3 Incredible Women You Should Know — Though Probably Don't
March is Women's History Month.
We all know of Eleanor Roosevelt, Gloria Steinem and Mother Theresa. But this Women’s History Month, get inspired by these unsung heroes.
Born in 1947, Temple Grandin didn’t speak until she was 3½. People assumed she was deaf. Unable to communicate, she would sift sand through her fingers for hours or rock back and forth with a blank expression. There were horrific meltdowns, too, “kicking and screaming like a crazed wildcat,” she later said. Finally, she was diagnosed with autism. Her inability to communicate or process information and her extreme sensitivity to light, sound and touch, it turned out, are symptoms of the condition.
Back then, autism was misunderstood and hidden away. Medical experts believed she was brain damaged and should be put in an institution. Her mother refused, taught her how to behave and read, and sent her to school. Classmates labeled her “weirdo” and bullied her, but teachers and mentors took her under their wing and cultivated her strengths.
When she was 14, she went to a ranch and realized that cattle shrank from human touch and used visual clues and memory to navigate the world — the same as she did. It made her think she could instinctively understand animal behavior. She went on to become an animal scientist and design humane handling equipment for animals, including feedlots and slaughterhouses. Her business, with McDonald’s and other clients, still thrives.
While animal behavior has been Grandin’s profession, she has made it a mission to use her insights to advocate for people like her. Many children and adults on the autism spectrum lead fulfilling lives, thanks to her.
MADAM C.J. WALKER
The child of slaves, Sarah Breedlove was born in 1867 and picked cotton in Jim Crow times, when people were lynched for the color of their skin. When she was 7, her parents died, and Sarah and her sister supported themselves by taking in washing from white families. As a teenager, to get away from her sister’s cruel husband, she married and, at 17, had a daughter. When her husband died two years later, she set up a laundry business.
Then she noticed something that would change her path: She was losing her hair. Her scalp was always itching and inflamed. She and many other women were going bald because they washed their hair so infrequently — with little indoor plumbing or electricity, and pollution, bacteria and lice could all damage unwashed hair.
One day, a newspaper ad caught her eye. It was for “The Wonderful Hair Grower,” an herb-and-egg mixture marketed for black women. She became a sales agent, and then devised her own product with a formula that, she said, came to her in a dream. She tacked on “Madam” — French women were thought to possess the secrets of beauty — before C.J. Walker (her third husband’s name) and soon was selling a line of hair-care products and building a chain of salons. “I was convinced that my hair preparation would fill a long-felt want,” she said. She was right. Madam C.J. Walker became the first self-made female millionaire in America. She donated generously to churches, YMCAs, cultural centers and scholarships for young people, and she gave thousands to found the NAACP and to combat lynching. “I want to live to help my race,” were her last words.
Barbara Gittings’ family was steeped in Catholicism. Born in 1932, she didn’t feel comfortable at home or at school, although she didn’t know why. In eighth grade, she developed a crush on another girl, who didn’t reciprocate. A teacher told her she might be “homosexual.” She had never heard of such a thing.
Again at college, after a short relationship with a woman, Gittings was the subject of rumors about her homosexuality. By then, desperate to find out if it was true, she used her allowance to pay for an appointment with a psychiatrist who said she was indeed a lesbian, and offered a lengthy and expensive treatment to “cure” her. At the time, homosexuality was defined as a mental illness. Doctors would attempt to treat it with electric shock therapy, psychotherapy and medical procedures. Instead of agreeing to the treatment, Gittings accepted the label, relieved to have the matter settled. She spent her time researching homosexuality in libraries, flunked out of college, and moved to a rooming house in Philadelphia. She hitchhiked to New York City dressed as a boy and wandered into Greenwich Village bars, carrying a novel so she’d have something to talk about, hoping to meet others like her. But she found the bars were unwelcoming, and the women she met weren’t interested in literature. Her search for belonging finally led her to the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), an organization of lesbians based in San Francisco.
Gittings went on to edit DOB’s magazine, cofound the National Gay Task Force, march for federal workers who had lost their jobs because they were gay, and successfully pressure the American Psychological Association to remove homosexuality from its manual of psychiatric disorders. Comfortable in her skin at last, she became known as the mother of the gay rights movement.
Adapted from She Did It! 21 Women Who Changed the Way We Think, by Caldecott Medal winner Emily Arnold McCully (Disney-Hyperion/AARP). Go to aarp.org/shedidit.