Ernesta Ballard

(WOMENSENEWS)–When Ernesta D. Ballard, an avid society gardener, first got involved with the burgeoning women’s rights movement in the early 1970s it shocked her contemporaries in the elite society of Philadelphia. She even received hate mail telling her to “go back to your petunias.”

Ernesta D. Ballard, life-long activist

Undaunted by that criticism, Ballard worked on redefining the role of women in her society. She balanced both roles, becoming president ofthe state’s Horticultural Society as well as founding the Pennsylvania Women’s Campaign Fund, the National Organization for Women, Women’s Way and becoming an active member of the Republican Pro-Choice Coalition.

At 83, Ballard is humble about her accomplishments and recounts why she chose to serve on the first national elected board of NOW with a no-big-deal attitude.

“I established the Philadelphia chapter of NOW and joined some political caucus, but that didn’t influence people who weren’t right here,” Ballard says. “I wasn’t trying to influence a lot of people. I was just tired of being somebody’s daughter, somebody’s wife, somebody’s mother, so I got involved.”

Ballard married at 19 and had four children in close succession, as she was expected to. But one breakdown and hours of counseling later, Ballard realized that she didn’t want to do what was expected anymore.

In 1963 she melded her passion for gardening with her business sense and became the first woman to head the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, which now receives national recognition for the Philadelphia Flower Show.

“I have been a successful woman in my professional field. I ran the flower show and made it what it is,” Ballard says. “I have been very influential in this work and I sort of push the idea that women have to be put in a better position. But the thing that has the biggest impact is just the image that I am doing it, as a woman.”

She began to support the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League and was a leading proponent for the Equal Rights Amendment. By the mid-1970s, Ballard began to realize that those working for women’s well-being were starved by traditional sources of philanthropy. She became one of the founders of Philadelphia’s Women’s Way, the nation’s oldest and wealthiest women’s funding federation. She served as its first chair in 1977 and remained involved, participating in the organization’s recent strategic planning sessions. This year, Women’s Way raised $1.48 million to assist women’s organizations.

“We still play on a badly slanted socio-economic playing field,” Ballard told a recent interviewer, “often against heavy odds.”

Susan Burton

Susan Burton, founder,
A New Way of Life foundation

Susan Burton has been a cocaine addict and a convict. Now she is an angel of mercy, or so many believe.

At any given time, this 51-year-old has up to eight women living in her home in South Central Los Angeles as a temporary safe zone after being released from prison. Burton founded A New Way of Life foundation to give minority women a chance to escape the cyclical pattern of incarceration by finding them job training and social treatment programs.

“I realized there was a lack of social services that contributed to the condition of communities of color. The injustice angered me,” says Burton, who started the program three years ago. “My goal is to create a space for women to heal as they are released and decrease the number of women being returned to prison.”

Burton herself was incarcerated six times for a series of drug and prostitution charges and was paroled for the last time in 1995. For the next two years she fought her inner demons and emerged a sober, stronger woman in 1997. Burton struggled and saved enough from what she earned working as nurse for the elderly to buy a modest three-bedroom house in the Watts section of Los Angeles. Every month she returns to the prison she called home for 12 years to offer her help to women committed to leaving that way of life.

“The biggest challenges I have faced running A New Way Of Life out of my home is finding time and space for myself and funding to keep it going,” says Burton, now also working on expanding her program into the community with more houses. “Even though I have not been federally funded, I have received an abundant amount of encouragement both from individuals and the community. I am very grateful the doors have remained open, the beds full and food on the table.”

Martha Burk

Martha Burk, chair,
National Council of Women’s Organizations

The game of golf is anything but relaxing for Martha Burk. This chair of the National Council of Women’s Organizations wrote a polite letter to the elite Augusta National Golf Club protesting its no-women-members policy. The club’s intense response set off a whirlwind of news coverage that ultimately touched Tiger Woods, CBS and The New York Times.

Through it all, Burk has remained a cool-headed advocate for facts and fairness.

Each April, the Augusta National Golf Club is home to the prestigious Professional Golf Association’s Master’s tournament that draws in tons of revenue for the club and viewers for CBS. Augusta is also home to one of the last remaining boys-only clubhouses in the nation. Although Augusta allows women to play the course, club chairman William “Hootie” Johnson told the press he “refused to be bullied” into letting them become members.

