Photo Credits: Nora Sandigo: Nora Sandigo Children Foundation/Ina May Gaskin: Susanna Frohman/ Maya Lin: UCSB Arts & Lectures/Carmen Castillo: Providence City Council/Shirley Chisholm: Thomas J O’Halloran
March is Women’s History Month, an opportunity to take a closer look at women who have been brave with their lives thoughout our nation’s history, past and present.
In an effort to shine the spotlight on some women who have made a difference, I went on the hunt for some women who were unknown to me personally. Perhaps you are already acquainted with them?! If so, this post will be a reminder that they were, and continue to be, brave with their lives. If not, then let me introduce you to five women who can inspire you to be brave with your life! (References & resources below.)
I have no intention of just sitting quietly and observing.
Born in 1924 to immigrant parents, Shirley Chisholm began her career as a nursery school teacher. She went on to earn a master’s degree from Columbia University. The struggles of race, gender and poverty she saw during her career in education prompted her to run for and win a seat in the NY State Legislature; only the second African-American to do so.
From there she moved on to win a seat in Congress in 1968; the first African-American woman in that arena. After being assigned as a junior member of Congress to the Agriculture committee, she resisted, being transferred to the Vetran’s Affairs committee where she could better serve her district. This set the tone for ‘Fighting Shirley’s’ tenure in the House.
In 1972, Shirley entered the race for the Democratic nomination to run for the President of the United States. She fought discrimination from every side: sexism from the newly formed Black Caucus, resistance from tv broadcasters who were ready to exclude her from televised debate until she brought legal action, and ‘support’ but no endorsement from the women’s movement. Nevertheless, this scrappy, sassy Brooklynite was admired and beloved by the common people: women, students, & minorities alike. Her campaign’s focus was to give a voice to the voiceless, and that she did.
She did not win the nomination, but ended the race with 10% of the electoral votes. She continued to serve in Congress until 1982, ultimately being the second woman ever to sit on the powerful Rules Committee. She sat at that table with twelve white men, unbossed & unbought. This photo really drove home to me the courage she possessed, to sit with these men and insist her voice be heard.
Shirley authored two books: Unbought and Unbossed (1970) and The Good Fight (1973). She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993. She was awarded multiple honorary doctorates and is represented on a 2014 Forever stamp as part of the Black Heritage series. She was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. She is featured in the 2004 documentary Chrisholm ’72:Unbought & Unbossed, directed by Shola Lynch.
She died in 2005.
In the 1980s, Nora Sandigo was a teenaged refugee seeking asylum in the US from the Nicaraguan Revolution. She has been working on behalf of other immigrants ever since.
She began working with a UN organization that helped immigrants with documentation and legal issues. In 2009 she leveled up. She became the legal guardian for two children whose parents had been detained by Immigration and subsequently deported. They were a ‘mixed status family’: the parents were undocumented and the children were US born citizens.
When illegal parents are detained or deported, they face a hard choice-take their children with them to an unfamiliar, often dangerous country (a trip many can ill afford, since the children’s tickets must be purchased by the deportee) or leave them behind, where there is a good chance they will be taken into the foster care system, where parental rights are lost, often along with any future contact with their children.
It doesn’t matter which race or color or type of politics, we are all family.
Enter Nora Sandigo. She has become the legal guardian for over 2000 children to date, many whom she has never met. As their guardian, she is able to legally advocate for these children’s welfare and help arrange the best future possible for them, including getting them settled with relatives if possible or arranging travel to their parents in another country, if that is their desire. She acts as the bridge that keeps these children from being completely cut off from their parents during a tramatizing time for them.
Many of these kids will never need her help. Others have lived with her temporarily and a few live with her and her husband permanently after their families have been separated.
And that isn’t all. Her foundation also provides food, clothes and support for hundreds of people on a regular basis, some affected by the loss of a primary breadwinner to deportation, others are family members who have taken on the additional responsibility of a relative’s child. She arranges meetings so children can visit detained parents and makes sure separated children are getting all the health and psychological care they need.
Her foundation is funded by donations, but when the money runs low, she helps out of her own pockets.
She says she has to say yes to these people: she was once one of them.
I think nature is resilient, if we protect it.
The child of Chinese immigrants, Maya Lin grew up in Ohio with a love for the outdoors.
This passion translated into her work as an artist & architect. As a 21-year-old Yale architecture undergraduate, she garnered national attention when her submission was chosen as the design for the Vietnam Veterans War Memorial.
Her body of work since then has included large scale installations as well as smaller studio works. These include the Women’s Table at Yale, The Civil Rights memorial in Montgomery Alabama The Wave Field at the U of Michigan. She also has permenant works on display in the National Gallery of Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum of Modern Art, among other locations. Her works are inspired by the forms of natural phenonema: space, water, earth.
Most recently, she has created an installation to be revealed at Madison Square Park titled Ghost Forest. This work is representative of her passion with her art: to make people more aware of their surroundings. She is focused on the bringing awareness to issues surrounding the environment and our relationship with nature. As a result, she is committed to sustainability, using natural and recycled materials in her works and respecting the landscapes she designs on.
