Women’s History Month 2022: Inspiring trailblazers, quotes
Women’s History Month is a celebration of trailblazers, innovators, champions and advocates. We salute these women year-round, not just in March:
Rosalynn Carter | Kizzmekia Corbett | Abigail Dillen | Marcia Fudge | Suzan Shown Harjo | Dolores Huerta | Sherrilyn Ifill | Blair Imani | Maya Lin | Cynthia Marshall | Sylvia Mendez | Dalia Mogahed | Rita Moreno | Ellen Ochoa | Gitanjali Rao | Megan Rapinoe | Shonda Rhimes | Geena Rocero | Michaela Jaé Rodriguez | MacKenzie Scott | Leah Ward Sears | Yara Shahidi | M.L. Smoker | Gloria Steinem | Linda Thomas-Greenfield | Kara Walker | Serena Williams | Shailene Woodley | Alice Wong | Bethany Yellowtail
Bethany Yellowtail grew up on the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana and went to fashion school in Los Angeles. She gave herself one year to get a job in fashion. She succeeded. By 2015, she started her own brand, B. Yellowtail. Her designs reflect her Indigenous roots.
She co-designed a scarf for the Indigenous Women Rise participants in the Women’s March in D.C. in 2017. It featured Indigenous women wearing war bonnets, representing empowered women.
Her B. Yellowtail Collective supports the work of other Indigenous artisans. She said she had to negotiate with many of the sellers to convince them to charge what their art is worth.
She supported the Standing Rock Sioux protesting the Dakota Access pipeline, designing a line of clothing and donating the profits to the tribe.
She created the Rez Girls Mentorship Fund to teach young Indigenous girls to believe they have the strength to do anything.
“I want to be able to employ my own people to sell my garments and help manufacture them so they can make a good living. It only makes sense. And yet, there really isn’t anywhere else in Indian country where something like this is happening.”
— Bethany Yellowtail
Alice Wong is an activist for people with disabilities. She is the founder and director of the Disability Visibility Project, an online organization that works to expand society’s understanding of people with disabilities.
The project began as StoryCorps, which collected oral histories of people with disabilities.
In 2020, Wong won a Disability Futures Fellowship from the Ford Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundations. The benefactors say the purpose of the fellowship is to “spotlight the work of disabled creatives across disciplines and geography and amplify their voices individually and collectively.”
During the pandemic, she created the hashtag #HighRiskCA because, she said, California’s vaccination plan didn’t give enough priority to people with disabilities.
“When I talk about visibility, I’m not sugarcoating it. It’s about being comfortable in your own skin. But the fact that there are people who are telling their stories by being visible, hopefully it gives permission to other folks who are still figuring stuff out. Like you’re not alone.”
— Alice Wong
Shailene Woodley is an actress known for the “Divergent” movies and the“Big Little Lies” series on HBO.
Her activism focuses on the environment.
She became a Greenpeace Oceans Ambassador in 2019 and joined the environmental group on an expedition to the Sargasso Sea that studied how plastic affected sea life. She joined Indigenous people in North Dakota to protest the Dakota Access pipeline and was arrested.
She is on the board of the progressive PAC Our Revolution, which teaches voters about current issues.
She and her mother formed the nonprofit All It Takes, which aims to help young people attain emotional intelligence. The website says, “We teach young people at critical life stages to practice empathy, compassion, initiative, responsibility and purpose … to create sustainable, positive outcomes.”
“All it takes is to pick up that one piece of trash you pass every day on your way to work. Or to turn the water faucet off when you're brushing your teeth from afar. Or to compost. Or to buy 100 percent post-consumer recycled paper. Or to utilize vintage stores and secondhand markets. Or to fully devote yourself to only buying vegetables from local sources. It is remarkably easy to incorporate sustainable choices into our everyday, busy lives.”
— Shailene Woodley
Tennis superstar Serena Williams has been a role model for many. She also advocates for gender pay equity and racial equity.
With the Allstate Foundation, she is ambassador for a program that educates on the financial aspects of domestic abuse.
She collaborated with Helping Hands Jamaica to build a school. And she helped raise $3 million for Mahmee, a Black-owned health tech company that works to enhance postpartum and perinatal care.
“The success of every woman should be the inspiration to another. We should raise each other up. Make sure you’re very courageous: be strong, be extremely kind, and above all be humble.”
— Serena Williams
Kara Walker is an American avant-garde installation artist. Her art often intentionally shocks. She combines detailed paper silhouettes, collages, drawings, paintings and other elements to tell stories of history.
