21 Leaders for the 21st Century


Emilienne de Leon, Executive Director of Semillas

Emilienne de LeonAs a sought-after independent consultant for eight years, Emilienne de Leon was skilled at advising nongovernmental organizations in Mexico. In 2000, she tested whether that advice actually worked.

In March of that year, de Leon became the executive director of Semillas (Spanish for “seeds”), a Mexico City-based organization that funds projects throughout the country for women who are poor, indigenous or otherwise marginalized.

“I had been a consultant, but I hadn’t been on the other side,” she says. “I thought, ‘this is my opportunity.’ I had a chance to find out if we were only dreaming or if a project like [Semillas] could work.”

So far, it has worked wonders. Within de Leon’s first 18 months, Semillas more than tripled its fundraising and grant-making. Rather than simply providing grants, Semillas also began to play a more active role in the activities of the organizations it helped fund.

As a provider of vital support to smaller female-focused groups, Semillas is now part of the San Francisco-based Women’s Funding Network, an alliance of women’s funds formed in the U.S. in 1985 that is growing into a global force for social justice.

De Leon is proud of Semillas’ grant recipients. One set up radio programs in indigenous communities, which disseminate information about women’s rights in Spanish and various indigenous languages, of which 62 are still used in Mexico today.

Several other groups are working along the Mexican-American border–particularly in Baja, Calif.–conducting information campaigns about labor rights and health and reproductive rights.

“The groups we help are teaching women how to assert their rights and change their own lives,” she says. “The situation may be bad (for women) in many parts of the world, but these groups are raising the voices of women.”

Wangari Maathai, 2004 Nobel Peace Prize Winner and Environmentalist

Wangari MaathaiOn Earth Day 1977, Wangari Maathai, started the Green Belt movement in Kenya.

Two months ago, the significance of her work to the people of Africa was recognized with the Nobel Peace Prize.

Green Belt recruits women to plant trees and teaches them to tend the seedlings. For each tree they grow, the women earn a small amount of money, giving them an income as well as an improved environment.

Kenyan women have so far planted about 30 million trees and the program has spread to the United States, Haiti and over 30 African countries. Perhaps most important, though, Maathai says, it has enabled African women–who make up 70 percent of Green Belt’s members–to take control of their own lives and destinies.

Maathai got the idea for Green Belt from talking to women while she served as a member of the National Council of Women of Kenya in the early 1970s. Again and again, women told her they needed energy, clean drinking water and nutritious food.

Trees could provide for all of those needs, Maathai realized. They would stop soil erosion, which would facilitate water conservation. Trees would provide fuel and building materials. While enhancing the beauty of the landscape, trees would also bear fruit.

Maathai has had her share of critics, some of whom have even terrorized and assaulted her as she sought to empower women in traditionally male-dominated communities. In one instance, when Maathai and members of Kenya’s Green party protested the building of a 62-story tower in Nairobi’s main public park in the mid-1970s, seven of her associates were killed and she herself was a victim of intimidation and threats.

But with the global recognition she has won, Maathai feels consoled and encouraged.

“This award is sending a message to the African woman,” she says. “She has been struggling, carrying a burden, but the award says, ‘We recognize her resilience and her patience.’ It says, ‘Be proud, because we matter.'”

Helen Miller, President, Service Employees International Union’s Illinois Local 880 chapter

Helen Miller

Helen Miller says she’s just a home-care worker who refuses to accept the poor treatment caretakers often receive. But over the past 25 years, she has helped workers in her field win major victories. Today, at 68, she remains committed to that struggle.

Since 1999, she has served as president of the Service Employees International Union’s Illinois Local 880 28,000-member chapter and is the first homecare worker to be elected to the union’s International Board.

“I agreed with the cause, and I just kept staying there, fighting,” she says.

A Mississippi native, Miller moved to Chicago after high school and worked in a laundry for many years. Work as a caretaker began in the 1970s, when she was looking after her sister-in-law’s children while their mother was in the hospital. A friend noticed her caretaking skill and suggested she think about making it her livelihood.

In 1979 she registered as a home-care worker with the Department of Rehabilitation, now the Department of Human Services, and began providing home care to two women with disabilities.

In 1985 she attended her first meeting of the Local 880 union. Like others, she was distressed that most home care workers–predominantly female and women of color– were getting low pay, no benefits and no respect from the state for the vital services they provide.

