The introduction to the 2014 Winter Olympics opening ceremony in Sochi may have told us something about how much success women have had in Russian history. Is the United States any better?
The opening ceremony at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games began with a recorded video segment in which a Russian girl went through the Cyrillic alphabet and assigned a prominent Russian personality, achievement, or location to each letter. While I admittedly did not understand all of the references, one thing was fairly clear: there was a notable absence of women, unless you count the little girl narrating the piece.
This made me wonder, “Are there no Russian women who could have been included in this list?” Perhaps Russian history has not been very open to female advancement over the years. The main Russian females who leap to my mind are Catherine the Great (who was actually German), Anna Karenina (who was fictional), and a bunch of athletes. Were I an expert on ballet, I could undoubtedly find some female names there, but the point still stands that most of the prominent Russians throughout history have been men. Women have not been absent, but they seemingly did not merit inclusion by the team organizing the opening ceremony.
That leads me to my next question: Are we as Americans any better? The United States has not been perfect on the issue of gender equality either, but I hypothesized that it would be possible to come up with a list of great Americans made up entirely of women, many of whom would be household names. In the following list, you will see how well I did. In most cases, the last name is the one that starts with the significant letter, but in a few tough cases (or when I really wanted to include someone) I had to go with the first name.
There were a few letters where I had to choose only one from a list of several deserving candidates, and you will likely disagree with me on some points or think of women that I forgot. Nevertheless, I will soldier on and make my best attempt. (All of the information contained here can be easily verified by looking at an encyclopedia article or biography about the woman in question.)
Adams was our nation’s second First Lady and a powerful figure in her own right during the early history of our country. If you have seen the HBO miniseries John Adams, you know how important she was to her husband John’s career.
Harriet Beecher Stowe
She is the author of the book Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which shed a powerful light on the treatment of slaves in the 19th century. The book’s publication is seen as one of the factors that propelled the abolitionist movement and led up to the Civil War.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton
Stanton was one of the most prominent early campaigners for women’s rights and the women’s suffrage movement. Interestingly, both she and Susan B. Anthony opposed passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, which gave blacks the right to vote, because they did not also allow women of all races to vote.
She was one of America’s greatest poets, though her fame is mostly posthumous. A staple of any American literature course, she was very fond of the –.
A pioneer of aviation, Amelia Earhart’s greatest achievement was likely her solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean, the first such flight for a woman. In her attempt to circumnavigate the globe, her plane went missing, and people theorize to this day about just what happened to her.
Fitzgerald was one of the greatest jazz vocalists of all time and is frequently referred to as the “Queen of Jazz” or “First Lady of Song”. She was particularly known for her scat singing capabilities and enormous vocal range. Among her many honors were 13 Grammy Awards and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
She made her mark in journalism at a time when such a career was still very much a boys’ club. As head of the Washington Post for more than two decades, she oversaw the period in which the paper famously covered the Watergate scandal. It is telling that although her family owned the newspaper, Graham’s father initially put his son-in-law (Katherine’s husband) in charge. It was only after her husband’s death that Katherine got her chance to be on top.
Quite possibly the greatest actress in American history, Hepburn won the Academy Award for Best Actress a remarkable four times over the course of her career, a record for any man or woman in a lead acting category. Some consider Meryl Streep to be her modern-day equivalent.
Inez Haynes Irwin
Although not as well known as some of the other names on this list, Irwin was an important early feminist author and a member of the women’s suffrage movement. She was president of the Author’s Guild of America for two years and winner of the O. Henry Award for one of her short stories.
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis
During her time as First Lady, “Jackie O” was a fashion icon and the instrumental force behind a much-needed renovation of the White House interiors. She went on to make her mark on the world of publishing, and her strength amid adversity remains an inspiration for many. For those who lived through that period, she remains the embodiment of the word “style”.
Billie Jean King
King is one of the best female tennis players – indeed, one of the best female athletes – in both U.S. and world history. She won an astounding 39 Grand Slam titles in women’s singles, women’s doubles, and mixed doubles. When she was 29, she beat 55-year-old Bobby Riggs in a match-up labeled “The Battle of the Sexes”.
Lipinski won the gold medal in ladies’ singles figure skating at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano. A victor at the age of 15, she was and remains to this day the youngest Winter Olympic champion in history.
