History's Heroines

History's Heroines

Why you should care

Because there’s no reason to just break a mold when you can shatter it.

One was a 19th-century American surgeon, another a 20th-century Israeli leader and the third, who straddled both centuries, was the quintessential late bloomer. Mary Walker, Golda Meir and Grandma Moses lived in very different worlds, but each woman strove to carve out her own authentic life, and in doing so inspired millions more to do the same.

Freedom Fighter: Dr. Mary Walker

She was a woman ahead of her time. Way ahead. Yet not everyone is aware of the force that was Dr. Mary Edwards Walker: a feminist, abolitionist, prohibitionist and suffrage activist. She devoted her personal and professional life to medical excellence and championing human rights — before, during and after the Civil War.

She devoted her personal and professional life to medical excellence and championing human rights — and she did it all while wearing pants.

And she did it all while wearing pants.

Both Walker’s parents were against restrictive women’s clothing, favoring trousers and pantsuits over corsets and dresses. Walker went on to be arrested on several occasions for “impersonating a man.” In the military, she wore “radical” bloomers and a man’s uniform jacket; later in life, she wore a full tuxedo while giving lectures about women’s rights. She even got married in pants (and, shocking for the times, kept her own name; Walker staunchly opposed male-dominated wedding vows). And not only that. For her wartime service, Walker received the Medal of Honor, the highest award for military bravery offered by the United States. She is still the only woman to have won the award — which was rescinded but later reinstated.

The Uncompromising Golda Meir

They say you can tell a lot about a woman from her shoes. Golda Meir wore sturdy orthopedics, and she wore them everywhere, from schlepping around the house to visiting JFK at the White House. In Israel, the phrase “Golda’s shoes” is still a euphemism for something ugly and old-fashioned. But there was nothing conventional about Meir, and to her millions of followers in Israel and around the world, she was a graceful icon, even before she became her country’s first female prime minister at age 70.

Meir grew up in a man’s world, looking men directly in the eye.

Meir grew up in a man’s world, looking men directly in the eye. Once described by Prime Minister David Ben Gurion “as the only man in [his] cabinet,” Meir was the original Iron Lady, 30 years before Margaret Thatcher came to power in Britain. She unflinchingly went toe-to-toe with Kennedy, Nasser, Khrushchev, Kissinger and two popes. In 1972, after 11 Israeli athletes and coaches were murdered by a Palestinian terrorist group at the Summer Olympics in Munich, Meir, perceiving a lack of international response, took matters into her own hands and ordered the Mossad to hunt down the terrorists.

A Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman: Grandma Moses

Anna Mary Robertson never set out to become one of the best-known artists of her time. By the 1930s, she had led a full life as a farmer’s wife in upstate New York, giving birth to five sons and five daughters and enjoying the company of 11 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. But in her 78th year, when many people are accepting the loss of old skills, the woman whom friends and family lovingly referred to as Grandma Moses taught herself a new one.

In her 78th year, when many people are accepting the loss of old skills, Grandma Moses taught herself a new one.

The point of learning to paint was not to get on the cover of Life magazine or the Edward R. Murrow television show, as she would later do. It was a matter of practicality, of plugging a hole. When her arthritic fingers could no longer sew, Grandma Moses decided to take up painting. “Painting’s not important,” she liked to say. “The important thing is keeping busy.” And by the time she died in 1961 — at the age of 101 and nearly a quarter century after taking up her new hobby — Grandma Moses had completed more than 1,500 works and become a global icon, providing inspiration to housewives, widows, nonagenarians and dreamers everywhere.

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