By Heidi Stevens
I interviewed a ridiculous number of inspiring women in 2015. Women who gave me perspective. Women who gave me hope. Women who are changing the world for the better, for all of us. Here are 15, in no particular order, who stood out in a humbling, impressive crowd.
Gloria Steinem, whose new book, “My Life on the Road,” explores her life as an activist, an educator and a wanderer. We talked about her book and other events during the same week Playboy magazine announced it would no longer publish nude photos.
Her take: “For Playboy to stop publishing nude photos of women is like the NRA saying it’s no longer pushing handguns because machine guns and assault weapons are so easily available,” she said. “Playboy would have to change its title, heart and brain cells in order to express the full humanity of men or women.”
K. Sujata, president of the Chicago Foundation for Women, whose 100 Percent Project aims to end gender bias by 2030. Make no small plans, right? “There’s a sense that gender violence and gender bias are happening elsewhere, because looking in a mirror can be hard,” she told me. “Men in India might burn their wives with kerosene, but here we have easy access to guns, so one shot is deadly. We say, ‘Why should we think about child marriage here?’ But teen girls are getting pregnant, and that interrupts their education and takes a toll on their health too.”
Sarah Zematis, who has become a tireless advocate for pediatric cancer research since her 3-year-old daughter, Sophia, was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor in January. “I want to do something that helps not only Sophia, but all these kids whose families we see, families who travel from all over to be at Lurie (Children’s Hospital),” Zematis told me. “What kids with cancer really need is answers and help and good drugs that will target their cancer.”
Dr. Mae Jemison
Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman to travel in space, is now setting her sights on helping kids fall (and stay) in love with science. “The whole idea is to keep kids engaged and not let them think science is something other folks do,” Jemison told me. “Science is around us everywhere.”
Judy Blume, who graced the stage at the Chicago Humanities Festival to discuss her new book, “In the Unlikely Event.” She talked about her unwavering desire to speak truthfully to children, in her writing and in life. “Adults kept secrets from kids,” she said of her childhood. “No adults, parents or teachers at school, ever talked to us about what was going on in our community.” She’s made a career of righting that wrong.
Bridget Gainer, a Cook County commissioner, teamed up with U.S. Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand to launch Off the Sidelines Chicago, a nonprofit aimed at connecting women and their allies with opportunities to agitate for change. “There are clearly women who want to be engaged and want to get involved,” Gainer told me. “And there are clearly organizations that need people to be involved, and issues around which they need to put their action and energy, but that ability to connect the two, it’s like it’s broken.” She’s mending it.
Ylonda Gault Caviness, whose long-overdue parenting manual, “Child, Please,” told us all to just cool it. “Once I stopped trying to control and master everything, I was delighted with who my kids became,” she told me. “They’re really funny and really sensitive and really cool. By trying to make sure they were confident and make sure they’re this and make sure they’re that, I wasn’t letting them become themselves.”
Sarah Attar, who competed as part of Saudi Arabia’s first delegation of female Olympians in 2012, traveled here in October for the Bank of America Chicago Marathon. She told me about visiting her cousin’s all-girls school in Saudi Arabia shortly after the Olympics, where she asked the auditorium of 700 girls whether any of them would like to run in the Olympics some day. “All of the girls’ hands shot up,” she said. “To see that and know that just by participating I had inspired them, and now a generation of girls grows up with that example and that possibility, that was so powerful to me.”
Lynn Persin opened her life to strangers, writing beautifully about losing her daughter to stillbirth on a blog she originally launched to share the joys and challenges of raising her son, Aleck, who was born with arthrogryposis, a rare congenital disorder. “The whole ‘You’re not alone’ feeling has been really important to my husband and me since we started down this insane journey,” Persin told me. “Since we first lost the baby to then having our son and his neuromuscular disorder, we’ve been on this constant quest to feel less alone.”
Ashley Judd, who spoke at the Chicago Foundation for Women’s 30th anniversary luncheon in September, answered her hotel door for our interview in her pajamas, groggy-eyed after a red-eye flight. But her brain was fully charged. “There’s no fighting in the lifeboat,” she told me. “Part of what happens in the continuum of gender violence is the really subtly covert and grossly overt dividing of girls and women, which allows boys and men to privilege their interests over the emotional well-being and the bodily integrity and the economic achievement of girls and women.”
Michele Weldon, whose “Escape Points” was one of my favorite books all year, raised three sons on her own, beat cancer, taught college students and found time to write powerfully about all of it. “I didn’t write another memoir because I think I’m so utterly fascinating,” Weldon told me. “I just found that my experiences were not voiced in the media landscape.”
Cheryl Mendelson, who decided to forgo holiday cards and gifts in favor of donating to every single charity her friends and family members suggested. “So many people I know want the same thing,” she told me. “We just want a better world, and we get so bogged down by the noise coming at us. Each of these individual organizations feels so passionately about their mission, and they aren’t letting the noise get in the way.”
Laura Winters, who created a coloring book called “Her Highness Builds Robots” to show that the princess life needn’t be all glass slippers and ballgowns. “If a kid wants to be a princess who is also an architect, that’s just inherently cooler than a princess who doesn’t have any activities or passions,” Winters said. “You can put on a dress and then go put on a science experiment.”
Kelly Nichols, who took her 3-year-old twins from Highland Park to Washington, D.C., to lobby for climate-change action. “I’m going to keep fighting for this forever,” she told me. “If you told me tomorrow that going to Springfield every day on my knees would make a difference, I would do it. I look at my children and think, ‘Of course I would do it.'”
Kristina Lancaster, who lost her 12-year-old son, Alex, 13 days before Christmas in 2012. She found the courage to open up about balancing joy and grief at the holidays, inspiring more email than I received from any other column this year. “To not find joy even when you feel hopeless, and believing that none can be found, would be the beginning of a very dangerous fall,” she told me. “It’s in the midst of hearing about something bad that we look for the good guys. The ones who are there to help in very bad situations. Or the people who organize a sock drive, so homeless people can have warmer feet.”
Happy holidays to you all.