One of the premier American novelists in recent decades, Morrison has won both the Pulitzer and Nobel prizes. She is the only African-American to have won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Either famously or infamously (depending on your point of view), she was the first to dub Bill Clinton America’s “first black president”.
Norma Jeane Mortenson
You probably know her by her stage name, Marilyn Monroe, under which she became one of the biggest stars in Hollywood history and a global icon. Films such as How to Marry a Millionaire, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Some Like it Hot, and The Seven Year Itch cemented her legacy before her early death.
Viewed as the “Mother of American Modernism”, the artist Georgia O’Keefe is known for her paintings of flowers, New York City buildings, and the scenery of New Mexico, among other subjects. She was married to the influential photographer Alfred Stieglitz and was awarded both the Presidential Medal of Freedom and National Medal of Arts.
Parks was not the only black person who ever refused to move to the back of the bus in the Jim Crow South, but her act of simple defiance sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which lasted for one year from December 1955 to December 1956. Ultimately, the Supreme Court ruled that the Birmingham public transit system’s policy of racial segregation was unconstitutional. Rosa Parks continued to be an important figure in the civil rights movement throughout the rest of her life.
Sorry, almost no one has a name starting with Q. I did not think that Queen Latifah deserved to be on the list.
When you think of powerful First Ladies, one of the first names that comes to mind is that of Eleanor Roosevelt. She was a strong supporter of the United Nations, equal rights for racial minorities in the U.S., and women’s rights. Her articles appeared in newspapers and she held her own press conferences. Occasionally, she even disagreed with the policies of her husband, Franklin D. Roosevelt. (Gasp!) To be fair, not everyone loved her – in fact, there were certain similarities between her and Hillary Clinton. However, what cannot be doubted is that she was a highly influential female figure on a global as well as national scale.
Sacagawea is famous for accompanying Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their expedition through the land acquired by the U.S. as part of the Louisiana Purchase. She had been taken as a wife by a French settler and gave birth to a son shortly before the team set off. Her main contributions were to provide direction, translation, practical help, and a source of safety (as other Native Americans would know that they came in peace). Her independence, resourcefulness, and welcoming spirit have made her an iconic American figure.
Famous for her involvement with the Underground Railroad, Tubman escaped slavery herself before helping hundreds of others to do the same. She also worked for the Union Army during the Civil War in multiple capacities, which included some spy work. She has sometimes been called “Moses” for her role in freeing Americans from slavery.
I admit that she’s probably not one of the first people you would put on a list of great American women, but I think you should be impressed that I came up with a “U” name. Her biggest film hits are her collaborations with director Quentin Tarantino: Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill Vol. 1, and Kill Bill Vol. 2.
Vera Cooper Rubin
Rubin is an American astronomer particularly known for her research on the rate at which galaxies rotate. She discovered that there was a difference between the predicted motion and the actual motion, something that came to be known as the “galaxy rotation problem”. While many scientists have explained this discrepancy by attributing it to the little understood phenomenon of dark matter, Rubin favors a theory known as Modified Newtonian Dynamics, the specifics of which are well beyond my pay grade. She is a good example of a prestigious female scientist.
Not everyone loves Barbara, but she is important for being the first woman to anchor a network news broadcast. Her career in journalism has included many famous interviews and been trail blazing in several respects.
Sorry, almost no one has a name starting with X (and Xena actress Lucy Lawless is from New Zealand).
This American economist just became the new chairperson of the U.S. Federal Reserve Board, the first woman in history to do that, and undoubtedly one of the few women to chair a central bank in world history.
She was the wife of one of America’s greatest authors, F. Scott Fitzgerald, but Zelda Fitzgerald takes second billing to no one. During the course of their tempestuous marriage, she served as both an inspiration for her husband’s books and a continual source of personal anxiety. Zelda was talented in her own right, training as a ballerina, serving as an icon for 1920s female style, and writing her own semi-autobiographical work titled Save Me the Waltz. Her life and particularly her marriage have been analyzed and reanalyzed in the decades following her death.
I think this list of 24 women demonstrates in a small way the impact of the fairer sex on American history. No offense to Russia’s alphabet, but I think this one is a lot better. I hope that you agree.