As we look back on the challenging year that was 2020, we’re pausing to remember a few of the accomplished and inspiring women who passed away. While the year’s biggest obituary headlines went to U.S. Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, she was only one of many impressive women who left important legacies in the world around them. The year 2020 won’t soon be forgotten, and neither will these extraordinary women.
Leila Janah (1982–2020), sustainability entrepreneur
Leila Janah knew from experience that talent is equally distributed, even though opportunity is not. To pay her way through Harvard, she cleaned toilets, served cocktails, and tutored wealthy students — all the while pitching her sustainable business model to anyone who would listen.
Janah went on to found Samasource, a company with an important if somewhat daunting mission: to end global poverty by giving work to people in need. Samasource (“sama” means “equal” in Sanskrit) provides Fortune 500 clients (including Walmart, Google, GM, and Microsoft) with training data and validation for Artificial Intelligence. And how does Samasource accomplish this? By training poor people, at least half of whom are women, in basic computer skills and paying workers a local living wage.
Hawa Abdi (1947–2020), doctor and human rights activist
At the age of 12, Hawa Abdi was forced to marry an older man. She went on to become one of Somalia’s only female physicians. The one-room birthing clinic she opened in the East African countryside in 1983 became a mecca for displaced Somalis. Ultimately 90,000 came to live in “Hawa Abdi Village,” the makeshift town constructed on the farm around Abdi’s hospital. The physician and activist known as “Mama Hawa” provided free medical care, food, and education. On the side, she earned a law degree; as a lone woman running her own nonprofit, she needed to protect herself.
Beverly Pepper (1922–2020), monumental sculptor
Beverly Pepper grew up in an “interesting household.” Her mother, a Jewish immigrant who volunteered with the NAACP, and her grandmother were strong characters. “You see, I wasn’t brought up thinking I had to be a ‘feminine’ woman.”
After World War II, Pepper went to Paris to study painting. But it was a 1960 trip to Cambodia that would have the greatest impact on her art and career. Inspired by the ruins of Angkor Wat, Pepper turned to sculpture. She soon was being considered alongside the likes of Alexander Calder and other famous sculptors.
Monumental in scale, Pepper’s works are also delicate and intimate. She didn’t see her art as separate from the world but integrally connected. Pepper polished certain works to a bright sheen so as to include the observer within the sculpture, and thus allow for “a constant exchange “going on between the viewer and the work.”
“My aim here is to invest space with a solidity by filling it with the world around it.”
Flossie Wong-Staal (1946–2020), virologist who deciphered the DNA of HIV
She has been hailed as a “genius” (The Daily Telegraph) and one of the “most extraordinary women scientists” of all time (Discover). For her pivotal research on HIV and AIDS, Flossie Wong-Staal deserves all these accolades and more.
As a child, Wong-Staal immigrated with her family from China to Hong Kong after the Chinese revolution. Later as a student at UCLA, she fell in love with the research side of medicine. In 1984, Wong-Staal helped to determine that AIDS is caused by a retrovirus known as HIV.
But Google “who discovered that HIV causes AIDS,” and the only names that pop up are those of men, notably Robert Gallo and Luc Montagnier who oversaw teams researching AIDS. As the men waged an intellectual war over who should receive credit for the discovery, Wong-Staal — an integral member of Gallo’s team — pressed forward in her research. She became the first to clone HIV and determine the function of its genes. She also completed genetic mapping of the virus, making it possible to develop tests for HIV.
“Not only was it a new virus,” Wong-Staal said in an NIH archival interview, “it was a very interesting and complicated virus. That meant that there were a lot of discoveries to be made… It was dizzying, you know, because there was so much to do.”
Katherine Johnson (1918–2020), NASA mathematician
The pioneering NASA mathematician was one of the real-life inspirations for the hit movie “Hidden Figures.” As a Black woman at Langley in the 1950s and ‘60s, Johnson has said she had to be assertive and aggressive to ensure she was included in meetings and given credit for her critical work. Her perseverance paid off, and her impact on the success of the space program is immeasurable.
Arianne Caoili (1986–2020), glamorous chess master
Like the heroine in popular Netflix series “The Queen’s Gambit,” Caoili was not your typical chess player. As a teenager, the Filipino-Australian competed at top international levels in chess. During her brief life, Caoili also modeled, appeared on television (she was the runner up on season five of Australia’s Dancing with the Stars), studied Russian foreign policy, worked as a financial consultant, and served as advisor to Armenian prime minister Karen Karapetyan. Beloved in Armenia where she lived with her husband, chess grandmaster Levon Aronian, Caoili died of injuries sustained in a car crash.
Vicki Wood (1919–2020), record-setting NASCAR driver
In 1953, Wood went with her husband to a “powder puff” race in Detroit. “If I couldn’t drive any better than that,” Wood said, “I’d quit.”
A week later Wood competed in her first race in a 1937 Dodge coupe her husband had borrowed. She finished ninth in the field of 25. The next night she raced again and won.
Wood was the first woman to compete against men in Michigan. She was also the first woman to drive the Daytona and Atlanta international speedways. She set several speed records, including fastest women’s lap at Daytona (130.3 mph). In 1959 and ’60, she was faster than all of the other drivers on Daytona Beach.
Then as quickly as she had begun, she stopped. In 1963, after a decade on the track, “the fastest woman in racing” retired and moved to Florida.
Monica Roberts (1962–2020), journalist and transgender rights advocate
Roberts was a groundbreaking journalist and cofounder of the National Transgender Advocacy Coalition.
TransGriot, the blog Roberts founded in 2006, was a beacon in the trans community. “Griot” is a West African word for “storyteller,” and Roberts notably told the stories of Black trans women who were murdered. Combing news reports, she connected the dots to bring to light the deaths of murder victims who had been misgendered (e.g. described as “man in women’s clothing”). Roberts, who began her own transition in the 1990s, respectfully and honestly told the victims’ stories, using their preferred name and pronouns.
Daisy Coleman (1997–2020), sexual assault survivor
Coleman was sexually assaulted at age 14. A few years later she was featured in “Audre & Daisy,” a Netflix documentary that explores the trauma inflicted upon victims and their families after an assault. At age 23, Coleman ended her life. Her legacy includes SafeBAE, an organization she co-founded that help survivors cope with their experiences. The mission of SafeBAE: ending the sexual assault of middle school and high school students.
Bella Hammond (1932–2020), fisherwoman and first lady
Bella Hammond has one of the more interesting biographies in this group. She grew up in rural/small town Alaska. At age 12, she spent the winter living at a teacher’s house, caring for the teacher’s young children, and running a dog sled team. She graduated from high school valedictorian and soonafter married Jay Hammond, a pilot for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
In the mid-1950s Hammond founded her own commercial fishing company. After her husband joined the Alaska House of Representatives in 1959, Hammond divided her time between Juneau and the Naknek River, where she continued to manage her fishing business.
In 1974 Jay Hammond was elected governor and Bella became first lady of Alaska — and the first Native Alaskan to live in the Governor’s mansion. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer during her husband’s second term, Hammond went public with her diagnosis. Through chemotherapy, she continued in her duties as first lady and became a vocal advocate for breast cancer awareness and healthcare in general.
When Jay’s term as governor came to an end, the Hammonds returned to their remote homestead, accessible only by float plane or a 10-mile boat trip. Even after Jay’s death in 2005, Bella remained active in political causes throughout her 70s and 80s. She was a vocal opponent of the proposed Pebble Mine that threatens Bristol Bay fisheries, the very ones she had fished her entire life.
Hammond and former Alaska first lady Ermalee Hickel re-established a political group begun by their husbands. With Backbone Alaska, Hammond and Hickel worked to counter the influence of the oil companies in Alaskan politics. They backed bipartisan efforts to protect Alaska’s interests and limit oil companies’ power, saying “As our husbands were known for putting Alaska first, we, too, are dedicated to this guiding principal.”
Angela Madsen (1960–2020), world champion athlete
When Angela Madsen was Luce Douady’s age, she thought she would go to college on an athletic scholarship. Then at 17, she became a mother. To provide for her daughter, she joined the Marines and was recruited to join the Marine Corps women’s basketball team. At her very first practice in 1980, she suffered a back injury rupturing two discs. Years later, she underwent surgery on her back related to the old injury. It did not go well and Madsen was left paraplegic.
Things went from bad to worse for Madsen. The military refused to pay her medical bills. She lost her home and her marriage fell apart. Depressed and homeless, Madsen would sleep in her wheelchair in front of Disneyland.
Basketball had led to her undoing, but it would also be what saved her. Introduced to wheelchair basketball, Madsen found a new way of thinking about her abilities and a new lease on life. She took up rowing and became a world champion. She competed as a rower at the Beijing Paralympics in 2008 and then pivoted to track and field for the 2012 London games, where she won bronze in the shot put and finished fifth in javelin.
Madsen held many world records: she was one of the first two women to row across the Indian Ocean and the first woman with a disability to row across the Atlantic. She was attempting to become the oldest woman, first openly gay athlete, and first paraplegic to row alone across the Pacific when she died.
Pilar Luna (1944–2020), underwater archaeologist
Angela Madsen wanted to explore across the ocean. Pilar Luna? She wanted to get to the bottom of it.
In her late 20s, Luna was working as a swimming instructor, teaching children with disabilities, when she decided to return to school. Luna was planning to major in anthropology until she took an archaeology class. She was hooked and soon dove headfirst into aquatic archaeology. A pioneer in the field, she founded the Division of Underwater Archaeology of Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH). Throughout her career, she was a fierce advocate for the preservation and protection of underwater cultural heritage.
Deidre Davis Butler (1955–2020), protector of disability rights
In 1990 disability lawyer Deidre Davis Butler helped draft the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act. The issue of access for people with disabilities was important to her — as a child, Davis Butler’s ability to walk had been impaired by a spinal cord tumor and the surgeries to remove it.
“I was one of the very few people of color in the inner layers of helping to draft the ADA, implement it, enforce it from all different perspectives.”
Cecilia Chiang (1920–2020), redefining restaurateur
During World War II, as the Japanese occupied her home of Beijing, Chiang fled to Chongqing, traveleing nearly 700 miles mostly on foot. She later left China, first for Tokyo, where she ran a restaurant with friends, then for San Francisco. The restaurant she opened there, The Mandarin, introduced Americans to more authentic Chinese dishes, beyond chop suey and egg foo young, and helped redefine American cuisine.
Elizabeth Wurtzel (1967–2020), bestselling author of “Prozac Nation”
Wurtzel frankly detailed her long-running battle with depression in her groundbreaking 1994 memoir “Prozac Nation.”
Debra White Plume (1954–2020), water protector
White Plume fought to protect the Oglala Lakota’s traditional way of life and lands. In the early 1970s, she was one of the first to join the Wounded Knee movement. Later, she cofounded Owe Aku (“Bring Back the Way”), an organization that works to protect treaty rights. When the safety of her people’s water supply was threatened by projects including the Keystone XL Pipeline and DAPL, White Plume was there, helping to organize protests at Standing Rock.
Luce Douady (2003–2020), Olympic hopeful climber
At 16, Luce Douady was already one of the top climbers in the world. In 2019 she became youth world champion. That same year she earned a bronze medal at the European championships — competing at the senior level. In 2024 sport climbing will make its Olympic debut at the Paris games. Douady was expected to be there to usher in the sport and help France reach the podium.
Lina Ben Mhenni (1983–2020), Tunisian journalist
Ben Mhenni rose to international prominence a decade ago using the power of her digital pen to expose violence and injustice in Tunisia under the rule of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Even after her blog, “A Tunisian Girl,” was censored by the Ben Ali regime, Ben Mhenni continued to hold the government accountable by posting photo and video of protests and those injured. Ben Mhenni was a pivotal figure during the Tunisian revolution, organizing protests and documenting the government’s massacre and suppression of protesters.
Irene Hirano (1948–2020), community and cultural leader
Irene Hirano was a woman of action. For more than a decade she was executive director of a community health facility for low income women. In 1988, she became the founding director of the Japanese American National Museum, guiding the museum as president and CEO for two decades.
With Hirano at the helm, the museum grew into a formidable and respected cultural institution. Hirano oversaw groundbreaking exhibits, including one on remembering “America’s Concentration Camps” of World War II. After 9/11, Hirano saw parallels between the experience of Arab and Muslim Americans in the early 21st century and what Japanese Americans had endured decades prior. Under her leadership, the museum reached out to Arab Americans to help ease the backlash against them.
An accomplished fundraiser, Hirano played an important role in fundraising efforts on both sides of the Pacific. She launched an initiative that helped raise more than $50 million in aid to Japan after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. In 2014, she was an important player in helping to lift Detroit out of bankruptcy.
From 2009 until her death, she served as the first president of the U.S.-Japan Council.
“Many of us are conditioned to sit back, get done what needs to be done and not confront,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 1980. “It’s much easier that way, but we must fight against falling into that trap.”
Betty Williams (1943–2020), Nobel Prize-winning peace activist
On August 10, 1976, Betty Williams was walking home in Belfast when she saw a car swerve and hit three children. They were crushed and killed. Also killed was the driver, a member of the Irish Republican Army who had been fatally shot by a U.K. soldier and was already dead when the crash occurred.
Moved by the horrific tragedy, Williams started a petition for peace. Within two days, she’d obtained 6,000 signatures.
Williams, along with the children’s aunt Mairead Corrigan Maguire and journalist Ciaran McKeown, founded the Community of Peace People (initially known as Women for Peace or Peace Women). Williams organized a peace march with 10,000 Protestant and Catholic women turning out to honor the slain children before the march was violently disrupted by the IRA. The next week Williams led another march for peace, this time with 20,000 participants.
