No single milestone can serve as a precise marker of social progress, but if we look for a time when American women gained the freedom to invent new roles for themselves and to reinvent traditional jobs in completely new forms, we must consider the expansion and strengthening of women’s roles that took shape in 1960s and 1970s — and the earlier generations of women who helped make these changes possible. As early as 1916, a nurse named Margaret Sanger laid the foundations for cultural and health policy reform, opening America’s first birth control clinic. Other pioneers, including Helen Keller and Margaret Mead, ignored traditional boundaries, permanently changing how Americans thought about the nature and limits of being human.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, women of achievement built on this legacy. They made medicine a focus, while reinventing other fields, refusing to let stereotypes confine them and taking their personal struggles public when they felt the public could benefit from what they had learned. Julia Child, who probably could have excelled in any profession, chose the kitchen — a setting that represented both female creativity and female repression — and became responsible for a cultural revolution.
In finding the courage to break boundaries, women achievers were well aware of the obstacles and costs they faced, but were too energized by possibility to turn back. Now it seems only natural for First Lady Michelle Obama to show a high level of achievement in multiple careers: attorney, college professor, community organizer, global role model, and — with equal poise, professionalism and commitment — mother.
Emily Dunning Barringer: Clara Barton: Alice Gertrude Bryant and Florence West Duckering: Elizabeth Blackwell: Mary Whiton Calkins: Mary Stuart Fisher: Justina Ford: Alice Hamilton: Grace Murray Hopper: Barbara McClintock: Maria Mitchell: Nettie Stevens: Lucy Hobbs Taylor: Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu: Dr. Tsai-Fan Yu: