Women’s eNews Announces 21 Leaders 2015

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NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–The interruption of the powerful narratives that shape and reinforce cultures is a primary requirement for the movement for the equality and equity of women and girls. This task is central our mission. Women’s eNews is proud to announce today the Women’s eNews 21 Leaders of the 21st Century 2015. These 20 women and one man recast the stories of women and girls through words and deeds.

This year’s winner of the Ida B. Wells award for Bravery in Journalism challenged the accepted truth of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, that a videotaped beating of Rodney King by police sparked the community’s reaction.

UCLA tenured history professor Brenda E. Stevenson knew better. She is the author of the prize-winning book "The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins: Justice, Gender and the Origins of the LA Riots," that documents that three women, each of vastly different heritages, each with her own experience of being an outsider in the United States, were central players that set the stage for the riots. Each was deeply involved in a moment of violence in a small grocery store in Los Angeles: the teen victim, the shooter and the trial judge.

"This riot was boiling forth from the moment Latasha Harlins was shot," Stevenson said.

Road Shows, Research, Mentoring, Local Battles

Comedian, producer, writer, including as head writer and co-creator of "The Daily Show," and self-proclaimed troublemaker Lizz Winstead knew that many of the candidates running for the U.S. Congress intended to make a cruel joke out of the U.S. law’s promise of access to safe and legal reproductive health care.

In response, she mounted an intense 2014 campaign, V to Shining V, to inform voters on the reproductive rights campaign promises being made by U.S. House and Senate candidates. To spread the word, the campaign organized eight live concerts and 158 house parties. That campaign grew out of the 2011 move of an anti-choice majority in Congress to defund Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

Winstead has also created LadyPartsJustice.com, a one-stop source for information on U.S. reproductive rights. The site provides humorous videos, information to get visitors enraged and motivated and tools for how to get involved on a local level. Not one to admit defeat, Winstead now is forming a nonprofit arm, Lady Parts Justice League, to keep the momentum going.

While Winstead’s focus is on educating voters on political candidates’ views on reproductive health, Debbie Walsh is committed to changing the gender profile of those running for office and pushing for more women in every level of government.

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. The federal statistics offer a slightly dimmer picture. These statistics roll off Walsh’s tongue, as the director of the Center for American Women and Politics, at Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute for Politics, since 2001. The research center’s mission is to promote greater knowledge about women’s participation in politics and government and to enhance women’s influence and leadership in public life.

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.

"Over the long term we need to raise a generation of girls who see they can be public leaders," Walsh said, "and a generation of boys who grow up believing that elected leaders can look like their mothers as well as their fathers."

To encourage more female public leaders, Susan Scanlan has mentored over 300 activists to work the halls of Congress on behalf of the rights of women and girls. That’s how many women have gone through the Women’s Research and Education Institute’s Congressional Fellowship program, which Scanlan founded in 1980 to teach young women how public policy is made in real life–not just how it’s taught in law school.

While Scanlan is still president of the institute, though retired from chairing the National Council of Women’s Organizations, she is also 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.

The sibling of any discussion on the lack of drugs to increase women’s sexual pleasure is the consistent attempts to limit women’s access to a full range of reproductive health care, including birth control, testing and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases and abortion. On the front lines of the access to care battle is Kathy Miller, a native of Ohio and now the president and executive director of Texas Freedom Network.

As a teen, Miller dreamed of serving as Ohio’s first female Republican senator. Although her politics have changed drastically since then, her drive for women’s rights and recognition never dwindled, including her work as communications director for the Texas Council on Family Violence and National Domestic Violence Hotline and public affairs director for Planned Parenthood Federation of Austin.

In 1995, Cecile Richards, currently president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, began the Texas Freedom Network to advocate for religious freedom and defend civil liberties. Miller was one of her first hires. After first serving as the network’s deputy director from 1996 to 2000, Miller returned to serve as president in January 2005.

"I know women cannot be equal players in this society if they cannot make decisions about their own fertility," said Miller. "We are still battling an antiquated system that does not recognize the true and genuine benefits to everyone when equality exists."

Unearthing Actual Facts

Nina Ansary is also challenging an antiquated system. Born in Tehran, Ansary came to the United States at age 12. She is the author of the upcoming book "The Jewels of Allah," which turns upside down the established viewpoints on the effects of 1979 revolution on Iranian women and looks at the women’s movement in Iran.

During her doctorate work at Columbia University, Ansary dug deep into the consequences of the Iranian revolution for women and girls. She discovered a startling truth: In the three and a half decades since the Islamic Revolution, the number of women in higher education has increased from just over 35 percent at the cusp of the 1979 revolution to 80 percent now.