When she and Corrigan Maguire accepted the Nobel Peace Prize a few months later, Williams had this to say: “As far as we are concerned, every single death in the last eight years, and every death in every war that was ever fought represents life needlessly wasted, a mother’s labour spurned.”
Catherine Hamlin (1924–2020), healer of women
While Dr. Abdi was tending to the people of Somalia, Catherine Hamlin was healing thousands of women in nearby Ethiopia.
In 1958 the Australian doctor saw an ad in The Lancet medical journal: a hospital in Addis Ababa needed an obstetrician and gynecologist to establish a midwifery school. Dr. Hamlin arrived in the Ethiopian capital with her family the following year and never left. In 1974 she and her husband founded the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital, the only medical center in the world dedicated exclusively to providing free surgery to poor women suffering from childbirth injuries. Dr. Hamlin, whose husband Reg died in 1993, lived in a cottage on the hospital grounds and actively cared for patients until her death.
Zara Alvarez (1981–2020), paralegal and human rights activist
Zara Alvarez was a paralegal who documented human rights violations in her native Philippines. In addition to helping to defend political prisoners, Alvarez was the volunteer education director for Karapatan, a human rights organization whose members have been frequent targets of the government under Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte.
On August 17, the 39-year-old mother became the 13th member of Karapatan to be murdered during Duterte’s administration.
Emma Amos (1937–2020), politically-charged painter
The statements Amos made in her art grew from her experience as a woman of color in the art world. She found herself excluded from the mainstream art world for her race and from African American artists’ circles for her gender.
Phyllis Lyon (1924–2020), LGBTQ rights activist
Phyllis Lyon had to wait a long time to marry the love of her life. More than 50 years, in fact.
It was the early 1950s when Lyon and Del Martin fell in love and moved in together. But the two women would not be wed until 2004, when mayor Gavin Newsom ordered San Francisco to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The longtime activists were the first to marry under the new rule. But then the California Supreme Court voided their marriage, and Lyon and Martin had to wait another four years. Finally in 2008, the California Supreme Court declared that same-sex couples’ access to marriage is a fundamental right. Lyon and Martin were married again on June 18, 2008. Just two months later, Martin died.
When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled gay marriage legal on June 26, 2015, the 90-year-old Lyon said “Well how about that? For goodness’ sakes.”
Ruth Mandel (1938–2020), advocate for women in politics
As director of the Center for American Women and Politics for more than 20 years, and then of the Eagleton Institute a whole for another 24 years, Mandel was one of the country leading advocates for women in politics.
Mandel also served on the governing board of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council. Born into a Jewish family in Vienna in 1938, Mandel was still a baby when her family fled the Nazis. They never forgot that they were among the lucky ones to escape and survive.
Having been a refugee during World War II had a profound influence on her political beliefs.
“She had a deep personal understanding of what happens when society restrains the rights of people in their midst,” her daughter told The New York Times.
But unlike her parents who kept their heads down, forever traumatized, Mandel fully exercised her rights and duties as a citizen of a democratic society. She protested the war in Vietnam, signed petitions, and instilled in her daughter the importance of participating, taking her along every time she voted.
“We can do this, we get to do this. We are empowered to make the world what we want it to be.”
Barbara Harris (1930–2020), Episcopal bishop
Harris was the first woman ordained a bishop in the Episcopal church. Interviewed in 2009 on the 20th anniversary of her ordination, Harris said this: “I was in conversation with some people the other day and it seemed that because Barack Obama has been inaugurated as president the whole matter of race relations in this country has been solved. It just isn’t true. We have to remain vigilant and keep revisiting situations to make sure that we are still paying attention to what needs to be done.”
Aimee Stephens (1960–2020), funeral director
“What I must tell you is very difficult for me and is taking all the courage I can muster…”
Aimee Stephens wasn’t trying to cause trouble when she wrote the letter to her coworkers. She just wanted to do her job, the same job she had been doing well for the past six years. But going foward, she wanted to do it as the woman she felt she truly was.
When R.G. and G.R. Harris Funeral Homes in Michigan fired her, they made it clear it was because of her transgender status. Stephens sued, and her case was pending before the U.S. Supreme Court when she passed away May 12.
One month later, in a surprising decision given the conservative leanings of the majority, the Supreme Court ruled that workplace protections apply to gay and transgender workers. “An employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender defies the law,” Justice Neil M. Gorsuch wrote in the 6-to-3 ruling.
“Aimee’s spirit and courage will not only be her legacy but our guiding light as we carry on her fight for equality,” presidential candidate Joe Biden said in a tweet after her death.
“I found it a little overwhelming when I realized that I could be in the history books,” Stephens told Vox in October 2019. But “somebody’s gotta do it,” she added, “and I’d be happy and satisfied to be that person.”