What Do You Stand For?
One act of courage can change your entire future. I know, because it happened to me. When I was 21 and the ink on my college degree barely dry, instead of shopping myself around for a reporting job I planned a two-month trip around the world. In hindsight, it was a pretty gutsy move for someone as type-A as I am. I took a part-time night-shift job at a Wall Street firm (totally off my career path) and worked all summer to save up the $3,000 I needed for the plane ticket that would take me from New York City to Nairobi, Kenya, to Sydney, Australia, to Los Angeles and then back home again.
By that age I had flown solo many times but knew nothing about passports and customs and exchange rates. But I was determined. I was able to see how people carve out lives in the rural, mountainous and drought-stricken regions of Kenya. I swam in the Indian Ocean and drank tea in the slums of Nairobi. I walked the steps of the Sydney Opera House and hiked into the Blue Mountains. And I had close calls, such as when I almost missed my connecting flight in Bangkok and nearly got detained in Nairobi for not having enough cash to pay for my so-called "extra baggage." That trip was one of the formative experiences of my life. I sometimes marvel that I was able to do what I did, but am so grateful I had the courage to make it happen.
Of course, acts of courage can come in a variety of forms. In fact, we don’t have to look far to find women of all stripes standing up for themselves and their beliefs and, in turn, for all of us. Here are 11 of the most inspiring stories of the last year.
For every middle schooler who was ever bullied and made to feel like a pariah; for every athlete who had their appearance judged stronger than their performance; and for every gay person who had to struggle with revealing to the world their deepest secret, Brittney Griner has one message: Learn to love yourself.
Griner, who in 2013 was the top pick in the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) draft, followed up that feat by announcing in press conferences that she was gay, the first active team-sport athlete to do so. The New York Times’ headline on the revelation sums up the media response: “Female Star Comes Out as Gay, and Sports World Shrugs.” Nike proceeded to sign her (the first openly gay athlete Nike has added to its roster) without so much as a sigh.
That ho-hum reaction is one of the changes Griner has been working toward, and one she hopes to help others experience as well. She’s spoken about how she was bullied in middle school. "I didn't have a real role model that I could look up to that was out openly," she told the Los Angeles Times. "I knew there were a lot of younger girls that needed someone."
By coming out, Griner has opened herself up to an entirely new fan base: youth in need of guidance. She answers tweets every day from young people who seek guidance on issues like coming out to their families and dealing with bullying.
In October 2012, at the age of 15, Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head while on an Pakistani school bus. Her crime? Being female, having a voice and believing she, and all Pakistani girls, deserve an education.
Fortunately, that wasn’t the end of Yousafzai’s story; it was only the beginning. She survived the gunshot and on July 12 of last year, on her 16th birthday, she defied her attackers when she addressed the United Nations Youth Assembly on what was named, “Malala Day.” Six months later, the U.N. awarded her and five others the United Nations Human Rights Prize, putting her in the company of previous recipients like Jimmy Carter and Nelson Mandela.
In continuing to speak out, Yousafzai’s revealed a strength that belies her 16 years: “The terrorists thought they would change my aims and stop my ambitions,” she said. “But nothing changed in my life except this: Weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage were born.”
Yousafzai has used her global pulpit to call upon the world’s leaders to protect women’s and children’s rights and ensure free education for every child in the world and. Her Malala Fund, which has received $250,000 from Angelina Jolie, has already provided funds to an organization to help educate girls in Pakistan’s Swat Valley.
“One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world,” Yousafzai told the U.N. She should know.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Malala Yousafzai Oval Office 11 Oct 2013.jpg
In the end, it was a tax case that did in the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) — and the plaintiff who took the case all the way to the Supreme Court wasn’t a prominent gay-rights advocate, but an octogenarian, mourning the loss of her partner of more than four decades.
Edith Windsor’s longtime partner, Thea Spyer, died at their home in 2009. Windsor was then served with a $363,053 estate-tax bill on property that Spyer had left her. Spouses are exempt from the estate tax, so Windsor filed for a refund from the IRS. But it was denied. Though Windsor and Spyer had gotten married in Canada in 2007 after a 40-year engagement (or wait for legalized same-sex marriage), the federal government didn’t recognize her marriage because of DOMA.
