BONNIE RAITT: BORN TO SING THE BLUES

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Born in 1949 in Burbank to a show biz family, Bonnie Raitt plays the slide guitar like she was born in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Her first exposure to the music scene was classical piano (her mother’s forte), her father’s Broadway show tunes, and the Beach Boy harmonies she grew up with. A Christmas gift changed Bonnie’s life—at age eight, she received a guitar and worked diligently at getting good at playing it. The first time she heard Joan Baez, Bonnie went the way of folk and moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to be a part of the folkie coffeehouse scene. Unfortunately for her, folk music was on its last legs. Instead she hooked up with Dick Waterman, a beau who just happened to manage the careers of Bonnie’s musical icons: Son House, Fred McDowell, Sippie Wallace, and Muddy Waters. By the age of twenty, she was playing with Buddy Guy and Junior Wells—opening for the Rolling Stones with two blue greats.

Bonnie’s road to fame, however, was very long and winding. It had to come on her terms. Always more interested in artistic integrity than commercial success, she had exacting standards and tastes. She demanded authenticity in playing the blues she loved and reinterpreting those riffs through the influences of country and rock. She didn’t play the game and, a musician’s musician, she rarely got radio air play. Thus she made her living traveling the country, performing in small clubs. Bonnie was also very outspoken on political causes. Raised as a Quaker, she has always been involved in political causes, doing many benefit concerts; in 1979, she cofounded Musicians United for Safe Energy.

The stress of the road, and of being a novelty in the music industry—a female blues guitarist—eventually took its toll, and Bonnie drowned her sorrows for a time in drugs and booze. In the mid-eighties, when her record label dumped her, she bottomed out, became clean and sober, and made the climb back up. In 1989, her smash album “Nick of Time” won her a Grammy and garnered sales in excess of four million.

Since then, she hasn’t stopped making her great earthy blend of blues, folk, pop, and R&B, or working on behalf of the causes that are meaningful to her. Bonnie Raitt
is a consummate musician who loves to perform live, loves to pay homage to the blues greats, and continues to speak her mind. In an interview in Rolling Stone, she laid it on the line about the current looks-dominated music industry: “In the 70s, all these earthy women were getting record deals—you didn’t have to be some gorgeous babe. There’s been some backsliding since.”

 

“Any guy who has a problem with feminists is signaling a shortage in his pants. If I had to be a woman before men and women were more equal, I would’ve shot somebody and been in jail.”

— Bonnie Raitt

 

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

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.

ASIEH AMINI: TAKING ACTION FOR A CAUSE

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Asieh Amini is a renowned expatriate Iranian poet and journalist living in Norway. From her birth in 1973 until 1979, she lived a fairly privileged life, as her landed-gentry family was well-to-do and employed servants; but they lost much of their wealth during the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Besides adapting to her family becoming no more than middle class, young Amini despised the fact that females now had to wear the mandatory black hijab covering. As a child, she thought the hijab was ugly and would cry when she was required to wear it like other girls. In 1993, Amini started journalism school at Tabataba’i University in Teheran. While still just a freshman, she started writing for the hardline daily Kayhan, then wrote for Iran, a larger newspaper. Iran started publishing a youth supplement and tapped Amini to be the cultural editor of the 28-page section; this was an unusually high position for a woman to have in Iran, and there was pushback from male staff who didn’t like her being in charge of men as a section editor – men older than she was, no less. She refused to give in and focused on working hard, up to 14 hours a day.

 

As the political winds shifted in Iran, censorship relaxed somewhat, and more young women started to work in the field of journalism. Amini worked at a paper
that covered women’s affairs, though she opposed the concept of separating news by gender; then she became a freelancer, covering Kurdish demonstrations and a Shirazi earthquake. In 2006, she started investigating killings of young women after learning of the horrific execution of a 16-year-old girl. She worked to publish what she discovered, but lost a job at one newspaper and was turned down by various others. The editor-in-chief who fired her said it was impossible for their paper to publish the story, since she was fighting Sharia law and the Iranian judicial system. Finally a women’s journal agreed to publish an abridged version of the story. Amini soon learned of a 19-year-old young woman named Leyla with the mental age of an 8-year-old child who had been abused as well as prostituted by her mother since childhood and was sentenced to die by hanging. Amini wrote about and advocated for her, gaining international attention, which at last led to a new trial for Leyla and after that a safe place for Leyla to live and be cared for. In the course of what she then thought of as organizing for children’s rights, Amini learned about stonings, which were still going on in secret even though they had been officially illegal since 2002.

