HILDA SOLIS: PIONEERING POLITICIAN

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Hilda Solis was born in 1957 and raised in La Puente, CA; her Nicaraguan and Mexican immigrant parents had met in citizenship class and married in 1953. Her father had been a Teamsters shop steward in Mexico; he again organized for the union at the Quemetco battery recycling plant, but his efforts for the workers did not prevent him from being poisoned there by lead. Hilda’s mother was also active in the union during her years working at Mattel once all the children were in school.

At La Puente High School, students were not necessarily expected to try to better themselves through higher education; one of Hilda’s guidance counselors told her mother, “Your daughter is not college material. Maybe she should follow the career of her older sister and become a secretary.” Fortunately, another counselor supported Hilda’s applying to college, and went so far as to visit her at her house to help her fill out a college application. Hilda earned a bachelor’s in political science from California State Polytechnic University and went on to obtain a Master’s in public administration at USC.

Solis interned and edited a newsletter in the Carter Administration’s White House Office of Hispanic Affairs. In Washington, DC, she met her future husband, Sam Sayyad. She returned to the west coast, and in 1982 became the Director of the California Student Opportunity and Access Program, which helped disadvantaged young people prepare for college. Friends urged her to consider running for elective office, and after a successful run in 1985, she served for some years on the Rio Hondo Community College District. Solis also became State Senator Art Torres’ chief of staff. In 1992 she ran for the California State Assembly and won with the support of Barbara Boxer, Gloria Molina, and her mother, who notably fed her campaign volunteers on homemade burritos.

 

In 1994, Art Torres was nominated to a statewide position as insurance commissioner, and Solis ran for and won the State Senate seat he vacated. She was the first woman of Hispanic descent ever to serve in the State Senate as well as the youngest member of the Senate at the time. She authored domestic violence prevention bills, and she stood up for workers with a bill to raise the minimum wage from $4.25 to $5.75, which was massively opposed by business and vetoed by Governor Pete Wilson. Solis didn’t let that stop her; she successfully led a ballot initiative drive, using $50,000 from her own campaign money. When the initiative passed, others knew that she was someone to be reckoned with. Similar initiatives were enacted in other states on the wave of this victory. Solis worked to enact an environmental justice law to protect low-income and minority neighborhoods from being repeatedly targeted for new landfills and pollution sources, and in 2000, she received the JFK Library Profile in Courage Award for this work, the first woman ever to win it. She also called out garment sweatshop operators for their violations of labor conditions, and was an advocate for the people on education and health care issues; 2000 was also the year that she successfully ran for Congress. In 2008, she became the first Hispanic woman to serve in the U.S. Cabinet when President Obama tapped her for the position of Labor Secretary. After serving for the duration of his first term, she decided to resign and returned to California, where she is presently an L.A. County Supervisor.

 

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

ANITA HILL: WE ALWAYS BELIEVED YOU

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Nobody could have guessed that the televised Senate hearings on the nominations of Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court would be the top-rated show of 1991. America’s collective mouth hung open in amazement at the brouhaha that brewed up around Judge Thomas’ worthiness based on the charges of sexual harassment by one Anita Hill. The hearings catapulted the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace into the most hotly debated and analyzed topic of the day, one that still reverberates years later. Prior to Anita’s brave stand, sexual harassment was mainly swept under the industrial gray carpeting of most offices, but she single handedly forced it to the very center of the national agenda.

 

The nation and, indeed, the world, watched transfixed as the incredibly poised Anita revealed her experiences with Clarence Thomas as a coworker. With great dignity, she testified that Thomas kept after her to go out with him, referred to himself as “an individual who had a very large penis and…used a name…in pornographic material,” and asked her to see “this woman (who) has this kind of breasts that measure this size,” in a seemingly endless barrage of ludicrous and lugubrious insults to her as a fellow professional. Senate hearings, usually desert dry and devoid of tabloid titillation, suddenly featured long discussions including the terms “penis” and “pubic hair.”

The prelude to the media circus took place when the president announced his choice of “black Horatio Alger” Clarence Thomas as the Supreme Court replacement
for the retiring Thurgood Marshall. Anita Hill, a law professor at the University of Oklahoma, contacted Harriet Grant, the Judiciary Committee’s nominations counsel. She told Grant that Thomas had harassed her in a sexual and inappropriate manner when she had worked as his assistant at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She had, in fact, quit the EEOC because of his behavior and gone into academia. Grant cc’d the senatorial committee on the allegations, but the Senate whipped through the approval process with nary a word about Hill’s report and prepared to vote for confirmation of Thomas. Then journalist shero Nina Totenberg of National Public Radio and New York Newsday’s Timothy Phelps broke the story wide open to a shocked public. Seven women from the House of Representatives marched in protest to the Senate building, demanding of the sheepish Senate committee to know why the committee had ignored Hill’s complaint.