"Today, despite all obstacles and the current regime’s best laid plans to redirect women into the private domain, the female population in Iran is distinguished by an unprecedented surge in female literacy and a flourishing feminist movement against the boundaries of a traditional religious prescription," Ansary said.

While Ansary’s research has shattered the common perception of the status of women in Iran, Sally’s Roesch Wagner’s work has fractured the standard understanding of the views of early U.S. suffragists. These debates are still reverberating in the discussions among women’s rights activists.

Wagner is the founding director of the Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation. Its mission is to inform today’s activists about the views of the 19th century feminist activist.

Wagner met a Gage descendant in 1973 and was shown Gage’s letters and other documents. They provided significant new information about Gage’s conflict with Susan B. Anthony over what Gage argued was the conservative direction of the suffrage movement. A few years after seeing the documents, Wagner visited the Gage house in upstate New York. 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.

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."

Rochelle G. Saidel first became aware of the burial of women’s Holocaust history in 1980, when she visited the women’s concentration camp Ravensbrück, located in what was then East Germany. Her reaction led to an intense commitment to document Jewish women’s experiences during the Holocaust, including her book "The Jewish Women of Ravensbrück Concentration Camp.

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

Saidel is also the founder and executive director of the New York City-based nonprofit Remember the Women Institute, which is committed to giving Jewish women their place in Holocaust history. With a doctorate in political science, she continues to expand the knowledge of Jewish women in the Nazi genocide by curating exhibitions, lecturing internationally and publishing numerous articles and books.

Responding to Changing Facts

The year was 1991 and AIDS was called the "gay man’s disease" when Mary Fisher’s ex-husband told her he had the virus and was ill. Fisher tested positive for HIV. Facing death, Fisher made a decision that has changed the lives of countless women: "I wanted my children to know that their mother was not a victim. She was a messenger."

With the encouragement of then-first lady Betty Ford, Fisher stunned the audience watching the 1992 Republican National Convention when she spoke and said:

"I represent an AIDS community whose members have been reluctantly drafted from every segment of American society . . . Though I am female, and contracted this disease in marriage, and enjoy the warm support of my family, I am one with the lonely gay man sheltering a flickering candle from the cold wind of his family’s rejection."

From that point forward, Fisher, an artist of renown, has been dedicated to reducing the toll–emotional and physical–of HIV/AIDS on women and girls. Fisher founded Abataka Foundation, named for a pan-African term for "community," to support her work in Zambia and other hard-hit countries. Fisher also founded what now is the Mary Fisher Clinical AIDS Research and Education Fund at the University of Alabama, supporting outreach to black and Hispanic women and urging them to be tested.

The other killer epidemic, domestic violence, has been taken on by a now-retired founder of the nation’s largest content marketing company.

Preston V. McMurry, Jr., along with his son Chris McMurry, used their marketing experience to begin developing a database listing of all the domestic violence shelters in the United States, the services they provide and the rules they enforce. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence soon began collaborating. The McMurrys then designed and launched http://www.domesticshelters.org, the first online and mobile resource of more than 3,000 U.S. domestic violence shelters.

The site, with many built in protections for users’ confidentiality, launched in August 2014, on the day the woman Preston V. McMurry, Jr. describes as the love of his life, Donna Theresa Della Croce, passed away.

Years after unearthing Della Croce’s painful history, realizing she was abused by her father as a child, McMurry dedicated himself to combating child abuse and domestic violence by creating in 1992 Theresa’s Fund. Since then, McMurry has donated and raised more than $49 million for Arizona-based family violence organization.

This May, McMurry will return Della Croce’s ashes to the village of her birth, as she had asked. Theirs is a story of an incredible love affair that produced indelible pain and a profound reduction in the suffering experienced by others.

The successful retail executive Marcy Syms overheard at age 11 what her mother hoped her story to be: Someone who married well. She intensely rejected that limited vision of her future. After reading Betty Friedan’s "The Feminine Mystique," 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 set out to ensure she had the means to support herself. She got her first job at age 14 and eventually joined her father’s retail clothing business, Syms Corp. Twenty years later, she was CEO of Syms, with 2,500 employees and 37 stores in 16 states. She also served as founder and trustee of the Sy Syms Foundation, and Syms has been the mainstay of support for women’s rights ever since.

Syms was an early co-chair of Take Our Daughters to Work Day and an early supporter of the Women’s Campaign Fund, NOW Legal Defense Fund, Empower and other advocacy organizations. She also underwrote the publication of Jessica Newirth’s book "Equal Means Equal ERA Now." Syms now is pushing for medical research in heart disease–the largest killer of U.S. women. She is supporting work to identify how statins, the cholesterol-lowering drugs, affect the bodies of post-menopausal women.

