DINAH WASHINGTON: LEGENDARY VOICE

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Rolling Stone journalist Gerry Hershey makes the claim, “If there is a paramount body for evidence to support the feminist poster ‘Sisterhood is powerful,’ it is Dinah Washington’s 1958 LP tribute to the Empress, The Bessie Smith Songbook.” Dinah Washington is one of the all-time great vocalists who immediately took ownership of any song she sang. In addition to a great set of pipes, she had a good head for business, running a restaurant in Detroit and a booking agency, Queen Attractions, where she signed talent like Muhammad Ali and Sammy Davis, Jr. Able to juggle many different gambits, Washington also dominated the stage of the Flame Show Bar and Detroit’s Twenty Grand Club, where future superstars Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, and Aretha Franklin sat enthralled, watching a master at work. Motown was just gearing up when Dinah Washington died accidentally of an unfortunate combination of pills and alcohol. A legend in her own time, she is rumored to have married as many as nine times before her untimely demise at age thirty-nine. Dinah Washington, one of the most gifted singers to have ever held a microphone, lived large, predated the excess of rock stars with peroxide wigs, and a home filled with gorgeous cut crystal chandeliers, and toilet-seat covers made from mink!

 

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

ELIZABETH WARREN: NEVERTHELESS, SHE PERSISTED

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Born in 1949, Elizabeth Warren grew up in a middle- class Oklahoma City family with three older brothers. At age 13, young Elizabeth started waiting tables to help her parents out after her father had a heart attack. A star member of her high school debate team, she won the title of “Oklahoma’s top high school debater.” This took her to George Washington University on a debate scholarship, but two years later she left to marry Jim Warren, her high school sweetheart. The couple moved to Texas when he found a job as an engineer at NASA, and Elizabeth graduated from the University of Houston in 1970 with a degree in speech pathology and audiology. She taught disabled children at a Texas school for a year before again relocating for her husband’s work, this time to New Jersey.

 

After the arrival of daughter Amelia, Elizabeth enrolled at Rutgers School of Law–Newark when her daughter turned two. Shortly before receiving her J.D. in 1976, she became pregnant with their second child. After passing the bar, Elizabeth worked from home, specializing in real estate closings and wills in her new law practice. They divorced in 1978; Elizabeth later remarried but kept her surname (under which she was practicing law at that time).

Warren lectured at Rutgers School of Law–Newark for a couple of years, then moved to the University of Houston Law Center where she became the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs in 1980. In 1987 she became a full-time professor at U. Penn’s law school, where she obtained an endowed chair in 1990. She became the Leo Gottlieb Professor of Law at Harvard Law School in 1995; by 2011, she was the only tenured professor of law there who had gone to law school at a public university in the U.S. Warren assumed an advisory role at the National Bankruptcy Review Commission in 1995, and with others worked to oppose proposed laws which would severely limit consumers’ rights to file for bankruptcy, efforts which in the end did not prove successful. From 2006-2010, she was on the FDIC Advisory Committee on Economic Inclusion. Warren is also a member of the National Bankruptcy Conference, an independent group which advises Congress on bankruptcy law. Her work in academia and as an advocate spurred the formation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in 2011, the year that she declared her intention to seek nomination as the Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2012; she won the nomination and the election, and became the first woman ever elected to the U.S. Senate from Massachusetts.

While campaigning, Warren made a speech at Andover that went viral; she replied to a charge that asking the rich to pay more taxes is “class warfare” by pointing out that no one becomes wealthy in the U.S. without the benefit of infrastructure funded by the taxpayers: “There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. …You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work that the rest of us paid for. Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea. God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is, you take a hunk of that and pay it forward for the next kid who comes along.”

 

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

YVONNE BRAITHWAITE BURKE: POLITICAL STANDOUT

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Yvonne Burke was the first black woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from California, serving from 1973-1978. The daughter of a janitor and a real estate agent, the Angeleno native was noted as exceptionally bright by her teachers and was sent to a “model” UCLA college prep school. The only African American student at the school, Yvonne was treated viciously by the other students, but didn’t let that stop her from turning in a stellar performance. Everywhere Yvonne went, she encountered more bigotry, including the women’s law sorority she was turned down by, compelling her to form an alternative women’s law sorority with two Jewish law students. Starting with her election in 1972, Yvonne Brathwaite’s career in Congress was equally outstanding; she was unfailingly supportive of the causes of desegregation, equal employment, and better housing. In ’78, she chose to run for California State Attorney General rather than seek reelection.

