21 Leaders 2015: Seven Who Give Life to Movements

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Jyothi Gaddam-Pulla: Portland’s Nurturer of Girls and STEM

 Jyothi Gaddam-PullaInner city girls’ education in Portland could not have a more persistent and tireless advocate than Jyothi Gaddam-Pulla, the founder of Girls Lead.

Since she moved to Portland in 2007 Gaddam-Pulla, an Indian immigrant, documentary filmmaker and mother of twin girls, volunteered at an inner city all girls public school called the Harriet Tubman Leadership Academy for Young Women. Volunteering all day, every day, for five years, she did everything from organizing parents and mentoring and tutoring students to writing grants and establishing a Young Women’s Media Center to support the school’s efforts to provide STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education for predominantly African American and low-income students.

In April 2012, when the Portland Public School district proposed to close Harriet Tubman, Gaddam-Pulla led the fight to save the school. Despite all the efforts of students, parents and community supporters, the school board voted to shut the school down. Not one to give up on the needs of the girls, Gaddam-Pulla set up a leadership club called Girls Lead to provide a nurturing space for girls in math, technology, media and leadership.

Growing up in the city of Hyderabad in India, Gaddam-Pulla was influenced both by her father, an eminent educationist who founded India’s distance education system to democratize access to higher education, and her teacher, Professor Haragopal, a civil rights leader who introduced her to the human rights movement in India. While her interest in equity in education may have stemmed from this background, it wasn’t until she chose to educate her daughters in a predominantly African American and low-income neighborhood school that she encountered the serious racial, gender and class inequities in the American educational system and society.

"I see a particularly urgent need in bridging the gender and racial gaps in STEM education and breaking the cultural stereotypes that women and people of color cannot be good in math and science," she said.

Last year, Gaddam-Pulla helped start math clubs called NoPo math in seven schools in the North Portland neighborhood of the city in which students learn to apply math to question inequalities in their daily lives, among other skills. In a community where low-income students of color have been displaced many times with school closures, Girls Lead and NoPo math are hoping to play a crucial role in bringing equity and building a community.

Today Gaddam-Pulla said she gets her inspiration from the girls she works with. "Some of the girls I have come to know through the Girls Lead club come from very disadvantaged backgrounds, but show great leadership. It is difficult not to be drawn into their lives."

–By Tatyana Bellamy-Walker

Sally Roesch Wagner: South Dakota’s Reincarnator of Suffragists

Sally Roesch Wagner"I fell in love with a dead woman and my whole life changed," said Sally Roesch Wagner, speaking about radical first wave feminist Matilda Joslyn Gage.

Today Wagner is the founding director of the Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation, which both educates the community about the quintessential yet underrepresented 19th century feminist activist and encourages the application of her work to the issues that women are facing today.

Wagner grew up in Aberdeen, S.D., and in her 20s found herself a single mother on welfare. Despite the difficulties of her situation, she was able to enroll in California State University, Sacramento. There, she helped start one of the country’s first women’s studies programs. She also began teaching women’s studies classes in 1970 and became one of the first women in the country to receive a doctorate in the discipline.

In 1973, Matilda Jewell Gage, the granddaughter of the ground-breaking activist, showed Wagner her forebearers’ historical documents. Wagner was surprised and intrigued to see Gage’s writings about her conflict with Susan B. Anthony over whether to take the women’s movement in a more conservative direction.

It was then she realized Gage, along with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, constituted the brain trust of the National Woman Suffrage Association. "Clearly there’s a whole other story to tell," she said.

A few years after seeing the documents, Wagner visited the Gage house in upstate New York. Moved, she decided it needed to be open to the public. Despite having no experience in starting her own nonprofit, Wagner raised funds, bought the house, put together a board and created the Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation.

Taking a page from Gage’s radicalism, Wagner encourages visitors to sit on the furniture, touch the artifacts and even write on the walls. The foundation also offers a social justice program to a diverse group of female teens, training them to become Girl Ambassadors for Human Rights.

