Connect with us

Hi, what are you looking for?



15 Pioneers of the Modern-Day Women’s Movement

Pioneers of change.

Human rights are women’s rights. Women’s rights are human rights. Equal rights are civil rights. Civil rights are human rights, each fighting for equality and decency through compassionate legislation. Far too often this gets absorbed in a tangled web of legal jargon and buzz words, but the fact of the matter is there have been many women in history that have stood up against all odds to fight for the right to be seen, heard and treated as equals.

Not equals to a group of oppressive men, equals as human beings.

This fight is one we continue to fight, and even in the midst of society taking far too many steps away from gender equality, and for many of us, equality is our lifelong pursuit.

Here is to the women that refused to sit silently, accept their fate as a sub-species, and instead rose and continue to rise to the occasion for society to recognize our worth as people. Below are real-life sheroes that devoted their lives to furthering our cause …

Human Rights Pioneer: A Personal Appreciation

This list was put together by Joanne Edgar and the Women’s Media Center


Doris Haire  (1926 – 2014)

Doris was a champion of women’s right to give birth safely, humanely, and without being exposed to unnecessary procedures that might risk their baby’s wellbeing. She was also a long-time member of the board of directors of the National Women’s Health Network.

Doris Haire was elected to the very first board of directors of the Network, in 1976. At that time, she had more than a decade of successful activism under her belt. She took up the cause of reforming childbirth practices as a young woman, and she never let go. In 1972, she authored an earth-shaking critique of U.S. childbirth practices, The Cultural Warping of Childbirth. Doris was a leader in mobilizing pressure on hospitals to change practices – she called for an end to the routine practice of separating women from familial support during labor and birth, and separating women from their babies after birth. She championed the role of professional midwives at a time when they were nearly absent in U.S. maternity care. By the time Doris took her seat on the Network board, she was a force to be reckoned with. Continue reading

Dr. Mariam K. Chamberlain (1918 – 2013)

Dr. Mariam K. Chamberlain, a founding member of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research and the founding president of the National Council for Research on Women, was the driving force behind the cultivation and sustainability of the women’s studies field of academic research. She is the namesake of IWPR’s prestigious Mariam K. Chamberlain Fellowship for Women in Public Policy, which trains young women for successful careers in research. Throughout her life, Dr. Chamberlain fought discrimination, established new roles for women and championed the economic analysis of women’s issues. She passed away on April 2, 2013, at 94, just a few weeks shy of her 95th birthday, following complications from heart surgery.

Pioneers of the Women's Movement

Gerda Lerner, Historian – The New York Times

Gerda Lerner (1920 – 2013)

A feminist historian, author and teacher, she was a professor emeritus of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a visiting scholar at Duke University.

Lerner was one of the founders of the field of women’s history and was a former president of the Organization of American Historians. She played a key role in the development of women’s history curricula. She taught what is considered to be the first women’s history course in the world at the New School for Social Research in 1963. She was also involved in the development of similar programs at Long Island University (1965–1967), at Sarah Lawrence College from 1968 to 1979 (where she established the nation’s first women’s history graduate program), at Columbia University (where she was a co-founder of the Seminar on Women), and since 1980 as Robinson Edwards Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She also wrote the screenplay for her husband Carl Lerner’s film Black Like Me (1966)…

In The Creation of Patriarchy, volume one of Women and History, Lerner ventures into prehistory, attempting to trace the roots of patriarchal dominance. Lerner provides historical, archeological, literary and artistic evidence for the idea that patriarchy is a cultural construct. The Creation of Feminist Consciousness: From the Middle Ages to 1870 is the second volume of Women and History. In this book, she reviews European culture from the seventh century through the nineteenth century, showing the limitations imposed by a male-dominated culture and the sporadic attempt to resist that domination. She examines in detail the educational deprivation of women, their isolation from many of the traditions of their societies and the expressive outlet many women have found through writing.

Jeanne Sobelson Manford (1920 – 2013)

Founder of PFLAG. In April 1972, Manford and her husband Jules were at home in Flushing, Queens, when they learned from a hospital’s telephone call that her son Morty, a gay activist, had been beaten while distributing flyers inside the fiftieth annual Inner Circle dinner, a political gathering in New York City. Reports stated that Morty was “kicked and stomped” while being led away by police. In response, she wrote a letter of protest to the New York Post that identified herself as the mother of a gay protester and complained of police inaction. She gave interviews to radio and television shows in several cities in the weeks that followed, sometimes accompanied by her husband or son.

On June 25, she participated with her son in the New York Pride March, carrying a hand-lettered sign that read “Parents of Gays Unite in Support for Our Children.” At the time, homosexuality was still considered a mental illness and sodomy a crime, and California Senator Mark Leno has subsequently reflected that “[f]or her to step into the street to declare support for her mentally ill, outlaw son – that was no small act,” but it was what a mother’s love does.