 

When she discovered that the most hard line judges in Iran were continuing to sentence women and others to death by stoning because they thought they answered to a higher authority than the law of the land, Amini co- created the “Stop Stoning Forever” campaign in 2006. Her role was to amass evidence that stonings were still taking place. She worked ceaselessly with her group and managed to find 14 people who had been sentenced to be stoned; then they reached out for international support, even going so far as smuggling facts to Amnesty International, which put the information into the public eye, even back in Iran. In 2007 she was detained in prison for five days following a silent women’s rights sit-in at a courthouse; after that, it became clear that she was under surveillance. At last she fled with her daughter to Sweden in 2009 after a warning that several female prisoners had been interrogated about her and that she would likely soon be among the many “disappeared”. She moved to Norway and pursued her longtime interest in writing poetry, and she is presently working on a new documentary book while completing a Master’s degree in Equality and Diversity at NTNU.

BARBARA WALTERS: THE “TODAY GIRL” WHO BECAME A LEGENDARY JOURNALIST

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Barbara Walters once said, “I was the kind nobody thought could make it. I had a funny Boston accent. I couldn’t pronounce my Rs. I wasn’t a beauty.” For decades, she has proven everyone who doubted her to be utterly wrong. Born September 25, 1929, Barbara is an American broadcast journalist, author, and television personality who has hosted shows including The Today Show, The View, 20/20, and the ABC Evening News. Barbara attended Sarah Lawrence College in 1951; she obtained a B.A. in English and then worked at a small advertising agency for a year. After that, she went to work at the NBC network affiliate in New York City doing publicity and writing press releases. Barbara continued on to produce a number of shows, including the Eloise McElhone Show until its cancellation in 1954. She then started as a writer on the CBS Morning Show in 1955.

Barbara’s career began to skyrocket in 1961 when she became a writer and researcher for the Today Show; she later moved up to be the show’s “Today Girl”, a position in which she presented the weather and light news items. At that time, it was still early in the second wave of the women’s movement, and no one took a woman presenting hard news seriously, and there were difficulties with news anchors like Frank McGee who demanded preferential treatment as she started to cross over into news anchor territory. After McGee passed away in 1974, NBC at last promoted Barbara to the position of co-host – the first woman ever to rise to such a position on any U.S. news program.

 

Barbara was on a roll. Two years later, she became the first woman to co-anchor any American evening news show on a major network when she joined the ABC Evening News, ABC’s flagship news program. Walters had a difficult relationship with her co-anchor Harry Reasoner, because he didn’t want to have to work with a co-anchor. This led to their team-up lasting only from 1976-78. Walters became a household name while a co-host and producer at the ABC newsmagazine 20/20 from 1979 to 2004, as well as for her appearances on special reports as a commentator, including presidential inaugurations and coverage of 9/11. She was also a moderator for the final debate between presidential candidates Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford. Barbara is famous for her interviews with memorable people, including Fidel Castro, Vladimir Putin, Michael Jackson, Katharine Hepburn, Anna Wintour, and Monica Lewinsky. In addition to her work at 20/20, Walters co-created The View, a current events talk show hosted solely by women,in 1997. She was a co-host on the show until May 2014 but continues as an executive producer. Barbara Walters was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in 1989, and in 2007 received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. She has also won Daytime and Prime Time Emmy Awards, the Women in Film Lucy Award, the GLAAD Excellence in Media Award, and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the New York Women’s Agenda

 

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

 

Harriet Tubman: Harriet the Spy (Not Kidding)

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By Photographer: Horatio Seymour Squyer, 1848 – 18 Dec 1905 – National Portrait Gallery, Public Domain.

