lthough when the United States was founded, women were not given full rights as citizens, individual women have had an enormous impact on the history of the United States. From Abigail Adams who lobbied her husband John while the new democracy was being established through the women who represent the U.S. military in Iraq today, women have made their mark in almost all fields, from activism to science to law. Here’s a quick overview of some women who have made a difference.
Among the activists and reformers who changed our society is Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-96), the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a book that stirred the conscience of Americans. Stowe was a leading abolitionist and President Abraham Lincoln, upon meeting her during the course of the Civil War, said: "So you’re the little lady who started this big war." He was speaking only half in jest. From that same era is Sojourner Truth (1797-1883), a freed illiterate slave who used her powerful oratory skills to relentlessly advocate emancipation and women’s rights.
Another important figure in our history is Jane Addams (1860-1935). Concerned about the poor in the slums of Chicago, Addams founded Hull House where people could go for adult education courses and for childcare while they were working. Her ideas inspired many others across the nation and around the world. One of her near contemporaries was Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955), the daughter of former slaves. Bethune founded a school for young African-American women, advised President Franklin Roosevelt on youth and dedicated her life to improving race relations. Those concerned with population growth would appreciate the story of Margaret Sanger (1879-1966) who published a newspaper that provided women with information on family planning, opened the nation’s first birth control clinic and later went on to found the organisation that we now know as Planned Parenthood.
The 1990s emerged as the decade when women became an important voting bloc in the U.S. that would not have been possible without the efforts of Alice Paul (1885-1977), who led the fight for women’s suffrage at the beginning of the 20th century.
Rosa Parks (1913-) is known as "the mother of the Civil Rights Movement", for it was her refusal to give up her seat on a public bus that sparked the Montgomery bus boycott, which in turn led to a decade of non-violent protests and eventual legal equality of African Americans.
Women have also made their mark in politics and government. As an attorney, Bella Abzug (1920-1998) championed the rights of the poor and minorities, and then went on to serve in the House of Representatives where she called for an early end to the Vietnam War. In 1968, Shirley Chisholm (1924-), an activist for the rights of minorities, became the first woman to mount a serious campaign for the presidency. Geraldine Ferraro (1935-) was the first woman nominated by a major party when she ran for vice president on Walter Mondale’s ticket, and had spent much of her life working for women’s rights.
Some women have allowed their ambitions to lead them outside the United States. Amelia Earhart (1897-1937), for example, was the first person to fly solo across the Pacific Ocean, and died while trying to become one of the first people to fly around the world. Part explorer, part athlete, Ann Bancroft (1955-) was the first woman to participate in a dogsled expedition across the ice to the North Pole, and then led the first team of women to the South Pole. She has since devoted her life to helping women, girls and the physically disabled.
Arts and the media were relatively easy fields for women to make their mark as the institutional barriers were fewer. Some of the pioneers, however, still had to overcome major hurdles. The African-American opera singer Marian Anderson (1897-1993), for example, was barred from singing at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., because of her race, but then 75,000 people gathered to hear her perform at the Lincoln Memorial. Martha Graham (1894-1991) overcame initial criticism of her art and changed what we think of as dance.
Photographs taken during the Depression by Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) caused the U.S. Government to build camps for migrant farm workers. Maya Lin (1959-), the daughter of Chinese immigrants, altered our concept of memorials with her moving Vietnam Memorial in Washington.
In other fields as well, women have improved our lives. Rachel Carson (1907-1964) is practically synonymous with environmental awareness. Her book Silent Spring paved the way for the U.S. ban on the pesticide DDT. Nobel Prize winner Gertrude Elion (1918-1999) contributed to drug treatments for leukaemia, arthritis, gout and other diseases including AIDS during her long life. Gorillas in the Mist by Dian Fossey (1932-85) inspired many to protect mountain gorillas and other forms of wildlife.
Participation in sports has been shown to have an enormous impact on self-esteem, but for many years women’s sports were neglected and ignored. Some athletes, however, persisted despite this and became heroines and role models for generations of girls. These include runner, basketball player and golfer Mildred “Babe” Didrikson (1914-1956), Gertrude Ederle (1906-) who was the first woman to swim the English Channel, and Althea Gibson (1927-) who overcame both gender and racial discrimination to win 11 Grand Slam tennis titles. Women have excelled in many other sports as well, including dog sledding, and, thanks to federal legislation, schools must now allocate equal resources to girls’ and boys’ sports. Now, in sports, we don’t talk about breaking barriers, but focus on breaking records instead.
As women in the United States are more and more able to pursue their goals, we have also become more concerned with women in other countries. In fact, the status of women around the world has become a foreign policy imperative.
A U.S. Foreign Policy Imperative
On March 8, 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell said, “Women’s issues affect not only women, they have profound implications for all humankind. Today as we celebrate International Women’s Day, we reaffirm our dedication to working towards a world in which women have full opportunity to achieve political, economic and social equality in societies where human rights and fundamental freedoms are ensured. We welcome the progress that women are making in these areas and we are proud of the role the United States has in supporting their accomplishments.”
U.S. Policy and Priorities
When women participate in the economic and political life of their country, they can take charge of their lives and improve the situation not only for themselves, but also for their children, families and society at large.
The Department of State’s Office of the Senior Coordinator for International Women’s Issues serves, in Secretary Powell’s words, as the “focal point within the Bush Administration for the development and implementation of our pro-women foreign policy agenda”.
