Wednesday, March 23, 2005

10 American Women Who Changed the World

In honor of Women's History Month, Encarta salutes the following powerful, influential women. These American women played pivotal roles in their respective fields. Without their contributions, the world would not be the same today.

To learn about contemporary counterparts to these great women, see our list of the 10 most powerful American Women.

Sacagawea (1787?-1812)
Her willing participation helped the Lewis and Clark Expedition convey peaceful intentions to people they encountered. Without Sacagawea's linguistic skills, diplomacy, and courage, the expedition could have ended in failure or conflict, causing the westward expansion in the United States to take a different course. The dollar coin minted in her honor correctly indicates that she made the journey to the Pacific with her infant son strapped to her back.

Harriett Beecher Stowe (1811-1896)
Stowe's book, Uncle Tom's Cabin, put a human face on the cruelty of slavery. The book's impact was rapid and incredibly widespread for the time--500,000 copies sold within five years of its 1852 publication. The powerful message helped crystallize the militant antislavery movement and bolster Union resolve in the Civil War.

Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906)
For 50 years, Anthony led the struggle to gain the vote for women. Anthony acknowledged Elizabeth Cady Stanton as the founder of the women's rights movement, but Anthony's achievement lay in her inspiration and perseverance in bringing together vast numbers of people of both sexes around the single goal of the vote. This was achieved after her death, in 1920, when the 19th Amendment granted universal suffrage in the United States.

Mary Cassatt (1844-1926)
Before Cassatt, the art world was essentially closed to women. Cassatt's skill at portraying light, unconventional angles, and informal, natural human gestures gained her acceptance as the only American and the only female artist among the impressionists at their height. Her success as an artist helped clear the way for subsequent generations of female artists.

Gertrude Stein (1874-1946)
Stein enjoyed a successful career as a writer, but she left a deeper imprint on 20th-century culture as a tireless patron, critic, and supporter of modern, experimental art and literature. In her Paris studio she brought together and influenced writers such as Ernest Hemingway and Thornton Wilder and visual artists including Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse.

Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962)
In 1932, Eleanor Roosevelt privately declared, "I never wanted to be a president's wife." Rather than settling into a role she did not like, she rewrote the rules. Her influence over the president's policies was unprecedented, and she helped drive policy concerning women, civil rights, and poverty. After President Roosevelt's death in 1945, she became U.S. representative to the United Nations General Assembly, where she was primary author of the UN's 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Katharine Hepburn (1907-2003)
Hepburn's portrayals of self-confident, often professional women were both a reflection and a driving force in the changes in gender relations underway in American society. Hepburn dealt with Hollywood on her own terms--appearing as she liked in slacks and no makeup, and not granting interviews or photo shoots--and took home an unequalled four Academy Awards for acting.

Babe Didrikson Zaharias (1911-1956)
An excellent athlete in seemingly every sport she tried, Zaharias won two gold medals in track and field at the 1932 Olympics. She then turned her attention to golf, won every major golf championship at least once, and during one stretch won 17 consecutive tournaments. When cancer cut short her athletic career, she found a new outlet for her strength and drive, becoming an influential advocate for medical research.

Julia Child (1912-2004)
More than any other single figure in history, Child had a direct impact on the way Americans eat. Her disarming personality and boundless delight in good food helped viewers overcome their discomfort with unfamiliar ingredients and exotic dishes. A direct precursor to Martha Stewart and today's celebrity chefs, Child caught the postwar generation's wave of newfound prosperity and, for many, tranformed the simple act of eating from a necessity to a potentially sublime experience.

Rosa Parks (1913- )
With a simple, personal act of defiance--refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man--Parks opened a decisive chapter in the civil rights movement. Her arrest prompted the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, and the quiet dignity of her act and demeanor set a high standard for acts of civil disobedience that followed.

No comments: