HELEN REDDY: “I AM STRONG. I AM INVINCIBLE.”

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Along with Led Zeppelin, art rockers Yes and Fairport Convention, one of the artists Alison Steele played on her nationally popular radio show was Helen Reddy.
Both of these women struggled for years to make it. Reddy’s songs were embraced as anthems for a nation of women collectively committed to shattering the glass ceiling. For the time, Helen Reddy’s achievement was stunning. She wrote a hard-core feminist song and took it to the top of the charts; “I Am Woman” was the number one hit on the charts in 1972. In clear ringing tones, Helen declared a message that empowered and encouraged women around the world, “I am woman, hear me roar. I am too strong to ignore…if I have to, I can do anything. I am strong. I am invincible!”

Sing it, Sister

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

KATHERINE GRAHAM: KATHERINE THE GREAT

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Although Katherine Graham was not a politician, she wielded enormous power in the political arena as owner of the Washington Post, still one of the most important and respected newspapers in the world today. Born Katherine Meyer, she was the daughter of Eugene Meyer, a brilliant French Jew who moved to America and attended Yale, made a fortune in banking and on the stock exchange, and retired a multimillionaire before he was thirty years old!

 

Katherine’s childhood is a classic silver spoon story, raised by domestic help while her parents maintained the lifestyle of the glittery successes they were. A staunch Republican, Eugene Meyer took on a second career as a public servant and served as an independent thinker, swung to the opposite pole on the left, and earned a degree in journalism. After a brief stint in San Francisco reporting for the now defunct News, Katherine accepted an offer of $29 a week to go and work for the paper Eugene Meyer had bought five years before—the Washington Post.

Katherine fell in love with the publisher of the Post, Philip Graham, and after they wed, they bought the paper from her father for a million dollars. Philip was brilliant and bipolar. He was keenly interested in building a publishing empire, and soon they added the magazine Newsweek

to their holdings. Philip also dabbled in the high stakes game of politics and became involved in the very inner circles of power on Capitol Hill, convincing the young John Fitzgerald Kennedy to go with Lyndon Johnson from Texas as his running mate for the presidency. Then, in 1963, he committed suicide after a manic depressive episode. Katherine became a widow and responsible for both Newsweek and the Post in one day.

Katherine battled her shyness and rose to the occasion, becoming the publisher of the Post. Diving in feet first, she saw that the Post had been drifting along listlessly. It needed, Katherine believed, a charismatic editor to become a first-rate example of journalistic excellence. She found him in Ben Bradlee, a hard charging investigative reporter whom she quickly named managing editor.

 

In 1971, the Post received worldwide attention when President Richard Nixon slapped a restraining order on the paper for the publishing of the Pentagon Papers, revealing the United States government’s involvement in the political machinery of Southeast Asia. Graham refused to back down and later emerged the victor in the skirmish when the Supreme Court decided in the Post’s favor.

One year later, the Post took the spotlight again for breaking the story of the Watergate scandal. Graham financed the Watergate investigation and stood firmly behind her editor and reporters against the White House’s retaliatory measures. Her sheroism in the face of enormous pressure from friends and political players to back off from Watergate was simply astounding. She remained steadfast while the Post’s stock plummeted and so-called friends disappeared rather than be associated with the woman who challenged Richard Nixon and, ultimately, brought him and his house of cards down. When she retired in 1991, she was one of only two women heads of Fortune 500 companies.

GLORIA STEINEM: WONDER WOMAN

Nov. 9, 1975

Gloria Steinem’s name is synonymous with feminism. As a leader of the second wave of feminism, she brought a new concern to the fore—the importance of self-esteem for women. Her childhood did little to bolster her sense of self or predict the successful course her life would take. Her father, an antique dealer, traveled a lot for work, and her mother suffered from severe depression and was often bedridden and self-destructive. Because they moved so often, Gloria didn’t attend school until she was ten, after her family was deserted by her father and Gloria assumed the roles of housewife and mother to her mother and sister. Escaping through books and movies, Gloria did well at school and eventually was accepted to Smith College, where her interest in women’s rights, sparked by her awareness that her mother’s illness had not been taken seriously because “her functioning was not necessary to the world” began to take hold.

After a junket in India, she started freelancing; her goal was to be a political reporter. Soon she hit the glass ceiling; while she made enough money to get by, she wasn’t getting the kind of serious assignments her male colleagues were—interviewing presidential candidates and writing on foreign policy. Instead she was assigned in 1963 to go undercover as a Playboy Bunny and write about it. She agreed, seeing it as an investigative journalism piece, a way to expose sexual harassment. However, after the story appeared, no editors would take her seriously; she was the girl who had worked as a Bunny.

 

But she kept pushing for political assignments and finally, in 1968, came on board the newly founded New York magazine as a contributing editor. When the magazine sent her to cover a radical feminist meeting, no one guessed the assignment would be transformational. After attending the meeting, she moved from the sidelines to stage center of the feminist movement, co-founding the National Women’s Political Caucus and the Women’s Action Alliance.

