Sunday, March 8, 2015, is International Women’s Day. This is a global day celebrating the economic, political, and social achievements of women past, present, and future, and a day to thank all women for the wonders each brings to life and to living on Planet Earth. In pausing for just a while on this day of observation to give some thought to the role of women and how it is really women who provide the magic in life - I thought about how one might create a list of ten women who have had a rather extraordinary effect on the lives in so many instances of not thousands and not hundreds of thousands but really millions of people. My mother, Alice, was a hero to me. My wife, Nancy, is a hero to me. I think daily about the effect of women in my very own life - including my sisters, Frances and Alice, and the women with whom I have worked for not just years but, in some instances, decades including Bonnie, Carol, Eloise, and Rebecca. This is just a list that could go on and on forever. There are so many women who have made so much of a difference so often and to so many that we could include literally thousands and thousands of names. My choice for this list is based on courage, example-setting, compassion, and on being a visionary. So, here we go:
1. Mary Edwards Walker. She is the ONLY WOMAN to ever have received the Congressional Medal of Honor. Mary Edwards Walker was a physician during the Civil War. She served as a surgeon having volunteered for the Union Army. She was at some point captured by the Confederate forces during a time when she had moved across enemy lines to care for wounded civilians. The Confederates arrested her as a spy and held her as a prisoner of war in Richmond, Virginia, until she was later released in a prisoner exchange. Now get this - in 1917, Congress took her Medal of Honor away. The good news is that President Jimmy Carter restored her Medal of Honor posthumously in 1977. She was there for the battle of Bull Run, the battle of Chickamauga, and the battle of Atlanta. Her citation reads as follows:
“Whereas it appears from official reports that Dr. Mary E. Walker, a graduate of medicine, has rendered valuable service to the government, and her efforts have been earnest and untiring in a variety of ways, and that she was assigned to duty and served as an assistant surgeon in charge of female prisoners at Louisville, Kentucky, upon the recommendation of Major-Generals Sherman and Thomas, and faithfully served as contract surgeon in the service of the United States, and has devoted herself with much patriotic zeal to the sick and wounded soldiers, both in the field and hospitals, to the detriment of her own health, and has also endured hardships as a prisoner of war four months in a southern prison while acting as contract surgeon and whereas by reason of her not being a commissioned officer in the military service, a brevet or honorary rank cannot, under existing laws, be conferred upon her; and whereas in the opinion of the President and honorable recognition of her services and sufferings should be made. It is ordered, that a testimonial thereof shall be thereby made and given to the said Mary E. Walker and that the usual Medal of Honor for meritorious services be given her.”
On November 11, 1865, President Andrew Jackson signed a bill to present Mary Edwards Walker with the Congressional Medal of Honor.
She was an abolitionist, a prohibitionist, and a suffragette risking her life and health on many occasions fighting for the right of women to vote.
2. Sacajawea. Sacajawea is, in large measure, responsible for the success of the Meriwether Lewis and William Clark historical expedition from St. Louis, Missouri to the Pacific Ocean due to her navigational, diplomatic, and translating skills. She was born between 1784 and 1788 into the Lehmi band of Shoshone Indians - a tribe living in the eastern part of the Salmon River area of present-day central Idaho. Most of what we know about Sacajawea is found in the journals of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark (who led this expedition authorized by President Thomas Jefferson in 1803 to explore the recently purchased “Louisiana Territory”). She knew “the way to the Pacific” not because of her knowledge of maps, charts, stars - she knew it because the route had been passed down through 12,000 years of generations through what many still revere as the most unique form of learning - elders communicating by word of mouth to the younger and teaching them with patience and understanding. There is so much to the story of Sacajawea. It would take literally 20 pages of this blog to do her justice. Suffice it to say, she was indeed courageous and a true visionary with rather extraordinary diplomacy skills even for someone so young.
3. Joan of Arc. So here I was - a nine-year-old fourth-grader growing up in Lake Worth, Florida and going to Sacred Heart Catholic Grammar School. Sister Comecheal was one of the sisters of St. Joseph. She was wonderful and sweet and beautiful in every way. Just imagine sitting there as she tells us the story of Joan of Arc and I hear about a 17-year-old “girl” who is leading an army of French soldiers and taking on the mighty British. It was a great story, but even at nine years old, I will say that I had my doubts. And then we heard about the horror of how she was burned at the stake. I will never forget first learning about Joan of Arc - who eventually was “sainted” by the Catholic Church. It was Joan of Arc - just think about this - a child of only 17 or 18 - who led the French army to victory over the British during the Hundred Years War - this was at the British of Orleans. She was captured roughly one year later and burned by the British and their French collaborators as a heretic. In 1920, the Roman Catholic Church canonized her as a saint. Hundreds of books have been written about her, and movies have been made about her, and people talk about her daily. She indeed possessed remarkable physical courage and mental courage, and she was indeed a visionary.
