We all know the stories of Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala, first U.S. woman in space Sally Ride, and leader of the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman. They are women who overcame pain, prejudice and long odds to triumph. The Benjamin is pleased to bring you stories of three women you probably don’t know, who we hope will give you fresh inspiration to be determined, fierce and fearless in your own right.
Jeanne Sobelson Manford, Activist
In 1972, Jeanne Manford’s son Morty, a gay activist, was beaten after protesting at a political event in New York City; police on the scene did nothing to intervene. In response to that police inaction, Manford sent a letter of protest to the editor of the New York Post in which she wrote: “I have a homosexual son and I love him.” A few months later, this quiet elementary school teacher marched with her son in an event that was the precursor to the Pride parade, with a sign that read “Parents of Gays Unite in Support for our Children.” Those too young to remember 1972 firsthand may not realize what a bold and fearless gesture of love and support this was in that era. Jeanne Manford went on to co-found a support organization that eventually became PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays).
Dr. Patricia E. Bath, Ophthalmologist and Laser Scientist
See No Limits
Dr. Bath’s passion is fighting blindness and her career is remarkable for the many ways she pursued this goal – as a physician, an inventor and as a pioneer of community ophthalmology. Dr. Bath completed her training at New York University from 1970-73, where she was the first African American resident in ophthalmology. As a young intern, she worked at both Harlem Hospital and the Columbia University Eye Clinic. She observed that her Harlem Hospital patients had significantly higher rates of blindness and visual impairments compared to her patients at the more affluent Columbia University clinic. This led her to conduct an epidemiological (public health) study and conclude that black patients had a higher rate of blindness due to a lack of ophthalmic care. Acting on these results, Dr. Bath pioneered community ophthalmology to address this challenge. Community ophthalmology provides volunteer outreach to underserved communities, testing for conditions like cataracts and glaucoma so that they can be treated in time to preserve vision. Bath’s other notable accomplishments include inventing a new device and method to remove cataracts; appointment as the first woman chair of ophthalmology in the U.S.; and co-founding the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness, which conducts global outreach to prevent blindness. Ms. Bath did more than see past glass ceilings in her own career; she also saw beyond current technology and economic barriers to care, to save or restore the vision of countless people.
Elizabeth (Betty) Robinson Schwartz, U.S. Olympic Athlete
Betty Robinson was a sprinter whose path to winning an Olympic gold medal in 1928 came with almost fairytale ease and whose 1936 Olympic gold medal relay victory was a comeback that defied all odds. In 1928, Robinson was a 16-year old Illinois high school student sprinting to make a train. Her dash was witnessed by a high school coach who invited her, after a hallway tryout, to train with his boys’ team. Later that spring, she joined the Illinois Women’s Athletic Club. In June she participated in a regional track meet where, wearing ordinary tennis shoes, she came in second to the reigning U.S.100-meter record holder. Three weeks later, she qualified for the Olympics in Amsterdam. Women had not previously competed in track and field in an Olympic games. Robinson won her first Olympic gold in the first-ever women’s Olympic track race, the 100 meters. It was only her fourth official meet and her time tied the world record.
Unfortunately, as surely as she was in the right place at the right time in 1928, Betty Robinson was in the wrong place at the wrong time in 1931, when she sustained a head injury, as well as devastating injuries to her left leg, in a small plane crash. It seemed certain that her running career was over at age 19. However it turned out Robinson had a will that matched her talent. Once healed, after months in a wheelchair and on crutches, her left leg was shorter than her right. Nevertheless she relearned how to walk and eventually how to run. She was no longer able to start races from a crouch due to a pin in her leg, so she focused on relays. In 1936, at the Munich Olympics, she won her second Olympic gold medal as part of a U.S. relay team. With Hitler watching, they beat a heavily favored German team when one of their athletes dropped a baton. It was a remarkable second chapter, this time made possible by determination and grit.