Original Illustration by Stephanie DeAngelis
There are 3.25 billion women and girls on the planet—that's about half of the entire human population. With odds like those, it's safe to bet that there are women and girls of all backgrounds and in every corner of the world performing big and small acts of resistance on a daily basis. Some do so by marching, some by breaking unfair rules, and some by sharing painful stories of exploitation and discrimination. We hear their fearless voices and witness their displays of strength every day, and since today is International Women's Day, we're highlighting 11 women who protect our rights through policy change and legislative reform.
But before we dive into our roundup, we want to look back at the first woman who served the country from her seat at the table, Jeannette Rankin. Her first day as a congresswoman was March 4, 1917, a little over a century ago. A true visionary, her memorable statement about women in leadership positions rings true today: "We're half the people; we should be half the Congress."
And while women only make up 19% of Congress in 2017, there are plenty of facts and figures that fill us with hope and optimism. Thanks to the heroic figures behind these statistics, we're honoring Rankin's legacy and dream of reaching a political landscape that reflects America's diversity and upholds our vision of tolerance. So even though we aren't heading to the Oval Office just yet, these 11 women in government remind us that we're well on our way. Scroll through to find out what they're doing to change the world and why they empower us to continue marching ahead together.
Before Kamala Harris was elected to serve as a U.S. Senator, she was an attorney fighting for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. Next, she became California's attorney general. Not only was she the first woman to hold the position, but she was also the first person of African American and South Asian descent to be elected to the senate.
"My mother told me: 'You may be the first to do many things, but make sure you’re not the last.'"
As a civil rights leader as well as a public safety and education advocate, she stands in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and is committed to fighting mass incarceration. She believes in data-driven, evidence-based methods for fighting crime and developing rehabilitation programs. And when asked what she does for fun, Harris tells the San Francisco Chronicle, "I love SoulCycle, it’s like going to the club," and “I read recipes." Sounds like she's pretty relatable.
In 2010, Victoria Kolakowski was elected to be an Alameda County Superior Court judge. Not only is she a first generation college graduate, but she's also the first openly transgender person to serve as a California trial judge. The Louisiana Bar prohibited her from taking the exam because of her gender identity. She appealed the decision and won within three days.
Prior to her current position, she co-chaired the board of directors at the Transgender Law Center, which works within the legal system to ensure that everyone, regardless of background and identity expression, is treated with compassion and dignity to live safely and freely. And when she's not with her gavel, she's a volunteer clergy member at her church.
Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts has been in the spotlight recently. But before she was elected to the Senate, she was a practicing lawyer and taught law courses at Harvard University for 20 years. Over the same stretch of time, she wrote 10 books and over 100 articles. During the financial meltdown of 2008, she switched gears because she wanted to protect taxpayers by creating the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Dubbed the "new sheriff of Wall Street" by Time Magazine, she's well known for her efforts to protect the middle class by making sure that large, powerful corporations are held accountable when breaking the law or manipulating consumers. She also fights for student loan reform and is known for her resilience and determination to speak up for what she believes is right, no matter how unpopular her opinion is.
My mother was born on February 14, and she loved her special connection to Valentine’s Day. When I was a little girl, I bought some heart-shaped pans at the dime store. I still have my heart-shaped pans – and even though my mother is gone now, I still bake a heart-shaped cake every Valentine’s Day to remember her. But this year, I’m doing something more: I’m fighting for the Affordable Care Act to make sure everyone’s mother, grandmother, daughter, sister, wife, partner, friend and neighbor can get the health care they need to live longer, healthier lives. That seems like the right way to celebrate the people you love. Happy Valentine’s Day!
Rumana Ahmed is a Muslim American woman who was hired by the Obama administration to work in the Office of Public Engagement and the National Security Council (NCS) right after she graduated from college. As an advisor to President Barack Obama, she focused on a wide range of projects, from advancing relations with Cuba and Laos to advocating for women in business around the globe. She decided to keep her position at the NCS but left the white house after eight days with the Trump administration. Though no longer serving in the White House, she is still committed to dismantling racism and Islamophobia while also protecting national security and global peace.
In her first-person article for the Atlantic, Ahmed writes about her experience in the White House as a Muslim woman with intelligence, clarity, raw sincerity, and love. "My father taught me a Bengali proverb inspired by Islamic scripture: 'When a man kicks you down, get back up, extend your hand, and call him brother.' Peace, patience, persistence, respect, forgiveness, and dignity. These were the values I’ve carried through my life and my career," she says.
Sally Yates is the former acting U.S. Attorney General. She enjoyed a relatively low profile until recently when she challenged the constitutionality of President Donald Trump's executive order, and thus refused to enforce it. She believed the order was discriminatory, which was then echoed by the federal appeals panel. Despite being dismissed by President Trump for her dissent, she served the Justice Department for almost 30 years, a time span in which both Republican and Democratic parties have held office.