An early work that brought her fame was a mural at the Drawing Center in New York. The Museum of Modern Art described the piece: “In reviving the eighteenth-century cut-paper silhouette to critique historical narratives of slavery and the ongoing perpetuation of ethnic stereotypes, Walker has transformed the craft into a new type of epic history painting.”
Her art continues to depict race and racism.
“The history of America is built on ... inequality, this foundation of a racial inequality and a social inequality [...] And we buy into it. I mean, whiteness is just as artificial a construct as blackness is.”
— Kara Walker
Linda Thomas-Greenfield is a longtime diplomat. She now serves as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Joe Biden appointed her to the Cabinet-level post, and she was confirmed in February 2021.
Before that, she was U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs from 2013 to 2017.
In a recent speech, she described the U.N.’s role is battling racism:
“The United Nations is uniquely poised to galvanize change. This should be the place where we expose the racial discrimination endemic to our societies and to the world. This should be the venue where we recognize our shared humanity and work to remove the rot of racism from our foundations. And today, right now, right here, is the time to harness the energy, the optimism and activism of the next generation, and to do everything – everything – in our power to leave them with a less hateful, more hopeful world.”
“The sad truth is that racism begets more racism. We must stop this trend in its tracks.”
— Linda Thomas-Greenfield
Gloria Steinem is an icon of the early feminist movement.
Along with Betty Friedan, Bella Abzug and Shirley Chisholm, she started the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971. Its goal was to find, train and support women seeking public office.
Her roots were in journalism, and she founded Ms. Magazine in 1971 to cover issues that women were facing. The Washington Post described its first issue, saying “it captured the cultural zeitgeist of women on the cusp of a social revolution. The cover featured a woman with several arms, like the goddess Lakshmi, juggling more tasks than she could possibly handle.”
Steinem was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013.
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”
— Gloria Steinem
M.L. Smoker is part of the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes in Montana.
She was Montana’s co-poet laureate from 2019-2021. She works for equity of Indigenous people in the Pacific Northwest.
She also was appointed to the National Advisory Council on Indian Education by President Barack Obama.
Thunderous, her graphic novel for youths, follows the story of an Indigenous teen discovering her roots. It will be published next month. Describing the book, Smoker said, “Diversity in literature is so important to developing a new generation’s understanding of the lives and experiences of different groups of people and communities.”
“The importance of new narratives that are formed from the creativity, resilience and power of Native American communities are necessary to correct the pervasive and damaging stereotypes, misconceptions and ideas that exist in this country about us."
— M.L. Smoker
Yara Shahidi is an actress known for her role as Zoey Johnson in the TV series “Black-ish” and “Grown-ish.”
While she was in high school, she was an advocate for STEM, urging kids to study science, technology, engineering and math.
She also started Yara’s Club, which focused on overcoming poverty through learning.
As soon as Shahidi reached voting age, she created what’s now called We Vote Next, which urges young people to vote, speak out and get involved in the community. She expects to graduate from Harvard University this year.
“I don’t think I’d be doing the work I’m doing if I wasn’t constantly inspired by the other young people doing this work, by the other young people doing work I didn’t even realize had to be done. I feel like we constantly educate one another. Because we inherited a world in crisis, we enter this world inspired to make change.”
Leah Ward Sears
Leah Ward Sears was a lawyer before becoming a judge for the Atlanta City Court.
Next, she was the youngest person and the first woman to become a superior court judge in Fulton County, Georgia. In 1992, Gov. Zell Miller appointed her to the Supreme Court of Georgia. She was the youngest person and first woman on that court, too.
When she ran to hold onto the seat, she became the first woman to win a contested statewide election in Georgia. In 2005, she became chief justice of Georgia’s Supreme Court.
She was included on USA Today’s list of Georgia’s Women of the Century.
“I had very supportive parents that made the way for me, even at a time when there were very few women — no women, really; maybe two or three women — and very few, fewer than that, African American women heading in this direction, so there were very few people to look up to. You just had to have faith.”
— Leah Ward Sears
MacKenzie Scott is a philanthropist, writer and the ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.
After she divorced Bezos, she promised to give half of her money over her lifetime. Since the split, she has donated more than $8 billion. She says the recipients can spend the money as they wish.
Among her gifts:
• Community in Schools, which offers services for at-risk students — $133.5 million
• Historically Black colleges and universities — $800 million
• International Association of Blacks in Dance — $3 million
• Tribal colleges and universities, from Navajo Technical University in New Mexico to Salish Kootenai College in Montana — unspecified.
She no longer announces the grants. She allows the recipients to reveal the gift if they choose to.
“We are governed by a humbling belief that it would be better if disproportionate wealth were not concentrated in a small number of hands, and that the solutions are best designed and implemented by others.”
— MacKenzie Scott
Michaela Jaé Rodriguez
Michaela Jaé Rodriguez is a transgender actress.
After an award-winning portrayal of Angel in an off-Broadway production of “Rent,” she took time off to transition.
For her lead role in the FX series “Pose,” she was the first transgender woman to receive an Emmy nomination in a major role. She then won as best TV actress in a drama, making her the first transgender actress to win a Golden Globe.
Also in 2021, she was the first trans model to be featured on the cover of Latina magazine.
For her advocacy work, Rodriguez will receive the Stephen F. Kolzak Award from GLAAD at a ceremony next month. In the announcement, GLAAD president and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis said, “Michaela Jaé Rodriguez is an undeniable talent who is changing the way audiences understand trans people while breaking down barriers for the trans community and LGBTQ people of color within the entertainment industry.”
“We haven’t shattered that glass ceiling yet. It’s just a bit cracked. There’s great things in knowing that, and there’s also sad things in knowing that it hasn’t fallen to the ground just yet.”
— Michaela Jaé Rodriguez
Geena Rocero is a Filipino-born American model. She chose Transgender Day of Visibility to reveal in a TED talk that at birth, her gender assignment was “boy.”
She founded Gender Proud, a media company to give voice to transgender people and to promote justice and equality.
In 2021 she created “Caretakers,” a four-part documentary about the caregiving work of Filipino Americans.
She lectures around the country to enlighten others about transgender people.
“Gender has always been considered a fact immutable. But we now know it’s actually more fluid, complex, and mysterious. Because of my success, I never have the courage to share my story. Not because I thought what I am is wrong but because of how the world treats those of us who wish to break free.”
— Geena Rocero
Shonda Rhimes is one of the most powerful women in Hollywood. She has written and/or produced such popular shows as “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal,” “How to Get Away With Murder” and “Bridgerton.”
After many, many critics and others mentioned the “strong female leads” in her shows, Rhimes had had enough. She reprimanded people on Twitter: "OK. Entertainment industry, time to stop using the phrases ‘Smart Strong Women’ and ‘Strong Female Leads.’ There are no Dumb Weak Women. A smart strong woman is just a WOMAN. Also? ‘Women’ are not a TV trend — we’re half the planet.”
Rhimes also co-created Time’s Up, which pursues equal pay and an end to sexual harassment in the workplace.
“Not a single woman in the room could handle being told, ‘You’re awesome.’ I couldn’t handle being told I am awesome. What in the hell is wrong with us?”
— Shonda Rhimes
Pro soccer star Megan Rapinoe, a member of two World Cup winning U.S. women’s teams, advocates for women’s rights, human rights and LGTBQ rights.
In 2016, during an international match, Rapinoe kneeled during the national anthem to support the NFL’s Colin Kaepernick. Afterward, she said, “Being a gay American, I know what it means to look at the flag and not have it protect all of your liberties. It was something small that I could do and something that I plan to keep doing in the future and hopefully spark some meaningful conversation around it.”
She and some of her U.S. women’s national team teammates sued the U.S. Soccer Federation over gender discrimination and unequal pay. (An agreement was reached recently saying that women’s and men’s national teams would receive an equal rate of pay in the future.)
“I feel like it’s actually everybody’s responsibility to use whatever platform they have to do good in the world, and to try make our society better, whether you’re an accountant or an activist or an athlete or whatever it is. I think it’s everybody’s responsibility.”
— Megan Rapinoe
At age 16, Gitanjali Rao already has a few inventions to call her own.
After hearing about the Flint, Michigan, water crisis, she invented an app that measures lead levels in water. She created a tool using genetic engineering to diagnose prescription opioid addiction early. And she set up an anti-cyberbullying service with Microsoft.
She was included in Forbes’ 2019 30 Under 30 in science. Time magazine named her the top young innovator in 2020, praising the science workshops she holds around the world.
“My goal has really shifted not only from creating my own devices to solve the world’s problems, but inspiring others to do the same as well. Because, from personal experience, it’s not easy when you don’t see anyone else like you. So I really want to put out that message: If I can do it, you can do it, and anyone can do it.”
— Gitanjali Rao
Ellen Ochoa was the first Hispanic woman to travel to space. On a 1993 mission, she was a mission specialist on the space shuttle Discovery. The crew studied the sun and its interaction with the Earth’s atmosphere.
In 1999, she was on the Discovery STS-96 crew that carried out the first docking to the International Space Station.
