Women’s History Month Role Models: Historical and Modern Advocates for Justice

Photo: Historical head-shot black-and-white photograph of Ida B. Wells, an African American woman with hair gathered in a high bun; Text: "Women's History Month Role Models: Advocates for Justice"

Reading all of the wonderful stories of women being shared for Women’s History Month inspired me to think about the women who have influenced me. I realized that they fell into three categories: women I personally know, women (and girls) in pop culture, and historical and modern women in advocacy. This week, I’m going highlight my female role-models and hope you find someone to be inspired by!

Today, I’m focusing on real-life women in history or the larger culture who are advocates for social justice. In particular, I’m focusing both on women who inspired me personally and who may not be quite as well-known. This list tends to be focused on my areas of interest – poverty, environmental issues, food systems – and this is just but the shortest of lists, so there are a lot of issues missed. Nonetheless, I hope to raise awareness about some of these women who aren’t always (although sometimes) mentioned in the history books.

Vandana Shiva: Shiva is one of the most compelling and unique advocates in the sustainable food movement. While much of the sustainable food movement is white, upper to middle-class Americans concerned about their personal exposure to bioengineering, Shiva is Indian and focuses her work on how corporate control of the food system affects farmers in non-Western countries. She’s spoken out against corporations and governments patenting plant species that farmers have been cultivating for centuries. She’s also done a lot of work in seed saving, helping farmers access to alternatives to “terminator seeds” that only produce sterile seeds. Her organization, Navdanya, has set up more than 100 community seed banks throughout India and is working with the government of Bhutan to convert 100% of their agriculture to organic. Plus, her PhD thesis was on “Hidden Variables and Non-locality in Quantum Theory,” which is inherently hardcore.

Sister Dorothy Stang: If Sister Lucy is the most badass nun I’ve ever met, Sister Dorothy Stang is probably the most badass one I haven’t. (At least in modern times – some of those saints had some very interesting backstories.) As a young woman, she traveled to Brazil to educate farmers in the Amazon jungle about land tenure and avoiding deforestation. However, her work quickly became political as she learned more about the farmers’ situation. As loggers, ranchers, and real estate speculators moved into the rainforest, they threatened the livelihoods and lives of the people she was trying to serve. She collaborated with the local people to fight against the profiteers trying to kick them off their land. She lobbied the local government and sat in vigil to blockade logging trucks trying to get into the forest. Because of her advocacy, she was put on a “death list” and later murdered by the local crime group. As they approached her, she pulled a Bible from her bag and began to read from the Beatitudes. In college, I read about her story in Outside Magazine and hung their obituary on my door. Both her story and my experience with H.O.M.E. strongly influenced my passion for social justice, especially in tandem with environmental justice.

Nellie Bly, Ida Tarbell and Ida B. Wells: When I aspired to be a high-flying journalist (ha) in high school, Nellie Bly was my gal. Perhaps most famous for faking severe mental illness to get admitted to an insane asylum, I admire how she put herself in serious danger to expose corrupt systems and inhumane treatment. She was in the asylum for 10 days, where the nurses fed them poorly, tied the “dangerous” patients up with ropes, didn’t clean up waste, forced the women to beat on hard wooden benches all day, and yelled at and beat the patients. The articles she published exposed the subhuman conditions that were common in the very broken mental health system, leading to reform. For bonus awesomeness, she also beat the world record for circumnavigating the globe. Similarly, besides both being named Ida, Ida Tarbell and Ida B. Wells also leveraged the power of the pen to sway people’s attitudes and actions. Ida Tarbell wrote a series of articles in McClure’s about the monopoly of Standard Oil and how it manipulated the economy. She pored over piles of public documents and interviewed people across the country. Her articles and the book that followed were the first examples of both investigative journalism and the corporate expose. Ida B. Wells was an early civil rights advocate. When forced to give up her seat in the first class cabin of a train because of her race, she refused, more than 70 years earlier than Rosa Parks did on a bus. She sued the railroad and at least initially, won her case. She was co-owner and editor of a black newspaper, where she wrote articles exposing the lies that white supremacists used to justify lynching, identifying as far more of a form of social control over the black community than anything related to punishment of individuals. All of these women show how fundamental communication is to social change and managed to do in a profession that has never been welcoming to females.

Ella Jo Baker: Baker was a key figure in the 1950s civil rights movement, but isn’t that well-known today. I actually hadn’t heard of her until recently. But she probably would have preferred it that way. Baker worked in the background of the movement, organizing people, mentoring new leaders, forging connections and building the foundation for the mass movement. She opposed the idea of charismatic leadership in advocacy and specifically rejected how the church was set up, with mostly male leadership over a female congregation. Instead, she embraced participatory democracy with a collective style of action rather than a hierarchical one. As someone who has only acted in an official leadership positions a few times, but dedicated many hours in the background, I highly appreciate this viewpoint. In addition, much of my learning curve of becoming a better ally and advocate has been about understanding how to listen, appreciate other people’s true needs and provide them the support they need. For me, leadership is much more about being a servant than having charisma. She’s such a great example of this philosophy.

There are so many more women around the world in the past and present who are making their communities stronger and the world a more just place. Oxfam America and ONE have been doing a number of profiles of women in non-Western countries that are both powerful and inspiring.

Who are your favorite female advocates for justice now or in the past?

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