Melissa is beloved for the great music she makes, but she achieved eternal sheroism with her album “Yes, I Am,” a public coming-out and celebration of her lesbianism. An ebullient spirit who can sing, play killer guitar, and write hit songs by the droves, Melissa Etheridge hails from Kansas and at thirty-six, embraced the shared motherhood with her child and with her partner of ten years, film maker Julie Cypher. Melissa’s personal shero is Janis Joplin, and she’s developing a film project in which she hopes to portray the Texas rock legend. Etheridge, who has enjoyed the changing tide for women in the music industry, delights in the success of musicians she respects: Edie Brickell, Tracy Chapman, Toni Childs, Natalie Merchant, Michelle Shocked, and the Indigo Girls, all who sell records by the millions. Even a few years ago, Etheridge remembers that rock radio jocks claimed they could only play one woman a day of risk losing their male listeners. “All of a sudden the whole lid was blown off…people were coming to our concerts, and they were requesting our songs on the radio, and radio changed. That’s the way America works. The public ultimately says ‘This what we want.’ The world was ready for strong women’s inspired music.” And Melissa Etheridge was at the forefront of the revolution!
Hockey is certainly no sport for lightweights. For many, taking shots from a bunch of big men with sticks might seem like a risky business, but to French Canadian Manon Rheume, it’s the sport she loved. She is goalie for the Atlanta Knights and, as such, is the first woman to play professional hockey in the men’s leagues. At five feet six and 135 pounds, Manon is slight compared to many of her team members and opponents, but she has proven her ability to stop a puck. The world is finally taking none of women’s ability to play this sport overall; in the year 1998, women’s ice hockey became a full medal sport at the Winter Olympics, no small thanks to Manon and others like her.
Shirley Muldowney, born Belgium Roque, took on one of the last bastions of machodom—drag racing—and came up a winner. She fell in love with cars at the age of fourteen in Schenectady, New York, racing illegally “when the police weren’t looking.” At fifteen, she married mechanic Jack Muldowney, and they became a hot-rodding couple. Shirley put up with enormous hostility from race fans and outright hatred from fellow drivers. In 1965, she became the first woman to operate a top-gas dragster and went on to win seventeen National Hot Rod Association titles, second only to Don Garliz, Queen of the cockpit, Shirley Muldowney became an internationally famous superstar with the critically acclaimed film about her life and achievements, “Heart Like a Wheel.”
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.
One of the all-time tennis greats, Martina Navratilova was a Czechoslovakian native who defected to the United States so she could manage her own career, rather than having the Czech government tell her what to do and where to go. During the eighties, she was the top-ranked women’s tennis player in the world with a career record of seventy-five straight wins. She approached her career and training as serious business, a pure athlete in the truest sense. One of the first openly gay celebrities, Martina has been linked amorously with Rita Mae Brown, who penned a novel about their affair and was sued in a “galimony” suit by another lover, Judy Nelson, who went on to share a bed with Rita.
Opines Martina, “I never thought there was anything strange about being gay.”
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 where 3.6 million years old, preserved in volcanic ash, and she later unearthed the jawbones of eleven other humanoids carbon-dated 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.”
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.”