U.S. Global Activities on Behalf of Women — Select
The U.S. Department of State provides funding and training for law enforcement, government officials, judges, prosecutors, medical personnel, crisis centre personnel and social workers overseas.
The United States Government has supported programmes to combat domestic violence against women in Ghana, India, Russia, Zimbabwe, Cambodia, Indonesia, Mongolia, the Philippines and the Solomon Islands.
Trafficking in Persons: This year alone, the United States Government supported nearly 100 programmes worth over $50 million worldwide to combat trafficking in persons and focused on more than 40 countries seeking to end trafficking.
President George W. Bush signed the first-ever National Security Presidential Directive to advance the United States Government’s fight against trafficking in persons, a modern-day form of slavery.
In February 2003, the State Department Office to Combat Trafficking in Persons in partnership with the NGO War Against Trafficking Alliance sponsored an international conference to share best practices in combating this vile trade.
As Ambassador Robert D. Blackwill pointed out, the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 provides tools to combat trafficking both worldwide and domestically. The United States urges countries to prohibit trafficking and prescribe punishment stringent enough to deter traffickers; vigorously investigate and prosecute traffickers; support public awareness campaigns; promote social and economic development for at-risk individuals; partner with non-governmental organisations, international organisations and foreign governments to train police; provide services and shelter to victims; and address corruption and complicity by some police and government officials.
The Bush Administration encourages countries to promote equal access to education and employment for women and girls to reduce their vulnerability to traffickers.
The Agency for International Development (USAID) carries out direct anti-trafficking activities in over 30 countries in central and southeast Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean.
The State Department Office to Combat and Monitor Trafficking in Persons is responsible for coordinating anti-trafficking efforts and publishes an annual Trafficking in Persons report that tracks the progress of countries in fighting trafficking.
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM): The U.S. strategy to end FGM rests on four pillars: support for the education of women and girls; empowerment of women; efforts to draft laws and enforce laws against FGM; and data collection, documentation and evaluation of programmes.
United States embassies in several countries have provided funding to local NGOs and local entities to fight female genital mutilation and to educate people about FGM’s harmful health effects.
In 1996 the United States passed a federal law making FGM of a person under 18 a federal crime in the United States.
Economic Opportunities and Information, Communication and Media Technology: The United States Government is committed to enabling women to benefit fully from information technology and, equally, to minimising Internet-based activities such as online trafficking in persons and pornography that contribute to the abuse, exploitation and demeaning of women.
The United States Small Business Administration’s Online Business Centre (http://www.onlinewbc.gov/), provides business curriculum, online individual counselling and worldwide networking, and is used in over a hundred countries. The Small Business Administration’s business classroom online offers self-paced learning modules in multiple languages.
HIV/AIDS and Health Care: The United States Government is committed to stemming the tide of the worldwide HIV/AIDS pandemic, particularly its effect on women and children. Improving the life expectancy of children around the world has also been a goal.
“Emergency Plan” includes a $500 million International Mother to Child
Transmission (MTCT) Initiative that aims to prevent transmission of HIV from
mothers to their newborns.
In 1999, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Maharashtra Government signed an agreement committing $41.5 million of U.S. assistance for an AIDS control project in Maharashtra, to be implemented by the National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO) in collaboration with the State Government. The AVERT project, to be funded by USAID over a period of seven years, seeks to increase the use of effective and sustainable responses to reduce transmission and mitigate the impact of sexually-transmitted diseases, HIV/AIDS and related infectious diseases in the State.
Educational Assistance and Training: The United States Government is committed to empowering women through education and training that enables them to realise their human potential and to assume positions of leadership.
USAID is giving priority to a range of pro-women economic initiatives, including micro-enterprises, economic reform and increasing women’s access to information technology in the developing world.
A 30-month USAID venture is working to reduce trade barriers faced by women.
The U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council brought women from Afghan ministries to the United States to obtain education and leadership skills and to receive computer training. The Council has pledged $1 million in grants to support educational programmes at Women’s Resource Centres in 14 provinces in Afghanistan.
The United States has funded exchange programmes that train women NGO leaders from West Africa.
Peace Corps volunteers in 36 countries promote literacy and education for girls and women through formal classes, girls’ clubs and camps, libraries and resource centres, computer training and micro-enterprise projects.
The Educational and Cultural Affairs Bureau in the Department of State supports educational exchange and training programmes in all regions of the world. These include regular exchanges under the U.S. International Visitor Programme on women’s empowerment, political participation and leadership development.
The Department of Education is developing distance-learning programmes in the Asia-Pacific region for women and girls.
Women’s Political Participation: The United States supports the right of all people to broad-based, representative governance. Toward that end, U.S. foreign policy seeks to ensure women and men actively participate in voting, advocacy and governance in their local and national arenas. Increasing women’s political participation strengthens democracy. This contributes to a more stable world, and is in the interest of the United States and all law-abiding societies.
In countries throughout the world, U.S.-funded initiatives train women to run for office and lead non-governmental organisations. Last year, the Department of State funded a four-day workshop at a village in Gujarat on empowerment of women members of local governments (village panchayats).
The United States brought a delegation of 55 Arab women political leaders to observe midterm elections in November 2002.
Source: U.S. Department of State website: http://www.state.gov/