More Than Oprah

Many people are aware that Oprah Winfrey is the richest black woman in America, with a net worth of more than 2.8 billion dollars (which still doesn’t put her in the top 10 richest American women). She is, however, in the top 10 richest self-made billionaire American woman – and the only African-American woman to make the cut. But long before Oprah, there was Sarah Breedlove.

Success Started Early

Breedlove was America’s first self-made female millionaire. Born in 1867, she was an orphan by the age of 7, a domestic by the age of ten, and married her way out at 14. After several marriages that ended in widowhood or divorce, in 1905 Breedlove began her own line of beauty and hair care products for African American women (under the name Madame C.J. Walker), many of whom were going bald because of the harsh lye soaps of the era. The need was great, her products worked, and she went on to become an American philanthropist.

To a degree. Marjorie Joyner was one of her employees. Marjorie became the first African American woman to be issued a patent – for the first machine to permanently wave hair (no Toni kits back then!). However, she never saw a dime for her creation – the royalties and rights went to Madame C.J. Walker! Next time you go to a salon or use a home perm kit, remember to think of Marjorie Joyner.

When we think of African-American women in history, we seem to get stuck on Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Sojourner Truth, and Coretta Scott King, but they are just the very tip of the iceberg.

The Long Hard Climb for Recognition

It’s been a slow, hard climb for African-American women. While Hattie McDaniel won a Best-Supporting Actress Oscar for Gone With the Wind in 1939 (the first African American to do so), a Best Actress award didn’t come until Halle Berry won in 2001 for Monster’s Ball. That’s a long wait. While the first white woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature was in 1909, the first African-American woman wasn’t until the great Toni Morrison won in 1993. Although actress Nichelle Nichols of Star Trek fame showed African-American women as educated members of space crews in 1966 (and gave television’s first interracial kiss), Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman astronaut, didn’t make it to space until 1992. To this day, African American women are disproportionately victims of more violent crimes than any other group of women – by more than double. While more African-American women are enrolled in college than any other group (9.7%), they make up only 8% of the workforce, and earn only 64¢ on the dollar compared to 78¢ for white women; 21% of African-American women live in poverty, compared to just 9% of white women. Only now, decades later, are we beginning to appreciate the remarkable contributions of African-American women in the fields of science and math, such as Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, who helped launch NASA’s space program by doing the math in their heads.

Making Strides

While there is still so far to go in equalizing opportunities for minority women, the 21st century has shown remarkable gains, with not only Condoleeza Rice becoming National Security Advisor and then Secretary General under President Bush, but with Michelle Obama becoming the First Lady of the United States.  African-American women continue to enter politics, with record wins in 2018, including the first African-American women elected to Congress from Minnesota, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. So grab a novel, a biography, a great DVD on the lives and achievements of African American women, and catch up on some of the great history you never learned about in school.

 

         

  

             

Strong Girls, Stronger Women

stb-jaylah-3While previewing the DVD for Star Trek: Into Darkness (as if I didn’t see it in the theater and wasn’t buying it myself 5 days later), I realized that Jaylah, the lead female character, is everything I want my daughters and granddaughter to be: strong, brave, smart, resourceful, a planner, a leader, and even when emotionally wounded, she never, ever gives in. Surely one of the strongest female leads ever, without losing her femininity in the process, like Grace Jones as May Day in A View to a Kill, or Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It may even be safe to say that Jaylah’s the strongest female lead ever in Star Trek itself – and no, not even Uhura, who, although she could kick butt, was often saddled with lines like, “Captain, I’m frightened.”

And that made me start thinking on who the strongest female leads might be. By strong I don’t mean nastiest or most vicious goal-driven women, no Joan Crawfords or Cersei Lannisters or Erica Kanes. I mean women or girls who started out ordinary, but when faced with impossible odds, had the grit and determination and education and smarts to work their way into survival.

First on almost any list is Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley, from Alien. While you can say it ec93835d9542a13ce50f467297565f63already took guts and grit to be a warrant officer aboard a deep-space ship, finding out your mission was a suicide run to bring back an alien life form and you’re its food can either send you screaming in helpless panic (as Lambert did), or make you hike your bra straps and shoot first. Ripley is a real woman – no makeup, no unrealistic sexy uniforms, and not afraid to be pushy when she needs to be. And almost 40 years later (can it possibly be that long?) Alien still holds up on every level of film making; truly, a masterpiece.

katniss_prim_hugKatniss Everdeen is also a favorite for strongest female: just sixteen at the start of The Hunger Games, Katniss is already a survivor, having raised a sister and cared for a dysfunctionally depressed mother following the death of their father, in a world where people are kept in line through fear and starvation. Sacrificing herself to the Hunger Games to save her sister is just the start; surviving the Hunger Games not once but twice, surviving on luck, wits, and the smarts acquired through a lifetime of survival makes Katniss a formidable – but sympathetic and realistically feminine – heroine.

Sarah Connor of Terminator fame would round out my top three: a simple waitress who thought she was minding her own business until she’s hunted down by a terminator from the future – because when push comes to shove, Sarah will become a serious survivalist to save her son – a son who will grow up to be the leader against the machines that take over the world. Sarah is thrown into an impossible situation but comes out on top through sheer determination and a survival instinct that won’t quit.

Why so many women from science-fiction? That’s a good question. Perhaps it’s because “strong” women in literature or film are often seen as detestable power-hungry ladder-climbers who will use murder or sex to achieve their goals, and it is only in the realm of “fantasy” that women are allowed to be every-day humans, both strong and vulnerable at the same time, without boob jobs and fake nails. Yet the real world is peppered with incredibly strong women – Anne Frank, Malala Yousafzai, Margaret Sanger, Harriet Tubman, and so many more. Not one of them is sexualized by the media, either.

turn_me_loose_it_s_ashleySo, to be fair, there are literary women who also struggled against formidable odds: Scarlett O’Hara’s entire world was ripped from her by the Civil War: her income, her inheritance, her mother, her husband (whether or not she wanted him alive) wind up Gone With the Wind. She takes charge in a time and place when genteel women did not do that, and through guile and determination pulls her life and the lives of her family back together. And as the anti-Scarlett, I would include Mammy, who carried on through war and starvation, caring for former slaves and slave-owners alike, facing the same dangers as Scarlett but with even less means or social approval. In The Color sofiaPurple, yes, Celie has to survive an ugly life, but to me Sofia is far more of a tough cookie, taking her lumps and even prison because she won’t take the abuse anymore. Sofia is limited by society, but she’s every bit as tough as Katniss.

And moving further away, I would also nominate Maria, from West Side Story. She’s sixteen and stands between two warring gangs for love. The Sharks don’t frighten her. The Jets don’t frighten her. The police don’t frighten her. She gets in the face of each and every west-side-story-1961-dvdrip-moviecenter-avi_snapshot_02-16-56_2016-07-21_15-39-34one, standing up for what she believes in. No one is telling Maria what to think or do.

I could add more – Elizabeth Swan, Marion Ravenwood, Molly Weasley, Natasha Romanov – but if you’re looking for role models for girls and teens, real women who aren’t villainous or overly sexualized or vacuuous but incredibly strong and resourceful, there are plenty to choose from.