Today, in celebration of International Women's Day, people are being asked to: "Call on the masses or call on yourself to help forge a better working world—a more inclusive, gender equal world." In honor of this, here's a look at seven inspiring women and the work they did to create a more equal world.
Gloria Steinem is a writer and advocate for women's rights—she started Ms. magazine, co-founded the National Women's Political Caucus and attended 1977's National Women's Conference. In 1970, she spoke to the Senate about the Equal Rights Amendment, saying, "I have been refused service in public restaurants, ordered out of public gathering places and turned away from apartment rentals. All for the clearly stated, sole reason that I am a woman."
Today's society is more equal and inclusive thanks in part to Steinem's efforts (though despite her support, the ERA fell short of the number of states needed for ratification by its 1982 deadline). Work still has to be done for gender equality, but Steinem has hope for the future—as she noted in 2016, "I have seen profound changes and they help me have faith that they will continue."
Reverend Addie Wyatt
Addie Wyatt, who worked in a meatpacking plant for years, understood the concerns of working women, and spent the better part of her union career trying to improve their lives. As a leader in the United Packinghouse Workers of America (she was the first African-American woman to become president of a local branch), Wyatt sought contracts that offered equal pay for equal work, and fought against on-the-job sexism and discrimination.
Increased representation and opportunities for women and minorities were another Wyatt initiative. And she pushed for more equitable treatment so women and minorities wouldn't be the first to lose their jobs when layoffs hit. The impact of her work was recognized by Eleanor Roosevelt, who invited Wyatt to join the President's Commission on the Status of Women in 1961. Wyatt also became a co-founder of the Coalition of Labor Union Women in 1974.
Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique (1963) told women they weren't abnormal if they desired more than marriage, homemaking and caring for children—and the popular response to the book showed its author had hit a nerve. Friedan went on to fight for women's rights by co-founding the National Women's Political Caucus, the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (which became NARAL Pro-Choice America) and the National Organization for Women. As NOW's first president, from 1966 to 1970, she organized the Women's Strike for Equality, which took place on the 50th anniversary of women's suffrage: August 26, 1970.
Friedan has received justifiable criticism for her focus on the needs of middle- and upper-class white women and her bigotry against homosexuality (she deemed lesbians a "Lavender Menace" to the feminist movement, a sentiment she later repudiated). However, she deserves credit for inspiring millions to demand more opportunity.
The birth control pill was approved as a contraceptive by the FDA in 1960—but in Connecticut, it was illegal, thanks to an 1879 law that outlawed using all forms of contraception. In November 1961, Estelle Griswold, director of the Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut, challenged this legislation by opening a birth control clinic in New Haven with Dr. C. Lee Buxton. By fighting for women to be able to control their fertility, Griswold wanted to give them more freedom to determine the course of their lives.
Griswold and Buxton's convictions were upheld by Connecticut's Supreme Court—but when lawyer Catherine Roraback appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, a 7-2 decision ended up throwing out Connecticut's archaic law. Citing a right to privacy, Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) legalized birth control for all married couples. The same legal reasoning was used in the 1972 case that okayed contraceptive use for unmarried couples, and 1973's Roe v. Wade gave women the right to terminate pregnancies.
Martha Griffiths was an advocate for women throughout her time serving in the House of Representatives (1955 to 1974), but one of her most lasting accomplishments came during the fight for civil rights legislation in 1964. A conservative politician who opposed the proposed laws decided to introduce an amendment outlawing sex discrimination in employment—not because he wanted to support women, but because he felt it could stop the entire legislative process.
Griffiths waited for her colleague to speak, and for her fellow representatives to laugh at the idea of protecting women, then noted that their mirth demonstrated "that women were a second–class sex." She also argued that without the amendment, women who didn't fall into a protected category of race, color, religion or national origin would be left with no recourse against job discrimination. Her tactics worked—Title VII of the Civil Rights Act included sex as a protected category. It didn't end employment discrimination—Griffiths herself would work to strengthen the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission established by the law—but it gave women a stronger foothold from which to demand better treatment in the workplace.
A Columbia-educated lawyer, Florynce Kennedy followed her own advice of: "Don’t agonize. Organize." She also truly understood the power of attention-grabbing protests: in 1968, she participated in a picket of the Miss America pageant; five years later, she organized a "pee-in" at Harvard in order to highlight the lack of women's bathroom facilities. A quick-witted speaker, Kennedy often appeared with Gloria Steinem.
Kennedy helped establish the National Women's Political Caucus and the Coalition Against Racism and Sexism; in 1971, she founded the Feminist Party. When Shirley Chisholm made her barrier-breaking run to become the Democratic presidential candidate in 1972 (she was the first woman and the first African American to seek a major political party's presidential nod), many women and male politicians of color backed other candidates. But Kennedy's Feminist Party supported Chisholm, who won 152 delegates.
Dolores Huerta was a founder, along with Cesar Chávez, of the National Farm Workers Association, which became United Farm Workers. Her accomplishments in this role included improved working conditions and wages, which made life easier for male and female workers alike. She also negotiated for equal wages for men and women, and encouraged women to take on jobs previously reserved for men. In addition, Huerta urged the union and Chávez to welcome women into leadership roles and involve them in decision-making.
Huerta, who's referred to herself as a "born-again feminist," has continued to fight for women's rights as part of her organizing work. She took part in the Feminist Majority Foundation's "Feminization of Power: 50/50 by the Year 2000" campaign to get more Latinas into public office. And on January 21, 2017, she was one of the millions who participated in a Women's March.
Featured photo: An International Women's Day March in 1977. (Photo: Fairfax Media/Fairfax Media via Getty Images)