Feminist icon Gloria Steinem, Barbara Walters and Mary Tyler Moore among inspiring women on New York list

Tracy Schuhmacher, Democrat & Chronicle
·13 mins read

Lady Liberty, standing tall and proud in New York Harbor, shines a light for democracy and freedom, but she’s also a fitting emblem of the role that women have played in the state of New York and in our nation as a whole.

As the epicenter of the women’s suffrage movement, New York can lay claim to being the birthplace of women's rights. The work of Susan B. Anthony is well known, but it’s important to remember that it was a group of 15 women who were arrested for voting in 1872, not just her. And many of the brave suffragists leading the way — including Anthony — did not live to see the history-changing results of their work.

Others had to carry the torch, and that legacy continues to this day.

In August, America will mark the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, when women gained the legal right to vote. To commemorate the occasion, the USA TODAY Network is naming 10 American women from each of our 50 states, and the District of Columbia, as Women of the Century.

Among the requirements for this recognition were U.S. citizenship and having lived at some point between 1920 and 2020.

The work of the suffragists largely took place before this time frame, but other remarkable women followed their lead and made life-changing contributions to our country, in all sorts of realms — from sports to law.

Are you registered to vote? Take the first step to making sure your vote counts.

Narrowing the list to 10 names meant leaving out many worthy people. But our aim was to recognize influential women in different walks of life, with achievements in diverse spheres of influence.

So some remarkable people couldn’t be included — people like Rochesterian Louise Slaughter, who was elected to the House of Representatives in 1986 and successfully ran for re-election 15 times. And Deborah Anne Batts, an African American woman who was the first openly gay federal judge. She presided over important cases involving corruption, terrorism and the Central Park Five civil case in her 25 years on the bench.

But our final list does include women from many generations, spread across the state and across professions. We think the suffragists who helped pave the way would be pleased — and fascinated — with New York’s Women of the Century.

Who is your Woman of the Century? Did we miss a woman you think should be on our list? We’d like to hear from you.

Bella Abzug​

Politician, activist

(1920-1998)

Bella Abzug
Bella Abzug

Bella Abzug was a politician with the heart of an activist.

Born Bella Savitsky in the Bronx in 1920, Abzug studied law at Columbia University. She then spent two decades representing the powerless, the poor, minorities and women.

She won election to the House of Representatives in 1970 and, on her first day of the legislative session, she introduced a measure calling for U.S. troops to withdraw from Vietnam. She also sought to end the draft and to launch an investigation into J. Edgar Hoover. For a freshman member of Congress, it brought her major attention.

Also in her first term, she coauthored the Child Development Act, aimed at helping women by ensuring low-cost day care. She also worked for the rights of lesbians and gays.

After serving three terms, she remained active politically. She co-founded the Women USA Fund for women’s equality and justice. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter named her the presiding officer of the National Commission for the Observance of International Women's Year. Later, as chair of New York City’s Commission on the Status of Women, she worked to get more women to serve in public office. Her life and style blazed the way for more women to enter politics.

Tarana Burke

Sexual assault survivor, founder of #MeToo

(1973- )

Tarana Burke
Tarana Burke

More than a decade after activist Tarana Burke started using the phrase “Me Too” on social media to raise awareness on sexual assault, the hashtag #MeToo became a rallying cry against sexual harassment and assault around the world.

In October 2017, actress Alyssa Milano stumbled upon Burke’s phrase in the wake of the sexual assault allegations against media mogul Harvey Weinstein, and urged survivors to use the hashtag to express solidarity.

The slogan struck a chord with millions of women across the world and launched a global movement against sexual misconduct. In 2017, Burke and other influential female activists were named "the silence breakers" by Time magazine.

Burke, who was born in a housing project in The Bronx, New York, was raped and sexually assaulted both as a child and as a teenager. As a teenager, she became involved in working to improve the lives of young girls living in marginalized communities. She's served as senior director at Girls for Gender Equity and, in 2018, she founded the organization 'me too.' International to further the work she started more than a decade ago.

Q&A: Tarana Burke on the power of empathy, the building block of the Me Too movement

Shirley Chisholm

First Black woman elected to Congress

(1924-2005)

Shirley Chisholm
Shirley Chisholm

In her groundbreaking 1968 election as the first Black congresswoman in the U.S. House of Representatives, Shirley Chisholm created a legacy of working to get Black people elected to public office.

