Groundbreaking Women – Firsts in their field

In 1982, “Cagney and Lacey“, the first female buddy series, burst onto our TV screens. Inspired by a book that explored the treatment of women in Hollywood, Executive Producer Barney Rosenzweig decided to make a movie that portrayed women as they really are, not as they were characterized by the all-male Hollywood hierarchy. His initial intent was to create a funny movie that entertained. However, when Hollywood studios rejected the project, Barney, in desperation, turned toward the small screen. To his surprise, Barney’s production evolved into something much more than entertainment. “I became aware of how women were treated as a minority, of their second-class status,” Barney said.

“Once your consciousness becomes aware of something, it sees it everywhere. I’d be in a hotel and notice that a man’s shirt costs 90 cents to launder while a woman’s costs two to three dollars.” This awakening resulted in a series that challenged female stereotypes. It brought issues out into the open that were previously considered unsuitable for TV. “Cagney and Lacey” explored such topics as women’s relationship to power, alcoholism, abortion, date rape, racial violence and homelessness. The show broke ground and, in doing so, helped change America’s thinking about women and their role in society.

Within the last 30 years, women have also broken ground in many areas including politics, the military, sports, business, science and the entertainment industry. Usually when we think of ground breaking, we think of plowing or digging our way down as in a construction project. However, these women broke ground in the way a seedling does. Rooted in their values, passion for their work, intelligence and a vitality that enabled them to persevere, each success as well as each disappointment propelled them upwards until they emerged as the first in their field.

Having broken ground, these women made it easier for others to follow. Yet, the lamp they held for us illuminated only a short distance ahead of where they stood. Unable to see far down the road, their way was uncertain. For those who are first in their fields, the journey is unknowable and the risks, great. Wondering what it takes to be a groundbreaker, me* Magazine contacted several extraordinary women to find out what hurdles they faced, how they got through the difficulties, and why they ultimately succeeded.

We asked Linda Chavez-Thompson, the highest-ranking female executive and highestranking Hispanic of the AFL-CIO, whether she intended to crash through the glass ceiling when she began her career. She laughed and replied, “From the ages of 10 to 20, I worked 10 hours a day in the fields of West Texas, hoeing cotton. I just wanted an inside job with air-conditioning so I could wear nice clothes.” Linda got that inside job, moving from a secretary for the union to a representative and then an organizer. Over the course of 40 years, as she worked her way up the ladder, each step felt to Linda as if she had achieved success. Similarly, the other women we interviewed did not recognize the heights they would reach when they first started their careers. Their lives, like Barney Rosenzweig’s TV series, evolved over time.

“If we don’t have a woman president this year, we will soon. Women bring a different viewpoint to the table. We need more women around the negotiating table and in public office.”  – Linda Chavez-Thompson – Highest ranking female executive of the AFL-CIO

“In 20 years, I see the absolute necessity for focusing on the elderly as well as the environment. If we don’t, it could bring society to a grinding halt. The single greatest problem we are facing today is youth violence. Early education, public housing and safety are paramount to our society.” – Janet Reno – First woman appointed U.S. Attorney General

Most groundbreakers faced enormous hurdles throughout their careers. After receiving her law degree in 1960, Geraldine Ferraro spent the next 13 years as a stay-at-home mom. By the time she returned to work in 1974, criminal law had changed and she had to go back and re-learn it. “I was 38 years old,” she told us, “and terrified of competing with a bunch of young people who had just graduated from law school.” Ferraro, the first woman elected to Congress in Queens, New York, and the first woman to run for Vice President, felt “I always had to prove myself because I was representing 51 percent of the population.”

For those who are first in their fields, the journey is unknowable and the risk, great.

After Janet Reno, the first woman appointed U.S. Attorney General, graduated from Harvard Law School, she could not get a job. Eventually, she was hired, but it took her 14 years to become a partner in her law firm.

Arlene Blum, who holds a Ph.D. in biophysical chemistry, was the first woman to lead a team of women mountain climbers up Alaska’s Mount McKinley. “Society at that time and my family,” Arlene said, “doubted that women had the physical strength, stamina, determination and technical skills to climb the highest mountain or become a chemistry professor.”

“Once Hillary gets elected president, there’s nothing else for us to really worry about. Once you are elected President of the United States, the most powerful position in the entire world, you tell me, what job is there a woman can’t do?” – Geraldine Ferraro – First woman to run for Vice President of the United States

“We can work together for a better world with men and women of goodwill—those who radiate the intrinsic goodness of humankind. To do so effectively, the world needs a global ethic with values that give meaning to life experiences and, more than religious institutions and dogmas, sustain the non-material dimension of humanity.” Wangari Muta Maathai – First African woman awarded the Nobel Peace Prize

Speaking of her own career hurdles, Linda Chavez-Thompson said, “In the Latino community, a woman wasn’t supposed to head up anything; she was supposed to be second to her husband. When I became a union representative and started speaking out on issues, I became somebody that people saw as pushy, arrogant, opinionated and mule-headed.” The biggest hurdles I faced were getting people to listen to my opinions, respect me and follow my lead. For a long time, people called me ‘the Mouth of the South,’ which hurt me. They called me that because I wouldn’t shut up. If I saw someone who needed defending, I would be there, whether it was my business or not, because I didn’t think it was fair. ‘Linda,’ they would say, “What can we do to make you go away?”

“Playing tennis was almost secondary for me in the peak of my career”, Billie Jean King told us. “We were so busy trying to get the Women’s Tennis Association and the Virginia Slims tour going that I didn’t have the time to do the ‘normal’ things the players do now like practice, get proper training and, most important, rest.”