Windsor decided to fight back. In 2010, she sued the federal government, calling the law unconstitutional, and her case eventually made its way to the Supreme Court. On June 26, nearly three years after she’d filed suit, the majority of justices agreed with her, calling DOMA unconstitutional.
A fight that had begun as an attempt to get her money back had become a much larger victory. Not only did she win the case, she won marriage equality for the entire gay community. And though Windsor and Spyer never had an opportunity to be legally recognized as a married couple while Spyer was alive, millions of other same-sex couples will now have the chance to enjoy all the benefits that come with that designation. “To get married is a very big deal,” Windsor said after the verdict. “And it’s an even bigger deal if you’ve been denied it.”
Credit: Kate Barrett
The first time she tried to swim the 110-mile stretch between Havana, Cuba and Key West, Florida, Diana Nyad didn’t make it. That was over 30 years ago, when Nyad, a seasoned marathon swimmer, decided that it was time to move onto other challenges — broadcasting and journalism among them — and she retired from competitive swimming.
But turning 60 had a unique impact on Nyad. “When you’re 60 — I don’t care how healthy you are or how fit you are — you are getting toward the end of that one-way road that we are all traveling on,” Nyad told National Geographic. “I asked, ‘Have I truly become the person that I admire? I didn’t feel as awake, alert and alive as I wanted to feel for the rest of my days.’”
And so Nyad returned to the challenge that daunted her younger self. She tried a second time, third time, a fourth time -- but asthma, shoulder pain and near-fatal jellyfish stings kept her dream out of reach.
Then in 2013, at age 64, she made one last attempt. And she made it, becoming the first person ever to swim the 110-mile distance without a shark cage.This time, a full-body wetsuit and face mask protected her from the jellyfish stings that derailed her first two attempts. She completed the 110-mile swim in 52 hours, 54 minutes and 18 seconds.
The title of Nyad’s TED Talk is a straightforward one: Never, Ever Give Up.
Credit: Andrea Mead Cross
Billie Jean King
Forty years ago, tennis great Billie Jean King showed the world what it meant to be a true athlete. Her mental fortitude, belief in herself, her pure skill, led her to do what, at the time, was unthinkable in sports — challenge a man and truly believe she would win.
Her opponent was Bobby Riggs, 55, and a tennis legend himself. She walloped him in straight sets (6-4, 6-3, 6-3) in an event that, despite her winning six Wimbledon and four U.S. Open titles, is her most memorable achievement. It is lauded by sports historians at ESPN as helping further the fight toward female equality, asserting women’s role in sports and creating a professional women’s tennis tour. But that was 40 years ago. A woman with that much chutzpah doesn’t stop in her prime.
This year, at age 70, King will be serving as a member of the official U.S. delegation to the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia. She’s earned the recognition simply by merit of her achievement. But her presence is meant to send a message — as an openly gay athlete, she is serving as ambassador for gay rights in a country that offers none.
“I think our presence is really important,” King told The Washington Post. “I take this very seriously. The responsibility to stand and possibly speak for those who don’t have a voice runs deep.”
Credit: Billie Jean King Enterprises Inc/Creative Commons
A woman calling “Foul!” isn’t much to talk about, unless you realize who she’s addressing: the best and brightest players in the National Basketball Association (NBA). Palmer has been quietly breaking down barriers in professional sports refereeing, becoming the first female ref in the NBA in 1997 and in 2006, the first woman to officiate a post-season game. She is now a regular on the NBA officiating circuit.
Palmer told NBA.com that she tries to downplay her achievements and instead stay focused on the hard work that comes with maintaining her spot in the referee hierarchy. But she does acknowledge that the barriers she broke can inspire others. "If my story can motivate another female or another guy — it doesn't really matter who it can motivate — to say, 'Hey, you know what? Try something that no one thought you could do.' If somebody can read it and get something out of it to motivate them, I think that's fantastic. No question,” Palmer said.
Just eight months after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, Antoinette Tuff sat as gatekeeper to what could have been the sequel. Michael Brandon Hill walked into Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy near Atlanta, wielding a high-powered rifle and nearly 500 rounds of ammo. His first stop was the school’s front desk. There, bookkeeper Tuff likely stopped hell from descending upon McNair.
With love, sympathy and iron calm, Tuff was able to talk Hill away from a murder spree and into surrendering to police. "It's going to be all right,” she reassured the man who could have, at any moment, ended her life. “Push through the pain. I know what you are feeling. I've been there too."