 

Nothing in Hill’s background could have prepared her for the media onslaught. Born in 1956 as the youngest of thirteen children, she was raised in rural Oklahoma
in a deeply religious family. An outstanding student, she graduated as valedictorian of her integrated high school, earned top honors in college, and was one of only eleven black students out of a class of 160 at Yale University Law School.

Even through Anita Hill had been promised immunity and total confidentiality, she appeared before the committee in a special session before the scrutiny of the nation. The Judiciary Committee was dismissive, as only Old Boys can be, of Anita Hill and her testimony, even going so far as to ask her if she was taking her revenge as the “woman scorned,” and they suggested that she was a patsy for radical liberals and feminists. While Anita’s allegations were ultimately disregarded and Clarence Thomas was voted in, Anita’s grace under pressure won many admirers who protested the Thomas appointment. The controversy remained headline news for months; polls of public opinion showed Anita Hill gaining and Bush losing points as I Believe You Anita! bumper stickers appeared on thousands of cars across America. For her outspokenness, she was awarded the Ida B. Wells Award from the National Coalition of 100 Black Women and named one of Glamour’s Ten Women of the Year in 1991.

Anita Hill’s courage of conviction made her a shero of the late twentieth century. In her words, “I felt I had to tell the truth. I could not keep silent.”

“You just have to tell the truth and that’s the most anyone can expect from you and if you get that opportunity, you will have accomplished something.”

— Anita Hill

 

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

CORAZON AQUINO: MOTHER IN THE LIMELIGHT

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Hot on the heels of anti-shero Imelda Marcos (or should I saw hot on the 1,600 heels; remember the 800 pairs of shoe scandal?) came Corazon Aquino, a political neophyte who quietly and competently took the helm of the volatile islands nation in the aftermath of the Marcos regime.

Cory didn’t set out to run a country. Educated in the Catholic school system in the United States and the Philippines, she abandoned higher education to marry Benigno Aquino, a promising politician, and served as his helpmate and mother of their five children. Benigno opposed the martial law of Marcos and was jailed in 1972; when he was released, the family fled to the United States, where they lived until 1983. By this time Marcos was losing control of the reins of power, and Benigno decided to return to help agitate for his resignation. As the Aquinos stepped off the plane, Benigno was assassinated. In that moment, Cory had to decide—turn tail or take up the mantle of her slain husband. She chose the latter, uniting the dissidents against Marcos. In 1986, she ran for the presidency of the Philippines, abandoning the speeches that had been prepared for her to talk of the suffering that Marcos had caused her in life. Although both sides declared victory, Marcos soon fled and Cory assumed power.

After the tabloid dictatorship style of the Marcos family, the widow-turned-stateswoman stunned the world with her no-nonsense manner and absolute fearlessness. Corazon Cojuangco Aquino stood fast amid the corrupt circus of Filipino politics even though coup after coup attempted to remove her from office. She quickly earned the respect of her enemies when they discovered it wasn’t so easy to knock the homemaker and mother of five from her post as president of the explosively unstable nation. And she refused to live in the opulent palace the Marcos had built, proclaiming it a symbol of oppression of the poor masses by the wealthy few, and chose to live in a modest residence nearby.

 

However, long-term leadership proved difficult. Although she was credited with drafting a new democratic constitution that was ratified by a landslide popular vote, her support dwindled in the face of chronic poverty, an overstrong military, and governmental corruption. Her presidency ended in 1992.

For her achievements and courage, Cory Aquino has received numerous honorary degrees from sources as diverse as Fordham University and Waseda University in Tokyo. Named Time magazine’s Woman of the Year, Cory is also the recipient of many awards and distinctions, including the Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award, the United Nations Silver Medal, and the Canadian International Prize for Freedom. Acknowledged by the Women’s International Center for her “perseverance and dedication,” Corazon Aquino was honored as an International Leadership Living Legacy who “faced adversity with courage and directness.”

 

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.

MARGARET THATCHER: IRON MAIDEN

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Margaret Thatcher may have drawn fire from critics for her staunch conservativism, but she has the respect of the world for her no-nonsense strength and for her rise from greengrocer’s daughter to the first woman Prime Minister of Great Britain. MT earned all her laurels through sheer hard work, studying diligently to get into Oxford where she studied chemistry and got her first taste of politics. Upon graduation, she got a law degree, married Dennis Thatcher, and had twins in short order. Her passion for conservative politics increased, and she impressed party members with her zeal and talent for debate. She won a seat in the House of Commons in 1959, and her rise in the party ranks was steady and sure, leading to her election in the eighties as Prime Minister, the first woman ever to head a major Western democracy. Vehemently anti- Communist and anti-waste, she curtailed government with a singular fervor, surprising everyone by going to war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands. Tough as nails, Margaret explains her modus operandi thusly:

“I’ve got a fantastic stamina and great physical strength, and I have a woman’s abilitiy to stick to a job and get on with it when everyone else walks off and leaves.”