Wagner is dedicated to carrying Gage’s message forward, hoping to instill in the next generation "a sense that the world has to be changed, and they can be the ones to change the world."

She is working to get all of Gage’s writings on the Internet; the site will be searchable, user-friendly and geared towards elementary school students.

In 2015 Wagner will be performing and lecturing as Stanton to honor the bicentennial of her birth.

"We’re picking up where Gage and Stanton left off, and we’re passing it on to the next group of women," Wagner said. "That, to me, is empowering."

–By Amy Rubinson

Dr. Rochelle G. Saidel: New York’s Detector of Jewish Women’s History

Dr. Rochelle G. SaidelRochelle G. Saidel, the founder and executive director of the New York City-based nonprofit Remember the Women Institute, is committed to giving Jewish women their place in Holocaust history.

Women have been written out of history in general, she said, and the Holocaust is no exception. Some feminist Holocaust scholars began asserting in the 1980s that the particular experiences of women should be included in the memory of that genocide.

"When some of us began to talk about it," Saidel said, "we were often seen as interfering with the trajectory of the story of the mass murder of 6 million Jews."

By now, women’s experiences have been discussed and written about, but much more needs to be done to fully include the topic in Holocaust history and memorialization, she said.

Saidel first became aware of the politics of women’s Holocaust history in 1980, when she visited Ravensbrück women’s concentration camp, located in what was then East Germany. She was shocked that this women’s camp, like other Nazi concentration camp memorials in the Communist bloc, offered no evidence that it had held Jewish prisoners. This led to her research of what ultimately became her 2004 book, "The Jewish Women of Ravensbrück Concentration Camp" (translated into Hebrew and Portuguese).

Saidel wrote her first book in 1984 on Nazi war criminals in the United States. She is also co-editor of a groundbreaking 2010 book, "Sexual Violence against Jewish Women during the Holocaust." She authored two other books on the Holocaust and edited the memoir of Mayor Fiorello La Guardia’s sister, a Ravensbrück internee. With a Ph.D. in political science, she has explored the subject of women and the Holocaust by curating exhibitions, lecturing internationally and publishing numerous articles.

"Not only women’s suffering, but cases of women’s heroism get left out," Saidel said.

She recently organized a panel discussion on the four women hanged in Auschwitz in January 1945 for smuggling gun powder to help launch a revolt. She is also working to bring to light the story of Slovakian-Israeli-British Holocaust heroine Haviva Reick.

Saidel’s work is carried out through the multifaceted efforts of the Remember the Women Institute, which since 1997 has been conducting research and organizing events, seminars, panels and lectures. The institute maintains a website, and has encouraged and worked with artists, filmmakers, students and theater projects that integrate women into Holocaust history. While seeking to locate victims of sexual violation during the Holocaust who are willing to offer testimony, the institute also cooperates with those dealing with violence against women during other genocides.

–By Amy Lieberman

Susan Scanlan: Washington’s Motherer of 300 Activists

Susan ScanlanSusan Scanlan "forgot to have" the 2.6 children expected of her. Instead, she raised 365.

That’s how many women have gone through the Women’s Research and Education Institute’s (WREI) Congressional Fellowship program, which Scanlan founded back in 1980 to teach young women how public policy is really made–not just how it’s taught in law school.

Scanlan, still president of WREI, but retired from chairing the National Council of Women’s Organizations, said that the 150 former fellows who are still in D.C are working on her behalf for gender equality.

"I get to brag about the incredible work of all these women," Scanlan said. "So in a way, I’ll never stop working."

She has taken on yet another job after more than 40 years of advocating for women’s rights. Scanlan is helping in the fight for a Food and Drug Administration-approved female Viagra as part of the Even the Score campaign.

"There are 26 drugs approved to increase sexual pleasure in men, but can you guess how many there are for women? Zero," Scanlan said. "Promising treatments have been rejected because they can cause dizziness in women. Meanwhile, some men’s drugs can cause ruptured penises! So that’s what I get to talk about," she said with a laugh.