She currently practices law in Los Angeles. Yvonne is a visionary with the smarts and dignity to rise above the hatred she has personally experienced just for being black, saying, “It’s just a matter of time until we have a black governor and, yes, a black president.” With the election of Barack Obama, she was proven right.

 

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

SHIRLEY CHISHOLM: “UNBOUGHT AND UNBOSSED”

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Shirley Chisholm was a nonstop shero whose own sense of empowerment spread to everyone who came in contact with her. In 1968, Shirley Chisholm was the first black woman to be elected to Congress, a historic triumph for her gender and race. Four years later, she ran for president in the primaries.

Born in the borough of Brooklyn, New York, in 1924, she spent seven years in Barbados with her grandmother, Emily Seale. She credits the “stiff upper lip,” yet excellent education she received in Barbados as giving her an advantage when she returned to the United States. Shirley garnered many scholarship offers upon high school graduation, choosing Brooklyn College to study psychology and Spanish with the intention of becoming a teacher. She got involved with the Harriet Tubman Society, where she developed a keen sense of black pride. Acing every course, she received a lot of encouragement to “do something” with her life. A Caucasian political science professor urged her to pursue politics, a daunting idea at the time. But the seed was planted.

After an arduous job search, Shirley finally found work at the Mount Cavalry Child Center; her magna cum laude degree didn’t seem to offset her color for many potential employers. She also took night classes at Columbia, where she met Conrad Chisholm. They married soon after, giving her a stable foundation upon which to build her house
of dreams. She continued to work in early childhood education, becoming director of several day care centers and private schools.

In the sixties, Shirley stepped into the political arena, campaigning for a seat in the state assembly in her district. She won the Democratic seat in 1964 and began the first step in a history-making career, winning again in ’65 and ’66. Then she decided to run for the U.S. Assembly. Even though she was up against a much more experienced candidate with deep-pocketed financial backing, Shirley prevailed; she was aware that there were 13,000 more women than men in the district and quickly mobilized the female vote. She also underwent surgery for a tumor at this time, but went back to work immediately, quickly earning a reputation as one of the most hard charging black members of the Assembly.

Even in Congress, the race issue reared its head. She was assigned to the Agricultural Committee to work with food stamp distribution because she was a black woman. Shirley didn’t take this lying down and fought to get off that committee, moving on to Veteran’s Affairs and, finally, Education and Labor where she believed she could really do some good. Known for her straight-shooting verbal style and maverick political ways, she always saw herself as an advocate for her constituency, seeking to be the voice of those traditionally overlooked by politics: Hispanics, Native Americans, drug addicts, and gay activists.

As a presidential candidate for the 1972 Democratic nomination, she placed women’s rights at the center of her campaign, claiming that she was not a “gimmick” candidate, but a serious contender. Although she failed to get the nod, it did make her a national spokesperson for the civil and women’s rights movements. Since then, she helped create the National Political Congress of Black Women and taught, lectured, and authored two books, Unbought and Unbossed and The Good Fight. Shirley Chisholm was at the forefront of obtaining real political power for African American women.

 

“I’m the only one among you who has the balls to run for president.”

— Shirley Chisholm to the Black Caucus members at the Democratic convention

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

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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.

Mother Jones: MoJo Rising

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By Bertha Howell – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs divisionunder the digital ID cph.3a10320., Public Domain.

In the 1960s, big business came to be known as “The Man.” A hundred years before the hippie revolution, Mother Jones was giving The Man a kick in the wallet every chance she got. She organized her first labor strike at the midpoint of her life, age forty-seven, and devoted the rest of her life to establishing unions in coal mines, breweries, factories, and cotton mills over a span of forty years. Armed with steel-trap smarts, a tough, no-nonsense manner and endless courage, she fought her way to the forefront of the labor movement and paved the way for safer, more humane conditions for workers, including child labor laws and the eight-hour work day.

A charismatic leader who helped the underpaid and overworked laborers of America fight for their rights, Mary Harris Jones came to be known as Mother Jones because of her concern for the workers she came across. Portrayed in the many photos taken, as the sweetest of grandmothers in her proper Victorian gowns, hats, and spectacles, she was however, in her own words, “a hell-raiser.” Doubtless, she enjoyed the epithet once hurled at her by a prosecutor in West Virginia—“the most dangerous woman in America.”

She was born into a working-class family of revolutionaries. Her father and his father before him were both soldiers in the battle for Irish independence. Her grandfather was hanged for his participation in the revolution; her father escaped to North America to avoid arrest. Young Mary attended public school and trained both as a seamstress and a teacher. She taught at a convent in Monroe, Michigan, for a year before deciding to set up a dressmaker’s shop in Chicago. The year 1860 found her in Memphis teaching; there she met and married George Jones, an ironworker, union member, and labor organizer, who died seven years later of yellow fever. This was enough to send her back to Chicago, where she applied her skill as a seamstress, making fancy dresses for the wealthy of Lake Shore Drive. Anger welled up inside her at the selfish wealthy folks she sewed for who blithely ignored the needy and basked in their sumptuous comforts.

Four years after losing George to yellow fever, Mary lost her shop to Chicago’s great fire, and she joined the ranks of the homeless. Her anger at the selfish wealthy class incited her to attend Knights of Labor meetings where she quickly became admired for her orations and argumentation. Mary Harris had found her true calling—as a labor activist, agitator, and activist. She was nothing short of brilliant. Her passionate calls to action were heard by thousands of Americans who were inspired by her to fight for basic human rights and respect as workers. She had an almost magical ability to band people together to fight against incredible odds.

“Women are the foundation of the nation,” she declared as she put her heart and soul into helping the condition of working women in rural areas and mountainous towns of West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio, and as far west as Colorado, Utah, and Arizona. She forged a powerful sisterhood with these women and saw behind the shy faces a steely strength that she helped them tap. “Women have great power, if only they knew how to use it,” she would declare often, urging women to focus their eyes on the prize of better pay, decent working conditions, and reduction of the soul-killing hours. “This is the fighting age. Put on your fighting clothes. You are too sentimental!”

Mother Jones labored in the trenches alongside the workers, sleeping on their floors in cold mountain shacks and sharing their scant food. While intellectuals theorized about class struggles and economic ideals, Mother Jones worked in the gritty reality of these people’s daily lives. She saw herself as one of the struggling, too, and babysat, cared for the sick, held the dying, and scavenged for food, clothing, coal, and money during strikes. Her distrust of the suffragette movement came from her total allegiance to the uneducated working poor; many of the suffragettes were of the monied, educated, upper class she so resented. She let them worry about getting the right to vote for women; she was making sure they could survive the business of making a living.

A victim of sexism, Mother Jones was never allowed to participate in the United Mine Workers of America she fought so hard for. Men completely ran the union; she was allowed no part of it. From the sidelines, she tried her best to advise in impassioned letters these men for whom she had built a powerful membership. Late in life, she was saddened by the infighting and corruption she was powerless to prevent.

Mother Jones championed the underdog at her own expense and often at enormous personal risk. Ahead of her time, she amazed West Virginia mine workers she had organized when she implored them to be more understanding of the foreign-born “scabs” who were sent to work the mines during strikes. She also lobbied on behalf of African American workers who suffered bigotry from the unions.

Born in the Victorian Age and brought up to be subservient, Mother Jones was a first generation Irish American who fought the good fight and left the world a better place for her class, for women, and for the ethnic groups trying to find their place among the workers of America. Mary Harris Jones was fortunate to live long enough to see many of the great changes she fought for in improving the lot of the working class. Iron-willed and lion-hearted, Mother Jones lived by her principles. A shero in both words and action, she reminds us all, “it is the militant, not the meek, who shall inherit the earth.”

“This Jeanne d’Arc of the miners was a benevolent fanatic, a Celtic blend of sentiment and fire, of sweetness and fight…(who) captured the imagination of the American worker as no other woman—perhaps no other leader—ever has.”
— Dale Fetherling on Mother Jones

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