Copyright © 1999 Henrietta W. Hay
Important Women of the Twentieth Century
June 18, 1999
The Ladies Home Journal recently published a list of the 100 Most
Important Women of the 20th Century. The Journal is hardly Ms.
Magazine when it comes to female role models, but the list does contain
most of my favorites.
What makes a woman "Important" in today's culture? Is it vision,
compassion, power, intelligence, beauty, talent, physical strength, or
just a lucky combination of those? I do think is presumptuous for
anyone to select just 100 women -- or men -- who have been the most
"important" of the century. But here are the women whom I think did the
most to empower women in this century.
Certainly the suffragettes -- all of them -- from the birth of our
country until women finally got the vote 1920 have an importance beyond
measure. They marched and orated and sacrificed and some of them went
to prison so that American women can vote. Our debt to all of those
women can only be paid by using carefully that for which they fought so
Perhaps the most "important" individual woman of this century is
Margaret Sanger. Her lifelong battle to make birth control legal and
available to all those who want it, brought a new freedom to American
women. Most of the ones I have talked with agree on this one. What
could be more important to women than giving us the legal right to
One name that almost everyone mentions is that of Eleanor Roosevelt.
She was certainly one of the most influential women of the century.
She was a humanitarian, social worker, politician and strong civil
rights advocate. She became the social voice of the New Deal in the
days when activism was nearly unknown for women. She was a reformer
before reforming became a "cause" for women.
Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique" came out in 1963 and started a
revolution which is still far from over. She wrote, "The feminist
revolution had to be fought because women quite simply were being
stopped at a stage of evolution far short of their human capacity." It
was her book that woke up millions of women, including me.
Gloria Steinem and thousands of others took up the challenge and led
the feminist fight to open up the world for our daughters and
granddaughters and the women who follow, to allow them to participate
fully in life in whatever direction their talents and ambitions take
them. Steinem is a humanist who believes, as I do, that the liberation
of women will, in the end, liberate men as well.
In 1955 an African American woman in Montgomery, Alabama started another
kind of revolution. She got on a bus one December night and very
deliberately took a seat in the front. She was asked to give up her
seat to a white man and move to the "colored" section in the back of the
bus. She refused. "I had been pushed as far as I could stand to be
pushed." She was jailed, but the bus boycott that started in her name
lasted until the Supreme Court ruled all bus segregation illegal.
According to Ebony magazine she is "the living black woman who has done
the most to advance the cause of Civil Rights." This week she was
honored with the Congressional Gold Medal.
Two of the most influential women in the country today are Sandra Day
O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsberg, the two women on the United States
Supreme court. Last week O'Connor cast the swing vote on the case
involving sexual harassment in the schools. Both women graduated from
prestigious law schools only to be offered jobs as secretaries on
graduation. O'Connor turned to Republican politics eventually became a
state judge in Arizona. Ginsberg went to teaching under the aegis of
the American Civil Liberties Union. They arrived at the Court with
highly different backgrounds and philosophies. But there is a synergy
there. Linda Greenhouse, writing in the New York Times, says, "There is
clearly a bond between the two justices...Some observers think the
presence of the two women on the court is substantially greater than the
sum of one plus one." Peter Rubin of Georgetown University added that,
"You're in an insulated environment. When two colleagues who have had
different experiences say there is a problem to be taken seriously, it's
bound to have an impact."
Of course my list is a prejudiced one. I'm a feminist. But these women
have changed my life - and yours. They are "important women", but not
the only ones. There are millions of others that will never be