In her day, Harriet was lovingly referred to as Moses, for leading her people home to freedom. An escaped slave herself, she pulled off feat after amazing feat and gave freedom to many who would otherwise have never known it. Harriet Tubman was a conductor on the Underground Railroad, perhaps the best that ever was. She is best known for this activity, but she was also a feminist, a nurse, and, for a time, a spy. Her keenest interest was social reform, both for her gender and her people.

Born around 1821 on a plantation in Maryland, Harriet struggled with grand mal seizures after a blow to the head as a child, but the damage from a severely fractured skull didn’t stop her from the most dangerous work she could have possibly undertaken: taking groups of slaves to freedom in the north. During her slow recovery from being hit in the head with a two-pound weight by an overseer, she began praying and contemplating the enslavement of blacks, resolving to do what she could, with faith in a higher power. She married John Tubman, a free man, in 1844, and lived in fear that she would be sold into the Deep South. When she heard rumors that she was about to be sold, she plotted her escape, begging John to come with her. He not only refused, but threatened to turn her in.

Harriet escaped to freedom by herself, but immediately plotted to return for her family members, using the Underground Railroad. She ultimately rescued all her family members except John; he had taken a new wife and remained behind. She led more than two hundred slaves to safety and freedom, encouraging her “passengers” with gospel songs sung in a deep, strong voice. She also developed a code to signal danger using biblical quotations and certain songs. Harriet Tubman always outfoxed the whites who questioned her about the groups of blacks traveling with her. She lived in constant threat of hanging, with a $40,000 price on her head, and many close calls. One of the most dramatic incidents shows Harriet’s resourcefulness and resolve when she bought tickets heading south to evade whites demanding to know what a group of blacks were doing traveling together. She always carried a gun to dissuade any frightened fugitives from turning tail. “You’ll be free or die,” she told them— and she never lost a passenger.

Harriet also started connecting with abolitionists in the North, developing a strong admiration for John Brown (she conspired with him in his raid at Harper’s Ferry) and Susan B. Anthony. During the Civil War, she nursed black soldiers, worked as a spy for the Union, and even led a raid that freed 750 slaves. After the war, she lived in Auburn, New York, in a house that had been a way station for the Underground Railroad, teaching blacks how to cope with newfound freedom; gathering food, clothing, and money for poor blacks; and founding a home for elderly and indigent blacks. Harriet’s last years were spent in abject poverty despite all she had given to others, but she died at the age of ninety-three having accomplished the task she set herself as a girl. She was the great emancipator, offering her people hope, freedom, and new beginnings. Reformer and writer Thomas Wentworth Higginson named her “the greatest heroine of the age.”

“When I found I had crossed that line, I looked to my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything.”

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

Mary Jackson: A Pioneer Both in Research and Ending Discrimination at NASA

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By NASA – <a rel=”nofollow” class=”external text” href=”https://images.nasa.gov/details-LRC-1979-B701_P-07085.html”>NASA Image and Video Library</a>, Public Domain.

Mary Jackson, born in 1921, was an African-American mathematician who rose to the position of NASA’s first black female engineer. She had earned double-major bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and physical science in 1942, but worked as a schoolteacher, bookkeeper, and clerk for nearly the next decade before being recruited in 1951 to the gender and color-segregated “human computer” department by NACA, NASA’s predecessor as an aerospace agency. A couple of years later, she took another NASA position with an engineer working on the Supersonic Pressure Tunnel; she was encouraged to do graduate-level physics and math studies so she could be promoted to an engineering position. These UVA night courses were given at an all-white high school; she had to petition the city of Hampton, Virginia, her home town, for special permission to attend classes with white students. But nevertheless she persisted, and in 1958 became an aerospace engineer at what was now renamed NASA, researching airflow around aircraft.

While her contributions to aerodynamic studies were significant, after many years Jackson took an in-depth look at the inequalities built into the agency and saw that she could have the greatest impact in a formal human resources role. In 1979, she took on a new role as an affirmative action program manager and federal women’s program manager at NASA, taking a cut in pay to do so. In that position, she was able to make changes that empowered women and people of color, and helped managers to see the capabilities of their black and female employees. Even at the point that NASA administrators were finally forced to acknowledge black women’s work at the agency, the public generally had no idea about the contributions of the black women of NASA. Mary Jackson, together with two other veterans of the “human computer” segregation of women of color at the agency, inspired Margot Lee Shetterly’s book, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Female Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, which was recently adapted into an acclaimed motion picture.