It seems we were always on the go, from meetings to media appearances to more meetings. In looking back, it was a gigantic struggle to put things in place for a tour, to make sure we got equal prize money at the major tournaments and to put women’s tennis on the map. We did all of that so the players today would have time to focus on the sport and have time for proper preparation.”

In 1977, Nobel Peace Prize-winner, Wangari Muta Maathai, founded the Green Belt Movement. Aligned with women’s groups, this grassroots environmental, non-governmental organization has planted over 30 million trees in Kenya to prevent soil erosion and improve the quality of people’s lives. In the 1980s, Maathai’s politician husband divorced her because he thought she was too strong-minded, and he was unable to control her. Over the course of her career, Maathai has experienced ridicule, verbal abuse, threats, imprisonment and, on several occasions, has been forbidden to leave her country. Today, as an elected Member of Parliament, she continues to fight for the environment, women and democracy.

“There is currently a new world of opportunities for women in mountaineering and science. I trust this will continue and grow so that it is indeed true that a woman’s place is on top of mountains or anywhere else she might choose to go.” – Arlene Blum – First woman to lead a woman’s team up Mount McKinley

“With men controlling 90 percent of the media, we need more women in the media, especially in decision-making roles.We also need more women in science, math and politics.To shape our future properly, women and men need to walk side-by-side.” – Billie Jean King – Dominated world tennis; ranked #1 seven times

Faced with such adversity, how did these women succeed? Moreover, why didn’t they just quit? Each of the women had mentors and a support system that were an enormous source of feedback, advice and comfort. “My parents and my brother are the real reasons for my success,” Billie Jean King explained.

“They helped me develop a relatively simple plan that focused on the importance of delayed gratification and the need to accept responsibility. My parents’ life lessons and my brother’s emotional support…gave me the confidence to push the envelope and not be afraid of success.”

These women were not given anything because they were women. They made it to the top because they are smart and worked extremely hard in their careers. Education was another factor in their success. “The privilege of a higher education, especially outside Africa, broadened my original horizon,” Maathai said.

As expected, to move forward, they had to develop a thick skin. “My mother was a very strong influence in my life,” said Geraldine Ferraro. “My father died suddenly when I was eight years old. As a child, there were times when I complained, and my mother would say to me, ‘There’s nothing you can do about this. Move on and make the best of what’s in front of you.’ That’s how I got through the campaign and everything else before and since.”

According to Linda Chavez-Thompson, “There were some tough times when I would cry because no one valued my opinions, and I would feel sorry for myself. I would go home and think, ‘Why do I continue to do this? Why don’t I just find a job washing dishes? I’d be a lot happier.’ Then the next morning I would wake up and say to myself, ‘I don’t care what they think; the membership is happy with me.’ So I would go to work and face another battle.”

Perhaps the most extraordinary quality of these ground-breakers is their big picture view of their achievements.

They understand that their roles and the results they achieved were more important than who they are personally. Because of them, “We have come quite a distance because we are not being held back in the same way we were 30 years ago,” said Ferraro. “I see nothing but a great future for women and little girls. And since I have five granddaughters, I’m looking forward to that.”

Comedian, actress, author, recording artist, spokesperson, gourmet cook, concert pianist, artist, philanthropist, humanitarian and loved by millions, Phyllis Diller turned 90 this year. Known for her wild hairdos and hearty laugh, Diller led the way in stand-up comedy for a whole new generation of female comedians. In her heyday, Diller achieved a record that still stands today in the “Guinness Book of World Records” for delivering 12 punch lines per minute. Spending over 50 years making her audiences laugh, Diller states, “A smile is a curve that sets everything straight.” – Phyllis Diller – Groundbreaking stand-up comedian

More remarkable women…
Madeleine Albright – First woman Secretary of State (under President Bill Clinton).
Maya Angelou – Powerful writer, helped women overcome prejudice, poverty and abuse.
Bea Arthur – Actress; crusaded for women’s liberation.
Joan Baez – Folksinger, political activist.
Carol Moseley Braun – First African-American woman elected to the U.S. Senate (D-Illinois).
Suzy Chaffee – Olympic skier; first woman to serve on board of U.S. Olympic Committee.
Eileen Collins – First woman pilot of a space shuttle.
Donna de Varona – Youngest Olympic competitor; broke unprecedented number of swimming records.
Jane Goodall – Anthropologist; changed and enriched field of primatology.
Dr. Mae Jemison – First African-American female astronaut in space.
Sherry Lansing – First woman to head a major motion picture studio (Paramount).
Penny Marshall – First woman to direct two films grossing $100 million dollars each.
Patsy Takemoto Mink – First Asian-American Congresswoman (D-Hawaii).
Toni Morrison – First African-American woman to win Nobel Prize for Literature.
Diana Nyad – Record-breaking female long-distance swimmer; swam from Bimini to Florida.
Sandra Day O’Connor – First woman named to U.S. Supreme Court.
Nancy Pelosi – First female Speaker of the House of Representatives.
Condoleezza Rice – Secretary of State, professor, diplomat.
Dr. Sally Ride – First American woman in space.
Patricia Schroeder – Trailblazing leader in House of Representatives; her platform, national family policy.
Eunice K. Shriver – Established Presidential Committee on Mental Retardation; Special Olympics.
Gloria Steinem – Feminist leader; trailblazing journalist.
Barbara Walters -First female to anchor a news broadcast when she co-anchored the “ABC Evening News” with Harry Reasoner. Also the first female co-anchor of the “Today” show on NBC.
First published in me* Magazine