Other Gals Who Climbed to the Top Pt. 1

By Preus museum – Flickr: Alexandra David-Neels, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14876154

Fifty years earlier, Arlene Blum would not have been allowed in certain areas in the Great Himalayan range. It was an entirely different kind of explorer who helped open those gates. In 1924, spiritual seeker Alexandra David-Neel was the first Western woman to visit Tibet’s “Forbidden City,” Lhasa, in its mountain perch. Dressed as a beggar and traveling so light that they didn’t even have blankets, the fifty-five-year-old Alexandra and a young monk, made the perilous climb up 18,000 feet to the holy city. Her travelogue is one of the most treasured resources in Asian studies, published as My Journey to Lhasa.

Opera singer turned scholar, the intrepid Frenchwoman also has the honor of being the first Western woman to have an audience with the Dalai Lama in his Indian exile. Alexandra never did anything halfway and found the study of Buddhism so appealing that she moved into an ascetic’s snowy cave, and undertook the studies and spiritual practice of a Buddhist nun. She became such an adept that she reportedly was able to control her body temperature through meditation, and there are legends of levitation and other psychic phenomenon. Poo-poohing “the supernatural,” her explanation for these matters is simple and practical: she learned from the Tibetans that it is all a matter of management of natural energies. One of the world’s earliest scholar’s in Eastern Studies and Oriental mysticism, Alexandra David-Neel’s unique combination of daring and curiosity made her one of the most fascinating women in any part of the world.

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.


When brilliant young attorney and editor of the Columbia Law Review Bella Abzug graduated from Columbia in 1947, she headed straight back home to New York City to represent labor interests and civil rights. The daughter of a Bronx butcher, Bella credits her interest in social change to her grandfather, a Russian Jewish immigrant. In the fifties, she had ample opportunity to pursue her passionate causes during the McCarthy hearings, defending many on trial for leftist leanings.

For decades, if there was action to be taken or change to be made, Bella Abzug was in there with her considerable charisma, impressive rhetoric, and intense desire to make the world a better place, particularly for women and minorities. She is regarded as having been influential in the passage of the 1954 Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Unstoppable Bella also took on the Vietnam War issue in the sixties and founded Women Strike for Peace.

In 1969, the die-hard Democrat jumped into politics herself, running for New York City’s 19th Congressional District with the catchy slogan, “This Woman Belongs in the House!” and winning a showdown against Barry Farber. Bella Abzug didn’t disappoint her backers one bit when she started in, hammer and nails, constructing her platform of change. Her very first day, Bella put out a call for withdrawal of all troops from Vietnam by July, 1971, and went on from there with dramatic pursuits of her ultraliberal agenda. Almost as famous for her hats as her flamboyant rhetoric, she never backed away from the chance to fight for one of her causes, a trait that earned her a number of nicknames: Battling Bella, Hurricane Bella, and Mother Courage, to name three.

In her signature large hats, she was easily recognized as one of the preeminent feminists among a core group including Betty Friedan, Shirley Chisholm, and Gloria Steinem, with whom she founded the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971, whose mission was the dispersement of political power to include the women, the poor, the working class, racial minorities, and other groups previously shut out from politics.

She lost a bid for the Senate by a narrow margin in 1976 and lost the chance to become the mayor of New York City the following year. In the nineties, she was the co- chair of the Women’s Environment and Development Organization, an international network dedicated to protecting the planet as well as furthering the causes of social justice and women’s rights. Until her death in 1998, this plain-spoken strong-headed shero never backed away from a chance to fight for one of her causes.

Bella, who insisted on being called “Ms.,” continued to attract considerable controversy as well as virulent defenders and supporters throughout her life. One thing for sure is that she never failed to put everything she had on the line for the pursuit of a better world for women and minorities. In her autobiography, Bella! Ms. Abzug Goes to Washington, she says, “There are those who say I’m impatient, impetuous, uppity, rude, profane, brash, and overbearing. Whether I’m any of those things or all of them, you can decide for yourself. But whatever I am— and this ought to be made very clear at the outset—I am a very serious woman.”

“We were meant to advise, not just consent.” — Bella Abzug

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.


When Betty Friedan submitted her article in 1956 about the frustrations women experience in their traditional roles as housewife and mother, she received rejections from McCalls, The Ladies’s Home Journal, and every other publication she approached. The editors, all men at that day and age, were pretty disapproving, too, going so far as to say any woman would have to be “sick” not to be completely satisfied in her rightful role!