Chisholm did the tough work of breaking barriers. Born in 1921 in Brooklyn, she was raised in Barbados for several years by her grandmother before returning to Brooklyn schools. In 1939, she entered the prestigious Girls High School and was greatly influenced by the work of writer W. E. B. Du Bois and activist Mary McLeod Bethune. She graduated cum laude from Brooklyn College in 1946 with a degree in sociology. She then enrolled in a master’s degree program at Columbia University, attending at night.

She went on to help elect the first Black judge in her district. She then won a seat in the New York State Assembly before being elected to Congress. In 1972, she became the first Black person to run for the nomination of a major party for president.

After a lifetime of public service, Chisholm was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993. She died in 2005. In 2015, was posthumously honored with a Presidential Medal of Freedom Award for meritorious service.

Crystal Eastman

Civil rights activist

(1881-1928)

Crystal Eastman
Crystal Eastman

During her relatively short life, Crystal Eastman excelled in many realms — all devoted to human rights.

She earned her law degree from New York University in 1907, when very few women worked in that field. Yet she became a successful labor lawyer, hired to research working conditions in Pittsburgh, which led to her influential report “Work Accidents and the Law.”

She was appointed to a New York state commission on labor, where she wrote the country’s first workers’ compensation laws. She continued that work as an industrial relations attorney in Woodrow Wilson’s administration.

She was also a suffragist and, later, an advocate for women’s rights; she co-wrote the first Equal Rights Amendment. Eastman also found time to co-found a civil liberties organization to champion dissenters’ rights during World War I — an organization that became the American Civil Liberties Union.

She worked as a peace advocate as one of the founders of the Woman’s Peace Party of New York, which became the Women’s International League of Peace and Freedom — the oldest women’s peace group in the country. In 2000, she was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York.

Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera

LGBTQ activists

Johnson (1945-1992), Rivera (1951-2002)

Marsha P. Johnson
Marsha P. Johnson
Sylvia Rivera
Sylvia Rivera

Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera were friends who served at the forefront of the LGBT liberation movement. Johnson, who was transgender, was among a group of Black activists who in the 1960s stood on the front lines of the LGBT liberation movement.

Johnson was an important figure in the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City. At the time, New York refused to grant licenses to bars that served gay people, so police entered the Stonewall Inn and began arresting patrons. But this time, people fought back, and a movement was born.

Rivera’s father was Puerto Rican and her mother Venezuelan, but her father abandoned the family and her mother died when she was young, leaving Rivera an orphan. The community of New York City drag queens took her in.

Johnson and Rivera became friends and co-founded STAR — Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries – a New York City organization that served young, homeless trans youth (at a time when the term "transgender" was barely in use).

Johnson has been the subject of several films, including a 2017 Netflix documentary, “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson.” She later became involved with the AIDS charity ACT UP in the 1980s. Rivera also worked to help fight poverty in New York and feed the hungry.

Mary Tyler Moore

Award-winning actor

(1936-2017)

Mary Tyler Moore
Mary Tyler Moore

Mary Tyler Moore revolutionized the image of women on TV on her way to becoming one of the most beloved TV actors of the 20th century. Two characters most defined her career — Laura Petrie on “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and single girl Mary Richards on her own show. Not bad from someone whose first stint on TV was as a dancing elf in a commercial.

“The Dick Van Dyke Show” ran at a time when Moore could cause a stir by wearing Capri pants instead of a dress. But it was "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," which premiered in 1970 and ran for seven years, that broke ground.

Her character, Mary Richards, was neither divorced nor widowed. She was a single woman determined “to make it on her own,” something new for TV. She won several Emmy awards for the show.

She appeared in other sitcoms and movies in the ensuing decades, but would always be known for the smiling and upbeat characters from those two shows — even as she endured personal tragedies, including the death of her son at 24 and her sister at age 21.

Margaret Sanger

Founder of Planned Parenthood

(1879-1966)

Margaret Sanger
Margaret Sanger

Sanger grew up poor in Corning, New York, one of 11 children — and those circumstances would help determine her life’s work. She became a nurse and moved with her husband to New York City in 1910, where the couple got to know progressive advocates such as Emma Goldman and Upton Sinclair. Partly due to her upbringing, Sanger came to believe that birth control was vital to solving the problem of poverty in the United States.

