Last year at the New-York Historical Society, we opened the Center for Women’s History—the first initiative within the walls of a major U.S. museum dedicated to sharing the untold stories of women throughout American history. It’s been an honor to share stories on the life and legacies of leaders, from Billie Jean King to Harriet Tubman to the suffragists who worked tirelessly to secure the vote for New York women a century ago on November 6, 1917.
But when we look around the Museum, we find inspiring women in our midst not just from the past, but the present as well: Women comprise 62 percent of the staff at-large and 69 percent of our senior-level executives, including President and CEO Louise Mirrer and Board of Directors Chair Pam Schafler. We’re appreciative every day to be surrounded and led by ambitious, hard-working, and supportive leaders. To celebrate Women’s History Month, we asked some of our empowering women leaders to share their inspirations.
What Woman Inspires You?
In my work, I’m often asked to rattle off a list of “top forty” important or inspirational women. I avoid answering such questions not only because it’s impossible to delimit from a vast array of “sung” and “unsung” heroines, but because one doesn’t want to fall into the trap of suggesting that such a pantheon even exists, replacing a list of so-called “great men” with great women.
But in my personal life, the answer is easy: my mother. The oldest of eight children, she grew up in rural Philippines during the frightening and dramatic time of World War II and the Japanese occupation. Through sheer force of will and determination, she parlayed her substantial intellect into a full scholarship at the University of the Philippines in Manila—and ultimately a Fulbright grant for graduate study in public administration and social work in the United States. She worked as a social worker in anti-poverty programs in New York City in the 1960s and 1970s and rounded out her career as executive director of a social service institution that was established in the city in the early 19th-century.
There are so many challenges anyone encounters in life, but my mother never faced her particularly hard and potentially insurmountable ones with fear, but rather with great tenacity and optimism. She helped many people through their own struggles to help the world in a larger sense. But she also helped those closer to her: my father and me, of course, through her love, encouragement, and example, and her siblings, who, one by one, she supported to seek a better life in the United States and Canada.
While working as curator of decorative arts at New-York Historical, I had the extraordinary opportunity to immerse myself in the life and work of Clara Driscoll (1861-1944), a designer at Tiffany Studios who created many of the firm’s most iconic lamp designs. Clara’s intrepid spirit, her trailblazing work in a male-dominated field, and her resiliency in the face of obstacles have been a great inspiration to me. She defied the constraints of Victorian womanhood to forge a career as a single woman in New York City, resisted unfair labor practices, and fiercely defended her all-female department against attempts by male glassworkers to shut it down. Her breathtaking lampshade designs stand as a testament to the effectiveness of creativity, perseverance, and a bit of feisty good humor in the face of adversity.
I met Emma Acevedo in the 1970s. This was during the fiscal crisis, when landlord abandonment and fires were destroying the Lower East Side and other neighborhoods around the city. I was making a documentary film with Beni Matias on housing organizing. Emma was saving her home. She and her family lived in a large building at 55 Avenue C. When the landlord stopped providing services, Emma stepped in and led her fellow tenants on a rent strike. After the landlord abandoned the building and the city became the new owner, the tenants association took over operations. Emma remained their irrepressible leader. “The landlord opposed the good work I was doing,” she told us on camera, speaking in Spanish. “But today, that same landlord is asking me to adopt him too!” Beni and I finished The Heart of Loisaida in 1979. Sadly, Emma died not so many years later.
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My maternal grandmother moved from Italy to Argentina with her family as a child. There, she met and married my grandfather, also Italian. My grandmother wanted to study but my grandfather preferred she stayed home and took care of their two daughters. Once my mother and my aunt moved out of the family home, my grandmother divorced my grandfather and enrolled in the university. She got a degree in psychology and worked as a journalist and opera critic. She wasn’t super nurturing as a grandmother in the traditional sense, but transmitted to us such a strong love for living as well as a boundless enthusiasm and appreciation for our talents and interests; her impact on my sister’s and my life has been central in who we are as women today. (And in case you’re curious about how the story ended: my grandparents remarried later in life, and both died in their 90s.)
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Isabella Rossellini is a great inspiration to me. Bursting with life and creativity, her latest book, My Chicken’s and I, displays her extraordinary mastery of storytelling with her delightful illustrations and writing, backed up by her keen observations and scientific knowledge. She’s a modern Renaissance woman with a career in acting, modeling, filmmaking, farming, and philanthropy. What next?
In fact, lucky me, we’re very excited to welcome her to the Museum this month during Women’s History Month! We hope you’ll join us to hear her inspiring story. Learn more.
What inspires me about Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg? She’s never done. When she is in the minority on a case ruling, she writes a passionate dissent to inform future judges (and historians). When she was diagnosed with cancer, she never missed a day on the bench and began exercising with a personal trainer—and now has a workout regimen that would knock me out. When it thunderstormed on the day she was to give a talk to teachers here at the Museum in 2015, she got on that plane from D.C. and was on stage to field their questions (which I got to facilitate!). All of this, and so much more, in pursuit of a greater good built on supreme self-confidence (pardon the pun, I couldn’t resist).
One of my favorite quotes of hers is, “I became a lawyer for selfish reasons. I thought I could do a lawyer’s job better than any other.” While this might smack of hubris to some of us, to me it reveals her uncommon strength and vision—for a young woman to believe in herself so unflinchingly is often considered remarkable even today, never mind when she first began her career in the 1950s. She has moved the needle on women’s rights (or, as she would put it, “the constitutional principle of the equal citizenship stature of men and women”) significantly in the direction of gender equity, often articulating that gender discrimination hurts women and men and, therefore, is not a “women’s issue.” And her icon status—unprecedented among Supreme Court justices—as the Notorious RBG continues to inspire girls across the country to join up, fight for a cause, and pursue greatness. These girls, in turn, will shape our nation far into the future. And still, she isn’t done.
Learn about more amazing women from the past and present at our Center for Women’s History, including our digital interactive exhibition “Women’s Voices,” special displays on tennis legend Billie Jean King, our 17-minute short film We Rise (narrated by Meryl Streep) about women’s activism in early 20th-century New York, our breathtaking Gallery of Tiffany Lamps, and immersive rotating exhibitions in the Joyce B. Cowin Women’s History Gallery. Plus, check out our blog, Women at the Center.
— Claire Lanier, New-York Historical Society