Common Threads: Influential Women 50+

Common Threads: Influential Women 50+

Some of the most influential women in history shared at least three characteristics in common–each had courage, purpose, and a voice that helped articulate a vision. Four of those women include Susan B. Anthony, Ella Baker, Betty Friedan, and Mary Harris “Mother” Jones. While each of these women began their life’s work prior to reaching their fiftieth birthdays, they all continued to grow and become even more effective as they got older.

Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906)

“Cautious, careful people, always casting about to preserve their reputations…can never effect a reform.”

Born into a Quaker family, social justice and reform were in Ms. Anthony’s DNA. Anti-slavery activists regularly met at her family farm in New York. Anthony’s early activities involved work with the American Anti-Slavery Society. After meeting Elizabeth Cady Stanton, she became involved in the suffragist movement. Even though she had a great deal of anxiety about public speaking, Anthony became one of the most recognized voices in the United States for a woman’s right to the ballot. She began speaking all over the country giving as many as 75 to 100 speeches each year. Her efforts were heavily criticized by some who believed that women should not speak in public and that the notion of women voting was wrong-headed. When she was 52, she was arrested for trying to vote without the legal right to do so. Yet she continued her fight. She lobbied Congress, visited presidents, and led the National American Woman Suffrage Association from 1892 until 1900 when she had reached eight-years-old. The passage of the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote, did not occur until 14 years after Ms. Anthony died. Yet she held firm in the belief that the cause could not fail. She had said, “Failure is impossible.” She was right!

Ella Baker (1903-1986)

“Give light and people will find the way.”

Ms. Baker was a prominent figure in the Civil Rights Movement. Her earlier work was as a field secretary for the NAACP. She had the ability to organize people and build relationships. In the late 1950s, Baker assumed the role of executive director for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). She effectively helped “shape its early voter registration programs and its backing of local civil rights campaigns.” In spite of her effectiveness as a leader, the SCLC culture reinforced more traditional roles for women; women were expected to be meek and obedient rather than taking on leadership roles or expressing strong opinions. Nonetheless, she persisted. In 1960, after young black students refused to leave lunch counters after being denied service, Baker got involved in organizing sit-ins throughout the South. Even though she had already left the SCLC, she convinced the organization to back the sit-ins. Baker was known for her ability to organize and to guide others. She also helped mentor numerous young activists.  She continued to stay politically engaged and use her voice for social justice and human dignity as long as her health allowed.

“Until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a white mother’s son, we who believe in freedom cannot rest until this happens.”


Betty Friedan (1921-2006)

“It is easier to live through someone else than to become complete yourself.”

Ms. Friedan is best known for her 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique. Her writing explored the possibility of women finding purpose and meaning beyond the roles that society had deemed appropriate for them—to be a wife and mother and nothing other. Friedan’s suggestion that women might not be completely content as a traditional homemaker was counter to cultural norms at the time. Nonetheless, Friedan continued to promote women’s rights and freedom of choice for how each woman wanted to live. In 1966, Friedan co-organized the National Organization of Women (NOW) and served as its first president. In 1971 (at age fifty), she helped found the National Women’s Political Caucus. Muriel Fox, one of the co-founders of NOW said that Betty Friedan was not only one of the most influential women of the 20th century but of the second millennium. The last of six books she authored was Life So Far, written in 2000 at age seventy-nine. Friedan lived her life with a purpose and gave voice to her vision for a better world.

“Aging is not lost youth but a new stage of opportunity and strength.”

Mary Harris ‘Mother’ Jones (1837-1930)

“My address is like my shoes. It travels with me. I abide where there is a fight against wrong.”

Mary Jones was known as a courageous union organizer with a passionate and powerful speaking style. Having spent her early life in Cork, Ireland, she witnessed the hardships of people living in a class system that favored the wealthy and starved the poor. Jones became an activist during an unemployment movement in the 1890s. This movement was also part of a new union era that had staged large strikes in 1894. Even though the unions were suppressed, Jones saw a need to help organize workers and their families. Counter to a prevailing point of view, Jones took the position that workers like coal miners should own the resources they were working hard to produce.  She faced arrest for her activities, but continued, nonetheless. At the age of 87, Jones participated in her last strike appearance on behalf of the Chicago dressmakers. She was considered a key figure in the labor movement in this country. She also co-founded the Industrial Workers of the World and was sometimes called “the great-grandmother of all agitators.”

“Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.”

Personal Challenge

When I think about the women who have come before us, I think about the legacy they have left for all of us. If we want to make a difference in this world, we need courage. We need to have a purpose greater than ourselves. And we need to cultivate a voice that helps unite others in our vision for a better world.

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