Gone but not forgotten: 13 trailblazing women we lost in 2019

As we usher in the New Year, it's important to look back at the influential, groundbreaking women we lost in 2019.
Image: Cokie Roberts, Toni Morrison. Gloria Vanderbilt
Cokie Roberts, Toni Morrison. Gloria Vanderbilt.Getty Images/AP

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By Halley Bondy

Throughout history, brave women have fought for a seat at the table. Sadly, we lost many of these important visionaries in 2019.

Here are some of the resilient women who passed away in 2019. They are the artists, authors and activists who shaped our present, and their legacies will benefit future generations.

Diahann Carroll, Actress, 84

Actress Diahann Carroll attends the BET's 2017 American Black Film Festival Honors Awards at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on Feb. 17, 2017 in Beverly Hills, Calif.Paul Archuleta / FilmMagic file

Before 1968, black women had only been cast as domestic servants in TV shows and movies. That all changed when Diahann Carroll hit the small screen for her titular role in the TV sitcom “Julia,” which depicted a single widowed mother working as a nurse. The role garnered Carroll an Emmy nomination and a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Television Series

Born in The Bronx, Carroll was also the first black woman to get a Tony Award in 1962 for her role in Broadway’s “Paris Blues” with Sidney Poitier. Carroll and Poitier were married from 1959 through 1968.

Carroll joined the cast of “Dynasty” in 1984 as the character Dominique Deveraux. She continued to take smaller roles in shows like “A Different World,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “White Collar” throughout the course of her life. She was a founding member of the foundation Celebrity Action Council, a women’s drug and prostitution rehabilitation network. Carroll died in October after a long battle with breast cancer at the age of 84.

Mama Cax, Model and Fashionista, 30

Disabilities trailblazer Mama Cax died tragically young at age 30 on Dec. 16 this year. Cax devoted her life to working in fashion despite debilitating health struggles — and she succeeded. Cax built a colorful lifestyle brand and worked as a model for Rihanna’s brand Savage x Fenty, Olay, ASOS and Tommy Hilfiger.

Cax, who was raised in Haiti, was diagnosed with bone cancer at age 14. A botched hip replacement led to an amputation, forcing her to use a prosthetic leg. She was depressed for some time, but Cax eventually decided to own it. She started wearing colorful prosthetic legs and became an outspoken activist for disability rights in fashion. She told Know Your Value in July: “My favorite motto is: the shorter the dress, the closer you are to heaven. So I never miss an opportunity to wear the shortest dress that I can.”

Cax died in a London hospital from blood clots in her lung. The tragedy occurred just one month after she successfully competed in the NYC Marathon in a wheelchair.

Carol Channing, Actress, 97

Singer and actress Carol Channing in Concord, N.H. on June 27, 2007.Jim Cole / AP file

Carol Channing was one of the biggest stars on Broadway and film musicals throughout the 60s and 70s. She was already well-known on Broadway for her performances in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and “Lorelei” on Broadway, but she is perhaps the best known for playing the lead role in “Hello Dolly!” on Broadway in 1964, which earned Channing a Tony Award for Best Actress. In film, Channing earned an Academy Award Best Supporting Actress nomination for her role in “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” a musical starring Julie Andrews.

Channing was known for her effervescence and impeccable comedic timing. In 2002, she publicly revealed that she was one-quarter African-American and proud of it. Channing died of natural causes at age 97 in January.

Leah Chase, Chef and Activist, 96

Leah Chase prepares lunch at the Dooky Chase Restaurant in New Orleans in 2009.Bill Haber / AP file

In the 1960s, Leah Chase opened the first white-tablecloth establishment in New Orleans for black customers. Her restaurant, Dooky’s Chase Restaurant, was one of very few establishments where Civil Rights activists and patrons of all races could assemble and discuss important political issues. Chase broke New Orleans’ strict segregation laws, but the restaurant was so popular, Chase believed, that law enforcement didn’t want to interfere and face public backlash. Chase served authentic Southern Louisiana Creole cooking. Her patrons included Martin Luther King, Jr., President Barack Obama and members of the NAACP. Dooky’s Chase Restaurant still stands today.

Chase was an avid art lover, and she was the first black person to sit on the board of the New Orleans Museum of Art. Chase died in June at age 96, but she served meals at the restaurant until her health faded so badly that she needed to be hospitalized, according to The New York Times.

Doris Day, Actress, 97

Doris Day with a poodle in her car circa 1955.ullstein bild via Getty Images

Doris Day was one of the biggest Hollywood film stars of the late 50s and early 60s. Day had a prolific career as a musical comedy actress leading up to her peak, but she was best known for her romantic comedy film roles alongside the likes of Cary Grant and James Garner. According to some film critics, Day embodied post WWII optimism in America.

Day had been an animal lover ever since her teenage years. In 1978, she founded the Doris Day Animal Foundation in 1978, which is committed to animal welfare. Day died in May at age 97 after contracting pneumonia.

Barbara Hillary, Adventurer, 88

Barbara Hillary shows the parka she wore to her trip to the North Pole during a 2007 interview in New York.Richard Drew / AP file

Everyone thought Barbara Hillary was crazy. Her friends tried to dissuade her. But at the age of 75, Barbara Hillary became the first black woman to reach the North Pole. Then at age 79, she became the first black woman to reach the South Pole.

Hillary was raised poor in Harlem and worked as a nurse for 55 years. She retired and survived a battle with lung cancer. Later, Hillary went dog sledding in Canada and photographed polar bears, which piqued her interest in the Arctic. She raised $21,000 for the trip from private donors and learned how to ski. She made it to both poles, and then made it safely home.