Taking a Risk to Reveal the Facts

On the University of Maryland campus, Julie R. Enszer teaches courses on LGBT studies, women’s studies and theories of feminism, the very courses that served her own awakening.

A visiting assistant professor of women’s studies, Enszer’s reach and impact goes far beyond the classroom. She is a poet and the creator of the Lesbian Poetry Archive, which undertakes the unique task of collecting and circulating lesbian poetry online. She is also a scholar, blogger and the volunteer editor and publisher of Sinister Wisdom, a lesbian literary and art journal operating since 1976. Enszer is now focused on finishing a book manuscript on lesbian feminist presses from 1969-2009 and is working on a collection of poetry based on the Jewish folklore Lilith myth, told from the perspective of female demons.

"Representations of lesbians, whether using that word or not, representations of women in erotic relationships with other women and building lives centered around women, is an important literary tradition," Enszer said. "I believe my work is contributing to that tradition, keeping it alive and helping new generations rethink lesbian identify."

A generation or so later, Dana Bolger’s violent assault on Amherst College’s campus led to her decide to ignore possible shame and stigma attached to rape and go public about her experience. She now makes public the details of the college’s encouragement of her to leave the school after she reported her assault as part of being the only full-time employee of the organization she co-founded, Know Your IX.

After she learned that the federal education law, Title IX, entitled her to stay on campus Bolger decided she needed to inform others, especially at this moment when the frequency of sexual assault and the impunity often provided by the campus administration has become the subject of forums, widespread protests and discussions on social media.

"Once I learned I had that right I was able to stand up for myself and march into meetings with administrators and demand my place on campus," Bolger said.

Know Your IX has a two-pronged strategy: educate students about their rights to an education free from violence and lobby the federal Department of Education for more energetic enforcement of the law in cases of rape, dating violence, stalking and harassment more broadly. This year, Bolger and her co-organizers are broadening the organization’s focus to campaign for economic justice for survivors, such as university-based health insurance coverage for related medical costs.

Changing the Facts of Women’s Lives

Information delivery is also central to the work of Sharon D’Agostino, the vice president of corporate citizenship at Johnson and Johnson. She has been integral to the company’s five-year commitment to the United Nations’ Every Woman Every Child campaign to establish health programs and policies to save the lives of 16 million women and children by the end of this year.

Her work with Johnson and Johnson has also helped build other partnerships and programs focused on maternal and child health, including MAMA: the Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action, which delivers health information to new and expectant mothers in low-resource settings via their mobile phones. D’Agostino also served as a representative of the private sector on the board of the World Health Organization’s Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health and is in the corporate cabinet for the U.N. Special Envoy’s Millennium Development Goals Health Alliance.

As D’Agostino travels the world, inspiration comes from "every single woman I have met," she said. During a visit in Malawi, for example, she sat with an HIV-positive woman on the floor of her home as she learned how to prevent passing the infection to her baby. "Her commitment to her baby was breathtaking."

For more than a decade, Graciela De Oto, a native of Buenos Aires, has been helping women overcome gender biases to launch and advance their entrepreneurial careers.

De Oto is the founder and CEO of The Suma Veritas Foundation, an organization that connects women with business training and resources that have historically not been accessible to women. The foundation helps female entrepreneurs develop professional skills, start a business and cultivate clients.

To further the foundation’s mission, De Oto co-authored the book "Women in Latin American and Caribbean Organizations," speaks at international conferences and has created a radio show, "The Irresistible Feminine Force."

Her foundation has also extended its reach into the legal system with initiatives to adopt an official Equal Pay Day and to pass laws that measure and compensate work within the care economy. In 2013, De Oto saw a year-long initiative realized when the mayor of Buenos Aires pledged that emergency contraception for rape victims would be provided in all hospitals.

Born in Liberia to U.S. Foreign Service parents, Dorothy Davis has become dedicated to increasing the economic power of women in the nation of her birth. Davis is a founding board member of the Sirleaf Market Women’s Fund and currently chairs the fund’s international board of directors. The market women of Liberia are widely credited with helping to end the country’s 14-year civil war and electing the first female president of an African nation, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

When her family moved to New Jersey, she was entering third grade. Prior to their arrival, the headmaster of the private school of her parents’ choice assured them she would be welcome. However, when the school saw that Davis was African American, they informed her parents that private schools in the state did not admit African Americans. Her parents sued. Davis became the first black person, and black female, to attend a private school in New Jersey. She also became the first African American female to attend her schools in Washington, D.C., and Switzerland until her senior year at an all-female high school in New Jersey.