Pauline Friedman Phillips  (1918 – 2013)

Phillips was most notably known as Abigail Van Buren—Dear Abby—who was an American advice columnist and radio show host who began the “Dear Abby” column in 1956. During her decades writing the column, it became the most widely syndicated newspaper column in the world, syndicated in 1,400 newspapers around the world with 110 million readers.

A church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.

From 1963 to 1975, Phillips also had a daily “Dear Abby” program on CBS Radio. TV anchorwoman Diane Sawyer calls her the “pioneering queen of salty advice.”

From Ms. Magazine, She gave, more than advice to the lovelorn in her column: Phillips supported the ERA, abortion and contraception rights, gay rights and civil liberties.

Eva Figes (1932 – 2012)

Figes, an English author, wrote novels, literary criticism, studies of feminism, and vivid memoirs relating to her Berlin childhood and later experiences as a Jewish refugee from Hitler’s Germany. She arrived in Britain in 1939[2] with her parents and a younger brother. Figes was the mother of the academic Orlando Figes and writer Kate Figes. In the 1960s she was associated with an informal group of experimental British writers influenced by Rayner Heppenstall that included Stefan Themerson,  Ann Quin, Alan Burns and its informal leader, B.S. Johnson.  Figes’ 1983 novel, Light, is an impressionistic portrait of a single day in the life of Claude Monet from sunrise to sunset. Eva Figes, a refugee from Nazi Germany who became an acclaimed novelist, memoirist and critic best known for an influential feminist treatise, “Patriarchal Attitudes,” published in 1970, died on Aug. 28 at her home in London. She was 80. Click to read more  The New York Times

Barbara Byrne (1927-2012)

Debbie Metcalf, President, Ashville NOW

Barbara Byrne peacefully passed on Thurs, Sept. 27, 2012, at Solace. She has championed the rights of women and worked tirelessly to bring about greater equality for women and to protect the hard-won rights that we enjoy now. She was so proud of Asheville NOW and was very enthusiastic about us working towards building a facility for homeless women veterans. She was energetic and very supportive of New Leaf Network, the foundation that will provide support and temporary housing that our homeless veteran women need and deserve.

Barbara Byrne was a one-of-a-kind person. She actually lived what she preached and was admired tremendously. Independent to the end, Barbara was a friend to so many and will be missed greatly. R.I.P Barbara. We love you & miss you already.

Obituary at Norwich Bulletin and The Asheville Citizen-Times

Pioneers of the Women's Movement

Helen Gurley Brown, Cosmopolitan Editor, Dies at 90 – The New York Times

Helen Gurley Brown (1922-2012)

Legendary Cosmo Editor Helen Gurley Brown died at age 90 on Aug. 13, 2012, in New York City. Book publisher Lori Perkins here remembers an icon:

“I was a high school student who knew she wanted to be a journalist. I read Cosmo religiously and loved its “My Say” column. I wrote what I thought was a hilarious piece about my worst date (which involved meeting the high school drug dealer [which I didn’t know] for a date at Laserium at the New York Planetarium and having him hand me a kilo of pot to put in my purse and later distribute to the entire basketball team in nickel bags after which he proceeded to manhandle me like an octopus and was shocked when I refused to smoke pot with him in Central Park and went home alone, but I digress). Anyway, I was a little shocked myself when I received a note informing me that they wanted to buy the piece!”

Nora Ephron (1941 – 2012)

Author M. G. Lord knew Nora Ephron socially, but appreciated her most through Ephron’s essays. She writes about why they’ve had only the best influence on her own writing.

“Nora Ephron taught me the difference between wit and snark—long before snark slithered out from its dark hole and infected the national dialogue.

Nora was classy, in the way that wit is classy. Often she mocked herself in order to mock deserving targets.

In a piece pegged to the 25th anniversary of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, for example, she confessed that in high school, she had skipped over the book’s passages about egoism and altruism and fallen hard for its architect hero: “I spent the next year hoping I would meet a gaunt, orange-haired architect who would rape me. Or, failing that, an architect who would rape me. Or failing that, an architect.”

Adrienne Cecile Rich 1929 – 2012

Rich was an American poet, essayist and feminist. She has been called “one of the most widely read and influential poets of the second half of the 20th century,” and was credited with bringing “the oppression of women and lesbians to the forefront of poetic discourse.” Her first collection of poetry, A Change of World, was selected by the senior poet W. H. Auden for the Yale Series of Young Poets Award; he went on to write the introduction to the published volume. Rich famously declined the National Medal of Arts, protesting the United States House of Representatives and Speaker Gingrich’s vote to end funding for the National Endowment for the Arts.