4. Marie Curie. Born on November 7, 1867, Marie Skiodoska-Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize. She was the first person and only woman to win it twice and remains the only person to win twice in multiple sciences. Marie Curie was a Polish and naturalized-French physicist and chemist. She conducted pioneering research on radioactivity. Her accomplishments were many: coining the term “a theory of radioactivity,” developing techniques for isolating radioactive isotopes, and the “discovery” of two elements: polonium and radium. In World War I, Marie Curie established the first military field “radiological center.” In a sad twist of irony, Marie Curie died in 1934 in France due to aplastic anemia - brought on by exposure to radiation (which came about as a result, in part, of her carrying test tubes of radium in her pockets during research and her service during World War I in mobile X ray units which she created and developed). Some time ago, Cornell University Professor L. Pearce Williams - on commenting about her legacy - stated:
“The result of Curie’s work was epoch-making. Radium’s radioactivity was so great that it could not be ignored. It seemed to contradict the principle of the conservation of energy and therefore forced a reconsideration of the foundations of physics. On the experimental level, the discovery of radium provided men like Ernest Rutherford with sources of radioactivity with which they could probe the structure of the atom. As a result of Rutherford’s experiments with alpha radiation, the nuclear atom was first postulated. In medicine, the radioactivity of radium appeared to offer a means by which cancer could be successfully attacked.”
She was known for her honestly and moderate lifestyle. Marie Curie’s work helped overturn established ideas in physics and chemistry. And get this - she gave virtually all of her first Nobel Prize money to friends, family, students, and research associates, and then in a rather unusual decision, she intentionally refrained from patenting the radium-isolation process so that the scientific community could do research unhindered.
5. Golda Meir. Oh, what a visionary and, oh, what a leader! Golda Meir served as the fourth Prime Minister of Israel (first being elected on March 17, 1969). As a child, she lived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (after her family moved from Russia). As a leader at such an early age - and while in grade school - she organized a fundraiser to pay for books and supplies for her classmates. After forming an organization known as the American Young Sisters Society, she rented a hall and scheduled a public meeting for the event. Golda Meir went on to graduate as the valedictorian of her class even though she did not know any English when she began her schooling in America. She was the leader of Israel during some of the most difficult and turbulent and frightening times in the history of that extraordinary nation. She was tough and firm and direct and straightforward, while always showing empathy and compassion and a genuine caring and understanding for others. One of the greatest books I have ever read is My Life - it is the autobiography of Golda Meir. I hope you will consider reading it.
6. Mother Teresa. According to biographical information at nobelprize.org, Mother Teresa was born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu in Macedonia in 1910. At the age of 18, she left her parental home and joined the Sisters of Loreto, an Irish community of nuns with missions in India. After a few months’ training in Dublin, she was sent to India, where on May 24, 1931, she took her initial vows as a nun. From 1931 to 1948, Mother Teresa taught at St. Mary’s High School in Calcutta, but the suffering and poverty she glimpsed outside the convent walls made such a deep impression on her that in 1948 she received permission from her superiors to leave the convent school and devote herself to working among the poorest of the poor in the slums of Calcutta. Although she had no funds, she depended on Divine Providence and started an open-air school for slum children. Soon she was joined by voluntary helpers, and financial support was also forthcoming. This made it possible for her to extend the scope of her work.
On October 7, 1950, Mother Teresa received permission from the Vatican to start her own order, “The Missionaries of Charity,” whose primary task was to love and care for those persons nobody was prepared to look after. In 1965, the Society became an International Religious Family by a decree of Pope Paul VI.
Mother Teresa’s work has been recognized and acclaimed throughout the world, and she has received a number of awards and distinctions including the Nobel Prize.
What is so truly amazing about Mother Teresa is that she never did anything to bring attention to herself. She spent her entire adult life giving to others, and helping others, and caring for others, and providing comfort for others. Can there be anything more wonderful on Planet Earth than for one human being to lead a life where the sole purpose in that life is to do everything imaginable for everyone else and nothing for yourself? I don’t think so. If there is truly such a thing - even spiritually thinking - of angels - then it must be said that Mother Teresa was an angel in her life.
7. Helen Keller. I remember growing up and hearing my mother speak often about the concept of “trying harder” and “never give up” and “dreams can come true.” She often spoke about this and used Helen Keller as an example, so, even at a very young age - six and seven and eight - I knew about the wonders of the life of Helen Keller. Then around 1962, we had a family “movie night” and went to see The Miracle Worker starring Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke. It was a movie having a dramatic effect on me. It caused me to then read books and articles about Helen Keller. To this day, I often speak about Helen Keller in speeches and, on occasion, I speak about the works of Helen Keller when addressing judges and juries. She was an author and a political activist, and a lecturer, and a teacher. Helen Keller was the first deaf and blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree. This amazing story of how Helen Keller’s teacher - Anne Sullivan - broke through the isolation imposed by a virtual complete lack of language - and allowing this beautiful child to blossom as she learned to communicate has been talked about and written about for decades. It is one of the most extraordinary stories ever told and what is so wonderful about it - it is a true story!