On her four spaceflights, Ochoa spent more than 40 days in space.
She was later director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center from 2013 to 2018. She was its first Hispanic director and its second female director.
“A hallmark of the Latino community is to help one another. If students are interested in a way to give back and help their communities, becoming a teacher is probably one of the very best ways of doing that.”
— Ellen Ochoa
Rita Moreno is a longtime actress, dancer and singer. She was born in Puerto Rico and moved to New York as a child. When she won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for “West Side Story,” she was the first Hispanic woman to win an Oscar. She went on to win an Emmy, Grammy and Tony, making her one of the few people to win all four.
She earned a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2004.
“I had no role models from my own community — there was no such thing. Earlier on, there were people like Dolores Del Rio, but I was too young for that — that was before me. There was really nobody out there.”
— Rita Moreno
Dalia Mogahed directs research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. The organization researches and offers education to all on issues that affect American Muslims. It also provide statistics and facts.
She co-wrote “Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think. That book culminated a six-year Gallup survey consisting of 50,000 interviews of Muslim in 35 countries.
“I'm not in the business of changing policies. I hope to inform, not form, decisions.”
— Dalia Mogahed
Mendez v. Westminster was argued years before Brown v. Board of Education and isn’t as well known. Hispanic elementary school student Sylvia Mendez was barred from attending a whites-only school. The Mendez family won in the U.S. District Court, and the school district appealed in U.S. Court of Appeals. This time the family was represented by future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. The lower court’s decision was affirmed, confirming that school segregation was unconstitutional.
Soon after, California Gov. Earl Warren ended school segregation in the state.
In 2011, President Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Mendez.
“That we are all individuals; that we are all human beings; that we are all connected together; and that we all have the same rights, the same freedom.”
— Sylvia Mendez
Maya Lin gained fame when, as a Yale University senior, she won a contest to design the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Since then, she has created projects for many nonprofits. In 1988, Lin designed the SPLC’s Civil Rights Memorial Center’s monument to civil rights in Montgomery, Alabama. The monument includes a granite wall with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr., and a disk with key dates in the civil rights movement and a list of martyrs.
She says her art is about working with the environment. “All of my work is about slipping things in, inserting an order or a structuring, yet making an interface so that in the end, rather than a hierarchy, there is a balance and tension between the man-made and the natural."
“To me, the American Dream is being able to follow your own personal calling. To be able to do what you want to do is incredible freedom.”
— Maya Lin
Cynthia Marshall made inclusion and diversity her goals when she joined the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks as CEO. She was the NBA’s first Black female to hold that position. She was hired after charges of sexual harassment within the franchise. Owner Mark Cuban told her to transform the culture.
Marshall had been an executive and chief diversity officer at AT&T when the company won Diversity Inc.’s Top 50 companies and Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For.
“My mother always put a math book in one hand and a bible in another and said if you keep your head in these two books, you’ll get out and I didn’t realize what she meant out of and later I realized it was out of poverty.”
— Cynthia Marshall
Blair Imani is a historian, writer and podcaster who educates people about lesser-known changemakers through history. Her “Modern HERstory” details the lives of 70 women and nonbinary individuals who have made their mark in society. But they were undercelebrated because they dwelled in marginalized groups: people of color, and those who are gay, trans, disabled or young.
The New York Times said Imani is able to convey “progressive lessons with vibrant visuals and a perky, quirky delivery.”
“In 2015, I converted to Islam and quickly learned about the discrimination Muslims have been facing firsthand. As I began to wear hijab, my visibility as a Muslim women seemed to invite harassment. … A lot of people assume that I’m homophobic, or that queer muslims could not and did not exist. I do exist.”
— Blair Imani
Sherrilyn Ifill is the president of the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund, but she plans to step down this year. The nonprofit fund is an advocate for racial justice. It seeks systemic changes to tackle inequality, voter suppression and attacks on democracy. It also works to uphold the civil rights struggles that have succeeded.
In her eight years as president, she expanded the staff, created an archive of successes and heroes, and formed a think tank to study systemic racism.
Her tenure began just after the Supreme Court reversed election law preclearance rules, which essentially gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Ifill wrote “On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the Twenty-First Century” which details the devastating effects of lynching weaved into today’s society. When Maryland created a commission to study the effects of lynching, Ifill said, “You can’t address a sickness until you properly diagnose it.”
“It is critical that we confront the fundamental flaws in our legal system that routinely allow innocent black lives to be taken with impunity. The insistence that our laws are colorblind, despite every indication to the contrary, makes our legal system complicit in condoning this reality.”
— Sherrilyn Ifill
Dolores Huerta, labor leader and civil rights activist who, with Cesar Chavez, is a co-founder of the National Farmworkers Association, which later become the United Farm Workers.
The 1960s grape boycott forced grape producers to improve the working conditions for migrant farmworkers. It eventually led to a union contract in the 1970s.
About the same time, Huerta met Gloria Steinem and soon became a force in the burgeoning feminist movement.
After winning a prize for her decades-long efforts, she used $100,000 to create the Dolores Huerta Foundation, which strives to persuade government officials that they must nurture and inspire community leaders.
In 2012, President Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Huerta.
“If people don't vote, everything stays the same. You can protest until the sky turns yellow or the moon turns blue, and it's not going to change anything if you don't vote.”
— Dolores Huerta
Suzan Shown Harjo
Suzan Shown Harjo is a prominent advocate for indigenous peoples’ rights.
She is president and director of the Morning Star Institute in Washington, D.C., the nation’s oldest advocacy group for Indigenous peoples’ rights.
Also, part of her legacy is the fight to remove slurs to Indigenous people from sports team names.
She educates people about:
• Issues affecting Indigenous people
• Legislation to preserve Indigenous rights, hold onto language and traditions, tackle poverty, addictions and joblessness, and guard sacred lands.
The institute serves as a reminder of the promises that the federal government made to Indigenous peoples in exchange for their lands.
“People who do not care for their young people and old people are decadent, decaying societies.”
— Suzan Shown Harjo
Marcia Fudge, a lawyer serving in the U.S. House from Ohio, was named HUD secretary in the Biden administration.
Her immediate role was to stop evictions caused by the loss of income in the pandemic. Then she sought to reverse the damage from the previous administration, which had failed to support fair housing and other civil rights.
In her confirmation hearing, she said she’d work to end discriminatory housing practices and advance Black homeownership.
Fudge had previously told Politico that the leader of HUD gave a false image of diversity but that the policies did little to tackle systemic racism.
“Historically, people of color and the diaspora have been at the bottom of the barrel, even as it relates to immigration. If we don't engage in the discussion, then what is it that we're saying to people? That we don't care?”
— Marcia Fudge
Abigail Dillen is the president of Earthjustice, which fights for the planet. Her work includes lawsuits that aim to eliminate fossil fuels.
She succeeded in:
• Getting the EPA to set standards for disposing of coal ash;
• Stopping a $2 billion project to transport coal energy;
• Blocking permits for coal-fired power plants; and
• Ending funding for new coal plants.
She wants to move the United States toward clean energy sources.
“Environmental racism is one feature of the systemic racism that drives shockingly disparate rates of death and disease for Black people, while making climate change a current, not future, catastrophe.”
— Abigail Dillen
Kizzmekia Corbett is one of the National Institutes of Health’s top scientists working on answers to the COVID-19 pandemic. She was on the NIH team that helped Moderna create a vaccine that has been 90% effective.
When she was a teen, her interest in science was reinforced when she was chosen for Project SEED, which brings exceptional high school students of color to summer chemistry labs at the University of North Carolina. Then she received a Meyerhoff scholarship for students of color to attend the University of Maryland — Baltimore County.
The program’s goal is to encourage more diversity in the science and technology fields.
Then she earned a Ph.D. in microbiology and immunology at UNC-Chapel Hill.
In the early months of COVID-19, Corbett tweeted about Trump’s task force: “The task force is largely people (white men) he appointed to their positions as director of blah blah institute. They are indebted to serve him NOT the people.”
“If we can provide a vaccine to every single person that needs one, then in theory the health disparity for that disease would largely not exist. But of course, this is caveated because there are layers of disparities around distribution and access. When I think more broadly about health disparities in the U.S., 90 percent of it boils down to access — access to care, access to insurance, and access to knowledge.”
— Kizzmekia Corbett
As Georgia’s first lady in the early 1970s to Gov. Jimmy Carter, Rosalynn Carter worked to improve the state’s mental health system. On the campaign trail, constituents had told her about the problems in the system.
While traveling the nation when Jimmy Carter was running for president, Rosalynn Carter promised that her top goal as first lady would be to help the mentally ill.
During Jimmy Carter’s presidency, Rosalynn Carter and the mental health commission brought about the Mental Health Systems bill, an attempt to improve support and protection for the mentally ill. It passed it 1980.
For decades, both Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter have worked with Habitat for Humanity to build and fix affordable housing.
“We know how to treat depression, we know how to treat mental illness, and we have not had the political will in our country to make it happen.”
— Rosalynn Carter