She has written a memoir about her ordeal, “Prepared for a Purpose: The Inspiring Story of How One Woman Saved an Atlanta School Under Siege,” to be released this month.
Credit: Bethany House Publishers
She went from single mother to Harvard Law School grad. She went from growing up in a Texas trailer park to aspiring to live in its governor’s mansion. And, most famously, she staged an 11-hour filibuster against some of the tightest abortion restrictions in the country.
Propelled by a pair of pink sneakers, Davis’ victory was short-lived. She was able to delay the vote but not stop it, and once the state legislature was called back into session, the provision passed.
However, the move solidified Davis’ stature in the Democratic Party and the pro-choice movement, both of which have helped her add $10 million to her campaign coffers. Come November, it is possible that Davis, who is running for governor, could ride those pink sneakers straight to Austin and to the helm of one of the country’s largest states.
Credit: Kevin Sutherland/Creative Commons
It was the Op-Ed heard around the world: “My doctors estimated that I had an 87 percent risk of breast cancer and a 50 percent risk of ovarian cancer, although the risk is different in the case of each woman,” Jolie wrote in May 2013 in The New York Times. “Once I knew that this was my reality, I decided to be proactive and to minimize the risk as much I could.
“I made a decision to have a preventive double mastectomy.”
For a woman whose sexuality has been a facet of her highly successful Hollywood movie career (check out any poster for a Lara Croft movie for proof), the decision to remove her breasts as a way to reduce the risk of not only developing cancer, but her children having to cope with that diagnosis, was a courageous one. Jolie’s decision had a personal connection: Her own mother had died at age 56 from ovarian cancer, which is closely linked to the genetic mutation, BRCA1, that increases the risk of breast and ovarian cancer. Jolie tested positive for the mutation herself.
“On a personal note, I do not feel any less of a woman,” Jolie says. “I feel empowered that I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity.”
Credit: Matt Petit / ©A.M.P.A.S.
She’s amazingly talented (with an Oscar and now two Golden Globes, if you’re counting). She rocks a pixie haircut. She stands up for all women, of all shapes, everywhere. And she kills it at the box office. Jennifer Lawrence is a force to be reckoned with, and because of that, all women benefit.
In her role as Katniss, the protagonist of “The Hunger Games,” Lawrence has broken box office records. “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” earned $409.4 million last year, making it the highest grossing movie in 2013. But here’s another milestone: That makes it the first movie since “The Exorcist,” released 40 years prior, with a female as the sole protagonist to dominate the box office.
So we know money is power. But you know what else is? The courage and confidence to say what you want, when you want. And Lawrence has that in spades. She’s spoken out against the sexualization of women, especially young women, in entertainment. And check out what she told Harper’s Bazaar UK about her start in film: “Somebody told me I was fat, that I was going to get fired if I didn’t lose a certain amount of weight. They brought in pictures of me where I was basically naked and told me to use them as motivation for my diet… I was a little girl. I was hurt… I know it’ll never happen to me again. If anybody even tries to whisper the word “diet,” I’m like, “You can go…”
You can fill in the blank. And thanks to Lawrence, you can take on that mantra for your own if you’d like. If she can tell an institution as powerful as Hollywood where to go, who can’t you give directions to?
Credit: Lionsgate Publicity
She’s an enigma wrapped in a meat dress, a songwriter who uses her sizeable platform to tell people everywhere: Don’t hide yourself in regret. Just love yourself and you’re set. She dances her Gaga off and beckons you to do the same — without for a second thinking about what you look like or should look like.
For those reasons, Lady Gaga, 27, was named one of Glamour Magazine’s Women of the Year. Her Born This Way Foundation aims to create a world where “differences are embraced and individuality is celebrated.” She’s anti-bullying and pro-gay rights. And she has given $1.2 million of her own money into helping promote both causes.
“The Born This Way Foundation isn’t about money at all,” Gaga told Glamour. “It’s about communities, people coming together. It’s about kids telling their stories to one another, and finding a sense of home by breeding compassion, making it cool to be that kind of person. I truly believe that people can find a happier way, if they are aware of the stories of people around them — people who share similar challenges and similar fears.”
Cynthia Ramnarace is a DailyWorth senior contributor and freelance writer specializing in topics related to personal finance, health and disaster management.