Scanlan graduated from Virginia’s Sweet Briar College in 1969. "If I had gone to a co-ed school, I couldn’t have been editor of the newspaper," she said of her choice to attend an all-women’s institution.

After completing a master’s degree at Tulane University in New Orleans, she landed her first job on Capitol Hill in 1972 as a legislative assistant for Charlie Wilson, a champion of women in the military. Scanlan said she is most proud of coauthoring the legislation admitting women to the military academies in 1974.

She and two members of Congress, Elizabeth Holtzman and Margaret Heckler, co-founded the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues and its information and policy analysis arm, WREI, in 1977. She also launched WREI’s Women in the Military project in 1990, which advocates for the rights and responsibilities of military women and female veterans. The project earned Scanlan membership on the Advisory Committee on Employment and Training for Veterans at the Department of Labor by President Bill Clinton.

From 2005 to 2013 Scanlan chaired the National Council of Women’s Organizations, a coalition of 240 women’s advocacy groups, representing 12 million American women. Scanlan has now been recruited by the State Department to speak on women’s political empowerment.

"I have met with women leaders in Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Swaziland to share strategies about running campaigns, encouraging the female vote, harnessing the media and developing a message," she said. "Women bring a unique, invaluable and informed perspective to the ballot box, the classroom, the boss’s office and to public discourse."

–By Crystal Lewis

Marcy Syms: New York’s Instigator for Taking Our Rights

Marcy Syms
For Marcy Syms, the wake-up call about women’s rights came at an early age.

"It was overhearing my mom," she said. "I was 11 years old, and I remember her talking to a neighbor: ‘What we want for Marcy is for her to marry well.’ I got so angry . . . And I hadn’t even read ‘The Feminine Mystique’ yet," she added, citing Betty Friedan’s 1963 feminist classic.

At the same time, as the eldest of six children, Syms assumed many household tasks. Reading Friedan, Syms realized she didn’t want to be "like the women who could not make their own choices and had to ask their husbands for allowances."

She started working in the summers at age 14 and at any job she could get during the school year. In 1978, her father asked her to join him at Syms Corp. By the time she became CEO in 1998, the company had 2,500 employees and 37 stores in 16 states.

As a founder and trustee of the Sy Syms Foundation since 1995, Syms has repeatedly demonstrated her commitment to a wide range of issues affecting women and girls, from health research parity to the need for the Equal Rights Amendment.

Heart disease is a cause that is "so personal" to Syms because she lost a sister, 37, and a brother, 45, to heart attacks, while two of her other brothers are heart attack survivors. The American Heart Association named her a co-chair of the 2015 fundraising campaign for its "Go Red for Women" New York campaign. Syms is pushing for medical research on how statins, the cholesterol-lowering drugs, affect the bodies of post-menopausal women.

Syms was also an early co-chair of Take Our Daughters to Work Day, created in 1992 by the Ms. Foundation for Women. And she was an early supporter of the Women’s Campaign Fund, N.O.W. Legal Defense Fund, Empower and other startup not-for profits.

"To me, the most important thing to happen during my lifetime is Roe v. Wade. It made it law that women had a choice in reproduction" she said of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 abortion decision. "Now we need gender neutrality in our constitution."

To that end, Syms helped finance the publication of Jessica Newirth’s book "Equal Means Equal ERA Now," and is confident it will be our No. 1 issue by 2020 – just 100 years after women in the U.S. got the right to vote.

–By Jan Paschal

Debbie Walsh: New Jersey’s Documenter of Our Access to Political Power

WalshDebbie Walsh is on a mission to move the needle.

Of the almost 7,400 state legislators across the United States, women make up only about 24 percent of that roster, a share of power that has not changed since 2007. Federal numbers offer a slightly dimmer picture. Only 19 percent of representatives and 20 percent of senators are women, a proportion that has changed in tiny increments since 1992.

Walsh has led the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) as its director since 2001. Based at Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute for Politics, the research center’s mission is to promote greater knowledge and understanding about women’s participation in politics and government and to enhance women’s influence and leadership in public life.