In 1986 she overcame extreme shyness to testify about her own situation before an Illinois House Appropriations Committee, which went on to approve the first-ever raise for home care workers. A few weeks later, the Illinois legislature raised the hourly pay for Department of Human Services employees from $1 to $3.35. Since then, union lobbying has helped push the rate up to $7.50

In 2003, a Local 880 campaign helped 20,000 personal assistants convince Governor Rod Blagojevich to sign an executive order to provide them with a 34-percent pay raise and other benefits.

Nearly 75 percent of home-based caretakers are women. In long-term care facilities for the elderly, 93 percent of caretakers are women, according to a 2003 study published in the New Politics journal.

“Women have always had an important voice,” she says, “but it is so often suppressed. Yet it is women who bear and care for the children, and women who care for the elderly. We are the beginning and end of life.”

Miriam Nelson, author; exercise and health researcher; associate professor, Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy and Director, John Hancock Center for Physical Activity and Nutrition, Tufts University

Miriam Nelson

Miriam Nelson has spent much of her career urging women to be physically and mentally strong and instructing them how to best build their strengths.


The author of the “Strong Women” exercise and nutrition book series, Nelson has made a name for herself by calling attention to issues of exercise and nutrition among middle-aged and older women, particularly the link between weight-bearing exercise and bone health.

Nelson currently serves as director of the Center for Physical Activity and Nutrition and associate professor of nutrition at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. She has written five best-selling books as part of her “Strong Women” series. The books–currently published in 13 languages–range in focus from bone strengthening, to nutrition, to alleviating the pain of arthritis. All of the books are targeted toward women. Several also include men.

For the past 12 years, Nelson has researched exercise and nutrition for midlife and older adults. She has taken her findings directly to women, leading Strong Women Summits from Alaska to New Paltz, N.Y. The summits–featuring Olympic-medal-winning female athletes–provide a series of lectures and workshops emphasizing straightforward nutrition and exercise programs for midlife and older women. The summits grew out of a a Web site Nelson started with a colleague in 1998, StrongWomen.com. The site not only provides advice on weight loss, bone health and nutrition, but also offers the success stories of “women who consider themselves as having strength of mind, body and spirit,” Nelson says.

Nelson’s mission with the Strong Women Summits–and with all her research and writing–is “to celebrate, educate, and motivate women to believe that positive thinking and activism begins with health, good nutrition, exercise and attitude,” she says. When women are able to nurture themselves, she says, their families and careers will also fall into balance.

Lynn Paltrow, Executive Director and Founder of National Advocates for Pregnant Women

,p>Lynn Paltrow


In the ongoing war over women’s reproductive choice,
Lynn Paltrow is an unconventional soldier.

Paltrow fights for the rights of pregnant women, who she says are often the unrecognized victims of anti-choice measures protecting fetal rights. For example, she notes, women who prefer midwives to obstetricians often find that their providers are prohibited from entering the delivery room or arrested for practicing without the right kind of license. And women who refuse cesarean sections risk being arrested for murder if the delivery results in stillbirth, she says.

The debate on reproductive choice “is not only about the right to have an abortion, it’s about human rights for women and their families,” she says.

In 2000, Paltrow founded the New York-based National Advocates for Pregnant Women, which works through litigation, public education and other organizing efforts to defend the rights and welfare of pregnant and parenting women and their families.

Over the past four years, National Advocates for Pregnant Women has been instrumental in raising awareness of the threats to pregnant women and in keeping a large number of women from being arrested for trying to assert control over their own bodies, whether in the delivery room or in the workplace when employers try to cut short paid maternity leave, Paltrow says.

The group has mobilized local groups to take action and has organized awareness campaigns and pressed for legislative reforms, such as non-punitive drug treatment services for pregnant women and new mothers. Paltrow and her colleagues have also stayed active in various court cases, such as the Supreme Court case Ferguson v. City of Charleston in 2001, which ruled that searching and arresting pregnant women at the hospital violates the Constitution.

After earning her law degree at New York University, Paltrow worked at the American Civil Liberties Union’s Reproductive Freedom Project. Later she moved on to the National Abortion Rights Action League, the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy and Planned Parenthood.

Paltrow says lot of work remains to create a public discourse that recognizes that abortion is not the only issue within the reproductive-choice debate. She says that she will continue to focus on all pregnant women, but especially women of color, low-income women and substance abusers. “We are working toward a future that does not say that by becoming pregnant you lose your civil rights.”

Lydia Pilcher, Founder of Cine Mosaic

Lydia Pilcher

“Working on a movie is like birthing a child,” says Lydia Dean Pilcher. “Each one is like a baby to me.”

Pilcher, a dramatic and documentary film producer with her own New York-based production company Cine Mosaic, has mothered many films and her last seven have been directed by women.

Her repertoire includes the feature film “Vanity Fair,” the HBO feature film “Iron Jawed Angels,” and the HBO film “Normal,” which was nominated for Emmy, Golden Globe and Producer’s Guild Awards in 2003/2004.

While Pilcher says that she doesn’t restrict herself to producing the work of female directors, she chooses projects to which she’s “passionately connected” and those films tend to focus on themes of diversity and social consciousness.

“Iron Jawed Angels,” for example, recounts the struggle of the suffragists who fought for the passage of the 19th amendment. It focuses specifically on Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, activists who broke from the mainstream women’s rights movement to create a more radical push for women’s voting rights.

“When I heard the story of women who fought for the right to vote, I thought, ‘Why didn’t I already know about this?'” Pilcher recalls. “I think, often, radical dissent stories involving women get pushed into the shadows.”

Pilcher will now partner again with Indian director Mira Nair–who she worked with on “Vanity Fair” and the HBO film “Hysterical Blindness”–on an adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel, “The Namesake.”

“Hollywood is often more about hired guns and traditional molds than vision,” she says. “But I think women–who are constantly redefining their lifestyles and work–can bring a new vision and approach.”

Dr. Mary Lake Polan, founder, Eritrean Women’s Project, and chair, Stanford University Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology

Dr. Mary Lake Polan

In 15 minutes, Dr. Mary Lake Polan can change a woman’s life forever.

That’s the average time it takes for Polan–founder of the Eritrean Women’s Project, a gynecological surgery mission–to repair the devastating damage caused by prolonged labor, a condition known as obstetric fistula.

A fistula is a small, abnormal pipe-like opening–usually between the bladder and the vagina–that causes a woman to leak urine and stool uncontrollably. The smell, the rashes and infections are further reminders of a devastating labor that more often than not results in stillbirth.

In sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, where poverty has limited or eliminated women’s access to childbirth care, the fistula problem is dire, often leading to social isolation because of the resulting smell of urine and feces.

Polan, chair of Stanford University’s department of obstetrics and gynecology, became aware of the situation in Eritrea in 2000, when she traveled to the eastern African country to research women’s health issues for her master’s degree in public health.

She came back to California determined to set up a surgical mission to the capital city, Asmara. In October 2002 she and three other doctors treated 37 women.

“There were still more lined up outside,” she says. “When we left, I knew we hadn’t yet done what we needed to do.”

The second trip, to the coastal city of Massawa in February 2004, was even more successful. About 50 women were treated. Many had heard about the doctors’ visit and had traveled huge distances, sometimes walking for days, Polan says. She and her colleagues hope to return to Eritrea in February to work on a community medical project and continue training Eritrean doctors and nurses to perform the surgeries.

The project recently received funding approval from the United Nations Population Fund. Polan is now waiting for the Eritrean Ministry of Health to contract out the money, which she says will be used to establish a fistula treatment facility in Asmara.

In the meantime, she and her team will continue to perform small miracles with their limited resources. Polan says she learned long ago to be flexible and improvise. During the Massawa trip, she recalls, there was no running water and no washing machines, so local women hand-washed everything.

“One of my strongest memories of the trip was seeing the drapes and the blue surgical gowns hanging on the clotheslines and blowing in the breeze, with the Red Sea in the background,” she says. “The living conditions were so harsh, but there was exquisite beauty there as well.”

Robin Hindery is a writer for Women’s eNews in New York City.


For more information:

Emilienne de Leon–Semillas:

Wangari Maathai–Green Belt Movement and Plant Trees for Peace:

Helen Miller–Service Employees Union, Illinois Local 880:

Miriam Nelson–StrongWomen.com:

Lynn Paltrow–National Advocates for Pregnant Women:

Lydia Pilcher–Cine Mosaic:

Mary Lake Polan–Eritrean Women’s Health Project:

For more information:

Interview with Wangari Maathai, Environmental Activist and Nobel Laureate
by Marianne Schnall


Note: Women’s eNews is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites and the contents of Web pages we link to may change without notice.