The next year, Steinem, with her background in journalism, was the impetus for the founding of Ms., the first mainstream feminist magazine in America’s history. The first issue, with shero Wonder Woman on the cover, sold out the entire first printing of 300,000 in an unprecedented eight days, and Ms. received an astonishing 20,000 letters soon after the magazine hit the newsstands, indicating it had really struck a chord with the women of America. Steinem’s personal essay, “Sisterhood,” spoke of her reluctance to join the movement at first because of “lack of esteem for women—black women, Chicana women, white women— and for myself.”

The self-described “itinerant speaker and feminist organizer” continued at the helm of Ms. for fifteen years, publishing articles such as the one that posited Marilyn Monroe as the embodiment of fifties women’s struggle to keep up the expectations of society. She penned Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions in 1983, urging women to take up the charge as progenitors of change. This was followed by Revolution from Within in 1992, illuminating her despair at having to take care of her emotionally disturbed mother as well as her struggles with self-image, feeling like “a plump brunette from Toledo, too tall and much too pudding-faced, with…a voice that felt constantly on the verge of revealing some unacceptable emotion.” Steinem stunned her reading public with such self-revelatory confessions. Who would have guessed that this crack editor and leading beauty of the feminist movement had zero self-image? Gloria Steinem’s real genius lies in her ability to relate to other women, creating the bond of sisterhood with shared feelings, even in her heralded memoir. Still a phenomenally popular speaker and writer, Gloria Steinem crystallizes the seemingly complicated issues and challenges of her work by defining feminism as simply, “the belief that women are full human beings.”

“The sex and race caste systems are
very intertwined and the revolutions have always come together, whether it was the suffragist and abolitionist movements or whether it’s
the feminist and civil rights movements. They must come together because one can’t succeed without the other.”

— Gloria Steinem

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

Mary Leakey: Digging for Truth

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By National Institutes of Health, Public Domain.

Mary and Louis Leakey worked together in the search for the origins of man. Mary’s fabled perspicacity for digging and sifting was matched by her acerbic manner and love of good strong cigars. Of the famous duo, Mary was the one with the lucky spade. In 1948, Mary uncovered the skull and facial bones of the much ballyhooed hominid that came to be known as “the missing link.” In her trademark no-nonsense manner, Mary mused, “For some reason that skull caught the imagination.” In 1959 in the Olduvai Gorge of northern Tanzania, she discovered some teeth and the palate bone of the oldest ancestor of man up to that point. Upon finding other bones, they were able to determine that the five-foot, barrel-chested, small-brained, and browless hominid Zinjanthropus had walked upright a million years ago. Three years after Louis Leakey’s death in 1972, working widow Mary surpassed her own historical findings when she found the tracks of bipedal creatures 3.6 million years old, preserved in volcanic ash, and she later unearthed the jawbones of eleven other humanoids carbondated to 3.75 million years old! Mary passed the torch, or rather spade, to her son when she died in December of 1996 at the age of eighty-three. We owe a great deal of our new understanding of human evolution to Mary’s nose for old bones! “Her commitment to detail and perfection made my father’s career,” said son Richard E. Leakey. “He would not have been famous without her. She was much more organized and structured and much more of a technician.”

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

Tree Huggers Unite!

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By Ceti at English Wikipedia

The Chipko movement in India began in 1973 when a group of Indian women protested a government action to log near their village. When the loggers decided on adifferent spot, the women went there to stop the tree-cutting. In a country where widows are still burned with their dead husbands in some places, this concerted action is truly courageous. A year later, the tree action moved to yet another location. Gaura Devi, a respected elder and widow from the village of Reni, was tipped off by a little girl herding cows that loggers were on the way. Gaura flew into action and got a troop of women. When a logger threatened Devi with a gun, she replied with a fierce calm, “Shoot us. Only then will you be able to cutdown the forest.” From this point on, the strength of the Chipko movement increased tremendously and even got requests from men to join. Chipko means “to hug;” these grassroots environmentalists encircle their trees, holding hands to protecting their fellow beings from destruction.


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

Audre Lorde: Burst of Life

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Enter a captionBy K. Kendall – originally posted to Flickr as Audre Lorde

Poet activist Audre Lorde is finally receiving the recognition she has so long deserved. A black lesbian poet who never hid her truth, Audre started writing poetry seriously in grade school. Born in the winter of 1934, her parents were West Indian immigrants who escaped to New York City from Grenada in 1924, just in time for The Great Depression. Audre grew up feeling different from her two older sisters, feeling like she was really an only child or “an only planet, or some isolated world in a hostile, or at best, unfriendly firmament.” Dazzlingly bright, Audre read voraciously. After a stint at the University of Mexico where the atmosphere of racial tolerance really opened her eyes to the racism in the United States, she began attending Hunter College and earned a degree in library science from Columbia. Married and with two small children, she worked for several New York libraries for eight years. Divorcing, she again moved toward her true passion—creative writing, both prose and poetry. In 1968, she started teaching creative writing at City University of New York. She also spent a year as poet in residence at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi, and went on to teach at many prestigious schools throughout America, where her reputation as an extraordinarily gifted poet grew.

The rare combination of gifted writer and teacher, Audre Lorde challenged her students. According to biographer Joanne S. Richmond in Handbook of American Women’s History,  Lorde urged her writing students to  “Claim every aspect of themselves and encourage(d) them to discover the power of a spirited wholeness, knowing that in silence there is no growth, in suppression there is no personal satisfaction.”

Her prose includes The Cancer Journalsdisclosing her battle with breast cancer, from which she ultimately died. Audre encountered a feminist’s nightmare in her treatment, refusing to wear the prosthetic breast her doctor tried to force upon her. In 1982, Ami: a New Spelling of My Name was Lorde’s foray into creating a new genre, what she called “biomythology” and her literary outing of her own lesbianism. In Ami , she digs deep into archetype, myth, and women’s mysteries through the story of her mother’s birthplace, the West Indian island of Carriacou. Lorde reveled in the lore of African goddesses and matriarchal tales, her lusty lovemaking with other black women, and the intrinsic egalitarianism of nature. A staunch feminist and political activist, in her work she also pointed to the patriarchal “I” centeredness of Judeo-Christian traditions and confronted the hypocrisy of her times, angrily decrying sexism and bigotry in such poems as “Cables to Rage” and “The Black Unicorn.”

On many occasions, Lorde read her poetry with fellow black poets Amiri Baraka, Nikki Giovanni, and Jayne Cortez. She began, as many poets do, in coffeehouses and humble church basements. But soon she was filling theaters and winning awards, including the American Book Award for A Burst of Light, a nomination in poetry for the 1974 National Book Award, and the Walt Whitman Citation of Merit, for which she became New York’s Poet Laureate shortly before losing her life to cancer in 1992.

Audre Lorde is a poet’s poet. Scratch the surface of many of today’s best writers’ influences and her name will come up repeatedly. Jewelle Gomez cites Audre Lorde as a major influence on her writing life and on the lives of many others in the African American creative community. In an article for Essence magazine, Gomez recognizes Lorde’s work as “a mandate to move through…victimization and create independent standards that will help us live full and righteous lives…She was a figure all women could use as a grounding when they fought for recognition of their worth.”

“Poetry is the conflict in the lives we lead. It is
the most subversive because it is in the business
of encouraging change.”
Audre Lorde
This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

Simone De Beauvoir: Individuality and Intellectus

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By Moshe Milner Crop of File: Flickr – Government Press Office (GPO) – Jean Paul Sartre and Simone De Beauvoir welcomed by Avraham Shlonsky and Leah Goldberg.

Existentialist writer Simone de Beauvoir was the leader of the feminist movement in France. Her book, The Second Sex, immediately took a place of importance in the feminist canon upon its publication in 1949 and established Beauvoir’s reputation as a first-rate thinker. Although her brutally honest examination of the condition of women in the first half of the twentieth century shocked some delicate sensibilities, others were gratified to have someone tell it like it was. Beauvoir described the traditional female roles of wife and mother as that of “relative beings” dependent on context. She urged women to go after careers and endeavor to achieve fulfillment through meaningful work.

Beauvoir avoided the trap of “relative being” (and nothingness) by remaining partners and lovers with Jean-Paul Sartre, whom she met in her early twenties in a salon study group at Paris’ famed university, the Sorbonne. They recognized each other as soulmates immediately and stayed together for fifty-one years in a highly unorthodox partnership wherein they left openings for “contingent loves” so as not to limit their capacity for enriching experience. She eschewed motherhood and all forms of domesticity; the duo rarely dined at home, preferring cafes for all their meals. They lived together only very briefly during World War II and had difficulty protecting their privacy as word of the trendy new existentialist philosophy, ultimately espousing ambiguity, spread and their international prestige heightened. While Sartre is generally credited as the creator of existentialism, Simone was no philosophical slouch. Her treatise Existentialism and the Wisdom of the Ages postulates the human condition as neutral, neither inherently good nor evil: “[The individual] is nothing at first,” she theorized, “it is up to him to make himself good or bad depending upon whether he assumes his freedom or denies it.

Beauvoir’s first efforts toward her writing career were fictional, including her aptly titled maiden voyage as a novelist in 1943’s She Came to Stay, a fictionalization of Sartre’s youthful protégée, Olga Kosakiewicz, who entered into a triangular living relationship with the two French intellectuals. Next, she tackled the male point of view in her epic novel treatment of death in All Men Are Mortal,  whose central character was an immortal she tracked for seven centuries. In 1954, after the success of her feminist classic The Second Sex, Beauvoir returned to fiction with The Mandarins, a novelization of the splintered and disenchanted French intelligentsia, which won the illustrious Goncourt Prize. She continued to write and publish, creating a weighty body of work. She outlived Sartre and died on a Paris summer day in 1986 after a long and thoughtful life, leaving a legacy of significant contributions to gender and identity issues as well as philosophy and literature.

“One is not born a woman, one
becomes a woman.”
the first line of
The Second Sex
This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.