Written by Brooke Anderson
Throughout history, pioneering women such as Rosa Parks, Anne Frank, Marie Curie, Maya Angelou, and so many others have received much well-deserved acclaim for their contributions to society. Today, I would like to recognize three other influential women who might not be as well known.
Wangari Maathia (1940-2011)
Wangari Maathia was an environmental and political activist who made enormous changes on an international scale. In 1940, Maathia was born in Nyeri, Kenya. An educated woman, Maathia went to a number of different universities to study science and became the first woman in Central and East Africa to earn her doctorate degree (Frängsmyr 1). That wasn’t the only “first ” of Maathia’s; she also took on a teaching position, and later, department chair at her alma mater. Always an advocate for human and environmental rights, Wangari Maathia fought for what she believed in even in the face of adversity, violence, and jail time. She was even divorced by her husband because he thought her strong stances weren’t acceptable for a woman. Despite facing so much resistance, this woman was still able to bring great change to her country. In 1976, she began her career with the National Women’s Council of Kenya, where she started the Green Belt Movement (Frängsmyr 1). This movement sparked millions of tree-planting initiatives to foster economic growth and community building. Despite already making enormous changes and even addressing the General Assembly of the United Nations, her career didn’t end there. “From 2002 to 2007, Maathai served in Kenya’s parliament, and in 2004, she won the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts toward sustainability and her devotion to democracy” and was the first African woman to accomplish this (Barry & McConnell 1). Ultimately, Maathia’s Green Belt Movement resulted in the planting of 30 million trees and inspired a UN campaign that planted another 11 billion (Ighobor 1).
Although Antarctica has no permanent residents, there have still been influential women who have set their sights on “The Ice”, including explorer Ann Bancroft. Born in the United States, Bancroft was “the first woman to participate in and successfully finish several arduous expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic” (Encyclopedia Britannica 1). In 1986, the Minnesota native quit her day job and joined the Steger International Polar Expedition, during which she trekked to the north pole and was the first woman to do so. Bancroft also led the first women’s team to reach the South pole on skis, making her the first woman to have reached both poles of the globe (Encyclopedia Britannica 1). In 1995, Ann Bancroft was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame for her expeditions, which paved the way for female explorers in the polar regions worldwide. Today, the explorer runs a foundation in her name that aims to help every girl and woman in the United States to accomplish their goals and have confidence in themselves. The foundation provides support through grants, mentorships, and more (ABF 1). Ann Bancroft not only made great achievements of her own but has shown her dedication to ensuring that girls everywhere have the chance to do the same.
If someone has received treatment for HIV, leukemia, malaria, herpes, or cancer, their life has been impacted by the work of Gertrude Elion. The pioneering biochemist and pharmacologist played a role in creating drugs to treat many diseases and helped develop Purinethol, an immunosuppressive used during organ transplants (Barry & McConnel 1). After losing her grandfather to cancer at age 15, Elion dedicated the rest of her life to finding treatments and even hoped to find a cure. After finishing college with a degree in chemistry, Gertrude Elion found herself unable to afford graduate school due to the Great Depression, so she decided to apply to research positions in laboratories, despite nearly none allowing women to work there (Elion 1). She finally found a job and eventually worked her way to graduate school, where she served as a substitute teacher by day and scientific researcher by night. Her scientific career took off, and she even discovered a drug that has cured 80% of children with leukemia (Logan-Graf 1). Elion served as both a member and sometimes even the president/chairwoman on multiple advisory boards associated with cancer research, the World Health Organization, chemistry, science, and more. In 1988, Elion and her colleagues, George Hitchings and Sir James Black, won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work in the drug-development industry.