Unsurprisingly, she comes from a long line of visionary women. Her grandmother was one of the first women admitted to the State Bar of Georgia, and her mother was a judge on the Georgia Court of Appeals. Similarly, she was the second highest official in the Justice Department under Loretta Lynch, the first African American woman to serve as the U.S. Attorney General. Given her role models and colleagues, it's no surprise that Yates has inspired people everywhere to stand up for what they believe in. #ThankyouSally.
Stephanie Murphy is the first Vietnamese American woman elected to Congress. A newer member, this central Florida representative ran for office because she believes "families deserve a voice in Congress who will fight for them—not a political party." She worked for the U.S. Secretary of Defense specializing in counterterrorism and as an educator, as well as a consultant in the private sector, so her diverse background allows her to reach both sides of the aisle.
Some of her primary concerns include promoting small business growth, investing in green energy, and providing people from disenfranchised communities with access to education. She's also been outspoken about immigration reform, and when she was a baby, her family lived in a Vietnamese refugee camp before escaping by boat and resettling in Virginia after the U.S. Navy found them at sea.
Megan Smith was the third-ever Chief Technology Officer, and the first woman to fulfill the role. She was appointed by the Obama administration and stepped down from her position in the White House in January 2017, but we're sure that won't be her last contribution to science. Not only has her work in technology and data innovation benefited national security, education, and our environment, but she also uses her position of power to condemn gender-based violence and to uplift women and girls.
"Rosie is a mathematician, a code-cracker, not just a riveter."
And she's doing so on a global scale. Before her service in the government, she co-founded the Malala Fund. Malala Yousafzai is a Pakistani activist and the youngest Nobel Peace Prize recipient ever who fights for youth and gender equality despite the acts of brutality she has endured. The Malala Fund is an organization that Smith helped spearhead to "provide Malala with a fund she can direct so when she is well and ready, she can pursue her vision for girls education and empowerment."
Terry O'Neill is much more than just the president of the National Organization for Women (NOW), though that's a huge feat in and of itself. For those of you who aren't familiar with the NOW, its "purpose is to take action through intersectional grassroots activism to promote feminist ideals, lead societal change, eliminate discrimination, and achieve and protect the equal rights of all women and girls in all aspects of social, political, and economic life."
With experience as a law professor, political organizer, and activist for the LGBTQIA community as well as advocating for racial justice, equal voting rights, and identity-based discrimination under the constitution, her track record is seriously admirable. O'Neill's commitment to applying an intersectional feminist framework has been an effective strategy to beget empirical change. Moreover, vocalizing the importance of intersectional feminism helps create a more inclusive collective conscious around social issues.
Tulsi Gabbard is currently serving in Congress as the Representative for Hawaii's 2nd District. At the age of 21, she became the youngest person elected to the Hawaii state legislature. Later, Gabbard earned another "first." Indeed, she became the first state official to step down from public office to serve in a war zone at her own volition. She was deployed with her fellow soldiers and served two tours of duty in the Middle East, and she continues her service as a Major. She's one of two female combat veterans who has also served in the U.S. Congress.
Beyond her personal experience, she's a huge advocate for renewable energy innovation, creating affordable housing, reforming the criminal justice system, fighting for marriage equality, protecting Native Hawaiians, supporting universal healthcare, and ensuring that women have the legal right to make their own family planning decisions without the infringement of government. As if her status as an American hero and compassionate congresswomen weren't impressive enough, she's also an incredible surfer and martial artist. Talk about a rad woman.
Though this female politician isn't exactly a newcomer on the Hill, she's certainly a trailblazer who continues to push the boundaries, and for that, we say she's worth mentioning. Tammy Baldwin is the first openly gay senator in U.S. history and has served on both the Education Committee as well as the Criminal Justice Committee. And as a devoted American leader from Wisconsin, she emphasizes that she hopes to "make a difference, not history." She's also willing to cross party lines for bills and legislation she believes in, which is exactly what a leader should do. For example, during Goerge W. Bush's presidency, Baldwin passed bipartisan legislation that expands breast and cervical cancer screenings for women across the nation.
Good judges make rulings that uphold the law and deliver justice while also treating each case with compassion and honor. Though she was just appointed by Obama in 2009, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Sonia Sotomayor has already earned a reputation as a pioneer. Ever since her appointment, she has voted to protect defendants rights', reform the problematic criminal justice system, and fight against identity-based discrimination. Justice Sotomayor is the first Latina to serve on the bench.
A first-generation Puerto Rican American raised by a single mother, she was raised to value education and work hard to achieve her dreams. Unsurprisingly, she was an active undergraduate at Princeton University before continuing her career as a student at Yale Law School. Before she became a supreme court judge, she was a professor at the NYU School of Law and Columbia Law School, educating youth to pursue justice like she did.
It takes a galaxy to create effective change, but it takes individuals to make a galaxy. Do these women empower you to stand up for tolerance and inspire you to take on the world? Sound off in the comments below.