These women walked different paths in life. Doctor, lawyer, entrepreneur, explorer. Runner, walker, artist, astronaut. All unique, and yet they shared a special quality. Call it grit or resilience or determination, each possessed a fierce and passionate way of living. And no matter what challenges came their way, they persisted. Meet 24 of the most fascinating and inspiring women who died in 2019.
GABRIELE GRUNEWALD (1986-2019)
It takes endurance and speed to be a middle distance runner. Gabriele Grunewald had both.
For a decade, the professional athlete pushed herself on the track and in her battle against cancer, until her death at 32. After the cancer returned, again, she shared her struggle with the New York Times:
“I was hoping it would not come until I was 40. I wanted to get a little more of life in first.”
BARBARA HILLARY (1931–2019)
For some, surviving lung cancer at age 67 would be enough of a challenge. But not for Barbara Hillary.
After discovering that a black woman had never journeyed to the North Pole, Hillary made it her mission, learning to ski and working out with a personal trainer. In 2007 at the age of 75, Hillary became the first black woman at the North Pole. A few years later, she became the first to reach the South Pole.
JERRIE COBB (1931–2019)
Long before Sally Ride, there was Jerrie Cobb.
She was one of the Mercury 13, a group of women selected by NASA to be the first “lady astronauts.” Cobb completed the same rigorous testing regimen that her male counterparts did, but ultimately was not allowed to fly. Decades later she petitioned NASA, unsuccessfully, to join a space shuttle mission as a research subject, as John Glenn did in 1998.
“I would give my life to fly in space. It’s hard for me to talk about it but I would. I would then, and I will now.”
TONI MYERS (1943–2019)
Toni Myers never went to space — “you have to have about nine Ph.D.s and to be extremely fit, neither of which I qualify for,” she once said — but the movies she made gave us an astronaut’s eye view of Earth.
A pioneer in IMAX filmmaking, Myers was behind three feature-length IMAX documentaries set in space: “Space Station 3D” (2002), “Hubble 3D” (2010), and “A Beautiful Planet” (2016).
GERT BOYLE (1924–2019)
Gert Boyle was “one tough mother.”
At 13, her family fled Nazi Germany and immigrated to Portland, Oregon, where her father started a hat company. By 46, after the deaths of her father and husband, she was running the family business — known by then as Columbia Sportswear. First as president, then as chairwoman of the board from 1983 until her death, Boyle grew Columbia into a multi-million-dollar internationally-recognized brand.
And how many 86-year-old grandmothers do you know who saved themselves from being kidnapped at gunpoint?
CLORA BRYANT (1927–2019)
When we think of jazz trumpeters, we tend to think of men like Louis Armstrong or Dizzy Gillespie. Fortunately, no one ever told Clora Bryant that girls couldn’t play trumpet.
Bryant dropped out of college to play with the Sweethearts of Rhythm and went on to perform with jazz’s best and brightest including Gillespie (who was her mentor), Armstrong, Josephine Baker, Billie Holiday, and Harry James. In the late 1980s she decided she wanted to be “the first lady horn player” to tour the Soviet Union, so she wrote a letter to Mikhail Gorbachev and made it happen. Bryant didn’t receive the fame or fortune of some of her male counterparts but was grateful for what she had:
“I’m sitting here broke as the Ten Commandments, but I’m still rich. With love and friendship and music. And I’m rich in life.”
KATREESE BARNES (1963–2019)
Following in the footsteps of female bandleaders like Clora Bryant was Katreese Barnes.
This talented musician never won a Grammy. But during her tenure as musical director on “Saturday Night Live,” she took home two Emmys. Both awards were for songs she composed the music for. Both songs featured Justin Timberlake. And one song had a memorable music video that also featured Andy Samberg — and a box with something, um, special inside. You know, THAT song.
DOROTHY ROWE (1930–2019)
Dorothy Rowe understood depression, having grown up with a depressive mother. She also understood resilience.
Her mother was verbally abusive and ignored her pleas for medical help, leaving Dorothy to manage on her own the chronic lung condition that would plague her the rest of her life. The incredibly resilient Rowe went on to become a leading psychologist and one of the foremost authorities on what causes depression — and how to overcome it.
