As a woman who has made a career out of doing what she loves, I'm compelled to pay my gratitude to the influential women I’ve known who don’t have Wikipedia pages dedicated to them. I think of my mother, Janis Zavala, one of the first women to run a music publishing department in a 1970's male-dominated industry. I think of my great grandmother, Juanita Zavala de Payan, who sewed quietly behind the television scenes of 1940s Hollywood, designing some of Lucille Ball's most elegant gowns featured on "I Love Lucy."
But what about the women who made working possible for them (and for me) in the first place; women who singlehandedly shattered glass ceilings and advocated for our place and purpose beyond the home? Here's a look at five pioneers we can pay homage to every day of the year, along with insights from the working women they inspire.
Daycare may be getting increasingly expensive in the U.S, but without it, few mothers would have the option of working. Hailed the mother of social work, the settlement activist, feminist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Jane Addams broke ground with Hull-House, the public space she opened with her colleague Ellen G. Starr in an underprivileged district of Chicago in the late 1800s. This space transformed our understanding of education and social care, not only offering schooling to all ages (including night school for adults), but also a gym, a library, an art studio and a range of other amenities previously off-limits to the disadvantaged.
"Without the vision of Jane Addams, I'm not sure what direction my chosen profession might have taken," says Antoinette D'Orazio, a licensed mental health counselor dedicated to social work. "She was an innovator with insight and a passion for helping women, focusing on issues important to them in a culture dominated by men."
Birth control methods have become standard for most of us, with more than 99 percent of sexually active women aged 15 to 44 having used contraception of some kind. We have Margaret Sanger to thank for that option. The nurse, activist, sex educator and writer opened the first birth control clinic in the U.S in 1916. A few years later she founded the American Birth Control League, which later became Planned Parenthood Federation of America — led by all women doctors. Not only did Sanger's work provide women with career options beyond childrearing, she brought much needed awareness to women's health in general.
“Margaret Sanger and her forward-thinking wisdom was a champion for working women in allowing them to control their family planning and period dysfunction," says Dr. Sherry Ross, MD, OB/GYN and women’s health expert. "Between heavy bleeding, debilitating cramps and PMS upheaval, working women have no time to deal with period chaos. Birth control methods including the pill, IUD and other long acting methods serve as a way to prevent pregnancy, control unruly periods and allow women to focus on their career. Since 50 percent of pregnancies are unplanned, women in the workforce should be able to plan a pregnancy on their terms. Birth control for working women is a win-win allowing them to be the best versions of themselves with no female health surprises.”
An abolitionist, feminist and civil rights activist, Sojourner Truth (gorgeously self-named) escaped slavery in New York in 1827 — after at least three of her own children had been stolen from her and sold into slavery. Truth used her powerful voice to shed light on the dire needs of all people treated unjustly and demand change, denouncing racism and advocating for women’s rights. Her most famous speech, “Ain’t I A Woman” delivered at a women’s convention in 1851 still cuts to the bone with its eloquent candor.
"When I think of Sojourner Truth, the first thing that comes to mind is a determined person who is willing to take risks,” says LaTesha Williams-Flynn, EVP, client service director at Concentric Health Experience. “I use the word 'person' and not 'woman' because what she did and stood for was with doing what's right for all of humankind in mind. Her strength, as a woman, no doubt played a role, but what she fought for and accomplished took courage and is something to be celebrated regardless of gender."
Williams-Flynn adds that women can continue to learn from Truth when it comes to refusing to taking "no" for an answer. "Take the risk, get comfortable being uncomfortable. I'm pushing and challenging myself to do this every day in my own personal and professional path,” she says.
Another lesson from Truth: Don’t give up even if everyone is telling you your mission can’t be accomplished because nobody else has ever done it. Truth was the first black woman to win back custody of her son from a white man in 1828.
In the early 1900s, Sarah Breedlove, aka Madam C.J. Walker achieved the entrepreneur’s dream: to become a self-made millionaire — and she was the first American woman to do i. Inspired by a quest to cure her own scalp disorder (and no doubt facing a lack of products designed for African-American hair in the marketplace), the civil rights activist, philanthropist and incredibly savvy business mind launched her own line of African-American hair products. With Madame C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company, Breedlove built an empire.
"As a black female entrepreneur, business coach, and growing philanthropist, the mountains that she moved have become the foundation for my own businesses," says Brittany Nevels, a business and branding coach and creator of BE Different Designs. "I look to her as an example of how to overcome the odds and how to be successful despite the objections you face. She was a mother that was driven by her desire to provide for her daughter. As a mother, my children are also my ‘why’ so this is yet another example of someone that had a similar mindset and made it.”
As with the rest of the women on this list, there’s no shortage of gratitude to be paid to Susan B. Anthony, the social reformer and women's rights activist who helped guide the women’s suffrage movement in the U.S. Penny Queller, SVP and general manager, staffing and recruiting at Monster, credits Anthony for helping forge the path for social change — work that we can all continue in the workspace.
"As a leader who has had many amazing female role models over the course of my career, I strongly believe we have an obligation to serve as mentors and to empower the women we work with, as well as women who we place in new job opportunities,” says Queller. “Actions, such as nominating women for opportunities and challenging statements or thinking that limit or exclude anyone, can take us one step closer to gender parity."
Anthony's legacy — like Sanger’s, Breedlove’s, Addams’, Truth's, and so many other women, must not be forgotten, and can serve as a guiding star for those willing to continue progress for women.
Adds Queller: "We can make our world a place where gender parity is the norm and, ultimately, a better place for not only our nieces, daughters and granddaughters, but for all.”