After these remarkable adventures, Hillary became a motivational speaker and climate change activist. Hillary died in November at age 88.

Toni Morrison, Novelist, 88

Toni Morrison.Deborah Feingold / Corbis via Getty Images

Toni Morrison was the first black woman to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, and one of three black women to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her 1987 masterpiece novel “Beloved” and the subsequent “Beloved” trilogy. Throughout her 11 novels, Morrison depicted black identity through rich, dream-like, non-linear characters and worlds. Morrison also wrote essays, non-fiction and children’s literature. She served as a writing professor at Princeton University for more than 20 years.

Morrison died in August at age 88 after battling pneumonia. President Barack Obama had honored Morrison with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012, and when she died, he called her a “national treasure.”

Jessye Norman, Opera Singer, 74

American soprano Jessye Norman performs at the final dress rehearsal for the premiere of the production of Ariadne auf Naxos at the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center on March 8, 1993 in New York.Jack Vartoogian / Getty Images file

Five-time Grammy winning opera singer Jessye Norman died in September due to complications from a spinal cord injury. She was 74 years old.

Norman performed at the Metropolitan Opera in Lincoln Center 80 times. She was known for her strong, grandiose soprano voice that she cultivated in childhood and throughout her schooling. Norman was one of few known African-American opera singers at the time, and she credited her predecessors like Marian Anderson for making it possible: “They have made it possible for me to say, ‘I will sing French opera,’” she told the The New York Times in 1983. “Or, ‘I will sing German opera,’ instead of being told, ‘You will sing “Porgy and Bess.'" Look, it’s unrealistic to pretend that racial prejudice doesn’t exist. It does! It’s one thing to have a set of laws, and quite another to change the hearts and minds of men. That takes longer. I do not consider my blackness a problem. I think it looks rather nice.”

Norman co-founded the Jessye Norman School of the Arts in Augusta, Ga., where children can receive an after-school arts education free of charge.

Cokie Roberts, Journalist and Political Commentator, 75

Cokie Roberts in 1998.Susan Watts / NY Daily News via Getty Images file

Cokie Roberts was one of the founders of NPR in 1978, when women were rarely seen as political commentators. Having grown up in a political family, Roberts was a natural. She became one of the most consistent voices in political media. In 1988, Roberts also began working as an anchor for ABC News alongside Peter Jennings and Sam Donaldson. Throughout her lengthy career, Roberts interviewed everyone from presidents to prime ministers to foreign political dissidents. She won three Emmys for her journalistic work.

Roberts was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in 2002. She died from complications in September this year at age 75.

Lee Radziwill, Socialite, 85

Lee Radziwill attends the 'Louis Vuitton - Marc Jacobs: The Exhibition' at the Musee des Arts Decoratifs on March 7, 2012 in ParisPascal Le Segretain / Getty Images file

Known as Jackie Onassis’s younger, free-spirited sister, Caroline Lee Radziwell died in February at age 85. Radziwell, also known as Princess Lee Radziwell due to her marriage to a Polish aristocrat, had a myriad of careers in her life. She worked unsuccessfully as an actress, then as an interior decorator. She was a media darling due to her impeccable fashion sense, and she was often photographed with celebrities like Truman Capote and Andy Warhol.

Perhaps Radziwell’s most lasting legacy is that she accidentally put into motion the documentary “Grey Gardens.” Radziwell originally commissioned the filmmakers Albert and David Mayslesto produce a documentary about her whole family, but the project fell through. While researching, however, the Maysles had grown fascinated with Radziwell’s reclusive, poverty-stricken aunt and cousin, both named Edith Beale. The filmmakers went on to independently release “Grey Gardens” in 1975.

Gloria Vanderbilt, Heiress and Fashion Designer, 95

Gloria Vanderbilt poses in Toronto's De Luca Fine Art Gallery at the launch of her first solo art show in Canada in 2013.Chris Young / Canadian Press via AP

As heiress to the massive Vanderbilt fortune, Gloria Vanderbilt was often in the public eye. She became a fashion icon in the 1970s when she developed one of the first lines of tight-fitting blue jeans, as well as perfumes and household goods bearing her name. Vanderbilt was an actress, artist, novelist and writer for The New York Times at various points in her life. Her son is CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, who produced a documentary about Vanderbilt’s life called “Nothing Left Unsaid” in 2016.

Vanderbilt died of stomach cancer in June. She was 95 years old.

Patricia Wald, Ellen Tauscher.Getty Images

Patricia Wald, Judge, 90

In 1979, Patricia Wald became the first woman to be appointed to the federal United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Later, Ward became Chief of that court, being the first woman to do so.

After retiring from the federal judiciary in 1999, Ward presided over cases of genocide as the representative to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. President Barack Obama nominated Wald to become a member of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board in 2012.

Ward’s extensive record of championing for human rights and non-violence earned her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013. Ward died of pancreatic cancer in January. She was 90 years old.

Ellen O’Kane Tauscher, Politician, 67

Ellen O’Kane Tauscher served as a Democratic House Representative in California for 12 years. During her congressional tenure, Tauscher stood for gun control, abortion rights, and universal health care. In 2009, Tauscher was appointed Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security Affairs under the Obama administration. In her new position, Tauscher successfully negotiated the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia in 2010, which was the first major agreement signed between America and Russia in 20 years.

After her political career, Tauscher served on publicly owned corporate boards. She also worked with the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety to ensure labor rights for garment workers abroad.

Tauscher battled with esophageal cancer beginning in 2010. She died of pneumonia at age 67 in April.