“If you make happiness your goal, then you’re not going to get to it … The goal should be an interesting life.”
ALICIA ALONSO (1920–2019)
Prima ballerina Alicia Alonso, founder of the National Ballet of Cuba, was plagued by chronic vision problems from the age of 19, when a detached retina caused her to spend a year in bed while her eye healed. Her near blindness didn’t slow her ascent in the ballet world and, in Alonso’s belief, was irrelevant to her ability as a dancer:
“I don’t want my audience thinking that if I dance badly, it is because of my eyes. Or if I dance well, it is in spite of them. This is not how an artist should be.”
SHUPING WANG (1959–2019)
As a doctor in rural China in the early 1990s, Shuping Wang noticed a disturbing trend: the blood that plasma facilities were collecting from local farmers showed alarmingly high rates of hepatitis C and HIV. The diseases were spreading throughout the region, and blood collection facilities, like the one where she worked, were contributing to the problem through inadequate screening of donors and reuse of contaminated equipment.
Dr. Wang blew the whistle, taking her data and her concerns to local public health officials. When they did nothing, she went over their heads to China’s Ministry of Health, and protocols were put in place to prevent the spread of the diseases. As thanks for saving tens of thousands of lives, local health officials attacked her lab, her reputation, and even her body.
Dr. Wang eventually relocated to the United States.
CARRIE ANN LUCAS (1971–2019)
When Carrie Ann Lucas encountered resistance from a foster and adoption system biased against people with disabilities, she did what any determined mother might — she went to law school.
Lucas became one of the country’s most prominent disability rights attorneys. She lobbied tirelessly in support of enforcing the Americans with Disabilities Act, pushing businesses including Kmart to make their facilities more accessible, and also worked to change discriminatory laws and protect the rights of parents with disabilities.
BARBARA HAMMER (1939–2019)
Barbara Hammer never shied away from sexuality in her films. During a half-century career, the groundbreaking and influential lesbian filmmaker explored sex, gender, the female body, aging, and terminal illness, among other topics. As she told the journal No More Potlucks in 2009:
“One of my goals was to put a lesbian on camera — on film because when I began there weren’t any that I could find.”
JACQUELINE SABURIDO (1978–2019)
Jackie Saburido was a 20-year-old student when the car she was riding in was hit by a drunk driver. Two of her fellow passengers were killed, and two others were injured. Saburido suffered burns on 60% of her body and was not expected to live. But she survived.
In the years that followed, she would undergo more than 120 surgeries and became the face of anti-drunk driving campaigns. She later met the drunk driver who caused her injuries. He recalled her saying “I don’t hate you” and was moved by her compassion towards him.
EVA MOZES KOR (1934–2019)
As a 10-year-old, Eva Mozes Kor endured unspeakable horrors at Auschwitz, where she and her twin sister Miriam were subjected to brutal genetic experiments at the hands of Joseph Mengele, aka the “Angel of Death.” Eva and Miriam survived the Holocaust; the rest of their family did not.
Decades later, Kor founded CANDLES — Children of Auschwitz Nazi Deadly Lab Experiments Survivors — and became a respected speaker, educator, and author. She also forgave Mengele for what he did to her. As she told the Indianapolis Star:
“I discovered I had one power. What I tell everybody is that you — any victim, any person hurt — you have the same power. You have the power to forgive. And what it does, forgiveness, has nothing to do with the perpetrator. It has everything to do with the way the victim feels.”
BARBRA CASBAR SIPERSTEIN (1942–2019)
Barbra Casbar Siperstein never had any intention of becoming political. But after her wife died in 2001, Babs turned her grief into activism, advocating for legal protections for transgender people and LGBT marriage equality. She served in numerous Democratic Party political organizations in New Jersey and in 2009 became the only openly transgender member of the Democratic National Committee.
JOSEPHINE MANDAMIN (1942-2019)
Josephine Mandamin was worried.