Wangari Maathai (1940 – 2011)

Wangari Muta Mary Jo Maathai was a Kenyan environmentalist and political activist. She was educated in the United States at Mount St. Scholastica and the University of Pittsburgh, as well as the University of Nairobi in Kenya. In the 1970s, Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement, an environmental non-governmental organization focused on the planting of trees, environmental conservation, and women’s rights. In 1986, she was awarded the Right Livelihood Award, and in 2004, she became the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for “her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.” Maathai was an elected member of Parliament and served as assistant minister for Environment and Natural Resources in the government of President Mwai Kibaki between January 2003 and November 2005. In 2011, Maathai died of complications from ovarian cancer.

 Marjorie L. Meares (1960 -2011)

Margie’s professional life began with a degree from Duke University and continued with counseling adjudicated youth at Camp Woodson, working with the Air and Water Quality Divisions of NCDENR and later becoming the Executive Director of the Clean Air Community Trust in Asheville, which transformed to GO Asheville. She worked as a proponent of the Clean Smokestacks Act, was appointed to the Community Energy Advisory Council, elected to the Woodfin Water Board and was the Chairman of the Evergreen Charter School Board of Directors. As Margie’s work interests expanded to buildings and sustainability, she developed one of the country’s first eco-development programs for realtors. As a Senior Associate with Mathis Consulting Company, she worked on numerous projects to improve the energy efficiency of buildings, teaching the provisions of the energy code to NC Building Inspectors and working with the NC Building Code Council to draft the NC 2012 Energy Conservation Code. On the day of her death she received a personal letter from NC Governor Bev Perdue thanking her for her work that led to the Governor’s signing of State Bill 708 enacting the new energy conservation code for the state.

Some would say Margie’s life work was transforming people’s understanding of the importance of the environment and to help develop environmental mindfulness, but her greatest gift was in helping people understand themselves. Recently ordained as a Lay Teacher in the Buddhist tradition, she wove her true life’s work of knowing and teaching the Dharma into all she endeavored. She was a natural teacher who sought first to make a connection and win the heart before presenting the issue. She will be remembered for seeing life as an adventure, her quick yet kind wit and her playful nature.

Margie will be held in the hearts of her loving partner and dearest friend Ruth Ostrenga, her siblings, nieces and nephews, the members of Anattasati Magga Zen Sangha and a huge and diverse community of friends.

Hazel Jane Dickens (1935 – 2011)

Hazel Dickens was an American bluegrass singer, songwriter, double bassist and guitarist. She was the eighth child of an eleven-child mining family in West Virginia. Her music was characterized not only by her high, lonesome singing style, but also by her provocative pro-union, feminist songs. Cultural blogger John Pietaro noted that “Dickens didn’t just sing the anthems of labor, she lived them and her place on many a picket line, staring down gunfire and goon squads, embedded her into the cause.” The New York Times extolled her as “a clarion-voiced advocate for coal miners and working people and a pioneer among women in bluegrass music”.

Clara Mae Shepard Luper (1923 – 2011)

Clara Luper was a civic leader, retired schoolteacher and a pioneering leader in the American Civil Rights Movement. She is best known for her leadership role in the 1958 Oklahoma City Sit-in Movement, as she, her young son and daughter and numerous young members of the NAACP Youth Council successfully conducted nonviolent sit-in protests of downtown drugstore lunch-counters which overturned their policies of segregation. The Clara Luper Corridor is a streetscape and civic beautification project from the Oklahoma Capitol area east to northeast Oklahoma City and was announced by Governor Brad Henry. Luper continued desegregating hundreds of establishments in Oklahoma and was active on the national level during the 1960s movements.

Pioneers of the Women's Movement

President Gerald R. Ford, First Lady Betty Ford, Pearl Bailey, E. B. Smith, Ron Nessen, and Others

Betty Ford (1918 – 2011)

Elizabeth Ann Bloomer Warren Ford was First Lady of the United States from 1974-1977 during the presidency of her husband Gerald Ford. As First Lady, she was active in social policy and created precedents as a politically active presidential wife.  Throughout her husband’s term in office, she maintained high approval ratings despite opposition from some conservative Republicans who objected to her more moderate and liberal positions on social issues.

Ford was noted for raising breast cancer awareness following her 1974 mastectomy and was a passionate supporter of, and activist for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Pro-choice on abortion and a leader in the Women’s Movement she gained fame as one of the most candid first ladies in history, commenting on every hot-button issue of the time, including feminism, equal pay, the ERA, sex, drugs, abortion and gun control. She also raised awareness of addiction when she announced her long-running battle with alcoholism in the 1970s.  Following her White House years, she continued to lobby for the ERA and remained active in the feminist movement. She is the founder, and served as the first chairwoman of the board of directors, of the Betty Ford Center for substance abuse and addiction and is a recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal (co-presentation with her husband, Gerald R. Ford, 1998) and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (alone, 1991).



Written By

Our Editorial Team is comprised of writers, researchers, and copy editors. Each piece fits our narrative of "The Time and Place For Change" and are carefully curated to fit that messaging. We're grateful that you're here and hope you'll join us in pushing the needle of progress on feminist issues forward.