As her last ‘memorial’ work, Lin has designed a project in multiple forms: interactive web-based and temporary installations, eititled What is Missing? It is focused on raising awareness about the loss of natural habitats and climate change.
Lin holds honorary doctorate degrees from several universities and has served as a board member of the National Resources Defense Council. In 2005 she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame and also elected into the American Academy of Arts & Letters. She was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2009 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016. She is the focus of the 1994 documentary Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision directed by Freida Lee Mock.
Ina May Gaskin has been called ‘the mother of authentic midwifery’ and ‘the most famous midwife in the world’. But she became a midwife by accident.
She was the quentissential hippie, traveling by schoolbus caravan across the US when one of their group went into labour and help was needed immediately. That was in 1970. She had already had a conventional birth experience herself with her first child that left her dissatisfied; she felt the experience should have been more holistic and spiritual. Her suspicion was that delivery should focus on the strength and beauty of the birth as a natural experience, one that a woman’s body was designed for already, not a clinical and fearful one which had become the norm.
So she set out on a journey to provide that option to other women by founding The Farm Midwifery Center, part of The Farm Community, an intentional community in Tennessee she established with her husband in 1971. Originally born out of necessity to provide care for the women on The Farm, her midwifery fame began to grow upon the publication of her first book Spiritual Midwifery in 1975. Even today, women from around the world and even around the US (home births are still illegal in seven states) travel to Tennessee to deliver their babies under the nurturing care of The Farm midwives.
There is no organ quite like the uterus. If men had such an organ they would brag about it. So should we.
Ina May became a champion for the rights of women to choose to give birth naturally, at home if desired. To this end she integrated knowledge gained from supportive obstetritions and traditional midwives globally, and has been an integral force in the revitalization of the dying art of midwifery in the US. There is still no nationwide liscensure for midwives here, despite a centralized certification process, according to Midwives Alliance of North America, of which Gaskin was a founding member in 1982.
Gaskin has written 5 books on midwifery and traveled the world lecturing to doctors and students alike. She received the Right Livlihood Award in 2011, an honor bestowed yearly by Swedish Parliament (often referred to as the “Alternative Nobel Prize”). She is the only midwife to have an obstetrical procedure named after her, the Gaskin maneuver, which she learned in South America from traditional midwives and brought to the US.
Ina May & The Farm midwives were the subject of the 2012 documentary: Birth Story: Ina May Gaskin & the Farm Midwives directed by Sara Lamm and Mary Wigmore. She was inducted into the Natonal Women’s Hall of fame in 2013.
When you decide to be a politician it should be because you want to provide opportunties for others
Carmen Castillo immigrated from the Dominican Republic with her 3 daughters in 1994. She learned English in free classes at the public library and went to work as a housekeeper at the Westin hotel (now the Omni) where she has been employed for 20 years.
When she had exhausted the library’s resources, she negotiated through her union for her employer to provide further ESL classes to their employees. That was just the beginning of her activisim.
She worked with her city councilman and was so inspired by his example as a minority championing the causes of his neighbors that she agreed, at the urging of her neighbors, to run for his council seat when he passed away. And she won.
That was in 2012 and she hasn’t looked back. Since then she has been re-elected twice, in 2014 and 2018, representing Ward 9 on the Providence City Council. She is one of the 14% of Latinos that make up the population of Rhode Island. She is also a unicorn: a working-class politican.
These days you can find her fighting for improvements to the public school system, an increase in the state’s minimum wage and bringing more resources to her Ward. She says her background and her employment are what enable her to represent her community well; she understands them because she IS them.
She admits that she was intimidated by running for office initially and it was hard to stand up to those who mocked her because she was a housekeeper. But her response these days is sassy: “People who make beds in hotels also have brains and can make decisions.” Exactly so.
I found each of these women’s stories to be incredibly inspiring. They have used their voices and their actions bravely, working to promote what they believe to be important. Whether you agree with their agendas or not, I hope you see them as examples of what can happen when you choose to be brave for what is important to you.
[Any inconsistencies or incorrect information here are purely my own errors.]
Unbought and Unbossed: When a Black Woman Ran for the White House by Jackson Landers [Smithsonian Magazine]
Maya Lin: Connecting Art and the Environment by Jamie Saxon [Princeton University]
Ina May Gaskin
The Beatnik turned Natural Birth Expert by Viv Groskop [The Guardian]
Legal Status of U.S. Midwives [Midwifery Alliance of North America]
Is Home Birth Legal In All States? by Tiffany Thomas [romper]
Reducing the fear of birth in US Culture Ina May Gaskin TEDx Sacramento
From Hotel Room Service to Public Servant: The Carmen Castillo Story by John Chatfield [Rhode Island PBS]
Councilwoman and hotel housekeeper: Latina lawmaker redefines public service by Raul A. Reyes [NBC News]
Q&A: Carmen Castillo, Rhode Island city councilwoman, discusses her path to politics by Lena Yannella [The Chronicle: an indepenent news organizaion of Duke University]
‘Councilwoman’ chronicles the story of a politician — and proud hotel housekeeper by Raul A. Reyes [NBC News]