Speaking of Women's Rights: Need Some Inspiration?

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Need Some Inspiration?

By Jamila Johnson

Each year, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announce the MacArthur Fellows. This prestigious group is comprised of superbly creative people—the folks who have made a unique impact on the world, but who could do even more with the $650,000 genius grant each receives. This year, the MacArthur Foundation recognized 21 individuals, nine of whom are women sure to inspire.
These are the women who little girls should dream about growing up to be. Shucks, these are the women that all women should dream about growing (more) up to be.

Meet civil rights lawyer Mary L. Bonauto. Her job is essentially about eliminating double standards in the law. In her role as Civil Rights Project Director for Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) in Boston, she strives to create a world where everyone has freedoms and opportunities regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or HIV status. Bonauto has been instrumental in social reform litigation across the country for marriage equality as GLAD has been a true leader in the nation’s steps forward.

While most of Bonauto’s work has been in the courtroom, Sarah Deer—a law professor at William Mitchell College of Law in Saint Paul, Minnesota—has been making her mark with trailblazing legislation. Deer focuses her work on gender violence on Indian reservations. A citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma, Deer has been instrumental in the passage of The Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010 and the 2013 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. Both laws hope to combat the problems in the legal structures that led to the under-prosecution of violence against native women.

Speaking of prosecution, Stanford professor and social psychologist Jennifer Eberhardt has been changing views on criminal justice through her groundbreaking research on how stereotypes of African American criminal behavior impact much more than one might think. In the simplest terms, she focuses on how the association of African Americans with crime might matter at different points in the criminal justice system. From this lens she has contributed to conversations on various parts of the system, from “stand your ground” laws to prison inequities.

Cartoonist and graphic memoirist Alison Bechdel spent 25 years authoring and cartooning Dykes to Watch Out For—a paradigm-shifting comic that has been labeled one of the earliest ongoing representations of lesbians in pop culture. It was through a 1985 issue of this comic that Bechdel introduced us to what would later become known as the Bechdel test, a simple, three-question test that sets a baseline for gender parity in film. She has gone on to address a number of personal stories in book-length graphic memoirs and is changing society’s notions of the contemporary memoir and expanding the graphic form while telling her unique story.

While Bechdel expends memoirs, labor organizer Ai-jen Poo is expanding rights for domestic or private-household workers. Poo is the director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance where she fights for the estimated 1–2 million domestic workers—housekeepers, nannies, caregivers for the elderly or disabled—in the United States today that are excluded from most federal and state labor laws. Poo is sparking a movement seeking improved working conditions for millions of workers across the nation.

Physicist Danielle Bassett may be only 32, but she is causing quite a stir with her research. Basset is using tools from network science and complex systems theory to enhance our understanding of connectivity and organizational principles in the human brain. Her work is uncovering insights on learning, disease diagnostics and therapeutics, and treatment of brain injury. Additionally, she is contributing to numerous other disciplines as faculty at University of Pennsylvania.

University of Washington alumna Tami Bond is taking on a tricky problem. She is working to unravel the global effects of black carbon emissions on climate and human health, which may have the potential effect of helping millions breathe cleaner air. A professor at the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Bond is developing research that may discover the role of energy in our climate system and just might save the world.

Curious about engineering in Rome during the late Sixteenth Century? Seventy-one year old Pamela O. Long is the expert. This independent historian focuses on the history of science and technology in the fifteenth and sixteenth century and has had great success with her books Openness, Secrecy, Authorship: Technical Arts and the Culture of Knowledge from Antiquity to the Renaissance (2001) and Artisan/Practitioners and the Rise of the New Sciences (2011). The grant will help her finish her latest book on the infrastructure development of Rome and the way society interacts with the creation of infrastructure.

But Long is not the only historian on the list—Professor of East European History Tara Zahra focuses on the history of modern Europe challenging the idea that there is anything inevitable about national conflict or the development of national identity and belonging. She has been getting at this question through the lens of children and by delving into the mobilization of children. She is currently working on a book about immigration from East Central Europe. Zahra is looking at how it affects a society to have one tenth of a population leaving during the course of one generation. She hopes to take more risks and go to new archives to figure out how better to link her work to present day challenges in migration.

These women are truly transformative and an inspiration for all.

Jamila Johnson serves on the Board of Directors at Legal Voice and eagerly awaits the release of MacArthur Foundation genius grants each year collecting role models.