Pretty Profiles Are Fine, but Where are Stories of Powerful Women?

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Last month - Women's History Month - I was asked to write a profile of a woman who'd made it to the top of her business-related profession. I declined. I hate to turn down assignments, but writing a story about yet another "smart girl" who's succeeded in a man's world doesn't interest me. Not when there are so many untold tales of amazing women, past and present, who can't command a column inch.

We know, of course, about the relatively few outstanding women who do manage to make history (sometimes as token icons). Most of them have made a monumental difference in the lives of many others. We recognize names like Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female doctor in America, Clara Barton, founder of the Red Cross, Jane Addams, who launched the Settlement House movement and Harriet Tubman, who led so many slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad. Further afield, we know about Malala and her brave contribution to girls' education.

But what do we know about the multitude of women and girls who stand with Malala in bringing social justice to the world? Women like Pinki Kumari, who came from a small village in India and later, with support from the Ford Foundation's International Fellowship Program (IFP) earned a master's degree in International Public Health so that she could return home to do advocacy work, or Rosana Paulino, another IFP Scholar and Brazilian artist who earned a PhD in 2008 and now uses her education to explore and re-imagine black women's experience in Brazilian society? And that's just two examples.

These innovative leaders stand on the shoulders of women like Ela Bhatt and Wangari Maathai among others, known to those of us who have worked in the international women's movement, but probably not to a good many others.

Bhatt was a pioneer in India when she started a "gentle revolution" by founding the Self-Employed Women's Association in 1972. A trade union, SEWA represents women workers in India's informal sector who make up 94 percent of the female labor force but lack the same rights and security as those in formal employment. She also started the Cooperative Bank of SEWA to help women gain financial independence so that they could become self-reliant and gain the respect of their families and communities.


Wangari Maathai, Nobel Peace Prize winner and the first woman in East or Central Africa to earn a PhD, was a Kenyan political, environmental, and women's rights leader. She launched the Green Belt Movement to reforest Kenya which also helped her country's women gain new skills and access opportunities to enhance their economic security and social status. Arrested and imprisoned several times, she eventually earned a seat in the country's parliament in 2002.

Another group of outstanding women that few folks know about is comprised of female pioneers in science. Some may have seen on Facebook that glamorous movie star Hedy Lamarr was instrumental in the development of computers, or they might know about Dr. Helen Taussig, the founder of pediatric cardiology, who was key to the first successful ''blue baby'' operation. But a simple Google search turns up many more women scientists, like Annie Cannon, one of America's foremost astronomers who helped to classify stars, and Bertha P. Cody, the first Native American archaeologist. One of my favorites was Mary Agnes Chase, an agricultural specialist who had to fund her own research trips to South America because it was considered inappropriate for women to do field work in her day.

These examples are barely the tip of the iceberg. I'd love to have met and written about women like educator and racial justice advocate Mary McCleod Bethune, a friend of Eleanor Roosevelt's whose moving statue in Washington, D.C. was the first to depict any woman or African American in any park in the nation's capital. I'd have gone mad with glee to have profiled writers like Beryl Markham and Margaret Mitchell or artists from Artemisia Gentileschi, the 17th century genius who is most remembered for being raped by another painter, all the way to Georgia O'Keefe and photographer Diane Arbus. I'd love a venue for stories about women composers and artists who remain largely invisible, like Fanny Mendelssohn, Clara Schumann and Anna Bach, and I'd like to have talked to the outstanding athlete Babe Didrikson as well as Mary Breckenridge, founder of the Frontier Nursing Service, to name just a few.

With a wish list like that, why would I want to write vapid profiles of women who do well in corporate America? I'll leave that kind of story to magazines interested in money and business models, or to publications that feature sexy ingenues or famous women over sixty with great figures thanks to their cooks, personal trainers and plastic surgeons.

Like I said, there are "smart girls" and then there are powerful women. Both have a story to tell, but for me it's a no-brainer which one I'd rather write -- or read - about.


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Elayne Clift is a writer,lecturer, workshop leader and activist. She is senior correspondent for Women's Feature Service, columnist for the Keene (NH) Sentinel and Brattleboro (VT) Commons and a contributor to various publications internationally. (more...)

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