 

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

INDIRA GANDHI: DAUGHTER OF DESTINY

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Indira Nehru Gandhi’s life mirrors the divided country she governed as the first woman Prime Minister of India. She inherited a political consciousness from her nationalist grandfather Motilal Nehru and her father, India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. The Nehrus are sometimes called India’s royal dynasty, but this is a contradiction of the very ideals the Nehru family and the peaceful revolutionary Mohandas K. Gandhi believed in as they worked to end England’s colonial rule over India.

As a girl, Indira witnessed up close the birth of modern, independent India under the leadership of Gandhi and her relatives. The Nehrus were a wealthy family who were moved by meeting Mohandas in 1919 to give up all their possessions and join in the struggle for independence. Indira endured the frequent jailings of Jawaharlal (and later, her mother) for nationalist activities. The young girl’s role model was Joan of Arc; later she told of playing with dolls to whom she assigned patriotic roles in the fight to free India from their foreign rulers. Indira’s childhood was unusual, by any means, often accompanying her father in his travels and meeting luminaries such as Albert Einstein and Ernst Toller. Indira also organized The Monkey Brigade for preteen revolutionaries and was later beaten cruelly for marching carrying India’s flag. She and her family often visited Gandhi, who was “always present in my life; he played an enormous role in my development.”

 

Indira suffered depression, anxiety, and illness from her unsettled life, and at age twenty-two married Feroze Gandhi, a family friend who was a Parsee, a member of a small religious sect, and not considered appropriate for Indira, who was of the Brahmin, or priestly, caste. Arrested for their nationalist activities, both Indira and Feroze spent nine months in jail, which, Indira claimed, was the most important event of her life, strengthening her political resolve.

Upon the deaths of their great leader Gandhi and the continued bloodshed during the Partition dividing India into Hindu India and the new Muslim state of Pakistan, Indira joined India’s Congress party and began to forge her own political sensibility. When India gained independence in 1947, her father became Prime Minister; because he was a widower, he needed Indira to act as his official hostess. During the time of her father’s multiple strokes, Indira was tacitly acting as Prime Minister.
Upon his death in 1964, Indira became president of the India National Congress. After her father’s successor Lal Bahdur Shastri’s brief ministry and death from heart failure, Indira won the election by a landslide and became the leader of the world’s largest democracy, a leader of a country where women’s rights were not a top priority. Immediately she became a role model for millions of India’s women, traditionally subservient to men.

Indira inherited a land where starvation, civil wars, severe inflation, and religious revolts were a daily reality. She constantly endangered her health by working sixteen hour days trying to meet the needs of the second most populated country on earth. Her political fortunes rose and fell; she was booted out of office in 1977, only to be reelected a few years later to her fourth term as prime minister. Her controversial birth-control program is overlooked oftentimes in the criticisms that she traded political favors in order to hang onto the ministry.

 

Indira was constantly caught in between the warring factions and divisions of India’s various provinces and interests, and the history of her ministry reads like a veritable laundry list of riots, uprisings, and revolutions all played out on partisan quicksand. Her assassination demonstrates this fully. In 1919, British troops had massacred thousands of Sikhs, a proud warrior caste, in their sacred place of worship—the Golden Temple of Amritsar Sixty-five years later, Amritsar again ran red with the blood of Sikh extremists attempting to create a stronghold in which to make their demand for greater autonomy. When the Indian army invaded and seized back the temple, the sparks of anger blazed out of control. Across India, Sikhs were cursing the name of Ghandi, including some of her personal security guards. Four months later, Indira was shot to death by a Sikh in her garden, where she was about to be interviewed by Peter Ustinov. Her son, Rajiv, became the next Prime Minister and met an equally violent end when a Sri Lankan Tamil woman leapt onto him and detonated a bomb she had strapped to herself.

Indira Gandhi’s life is difficult to fully comprehend without a grasp of Indian history. Perhaps the deepest understanding of her comes through consideration of her chosen role model, Joan of Arc, a model for self-sacrifice who places the interests of her country above the value of her own life, and as a woman warrior in a battle of religious politics pitting men against men. Indira Gandhi’s own insistence to reporters who wanted to talk about her uniqueness as a woman Prime Minister speaks volumes as well: “I am not a woman. I am a human being.”

 

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.