In honor of the French Open this week, it felt appropriate to highlight the achievements of the female singles winner from 56 years ago: Althea Gibson. Long before Venus and Serena started making waves in the tennis world, Gibson was not only the very first African American tennis player to win ANY of the major Grand Slam tennis tournaments independent of each other, she won three of the four (the French Open, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open) during her amazing tennis career.
In 1974, upon discovering that many homeless women in Boston were dressing up as men to get into homeless shelters, Kip Tiernan founded Rosie's Place, one of the very first shelters for women in the United States.
Recently, some friends and I saw the film Art & Copy, a documentary about the creative minds that make up the best of the advertising business. Now, there is a lot to be said about the problems inherent in advertising, but even the most skeptical viewer in our group (me), had to admit that she was impressed by the poise, tenacity, and apparent coolness of some of the film's subjects, especially Mary Wells.
Anne Sexton was born in Newton, Masachusetts in 1928. Sexton was the youngest of three daughters and quickly earned the title of the wild child. At seventeen, her parents sent her to Rogers Hall Boarding School in Lowell, Massachusetts to try and cure the rebellious side in her. After graduating from school, Sexton attended what she would later call a "finishing school" before she met and eloped with Alfred Sexton II in 1948. For a short time after their marriage, she modeled for a small agency. But after her husband was sent to Korea for a time, Sexton gave up modeling to be like a typical '50s housewife—but she was anything but.
After what Rousso describes as a childhood full of ups and downs and other children asking why she was "crippled," Rousso grew up to pursue higher education despite what some saw as barriers—her disability and her gender. She earned a degree from Brandeis University in economics in 1968, which landed her a job in Washington D.C. in the Office of Economic Opportunity and also exposed her to the women's rights movement. It was while living in D.C. that Rousso became involved in feminist activism. Rousso said in an interview that when she started working in feminist issues, she realized that "this self-loathing about my body and about my womanhood is not just a disability issue, it is a women's issue." Her first taste of activism fueled her to go on to get two masters degrees, one in education from Boston University and the second in social work from New York University. She had hoped to study psychotherapy but was rejected from a program because of her disability. Instead of being discouraged, this action further inspired her life work at the intersection of disability and women's rights.
Mary Elizabeth Bowser and Elizabeth Van Lew, a former slave and a wealthy white woman in Richmond, Virginia, might seem unlikely members of a successful espionage ring. Thanks to Hollywood, the typical images surrounding spies include scantily clad women, technological gadgets, and Pierce Brosnan—but this equation would hardly have gone unnoticed during the Civil War. Bowser and Van Lew used society's assumptions about them to their advantage, passing key information along to the Union Army and contributing to the demise of the Confederate States.
In 1967, five years before the passing of Title IX (which required gender equity for sports in public education), twenty-year-old Kathrine Switzer ran the Boston Marathon. During the race, Switzer was physically accosted by race director Jock Semple, who tried to pull her out of the race by force (an act that, if we'd been around in 1967, would have definitely earned him a Douchebag Decree). Not deterred, Switzer went on to finish the Boston Marathon with an unofficial time of 4:20 (she was disqualified as only male runners were recognized as finishers). Her work in advocating women's rights in sports led to the official inclusion of women runners in the 1972 Boston Marathon and the first-ever women's marathon at the 1984 Olympics. Switzer's efforts to get women running spanned 30 countries when she founded the Avon Running Global Women's Circuit, a series of races for women.
Lady Ada King, Countess of Lovelace—better known as Ada Lovelace—described herself as an analyst and metaphysician in her only published article. Seeing as how that article included what is cited as the first computer program and the first incidence of computers being assigned abilities beyond mathematical functions, her description rings true. Born in 1815 to Lord Byron, moody English poet, and Anne Isabelle Milbanke, "princess of parallelograms," Ada was primed to develop what she once called "poetical science."
Jeannette Rankin was a suffragist and the first woman elected into the United States Congress in 1916. A lifelong pacifist, Rankin was the only person in Congress to vote against entering both WWI and WWII. She believed that many of the problems in government were tied to the fact that there weren't enough women in politics and she said many times, "the peace problem is a woman's problem."
Isadora Duncan might be the most famous dancer you've never seen dance. Often referred to as the "Mother of Modern Dance," she was a self-made and intensely driven, confident woman who saw personal freedoms, expression, justice, and dance as essentially intertwined. Isadora once said, "For me the dance is not only the art that gives expression through the human soul through movement, but also the foundation of a complete conception of life, more free, more harmonious, more natural."