“It’s the home of the Master’s; it is highly symbolic,” Burk says. “It reminds women of the glass ceiling and unequal pay and all the reasons women are running second in America.”

Although the effort to integrate Augusta is the most visible issue Burk has campaigned on, it is hardly the first. From serving on the board of directors of Wider Opportunities for Women to coaching her son’s baseball team, Burk has always strived to push women to where they belonged, but weren’t always welcome.

“I’ve always been an activist,” Burk says. “Would people who knew me back then be surprised at what I’m doing now? I doubt it.”

Burk is a psychologist and women’s equity expert who co-founded and now heads the Center for Advancement of Public Policy, a research and policy analysis organization in Washington. She has served on the Commission for Responsive Democracy, the Advisory Committee of Americans for Workplace Fairness, the Sex Equity Caucus of the National Association for the Education of Young Children and the board of directors for the National Organization for Women. She remains active on a number of advisory boards, including that of Women’s Enews.

Burk is also a syndicated columnist and a regular guest on the PBS show “Debates, Debates.” She has been published in all the major news organizations and is a constant, outspoken voice for equality.

Luisa Cabal

Luisa Cabal, attorney,
Center for Reproductive Law and Policy

A heroin addict raped Paulina del Carmen Ramirez Jacinto, a 13-year-old living in Mexicali, Mexico, who was then intimidated out of having a legal abortion by hospital and government officials. Although no Mexican law outlaws abortion for rape victims, Jacinto was denied access to the procedure by the Mexican government and gave birth to her rapist’s child. Compelled by the facts, Luisa Cabal, the legal adviser for Latin America and the Caribbean for the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, filed a complaint with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that claimed that the denial of Jacinto’s access to a procedure legal under Mexico law was a violation of her human rights. If the commission admits the petition for consideration, it will be the first time that the body treats access to abortion as a human rights issue.

“In my case, I have found a voice in the law that has allowed me to speak up and seek justice,” Cabal says. “It is a voice that refuses to be silenced, and that is there to speak for women like Paulina, who exist in our communities and whose rights continue to be violated.”

The Center for Reproductive Law and Policy is a nonprofit legal advocacy group that works to secure women’s reproductive rights as part of fundamental human rights worldwide. The organization is working to create new laws and policies to guarantee basic rights such as access to adequate health care and a woman’s right to choose.

Before joining forces with the center, Cabal, a native Spanish speaker, was a foreign associate in the Latin American Practice Group of Gibson, Dunn, and Crutcher, LLP, a prominent Los Angeles-based law firm. She also served as an advisor in Colombia to both a United Nations program and an internal governmental programs aimed at increasing both human rights and reproductive rights. She received her law degree from Columbia University in New York in 1997, where she focused on human rights, gender and the international law.

“I am and will continue to work in this field because I think I can make a difference,” Cabal says. “I know there are many challenges ahead, in many areas that touch women’s lives. I would hope that in 10 years we can live in a world where women’s choices are fully respected, and that governments create the social and economic conditions that will enable women to fully exercise those choices.”

Esther Chavez Cano

Esther Chavez Cano, founder,
Casa Amiga rape-crisis center

From her tattered home in the Mexican border town of Cuidad Juarez, Esther Chavez Cano wrote in an e-mail that she was embarassed yet grateful to be recognized for establishing and running the only rape-crisis center in a city of almost 1.5 million residents. Cano opened Casa Amiga, loosely translated as “Friend’s House,” in 1999 to provide a place where victims of domestic violence and sexual assault can receive medical, legal and psychological aid. She works with a small, mostly volunteer staff to serve the entire town of Juarez, fighting opposition from a Mexican government that has yet to solve a series of murders and disappearances of at least 280 women and girls in the town over the last 10 years. Last year, the center served 5,803 clients, including 1,172 new cases.

The center sprung from Cano’s fight to end feminicidio, or the unsolved crimes against women in her town.

“Before, we were unable to advance in the fight to eradicate feminicidio on the border, so the idea of opening a center to support survivors of the violence was born,” Cano says.

In addition to serving as a rape-crisis center and a safety zone for battered women, Casa Amiga serves as a hub of a growing political and social movement to stop domestic violence, led by Cano as an outspoken advocate of women’s rights in Mexico. She began an educational program that teaches local women about sexual abuse. She has fought for stronger punitive laws for rapists and staged demonstrations against a proposed governmental ban on abortions.