Leveraging the globetrotting childhood and her knowledge of Africa, Davis has now founded The Diasporan Touch, an organization specializing in finding common ground between people, cultures and interests to produce positive, effective and sustainable results. "I empower people by helping them identify their talent and discover how it can contribute to a unique solution to a certain circumstance or opportunity," she said.

Geeta Mehta also returns to her country of origin to assist women in expanding their incomes. To do so, she has disrupted the money economy by creating a system for valuation of women’s unpaid work.

In India, Mehta has developed a virtual currency for incentivizing social good and community-based urban development. With Social Capital Credits, the system records the work of community members who make positive improvements, such as managing waste, growing trees, getting children vaccinated or sending them to high school or college. SoCCs, as the credits are called, can then be redeemed for education, skill-building classes, health care, child care and even payment for electricity. Through her organization, Asia Initiatives, Mehta is working on the creation of an online platform to facilitate SoCCs transactions and to foster "community to community learning." It will provide access to information on what other communities are doing to solve difficult issues.

Mehta also hopes to continue to grow SoCCs into a global movement.

"Helping women is the most efficient way to sustainable development," said Mehta. "Once a woman becomes financially empowered, she is more respected, her position in the family improves and she participates in decision making."

Dianne Dillon-Ridgley could not agree more. Dillon-Ridgley ensures women have a seat at the table during discussions of global climate policy. She carries the message wherever she goes that women’s rights and developing a sustainable planet are inextricably linked.

Dillon-Ridgley has served as the spokesperson for that message for decades. She is executive director of the Women’s Network for a Sustainable Future, recently completed her term as the first woman to chair the board at the Center for International Environmental Law and has decades of leadership positions in environmental activism.

Growing up in Dallas and Kansas City in an African American family of educators, physicians and activists, she learned at an early age the importance of being an advocate for the community. Her first job as an intern at the fledging Environmental Protection Agency set the course of her life. Her advocacy since then ranges from promoting more women and people of color on corporate boards to ending female genital mutilation and expanding renewable energy generation. "They are all connected, all essential," she said.

U.S.-Focused Efforts

While these leaders are tapping their energy, imagination and commitment on behalf of women across the globe, the following three leaders are doing the same as they work directly with women and girls of the world here in the United States.

Documentary filmmaker Jyothi Gaddam-Pulla grew up in Hyderabad, India, the daughter of a well-known educator, and immigrated to Portland, Oregon, in 2007. There she found her second calling: introducing low-income girls to the possibilities of science, technology, engineering and math, also known as STEM.

She founded the club Girls Lead, after volunteering full-time at an urban all girls public school, the Harriet Tubman Leadership Academy for Young Women, where she did everything from organizing parents to writing grants establishing a Young Women’s Media Center. When the Portland public school district close Harriet Tubman in 2012, Gaddam-Pulla took the opportunity to provide a nurturing space for girls in math, technology, media and leadership.

"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.

Other 21 Leaders are instrumental in providing the support and organizing recent immigrants to the United States need to reach personal and economic safety.

Karen Elizaga is the board chair of the largest Asian American domestic violence organization in the nation. Elizaga’s organization, the New York Asian Women’s Center, recently opened its second outreach center in a New York neighborhood populated by many Asian new arrivals. The center offers services to survivors of trafficking and domestic violence and other gender-based crimes.

Elizaga grew up in Honolulu and graduated law school at the American University Washington College of Law in 1996. After an unsatisfying career as a lawyer, she focused on establishing her personal and executive coaching business, Forward Options.

A board member for the center since 2007, Elizaga became board chair in 2013. The center has broken annual gala records steadily since 2007, permitting it to expand.

Elizaga considers one great success a break through with a female teen who appeared unimpressed and apathetic during a workshop. The teen later sent Elizaga an email, giving thanks for being shown that she could aspire to greater things despite her tough home life. Nine years later, the young woman has graduated from college and is working at a job she loves. Elizaga and the woman are still in touch.

Known for her outstanding organizing for the rights of female caregivers and domestic workers, Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, lived with her loving grandmother in Taiwan, an arrangement that guides her work today. "That was one of the greatest things she taught me–the value of caregiving relationships," Poo said.

Poo volunteered in a domestic violence shelter while studying at Columbia University for a degree in women’s studies."I realized how important women’s economic opportunity and real, stable livelihood for women is for anything else to happen," said Poo.

Poo’s organization has recently enjoyed many breakthroughs, including regulations that will change minimum wage and overtime rules for nearly 2 million home care and direct service workers. This workforce is 90 percent women and approximately half people of color. Also, in January 2014 the California Domestic Workers Bill of Rights went into effect, extending overtime protections to thousands of domestic workers in the state.

"It comes down to power and influence," said Poo. "We need to come together and work collectively to increase our power, our voice and our influence over these underlying systems."