But Betty knew that she and millions of women like her were not sick, just stifled. Betty nee Goldstein Friedan put aside her dream of being a psychologist for fear of becoming a spinster, instead choosing to marry and work for a small newspaper. She was fired from her job when she got pregnant for the second time, and began, like most middle-class women of her day and age, to devote herself full-time to the work of running a home and family, what she called “the dream of life, supposedly, of American women at that time.” But after a decade of such devotion, she still wasn’t happy and theorized she wasn’t alone. A graduate of Smith College, she decided to poll her fellow alumnae. Most of her classmates, who had given up promising careers to devote themselves to their families, felt incomplete; many were deeply depressed. They felt guilty for not being completely content sacrificing their individual dreams for their families, each woman certain that her dissatisfaction was a personal failing. Betty called this “the problem that has no name” and so she gave it one, “the feminine mystique.”

Over the next five years, her rejected article evolved into a book as she interviewed hundreds of women around the country. The Feminine Mystique explored the issue, criticizing American advertisers’ exclusively domestic portrayal of women and issuing a call to action for women to say no to the housewife role and adopt a “new life plan” in which they could have both families and careers. With its publication in 1963, The Feminine Mystique hit America like a thunderbolt; the publisher W.W.I. Norton had printed only 2,000 copies, never anticipating the sale of 3 million copies in hardcover alone!

Unintentionally, Betty had started a revolution; she began to be flooded with letters from women saying her book gave them the courage to change their lives and pursue equal access to employment opportunities and other equality issues. Ultimately, the response to Betty’s challenge created the momentum that led to the formalization of the second wave of the U.S. women’s movement in 1966 with the organization of NOW—the National Organization for Women.

Betty was NOW’s first president and took her role as a leader in the women’s movement seriously, traveling to lectures and campaigns for change, engendering many of the freedoms women now enjoy. She pushed for equal pay for equal work, equal job opportunities, and access to birth control and legalized abortion. In 1970, she quit NOW to fight for the Equal Rights Amendment, and in 1975, was named Humanist of the Year. Of her, author Barbara Seaman wrote, “Betty Friedan is to the women’s movement what Martin Luther King was to blacks.”

In 1981, responding to critics who claimed feminism ignored the importance of relationships and families to most women, she penned The Second Stage, in which she called on men and women to work together to make both the home and the workplace havens for both genders. Before her death in 2006, Betty was making another revolution with her book, The Fountain of Age, raising consciousness about society’s stereotypes about aging thirty years after she, as futurist Alvin Toffler so aptly put it, “pulled the trigger of history” with The Feminine Mystique.

“It’s been a lot of fun making the revolution.” — Betty Friedan

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.


Lee Tai-Young was the first Korean woman ever to become a lawyer and a judge as well as the founder of the first Korean legal aid center. She was born in what is now North Korea in 1914, the daughter of a gold miner. She received a degree in home economics from Ewha Womans University, a Methodist college, and married a Methodist minister in 1936. Lee had dreams of becoming a lawyer when she came to Seoul to study at Ewha, but when her husband fell under suspicion of being a spy for the U.S. and was jailed for sedition by the Japanese colonial government in the early 1940s, she had to go to work to maintain her family. She took jobs as a school teacher and a radio singer, and took in sewing and washing as well.

After the war, Lee continued her studies with the support of her husband. In 1946, she became the first woman to attend Seoul National University and earned her law degree in 1949. She was the first woman ever to pass the National Judicial Examination in 1952. Five years later she founded the Women’s Legal Counseling Center, a law practice that provided services to poor women. Lee, along with her husband, were participants in the 1976 Myongdong Declaration, which called for the return of civil liberties to Korean citizens. Because of her political views, she was arrested as an enemy of President Park Chung-hee, and in 1977 received a three-year suspended sentence along with a loss of civil liberties including being automatically disbarred for ten years.

Her law practice evolved into the Korea Legal Aid Center for Family Relations and served more than 10,000 clients per year. She authored 15 books on women’s issues, beginning with a 1957 guide to Korea’s divorce system. In 1972, she published Commonsense in Law for Women; other notable titles include Born A Woman and The Woman of North Korea. She also translated Eleanor Roosevelt’s book On My Own into Korean. In 1975, the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation chose her as the recipient of their Community Leadership Award; she was given an award by the International Legal Aid Association in 1978. She received international recognition from many quarters, including an honorary law doctorate from Drew University in Madison, NJ in 1981. In 1984, she published a memoir, Dipping the Han River Out with a Gourd, four years before she passed away at the ripe old age of 84.

“No society can or will prosper without the cooperation of women.”

Lee Tai-Young

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.


Clare Boothe Luce, “the woman with the serpent’s tongue,” was the anti-Eleanor Roosevelt, a sort of alternate universe doppelganger who used her razor- sharp wit to oppose while “faintly praising” the First Lady and other unrepentant New Dealers. A virulent Republican and FDR basher, Clare was both a smart and tough cookie, albeit not to everyone’s taste. Clare, however, had a wholly unique way of asserting her woman power. As a young woman, one of her summer jobs during college was dropping feminist tracts out of
an airplane for some elderly but unstoppable suffragists. Her next job was writing photo captions for Vogue; there the renowned beauty quickly ascended to the position as Vanity Fair’s managing editor. She was the first woman to hold this post for the glamour glossy and soon proved she could hold her own with the boys, even managing to be welcomed in to their cigarettes and brandy ritual.

Then she met Time and Fortune magnate Henry R. Luce, married, and quit the day job to write plays, starting with the stinker Abide with Me and then surprising everyone with the all-female To the Women, a take-no- prisoners satire of snooty society ladies, which went on to become a very successful movie. Clare became an international cause celebre with the success of To the Women, penning a few more stage plays including Kiss the Boys Goodbye before she pulled another switcheroo: war correspondent for Life magazine on the battle fronts of Burma, India, and China during the early years of World War II. She even interviewed Madame Chiang Kai-shek and Prime Minister Nehru.

Clare’s next incarnation was politician and she went on the stump, dissing FDR, Winston Churchill, and a herd of other such sacred cows. She stunned everyone with her gift for rhetoric of the biting, stinging sort. Her next move was to run for a seat in Connecticut’s Congress with a very hawkish platform—her slogan was “Let’s Fight a Hard War Instead of a Soft War”—and she campaigned for the rights of women, blacks, and workers. Easily winning a seat, she served for four years and then retired while she was ahead. Clare then took her domestic campaigns abroad, convincing the Italian Prime Minister to give Italian women the vote! Her good relations with Italy garnered a post for Clare as the ambassador to Italy in 1953, becoming the United States’ second woman ambassador and the first woman chief of mission to a major European power. In 1953, she was fourth in the Gallup poll of the most admired women in the world. Clare became the grande dame of the Grand Old Party from the Goldwater sixties until her death of cancer in 1987. Clare will be best remembered for her quick wit and verbal virtuosity. She was absolutely one of a kind; she never luxuriated in her husband’s great wealth, but instead worked her behind off for many causes and made great strides for women in her wake.

“Because I am a woman, I must make unusual efforts to succeed. If I fail, no one will say ‘She doesn’t have what it takes.’ They will say, ‘Women don’t have what it takes.’”

Clare Boothe Luce

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.


Frances Perkins joined Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s cabinet in 1933 as secretary of labor when America was reeling from The Great Depression. She remained in this office as long as FDR himself did, serving her country well during its worst-ever economic crisis. Frances also worked on behalf of reform for workers and on many other issues dear to the First Lady, Eleanor’s, heart. She was responsible for the creation of many jobs and work corps, for the development of better minimum wages, and for benefits such as Social Security and unemployment insurance. Frances’ zeal as an industrial reformer came from a tragedy she witnessed in 1911, when 146 women working at the Triangle Shirtwaist company died in a fire because there were no fire escapes. This was a
real turning point for Perkins, “I felt I must seal it not only on my mind but on my heart as a never-to-be- forgotten reminder of why I had to spend my life fighting conditions that could permit such a tragedy.”

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.


No book on awesome women would be complete without a profile of Eleanor Roosevelt, named by historian Deborah G. Felder as the most influential woman in history.

Though she was born to the privileged class, Eleanor reached out to all women, regardless of economic status, and they responded, knowing she was a kindred soul. Eleanor was born Anne Eleanor Roosevelt and came from colonial Roosevelt stock on both sides of her family. Eleanor remembered being “like a little old woman” and all her life was keenly aware of what she called “a lack of beauty.” She seems to have survived the pre- Reviving Ophelia batterings to her self-esteem fairly well, despite a vain and selfish mother who nicknamed Eleanor “Granny” and never passed up the opportunity to remind her that she didn’t inherit her mother’s beauty. Fortunately, her dashing humanitarian father, Elliott, loved her dearly and instilled in his “little Nell” a strong sense of the importance of giving to others.