Research conducted by CAWP indicates that women who enter politics are motivated to run by a desire to have an impact on public policy. Men, on the other hand, are more likely to run because of a desire for a career in politics, Walsh said.

Walsh is now tracking the 2016 election cycle, the gendered components of the campaign and the "distinct" possibility that there will be more than one female presidential candidate.

CAWP also recently launched Teach a Girl to Lead, an online nationwide initiative to teach and inspire young girls to enter public service. In many ways, it mirrors Walsh’s experience growing up in a politically active family.

"I spent my childhood being taken to marches and demonstrations," Walsh said. "When Bella Abzug first ran for Congress from our district in the West Village, my mother made sure to take me to the debate."

In her senior year of college, Walsh read about CAWP in the New York Times Styles Section. She enrolled at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers to pursue a graduate degree in political science. Upon graduating, with help from CAWP, she went to Iowa to work for a woman who was running for Congress. When the campaign was over, she returned to work full time at CAWP. At the time, it was one of the few places where Walsh could merge her love of politics, social change and women’s rights.

Today, while she does not understate the advances that have been made, Walsh points to the stagnant statistics in female representation in politics. There is still work to be done.

"More effort needs to be made on both sides of the aisle to strategically recruit women to run for open seats," Walsh said. "Over the long term, we need to raise a generation of girls who see they can be public leaders and a generation of boys who grow up believing that elected leaders can look like their mothers as well as their fathers."

–By Amy Lieberman

Lizz Winstead: Minnesota’s Nationwide Mocker of Anti-Choice Politicians

Lizz WinsteadComedian, writer, producer and self-proclaimed troublemaker Lizz Winstead has taken her comedy in new directions to create a reproductive rights organization, Lady Parts Justice, that makes clear women’s health is no joke.

Since college, she has stood up for reproductive justice–after being shamed and demonized as a pregnant teen seeking help, but it was during a trip home to Minneapolis in 2011 that Winstead was moved to become an official activist.

That year, an anti-choice majority in Congress attempted to defund the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, which also sparked a state level effort to restrict government funds for reproductive health programs. Aware of the implications, Winstead called the national office of Planned Parenthood. She offered to hold benefits on her drive back to New York City from her hometown. Six stops on that drive turned into 48 events, with more planned this year.

"Lecturing is boring, talking about health in general is kind of boring" Winstead said, "but if you can be fun and relate in a way that reflects the experience of the lifestyle, I think you got something."

LadyPartsJustice.com serves as a one-stop source for information on U.S. reproductive rights. The site provides humorous videos, information to get you enraged and motivated and tools for how to get involved on a local level. They even created a fitting mascot: a uterus named Eunice. With videos for every state, the site serves to further the goal to "laugh those politicians out of office."

The Lady Parts Justice campaign V to Shining V launched in July 2014 and organized eight live concerts and 158 house parties before the mid-term elections. An educational arm, Lady Parts Justice League (501C3), will be launched in 2015 to continue to build awareness around the terrifying state of reproductive freedom in all 50 states, she said.

Winstead stressed the importance of building awareness of differences within communities and the role Lady Parts Justice League can play: "We really want the people who have dominated the conversation to have a good listen at where women of color come from on this issue."

Winstead, who is also co-creator of Comedy Central’s hit show "The Daily Show," has always used comedy to communicate, though she would label herself as more of a cynic than a class clown. "I was always assuming that if someone didn’t want me to participate in something, it was because they needed to keep control in some sort of way…all of a sudden I found myself using humor to combat their crap and then…I realized it was not enough to fight it and expose it. I kind of wanted to see if I could do something about it."

–By Meagan Lee Butler

For more information:

Women’s eNews 21 Leaders for the 21st Century 2015 Home Page
Women’s eNews Annnounces 21 Leaders for the 21st Century 2015
21 Women Leaders 2015 – Seven Who Interrupt Legacy Narratives
21 Women Leaders 2015 – Seven Who Transform Cultures
21 Women Leaders 2015 – Seven Who Give Life to Movements

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