By Valerie D. Lockhart
SUN EXECUTIVE EDITOR
Seeds of knowledge planted within the womb grew, reaped pain and ultimately resulted in the birth of a new generation of women born with a clearer vision, stronger minds and greater determination.
Characteristics of courageous gender-bending women throughout history continue to be passed down to new ones, providing strong shoulders to stand on.
Before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus, Claudette Colvin, 15, looked through the eyes of her personal heroes Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth and envisioned putting an end to the racist Jim Crow laws.
The teen was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger.
“I could not move because history had me glued to the seat. Sojourner Truth’s hands were pushing me down on one shoulder and Harriet Tubman’s hands were pushing me down on another shoulder,” Colvin said.
Nothing could hold back Victoria Woodhull from speaking about women’s rights and from becoming the first woman to run for president of the United States in 1872, paving the way for Belva Ann Lockwood, Charlene Mitchell, Shirley Chisholm, Lenora Branch Fulani and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to follow in her steps.
A road leading to financial success was laid by Maggie Walker, who was the first woman to charter a bank. She founded the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank in 1903. Its opening proved that African Americans and women can successfully manage money. Walker stressed the importance of financial literacy and empowerment.
"First we need a savings bank. Let us put our monies together; let us use our monies; let us put our money out at usury among ourselves, and reap the benefit ourselves. Let us have a bank that will take the nickels and turn them into dollars," said Walker at the Independent Order of St. Luke Annual Convention on August 20, 1901.
Since Walker, several women have stepped up to lead major financial institutions such as Anne Finucane, vice chairman at Bank of America, Thasunda Duckett, CEO at JPMorgan Chase, Cathy Bessant, Chief Operations and Technology Officer at Bank of America, Marianne Lake, Chief Financial Officer at JPMorgan Chase, Ellen Alemany, Chairman and CEO at CIT Group, Nandita Bakhshi, President and CEO at Bank of the West and Barbara Desoer, CEO at Citibank.
While women were driven to higher places in education, civil rights, and financial literacy, advancement in the automotive industry moved at a slow pace.
Helene Rother removed barriers and got the wheels rolling, when she went to work for Nash Motors in 1947. She became the first woman in American car design. Eventually, she earned three times the average male wage and built a personal brand synonymous with luxury. But, before arriving into her design position, she worked for General Motors for four years overseeing upholstery, lighting, and interior hardware for $600 a month, which was a good salary at that time.
Listening to the voices of women drivers was key to her success.
“Everywhere I travel in America I hear women saying, ’Give us a car we can get into and out of without looking funny, seats we can lean back in, seat covers we can wash and clean. Pretty colors.’ Modern design is the last fortress of man. It is too masculine, too cold, without the small feminine touches,” Rother said.
Rother’s success led to her becoming the first female to speak at the Society of Automotive Engineers conference in 1951 and winning the Jackson Medal for outstanding design in 1953. Usage of her name in advertisements became a brand in itself, “Madame Helene Rother of Paris.”
According to Automotive News, there were 73 female automotive executives in 2015. That list includes Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors, Grace Lieblein, vice president of global quality at General Motors, Marissa Hunter, director of FCA US brand advertising and head of advertising for Ram truck brand at FCA US, Kimberly Pittel, vice president of sustainability, environment and safety engineering at Ford Motor Co, and Janet Barnard, president of Manheim North America.
"You need a support system. If you're the only one in the room who looks like you do, it's hard," Barnard said. "And honestly, not everybody probably has the stamina to withstand that by themselves."
Stamina helped Althea Gibson become the first African American to play in the U.S. Nationals in 1950 and to win a Wimbledon title in 1957.
To level the playing field in tennis, Billie Jean King started the Women’s Tennis Association with nine players as members in 1973. The organization provided a support system for women players and would become their voice for establishing equal opportunities, equal game rules and equal pay in tennis.
"Promoters were making more money than women. Male tennis players were making more money. Everybody was making more money except the women," King said. “It is very hard to be a female leader. While it is assumed that any man, no matter how tough has a soft side, a female leader is assumed to be one-dimensional.”
Women have shown over the years that they are not one-dimensional but are complex, multi-faceted, vibrant, resilient, strategic and visionaries who are sharing and implementing their ideas to help others.
“I would certainly encourage young people to pursue their dreams. It isn't always an easy path, but it's worth going after. And I figure if a farmer's daughter from Iowa can become an astronaut, you can be just about anything you want to be,” former NASA Chief Astronaut Peggy Whitson, urged.