As the story goes, a young girl once moved close to Helen Keller and “communicated” to Helen Keller in her own special way asking, “Is there anything worse than losing your eyesight?” - and Helen Keller “communicating” back to this child in her own special way said, “Yes - losing your vision” - let us all be visionaries.
8. Rosa Parks. She is called “the first lady of Civil Rights” and others describe her as “the Mother of the Freedom Movement.” On December 1, 1955, a bus driver named James F. Blake ordered Rosa Parks to give up her seat in the “colored” section to a white passenger after the white section was filled. She refused. She was arrested. Rosa Parks’ act of defiance and the “Montgomery Bus Boycott” became important symbols of the modern Civil Rights Movement (of the 1950’s and ’60’s and ’70’s). She became an international icon of resistance to racial segregation. What has always been amazing to me though is the “image” in my mind - as a young child at that time - thinking about the courage necessary for a young black woman - at that time and in that city - to do what Rosa Parks did. She did it knowing that it was important and vital for the Civil Rights Movement. She did it knowing that she might be beaten or even killed. She did it knowing that such an action had far greater meaning than simply the meaning to her own life or circumstances. Remember - she was a young lady at that time who would see members of the Klu Klux Klan marching down the street in front of her house with her only protection being her grandfather guarding the door with a shotgun. She was a schoolchild bullied by white children in her own neighborhood. On her first and second time at registering to vote, she was rejected - finally succeeding in registering to vote on her third attempt.
9. Florence Nightingale. She was the first woman in history to have served as a nurse in a wartime hospital. She has been titled “the Lady with the Lamp” (owing to her services during the Crimean War). She studied the health of the British Army and published notes and works like “Efficiency and Hospital Administration of the British Army in 1858.” She was also the first female recipient of the Order of Merit in 1907. In late 1854, Nightingale received a letter from the Secretary of War Sidney Herbert, directing her to organize a core of nurses to tend to the sick and fallen soldiers in the Crimea. Nightingale rose to her calling and quickly assembled a team of 34 nurses from a variety of religious orders and sailed with them to Crimea just a few days later. Although she had been warned of horrid conditions, nothing could have prepared Nightingale and her nurses for what they would see when they arrived at the British base hospital in Constantinople. The hospital sat on top of a large cesspool, which contaminated the water and the hospital building itself. Patients lay in their own excrement on stretches strewn throughout the hallways. Rodents and bugs scurried past them. The most basic supplies grew increasingly scarce, as the number of ill and wounded steadily increased. It was a horrid situation. The no-nonsense Nightingale quickly went to work. She procured hundreds of scrub brushes and asked the least infirm patients to scrub the inside of the hospital from floor to ceiling. Nightingale herself spent every waking minute caring for soldiers. The stories are legendary as to what she then went on to accomplish.
She is indeed a person who knew how to take a situation into her own hands and get things accomplished - rapidly and with exceptional competence and skill.
Based upon her observations in Crimea, Florence Nightingale wrote, “Notes on Matters Affecting the Health, Efficiency, and Hospital Administration of the British Army.” This was an 830-page report analyzing her experience and proposing reforms for other military hospitals operating under poor conditions. This publication of Nightingale’s would spark a total restructuring of the War Office’s Administrative Department including the establishment of a Royal Commission for the Health of the Army in 1857.
To this day, Florence Nightingale remains a shining example of courage, competence, skill, effectiveness, efficiency, and performing a task and reaching goals at the highest level.
10. Mothers of Planet Earth. I choose “mothers” for this category because there is simply nothing more important on Planet Earth than the role played by mothers in the raising, nurturing, guidance, and teaching of their children or child. I say this to all mothers including mothers with adopted children and including those mothers who may not have directly given birth to a child but who, through some unique set of circumstances, find themselves in the role of raising a child or children. Mothering requires extraordinary devotion, dedication, persistence, compassion, understanding, and the total giving of oneself to another human being.
Mothers come in all forms and shapes and sizes and ages - but God made them all in a very, very special way to carry out a most essential purpose.
There is a saying that, “Mother is the name for God on the lips and hearts of little children.” I believe it!
So there you have it - a list that is very incomplete. After looking at the list, I can already think of dozens of extraordinary women who should be added to this list. I obtained a good bit of the factual information from things I remembered about these extraordinary persons and yet a lot more of the information from our “informational mother” (of modern times) - the Internet. I hope you enjoy reading about these women. Send me an e-mail or drop me a note about your thoughts on how we might add to this list of special people - special women.
John F. Romano
Romano Law Group