The lakes and rivers of Turtle Island (aka North America) were becoming so polluted. To raise awareness about the importance of water and the need to protect it, the Anishinaabe grandmother founded Mother Earth Water Walkers in 2003. Over the next decade plus, she walked 25,000 miles along waterways, including around all the Great Lakes, carrying a bucket of water.
“As women, we are carriers of the water. We carry life for the people.”
FRANCES CROWE (1919–2019)
Frances Crowe vividly remembered the moment when she became an activist for peace. It was 1945, and she was ironing when she heard on the radio that the U.S. had dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. Immediately, she put down the iron and went out to find a peace center. Thus began a lifelong career in activism that included 100 arrests — the last in a wheelchair at age 98.
“There comes a time when to put your body there is more powerful than all the organizing you can do.”
ESTHER TAKEI NISHIO (1925–2019)
As a child, the only sting of discrimination Esther Takei felt was not being allowed to swim in the pool in her hometown of Venice, California.
Then Pearl Harbor happened, and the young American and her family were forced to relocate to an internment camp in Colorado. She remained there until 1944 when she enrolled in university in Pasadena and became a test case for resettlement.
As the first Japanese American to return home after World War II internment, she faced the extreme anti-Japanese hostility of a nation still at war. “The only kind of a Jap the people of Cal. trust is a dead one,” read one of many hate letters she received. But like many of her generation, writes the Los Angeles Times, she “did not dwell on the indignities of her past.”
PAULE MARSHALL (1929–2019)
Paule Marshall’s love for language took her from her mother’s kitchen in Brooklyn to the far reaches of the world.
A gifted and acclaimed writer known for “Brown Girl, Brownstones” and “Soul Clap Hands and Sing,” Marshall toured with Langston Hughes, taught in some of the country’s most prestigious college writing programs, and, at the age of 63, won a “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation.
“A person can run for years but sooner or later he has to take a stand in the place which, for better or worse, he calls home, and do what he can to change things there.”
MARY OLIVER (1935-2019)
Mary Oliver had a way with words.
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
The Pulitzer Prize-winning poet will continue to inspire for generations to come with her elegant and insightful words of wisdom:
“Instructions for living a life. Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”
RACHEL HELD EVANS (1981–2019)
Best-selling Christian author Rachel Held Evans singularly embodied the current political divide in America.
Born in Alabama and raised in Tennessee, Evans counted herself among the multitude of Southern evangelical Christian women. But she also broke the mold: While Evans was anti-abortion, her books like “A Year of Biblical Womanhood” inspired countless fellow Americans of strong faith to choose more progressive politics.
Thoughtful in her beliefs, she reminded us that we don’t have to choose between tradition and progress: We can have both.
UNITA BLACKWELL (1933–2019)
In 1964, when Unita Blackwell tried to register to vote, it did not go well. But being turned away at the polls would prove the “great turning point” in the life of the former sharecropper.
Prevented from registering and fired from her job, Blackwell threw herself into activism and became an influential civil rights leader. In 1976 she was elected mayor of Mayersville, Mississippi, becoming the first black woman to lead a town in that state. For the next quarter century devoted herself to improving quality of life for her people, developing infrastructure and building low-income housing.
“This is what I know about courage. You don’t have to think about courage to have it.”
ROSEMARY MARINER (1953–2019)
Rosemary Mariner was the U.S. Navy’s first female jet pilot and the first woman in the military to command an operational air squadron. Chosen in 1973 as one of the first eight women to enter military pilot training, Mariner went on to become the first woman to fly the A-4C and the A-7E Corsair II. She later served on the Staff of the Joint Chiefs in the Pentagon. After her retirement from the military in 1997, she taught military history at the University of Tennessee and was an advisor to the Department of the Navy as well as PBS and ABC News.
BERNICE SANDLER (1928–2019)
Any American girl who has played school sports in the past half century owes big thanks to Bernice Sandler.
Recognizing the inequities girls and women faced in education, she led the charge in the creation and passage of Title IX, the law that prohibits discrimination in federally-funded educational programs — including athletics — on the basis of sex. It was, as Sandler has said, “the most important step for gender equality since the 19th Amendment gave us the right to vote.”
Thank you, Bunny Sandler!