Women’s History: 3 Leaders You Should Know

The tale of women in leadership roles is also a story of suffering and sacrifice.

With undying persistence, that’s how they overcome and move ahead.

The National Women’s History Museum, one of Federally Employed Women’s sponsors, hosts a collection of stories about important figures in women’s history.

The following are excerpts from the collection; here are three leaders that FEW members should know.

Malala Yousafzai

Malala Yousafzai became the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for her work advocating for the rights of women and girls.

Her father, who played a pivotal role in her life, was a teacher who ran a girls’ school in Pakistan, where the family lived. He believed Yousafzai should have all of the same opportunities as boys. But by the time she turned 10, Taliban extremists took control of their region. And before long, girls were banned from attending school. Owning a television, playing music and dancing were all prohibited.

By 2009, the Taliban had destroyed more than 400 schools. As a response to the dismantling of girls’ education in her country, Yousafzai started to blog secretly for the British Broadcasting Corporation about life under Taliban rule and her desire to go to school. Over the years, Yousafzai and her father began speaking out in support of girls’ education in the media. By 2011, she was nominated for the International Children’s Peace Prize. Although she didn’t win, she did earn Pakistan’s National Youth Peace Prize.

But that type of recognition made her a target.

On October 9, 2012, the 15-year-old was on a bus returning from school with her friends. Two members of the Taliban stopped the bus and asked, “Who is Malala?” When they identified her, they shot Yousafzai in the head. 

Fortunately, she was airlifted to a Pakistani military hospital and then taken to an intensive care unit in England. Although she suffered no brain damage, the left side of her face was paralyzed.

On her 16th birthday, Yousafzai spoke at the United Nations and published her autobiography entitled, “I am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban.” She was awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought by the European Parliament for her activism.

In 2014, Yousafzai and her father established a fund to advocate for women and girls around the world. Later that year, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, becoming the youngest person to be named a Nobel laureate at the age of 17.

To read more of her story and other special women, visit the National Women’s History Museum.

Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou is a world-famous author, known as a pioneer for her autobiographical writing style, as well as a poet, dancer, singer, activist and scholar.

Her work was influenced by a traumatic childhood event at the age of 7 years old when she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. The perpetrator was killed upon his release from prison. As a result, Angelou felt her confession about the sexual abuse played a role in the man’s death, and she became mute for six years.

In the 1950s, African American writers in New York City formed the Harlem Writers Guild to nurture and support the publication of Black authors. Angelou was one of the Guild’s early members. During these years, Angelou began writing her most famous work, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, an autobiography of her life. The book was published in 1969, and she was nominated for the National Book Award the same year. Her autobiography has since been translated into numerous languages, and it has sold more than a million copies.

Angelou is also noted for her many and varied singing and dancing styles, including her calypso music performances. She has written numerous poetry volumes, such as her first book of poetry, entitled Just Give me a Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie. She has also recorded spoken albums of her poetry, including “On the Pulse of the Morning,” for which she won the Grammy for Best Spoken Album in 1994. The poem was originally written for and delivered at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993. She also won a Grammy in 1996 and again in 2003 for her spoken albums of poetry.

Angelou died on May 28, 2014. Several memorials were held in her honor including those at Wake Forest University and Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco.

To read more about her story and other special women, visit the National Women’s History Museum.

Gloria Steinem

Gloria Steinem, a journalist and trailblazing feminist, became one of the most visible leaders of the women’s movement in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Steinem started her professional career as a journalist in New York, writing freelance pieces for various publications. Getting plumb assignments was tough for women in the late 1950s and 1960s, when men ran the newsrooms and women were largely relegated to secretarial and behind-the-scenes research roles. Steinem’s early articles tended to be for what was then called “the women’s pages,” lifestyle or service features about such female-centered or fashion topics as nylon stockings. Steinem once recalled that, “When I suggested political stories to The New York Times Sunday Magazine, my editor just said something like, ‘I don’t think of you that way.’”

Undeterred, Steinem pushed on, seeking more substantial social and political reporting assignments. She gained national attention in 1963 when Show magazine hired her to go undercover to report on the working conditions at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Club. While Steinem’s expose—“I Was a Playboy Bunny”—revealed the not-so-glamorous, sexist and underpaid life of the bunny/waitresses, Steinem struggled to be taken seriously as a journalist after this assignment. She worked hard to make a name for herself, and in 1968, she helped found New York magazine, where she became an editor and political writer.

At New York magazine, Steinem reported on political campaigns and progressive social issues, including the women’s liberation movement. In fact, Steinem first spoke publicly in 1969 at a speak-out event to legalize abortion in New York State, where she shared the story of the abortion she had overseas when she was 22 years old. The event proved life-changing, sparking Steinem’s feminism and engagement with the women’s movement. She attended and spoke at numerous protests and demonstrations, and her strong intellect and good looks made her an in-demand media guest and movement spokesperson.

In 1970, feminist activists staged a take-over of Ladies Home Journal, arguing that the magazine only offered articles on housekeeping but failed to cover women’s rights and the women’s movement. Steinem soon realized the value of a women’s movement magazine and joined forces with journalists Patricia Carbine and Letty Cottin Pogrebin to found Ms. magazine. It debuted in 1971 as an insert in New York magazine. In 1972, Ms. became an independent, regular circulation magazine. Steinem remained an editor and writer for the magazine for the next 15 years and continues in an emeritus capacity to the present.

Steinem’s life has been dedicated to the cause of women’s rights, as she led marches and toured the country as an in-demand speaker. In 1972, Steinem and feminists such as Congresswoman Bella Abzug, Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm and feminist Betty Friedan formed the National Women’s Political Caucus. It continues to support gender equality and to ensure the election of more pro-equality women to public office. Other organizations Steinem has co-founded in her vast career include the Women’s Action Alliance (1971), which promotes non-sexist, multi-racial children’s education; the Women’s Media Center (2004) to promote positive images of women in media; Voters for Choice (1977), a prochoice political action committee; and the Ms. Foundation for Women. In the 1990s, she helped establish Take Our Daughters to Work Day, the first national effort to empower young girls to learn about career opportunities.

In 2000, at age 66, the long single Steinem married for the first time in a Cherokee ceremony in Oklahoma. Her husband, entrepreneur and activist David Bale, sadly died of lymphoma four years later.

An award-winning and prolific writer, Steinem has authored several books, including a biography on Marilyn Monroe, and the best-selling My Life on the Road. Her work has also been published and reprinted in numerous anthologies and textbooks. In 2013, President Barack Obama presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor. In her honor, in 2017, Rutgers University created The Gloria Steinem Endowed Chair in Media, Culture and Feminist Studies.

To read more about her story and other special women, visit the National Women’s History Museum.

About Federally Employed Women

Federally Employed Women (FEW) helps more than one million women in the military and civilian workforce become strategic leaders with its four-pillar program: training, legislation, diversity and compliance. Since 1968, the nonprofit has advocated for equity and diversity for women. FEW works toward advancing women in government with cutting-edge training, nationwide networking and invaluable insight. For more information, please visit FEW.org.