By the age of ten, Eleanor was an orphan and was made to live with her stern matriarch of a grandmother, then sent to the very exclusive Allenswood girls school in London. Allenswood was run by a forthright liberal activist, Marie Souvestre, who took Eleanor under her wing and lavished affection and attention on her. Eleanor recalled these days as the best of her life.

Returning home in 1902, she had the obligatory debutante ball, but preferred doing good works at the settlement houses among the working class to partying at snooty, upper-class salons. She also sneaked in an engagement to her fifth cousin, political aspirant Franklin Delano Roosevelt; the blushing Eleanor’s hand was given in marriage by then-President Roosevelt, otherwise known as “Uncle Teddy.” Eleanor and Franklin quickly had six children, losing one baby shortly after birth. Eleanor was painfully shy, a terrible issue to deal with when she had to constantly entertain to advance her husband’s political career, even harder to do with a bossy mother- in-law hovering over the children and trying to take over the household.

The burgeoning young Roosevelt clan soon found themselves in the District of Columbia while FDR served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy. It is there that Eleanor found out about his affair with Lucy Mercer, Eleanor’s social secretary. Eleanor was devastated, but found an inner resolve to withstand the pain and became even more dedicated to positive social change. She joined the League of Women’s Voters and the Women’s Trade Union League, working toward reform for women’s pay and limiting the hours of the working day. In 1921, FDR fell ill with polio. Leaving the tending of him to others, Eleanor served as FDR’s eyes and ears out in the world, traveling all over the country listening to people, discerning what Americans of all walks of life wanted and needed. For the rest of her life, she strove tirelessly to advance the cause of getting more women into government office and was deeply concerned with unemployment, poverty, education, housing, day care, health care, and civil rights. (Of her, Franklin once prayed, “Dear God, make Eleanor a little tired.” But he never ceased relying on her sage advice.)

When FDR was elected president, Eleanor was less than thrilled with her status as First Lady: “Now I’ll have no identity,” she proclaimed. But she took on the job and made it her own. She held a press conference, the first First Lady to do so, and regularly spoke with a corp of women reporters. While FDR had his fireside chats, Eleanor had “My Day,” a newspaper column and radio show that she used as a pulpit for many social justice issues, including the time Marian Anderson was blocked from singing in D.C. by the Daughters of the American Revolution because she was black. When Eleanor announced her resignation from the DAR in protest, their ranks dwindled in shame.

After her husband’s death, she continued on with her work, including becoming a delegate to the United Nations, where she is credited with drafting and pushing through to adoption the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and launching UNICEF. For all the good she did, this humanitarian whom Harry Truman dubbed “The First Lady of the World” is still, nearly fifty years after her death, one of the most cherished figures in herstory.

“You get more joy out of the giving to others, and should put a good deal of thought into the happiness you are able to give.”

Eleanor Roosevelt

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.


Hawaii’s last queen was Lili’uokalani. She was raised by American missionaries in the nineteenth century and married an Englishman before taking her up her role as the ruler of the beautiful island chain. She was quite accomplished as a stateswoman and also as a singer who treasured her island’s culture and feared the loss of it with the Western invasion. It is daunting to realize she was imprisoned and held in isolation after her brother King Kalakaua’s death so white annexationists could take over Hawaii and incorporate it into the United States. Think about that the next time you hear somebody complain about what a tourist trap the once pristine paradise has become!

Maria de la Mercedes Barbudo was a Puerto Rican rebel who fought for emancipation and abolition circa 1800 and was exiled and murdered for her efforts toward her country’s independence.

Nana Yaa Asantewa was born in 1863 and went on to become the national shero of Ghana, known as the Queen Mother. British colonists stole Ghana’s sacred treasure; going to war against the Brits, Nana (at the age of fifty) led an uprising to take back the Golden Stool. Nana and her army of women were defeated, but her valor and that of her women warriors was legendary. She died in prison at seventy after being a captive exile for twenty years.

Sorjini Chattophyaya Naidu was a nineteenth-century Indian-born Brahmin, the highest caste, and rebelled by marrying a man from a lower caste. This was just the beginning of her activist actions; she went against her family’s orders by discarding the academics of math and science her father had chosen for her, becoming a poet instead. She joined Gandhi’s movement for peaceful independence and was jailed many times (“I was born a rebel and I expect to die a rebel unless I free India!”) for civil disobedience, and later ran a salon in Bombay open to all races, castes, and religions. Upon India’s independence in 1947, she became governor of her province and worked for women’s rights.

In March 1928, Chen Tiejun was arrested, jailed, tortured, and executed at the age of twenty-four for her radical feminism. A founding member of the Chinese Communist Party, she organized a women’s underground army of rebels and weapons smugglers. Forced to marry by her provincial parents, she left her husband immediately and attended college to become a teacher. Betrayed by a fellow Red Guard, her courageous refusal to divulge any information to her captors made her a shero of the Communist movement and Chinese feminists.

Founder of the Egyptian Feminist Union, Huda Sha’Rawi was part of the last generation of Egyptian women to come of age under the harem system in the late eighteenth century. Born to a wealthy family, she was at the forefront of Egyptian feminism and led the movement to free Egypt from British colonial rule.

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.


“Emancipate!” That was the cry of socialist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg who was born a Polish Jew and devoted her life to improving the plight of workers around the world through her political theories. She helped found the Spartacus League in Germany and worked ceaselessly toward change, cranking out more than 700 books, pamphlets, and treatises.

She dazzled everyone she encountered with her fierce intelligence; Lenin himself became one of her biggest fans even though she publicly disagreed with him. In 1905, Rosa staged a worker’s revolt in Poland and protested World War I very vocally, prompting the authorities to throw her in jail for the entire war. Shortly before her fiftieth birthday, Rosa Luxemburg was murdered in 1919 by political opponents during the German revolution she helped create.

Rosa Luxemburg’s standing as one of the great intellectuals of the turn of the century is in danger of obscurity. The Nazis set about to obliterate her writings and Stalinists undertook a smear campaign to distort Luxemburg’s theories. But she was a great political theoretician, one who sought to bring equality to the working class.

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.


The shero of the Spanish Civil War, Dolores Ibarruri was born in 1895 to a Basque miner. She worked as a servant until she joined the Partido Socialista and began writing incendiary political diatribes under the pseudonym, La Pasionaria: “The Passion Flower.” She and her husband Julian Ruiz helped found the first Communist parties in Spain in 1920. The mother of six children with Ruiz, Ibarruri didn’t let motherhood slow her down; not only did she continue writing for the El Mundo Obrero workers’ newspaper, in 1934, she organized a women’s group called Agrupacion de Mujereres Antifascistas.

Noted for her keen political mind, fearlessness, and charisma, Ibarruri was elected to Parliament in 1936 and was freed from a stint in jail so that she could serve. She began making speeches on behalf of the Popular Front Government, rousing audiences with her impassioned pleas to halt the tide of Fascism. When full-scale civil war broke out in Spain, La Pasionaria exhorted her fellow loyalists to remain steadfast with cries of “No Pasaran!” (They shall not pass!) When Franco grabbed the power seat, she left the Spain she had fought for to live in the USSR. During the mass exodus of Communists from Spain, the great Spanish matriarch met photographer Tina Modotti. Modotti was so trusted by the exiled Spaniards, she was one of two people guarding Ibarruri’s hospital room when she fell ill with a bad case of hepatitis.

In Soviet Russia, Ibarruri served as a Secretary-General of the Spanish Communist Party from 1942 until she assumed the presidency in 1960, a post she held until 1977. When Franco died later that year, La Pasionaria moved back home to Spain, and in Spain’s first elections in forty years, was reelected to Parliament. She was eighty-one years old, fierce as ever, and accorded a shero’s welcome back to the country that lionized her. La Pasionaria, whose career was based on dedication to her crusade for freedom, received much recognition for her incredible courage and self-sacrifice; she won the Lenin Peace Prize and was named honorary vice president of the International Democratic Federation of Women. She will always be remembered for her valor in the face of great danger and for her belief that, “It is better to die on your feet than live on your knees!”

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.


Anybody who was anybody in the intellectual and art worlds of the early twentieth century hung out at Mabel’s salon, among them: D.H. Lawrence, Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Andrew Dassburg, Georgia O’Keefe, Leon Gaspard, Ansel Adams, and Robinson Jeffers. Beginning in New York’s Greenwich Village after a stint in a Medici villa in Florence, Mabel Dodge worked for her vision of a “New World Plan” to bring the world’s greatest thinkers, writers, artists, musicians, and social reformers together to whet each other’s minds and create a second renaissance. Lois Palken Rudnick, a historian specializing in this era, says this about Mabel, “When she came back to the States, she landed in New York City amidst America’s first great social and political revolution. She became one of the rebels of Greenwich Village and was involved with the Armory Show, the first show of post- impressionist art to come to the States. She supported anarchists and socialists and their projects, like Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger…She was an artist of life.”

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.