In 1914, Sanger began publishing “The Woman Rebel,” a feminist publication which advocated for birth control. Two years later, she founded the country’s first birth control clinic, in Brooklyn. She was arrested days later, and so began a battle that rages to this day.

In 1923, Sanger recruited social workers and female physicians for another clinic that would later evolve into the nonprofit Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

More controversy followed from her time with the eugenics movement, which she said could help in preventing birth defects. She repudiated the racial aspects of the movement, instead focusing on what she believed should be reproductive decisions based on an individual, not societal, basis. In the 1950s, long after retiring, she recruited a researcher to develop an oral contraceptive. “The pill” was approved in 1960, when Sanger was 80.

Gloria Steinem

Feminist icon

(1934- )

Gloria Steinem
Gloria Steinem

Gloria Steinem is a trailblazing feminist, journalist and social activist. She co-founded Ms. Magazine in 1972 and served as an editor there for 15 years. She was also a columnist for New York magazine, where she wrote political articles.

In 1963, she caught the nation's attention when she went undercover as a Playboy Bunny to report on the working conditions at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Club. Her exposé revealed the sexist and underpaid life of the waitresses.

In 1972, Steinem — along with U.S. Reps. Bella Abzug and Shirley Chisholm and feminist Betty Friedan — formed the National Women’s Political Caucus.

Steinem was born in Toledo, Ohio, the daughter of a traveling salesman father and a journalist mother. After her parents divorced, Steinem spent her school years taking care of her mother, who was mentally ill. She attended Smith College and earned the Chester Bowles Fellowship, which allowed her to spend two years studying and researching in India. In 2013, President Barack Obama presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor.

Barbara Walters

Award-winning journalist

(1929- )

Barbara Walters
Barbara Walters

She’s so iconic, ABC News named its headquarters after her when she retired in 2014 — after more than 50 years on television.

Barbara Walters blazed trails in her field, becoming the first woman morning-show co-host and the first woman network news co-anchor. The master interviewer was equally at home speaking with world leaders and Hollywood celebrities.

In 1953, one of her first jobs in television was producing the show “Ask the Camera” for WNBT in New York. She started with the “Today” show in 1961, staying for 15 years. She worked for decades as one of the most recognized women news journalists in the country. She was also chief correspondent and co-host of ABC’s "20/20."

At a point when others might have retired, Walters co-founded “The View,” which reached millions of Americans weekday mornings. The show has stood the test of time, tallying more than 2.3 million Facebook fans as it has engaged women on hot topics and issues of the day.

Walters still lives in New York. When she retired, she gave some solace to her fans by saying she would return from time to time.

Chien-Shiung Wu

Scientist

(1912-1997)

Chien-Shiung Wu
Chien-Shiung Wu

A member of the Manhattan Project, Chien-Shiung Wu was sometimes called “The First Lady of Physics.” She made several important contributions to the field of particle physics, including one that earned her male colleagues a Nobel Prize in 1957 — a time when the contributions of women in science were generally overlooked.

Wu was born in China at at time when few girls received educations, but her father had founded a school and believed that girls should have the same opportunities as boys. Wu eventually earned a Ph.D. in physics and got a job at Columbia University in New York City. She became a U.S. citizen in 1954.

Her expertise earned her a spot on the Manhattan Project, where she worked on improving the effectiveness of Geiger counters and on enriching uranium.

She eventually returned to Columbia, where her work helped advance the field of atomic science — and where her salary as a professor was eventually raised to the same level of her male counterparts.

Her most famous experiment, testing a key theory of particle physics, became known as the Wu Experiment. It was that work that helped her colleagues earn the Nobel Prize. Wu herself won many awards, including the inaugural Wolf Prize in Physics in 1978. She was the first female president of the American Physical Society.

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Contributing: Tracy Schuhmacher, Swapna Venugopal, Cynthia Benjamin and Mark Liu

Special thanks to the New York Women of the Century panelists: Sharon Ball of the SUNY Broome Board of Trustees, Kristen Browde of the LGBT Bar Association of Greater New York, Jennifer Cunningham of the Newswomen’s Club of New York, Dána-Ain Davis of Queens College, and Cindy Kanusher of the Pace Women’s Justice Center.

Sources used in the Women of the Century list project include newspaper articles, state archives, historical websites, encyclopedias and other resources.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Women of the Century New York: Planned Parenthood founder on list