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

Elizabeth Blackwell: Medicine Woman

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By Unknown photographer – National Library of Medicine, Public Domain.

After she was born in England, Elizabeth Blackwell’s family moved to the United States in 1831, settling in Cincinatti when their sugar refinery in New York burned down in 1835. They were progressives, and Elizabeth’s father, Samuel, had chosen to refine sugar from beets because it could be done without slave labor. However, the malaria-ridden Ohio River Valley soon took Samuel Blackwell’s life, and the children all had to work to support the family. Musically talented Elizabeth taught music classes and assisted her siblings in running a boardinghouse in the family home. Elizabeth had a chance to teach in Kentucky but couldn’t tolerate the idea of living in a slave state.

Befriended by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Elizabeth became very active in the anti-slavery movement and also exported her literary leanings, joining the Semi-Colon Club at Stowe’s urgings. Elizabeth needed more intellectual stimulation than even the writing club offered, however, and spurned the attention of Cincinnati’s young men in order to keep her mind clear for higher pursuits. When her father was alive, she had become accustomed to the excellent schooling and private tutors Samuel provided for his brood. Children were “thinking creatures,” the elder Blackwells proclaimed. Further, they made sure that the girls were taught all the same subjects as the boys, quite a rare notion for the time.

When her friend Mary Donaldson died of what was probably uterine cancer, Elizabeth Blackwell knew she wanted to become a doctor. Mary had told Elizabeth that she believed her illness would not have been fatal if her doctor had been a woman; a woman would have taken her seriously instead of her being dismissed as suffering from “woman troubles” and emotionalism. Elizabeth knew in her heart that Mary was right. Her long road to becoming a physician was more difficult than she could ever know, but her unswerving dedication to reaching her goal is a testament to Elizabeth Blackwell’s character.

Elizabeth Blackwell was turned down by no less than twenty-eight medical schools in her attempt to study medicine! Even her ultimate triumph at the age of twenty-six in finally enrolling at Geneva College in New York was handled insultingly. Pressured by Joseph Warrington, a noted doctor from Philadelphia who admired Elizabeth’s fierce combination of smarts and pure pluck, the board at Geneva decided to give Blackwell a chance. Wimpily, they left the vote up to the all-male student body, who as a joke voted unanimously to let her in. Blackwell had the last laugh, however, when she outperformed the lot of jokers and graduated at the top of the class. Far from taking away from her achievement, their mockery made her victory all the sweeter. But she faced more obstacles upon graduation.

Elizabeth first worked in a syphilis ward for women where she was greeted with rancor and resentment by all the male physicians. The only job she could get was in Paris
at La Maternite hospital interning in midwifery. Then Elizabeth’s hopes of becoming a surgeon were dashed when she lost her left eye to disease. She also interned a year in London, meeting Florence Nightingale and forming a friendship that lasted their lifetime. Blackwell fared no better in the United States when she tried to find work in her profession, finally going into private practice in New York City where she was deluged with obscene letters and accosted on the street as a harlot and an abortionist. Her initial interest in women’s health was evidenced by her opening of the New York Dispensary for Poor Women and Children, where the unfortunate could receive medical attention. There, Elizabeth welcomed two more women doctors—Emily Blackwell, her sister, and Marie Zakrewska, both of whom had entered medical school with her help.

Blackwell’s pioneering works are considerable: She authored a book titled The Laws of Life, lectured on the importance of women in medicine, organized a Civil War nursing outfit, and founded a health-inspection program run by the first African American female physician, Dr. Rebecca Cole. When she moved back to England in 1869, she added sex education and birth control to her lectures, argued against the use of animal testing, cofounded the British National Health Society, was a professor of gynecology at the brand new School of Medicine for Women, and wrote several more books and tracts, including her autobiography, Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women. Elizabeth died of a stroke at the age of eighty-nine, sixty-three years after she broke down the walls barring women from medicine.

“I am watching, my doubts will not be subdued. (I will) commit heresy with intelligence…if my convictions compel me to do it.”
— Elizabeth Blackwell

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