All my life, I’ve had the privilege of knowing a distinctly unique woman who’s impacted history. My grandmother, Jerrie Mock, was the first woman to pilot an airplane around the globe. She also did this solo, in a single-engine airplane at the age of 38, as a non-professional.
Yeah. My grandmother’s pretty darn cool.
Typically, at this time of year, I’m writing tons of articles and doing podcasts and things about my grandmother. This year, I’m changing things up a bit and honoring her by honoring other women who’ve influenced the world for the better.
Women Who’ve Made a Difference
All women – all humans – make a difference in this world. Some, however, have more obvious stories that we hear about over and over again. Others go unnoticed, like the story of my grandmother. Most folks know someone made the flight, many know it wasn’t Amelia Earhart and many think it was her, but few know Jerrie’s name. Many other women impact history and are even less well-known than my grandmother, though, as they don’t have advocates like myself, Jerrie’s still-living sister, Susan Reid, and a few others who are doing everything we can to get her story out there.
Let’s take a look at a mix of these women – well-known and lesser known – and learn from them.
Aviation and Women’s Rights: Jerrie Mock
How could I not begin with my own grandmother’s memoir?
To read more about her adventures around the world, check out the book she wrote about her flight (not a full biography): Three-Eight Charlie, or read the book, The Jerrie Mock Story, authored by Nancy Roe Pimm, for young adult readers.
You can also check out a bunch of articles I’ve written on her:
Journalism: Ruth Gruber
Ruth Gruber’s memoir, Ahead of Time, reveals the life she led as a journalist, government official, and humanitarian during a tumultuous time in the world. She was born to Russian Jewish immigrants around the turn of the century in Brooklyn and early on, she knew she wanted to be a writer. Enrolling at New York University at the tender age of fifteen, she became the youngest person in the world to receive a Ph.D. at just the age of twenty.
Her love of adventure, intelligence, and that fiery spirit and advocacy for refugees shaped her pursuits in life, including during WWII, when she was sent on a secret mission to escort 1,000 Jewish refugees and wounded soldiers from Italy back to the United States.
Gruber passed at the age of 105, in 2016.
Activism: Wangari Maathai
Unbowed: A Memoir takes readers on the life journey of Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to win a Nobel Prize. She founded the Green Belt Movement, a grassroots organization that improves Kenyan development in environmentalism, women’s rights, and community stability.
In her inspiring autobiography, Maathai recalls her life raised in rural Kenya, eventually studying in the U.S. and then returning to her homeland, using that education to assist her in changing the world around her.
Politics: Sonia Sotomayor
If you’re not familiar with Sonia Sotomayor, a currently serving justice in the Supreme Court, her memoir, My Beloved World, can change that. She’s the first Hispanic and third woman appointed to the United States Supreme Court.
Even if you’re not that into politics, you’ll likely find her story inspiring and empowering. Her intimate and candid story recounts a life begun in a Bronx housing project, ending with her current life as a Justice. Sotomayor’s story of determination and self-belief is an empowering one for anyone looking to make a difference in the world around them.
Art: Helen Frankenthaler
In Fierce Poise, we get a glimpse of the life of the unique and amazing Helen Frankenthaler, one of the most respected painters of the Twentieth Century. It’s a true-life coming-of-age tale in postwar New York and the exposition of a painter.
Books: Ruth Rappaport
A Well-Read Woman takes the reader on the journey through WWII and Nazi Germany, via the life of Ruth Rappaport, a true bibliophile. Her love of literature guided her life, giving her strength and courage to walk through treachery and terror, all the way into the Library of Congress.
Anti-Racism: Ida B. Wells
As the world is learning about the concept of anti-racism in new light, this incredible anti-racist, Ida B. Wells’ has her story shared through Ida: A Sword Among Lions by Paula Giddings. Wells spent her early years as the child of two enslaved people in Mississippi. She lived through and witnessed lynchings and began a crusade in America against this heinous action.
It’s not a light read, but it is life-changing and may well be the impetus we any of us need to help change our own spheres of influence.
Education and Activism: Malala Yousafzai
One woman can make a huge difference in the world, and the life of Malala Yousafzai demonstrates that through the powerful story of her life. She was just a teenager when she stood up for education and the rights of her people under the Taliban. She nearly died for her stand, recovering miraculously, and journeying into a life in which she’s still fighting. I Am Malala tells of this incredible life of one so young and still with us fighting, becoming the youngest nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize in the mid-2010s.
Exploration: Cheryl Strayed
During the midst of chaos, suffering, and loss, Cheryl Strayed embarked on a physical journey that would change her life. She hiked 4000 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail solo, with no prior training or experience. In Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, she recounts her explorations, adventures, and the “insane” journey that brought healing and health to her broken heart.
S.T.E.M.: Hope Jahren
In Lab Girl, Hope Jahren brings the reader along into her childhood in Minnesota, during which she spent free hours at play in her father’s laboratory. The sanctuary of science that she found with both her heart and hands led her into the field as an adult. Now a lab manager, she still “plays,” along with her eccentric partner Bill. She invites us in with the mantle of scientist as we observe and protect the environment together through words and the sciences.
Comedy TV and Film: Amy Poehler
Amy Poehler delivers a whip-smart look into the world of comedy in Yes Please, an inspirational read filled with photos, poetry, lists, photographs, advice, and more. It’s not a typical memoir, as evidenced by chapters entitled “Treat Your Career Like a Bad Boyfriend” and poetry like Plastic Surgery Haiku. It will leave you laughing and maybe crying as you take a peek inside this unusual side of life with one of the world’s leading comedic women.
Freedom: Hyeonseo Lee
Growing up in North Korea, Hyeonseo Lee led a life we can only imagine – and absolutely don’t want to. But at the age of 17, she decided to escape this regimist life in the Hermit Kingdom, crossing the border into China near her childhood home, during the 1990s famine in the land. Her story of overcoming and escaping the brainwashing she experienced and the brutal, secretive world in which she grew up, is filled with hope and inspiration. Read the incredible story in The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story.