For her tireless work she garnered the “Woman Helps Woman” award in 1997 from the International Optimist’s Club and was recognized as a “Woman Pioneer” by the Feminist Majority in 1999. Her picture also graces the latest promotional advertisements for Eve Ensler’s “V-Day” Celebration. Cano also was a recipient of the Maria Lavalle Urbina National Prize in April, 2002, for her brave work for a decade to defend women’s rights in Ciudad Juarez.

Eileen Fisher

Eileen Fisher, designer

It’s easy to spot an Eileen Fisher clothing ad. The models, attired in Fisher’s trademark breezy and colorful ensembles, look surprisingly like women of ordinary weight and height.

That’s because many of them aren’t professional models. They’ve been plucked from the employee rank and file for the dual purpose of advertising Fisher’s unaffected clothing designs and holistic business philosophy–a potent combination that has enabled her to expand to 25 Eileen Fisher stores across the United States and Canada in less than 20 years.

Fisher built her thriving endeavor with the belief that success is not just about achieving financial prosperity, but how you get there. Her goal is not only to design a popular clothing line, but to create a business environment in which her employees find joy and satisfaction in their work as well.

“People say our company is like our clothing–simple and authentic,” says Fisher. “I think that the clothing is just a symbol of the work we do. And what we do is how we are with each other every day.”

Employees say they’re encouraged to lead a balanced life–to grow within the company and to develop interests outside the job. Through the company’s wellness program, for instance, employees receive yearly financial stipends for massages, dance or yoga classes, as well as for educational courses. The company’s social accountability program partners with other socially responsible businesses to monitor foreign manufacturers, ensuring that those factory workers also receive decent working standards. The company’s community involvement program assists women across the United States who are in a crisis or seeking financial independence.

Fisher, 52, grew up during the counterculture 1960s in a close-knit family that included five sisters. “We hung together and played with clothes, and we were there for each other.” Her first season in 1984 highlighted four basic pieces; she created the entire line for $350. Today her subtly evolving clothing line has become synonymous with comfort and ease.

“We support women to be themselves,” says Fisher. “The general idea is that by being fully who we are, we don’t have to work hard at changing the world. It happens by connecting. Because when we’re comfortable in our bodies and selves, it leaves us feeling alert, alive, and present in order to make a difference.”

Swanee Hunt

Swanee Hunt, founder,
Women Waging Peace

The life of an ambassador is difficult for a woman with children: lots of travel, a macho work culture, and sometimes dangerous sociopolitical situations. As U.S. ambassador to Austria and a mother of three, Swanee Hunt not only changed the way the position worked, but the structure of Eastern European politics as well.

“In Vienna, I remade that job, reforming it in a way that made it possible for a woman with children to do it, instead of making it simply for elderly men,” Hunt says.

She also made a difference for women in Austria, developing policies and programs to address women’s roles in wartime, and worked with women leaders throughout post-communist Eastern Europe to establish their positions in burgeoning democracies. In that capacity, Hunt was named “Woman of Peace” by the Together for Peace Foundation in Rome for her efforts in Europe, capped by her work with Bosnian women and religious leaders uniting across former battlefields.

Hunt returned to the U.S. and created Women Waging Peace and runs the Women and Public Policy School Program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where she emphasizes the role of women as initiators of the nation’s policy agenda. This year, her course focuses on stopping the commercial sexual exploitation of women, increasing women’s position in the economies of developing countries and closing the gender gap in electoral politics.

“I am making an impact at Harvard,” Hunt says, “by bringing a strong woman’s voice and helping the faculty and women students here amplify their voices.”

For a woman who planned church activities and took care of her family until she hit 30, Hunt has accomplished a great deal in a very short time–and she is beginning to see the rest of the nation catching up.

“I would say the trend line is on the right direction. You can look at the policies that impact women and you can look at women who impact policy,” Hunt says. “There is much more consciousness that public policy needs to be examined with a gender lens, and the number of women in decision-making positions is growing steadily. We are getting closer to parity.”

Eileen Fisher biography by Ann Farmer.

–Julie Leupold is a freelance writer in New York.

For more information:

Ernesta D. Ballard
Women’s Way:

Susan Burton
We have been given . . . A New Way of Life:

Martha Burk
National Council of Women’s Organizations:

Luisa Cabal
Center for Reproductive Law and Policy:

Esther Chavez Cano
Casa Amiga
(in English and Spanish):

Eileen Fisher

Swanee Hunt
Women Waging Peace: