.” She points out that political scientists think representation matters in three main ways:

  • Representation in positions of influence can break down stereotypes about who can be a leader.
  • Research from around the world has demonstrated that a role model effect is especially strong for young girls, summarized as “if you can see it, you can be it.”
  • The identities of leaders shape which issues they pay attention to and how they do their job. When women make up an equal presence of decision makers, it increases public trust in decisions.

All the women identified as barrier breakers in this post are facing tough challenges. As previously noted, women are often not elevated to senior position until organizations elevating them face a crisis, which is true for most of the women mentioned here. They are going to need us at their backs.


Photo courtesy DFID – UK Department for International Development (CC BY 2.0)

The Truth about Rosa Parks: How Change Really Works

I had the good fortune to spend a week at the Highlander Institute in New Market, Tennessee, as part of my graduate education. Attendance at a Highlander program was required to complete of my doctorate degree specialization in transformative learning for social justice. At Highlander I learned the truth about Rosa Parks and how change really works.

The Highlander Folk School (which later became the Highlander Institute) was established in 1932 by Myles Horton in the Tennessee hills and initially focused on labor organizing and adult education. According to the Stanford University page about them, “by the early 1950s, however, it shifted its attention to race relations. Highlander was one of the few places in the South where integrated meetings could take place, and served as a site of leadership training for southern civil rights activists.” The Ku Klux Klan menaced them regularly. Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. were among the activists who spent time there building the civil rights movement.

Like most white Americans, I grew up with the myth of Rosa Parks as a simple seamstress, cast as meek, tired, quiet, and middle class, whose single act on a Montgomery bus changed the course of history. Jeanne Theoharis of the New York Times writes that this is a narrow, distorted, and inaccurate view of Rosa Parks. In fact, the truth about Parks is much more interesting and informative about how change really happens.

Theoharis tells us that Parks, born in 1913, had been a civil rights activist for two decades before her historic refusal to give up her seat in the “whites-only” section of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955. Before her famous bus stand, she focused tirelessly on voter registration, criminal justice, and desegregation. She attended leadership and movement strategy sessions at the Highlander Institute in the early 1950s where civil rights activists planned actions to challenge Jim Crow segregation laws. Refusing to get up from a seat on the bus was one of many strategies planned, and fifteen-year-old Claudette Colvin was arrested in March 1955 for refusing to give up her seat on a bus. At the time Black Montgomerians decided she was not the right test case. Parks was the next to try it. The combination of her timing and the networks in place, ready to spring into action when she did, resulted in the launch of the successful bus boycott on the day Parks was to be arraigned in court. It took organization and a lot of people to pull off the boycott. Theoharis notes, “The boycott succeeded in part because the Black community organized a massive car pool system, setting up some 40 pickup stations across town, serving 30,000 riders a day. . . . The boycott seriously disrupted city life and bus company revenues.”

Parks and her husband both lost their jobs, received regular death threats, and never found steady work in Montgomery again. Forced to leave Montgomery for Detroit, they struggled financially for the next eleven years. Rosa Parks spent the next several decades fighting racism in the North. In the 1960s and 1970s she was part of the Black Power movement. “Freedom fighters never retire,” she observed about a friend—and she never did either.

Parks fought her whole life against racism, which she saw as a national cancer. Her real story helps us to see our country’s history more honestly and understand that change comes from only disrupting the status quo and persevering to push for change. We must all do our part to get rid of the cancer of racism in this country.


Photo courtesy of Matt Lemmon (CC BY-SA 2.0)