NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–The interruption of the powerful narratives that shape and reinforce cultures is a primary requirement for the movement for the equality and equity of women and girls. This task is central to our mission. Women’s eNews is proud to announce today the Women’s eNews 21 Leaders of the 21st Century 2015. These 20 women and one man recast the stories of women and girls through words and deeds.
This year’s winner of the Ida B. Wells award for Bravery in Journalism challenged the accepted truth of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, that a videotaped beating of Rodney King by police sparked the community’s reaction.
UCLA tenured history professor Brenda E. Stevenson knew better. She is the author of the prize-winning book “The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins: Justice, Gender and the Origins of the LA Riots,” that documents that three women, each of vastly different heritages, each with her own experience of being an outsider in the United States, were central players that set the stage for the riots. Each was deeply involved in a moment of violence in a small grocery store in Los Angeles: the teen victim, the shooter and the trial judge.
“This riot was boiling forth from the moment Latasha Harlins was shot,” Stevenson said.
Responding to Changing Facts
The year was 1991 and AIDS was called the “gay man’s disease” when Mary Fisher’s ex-husband told her he had the virus and was ill. Fisher tested positive for HIV. Facing death, Fisher made a decision that has changed the lives of countless women: “I wanted my children to know that their mother was not a victim. She was a messenger.”
With the encouragement of then-first lady Betty Ford, Fisher stunned the audience watching the 1992 Republican National Convention when she spoke and said:
“I represent an AIDS community whose members have been reluctantly drafted from every segment of American society . . . Though I am female, and contracted this disease in marriage, and enjoy the warm support of my family, I am one with the lonely gay man sheltering a flickering candle from the cold wind of his family’s rejection.”
From that point forward, Fisher, an artist of renown, has been dedicated to reducing the toll–emotional and physical–of HIV/AIDS on women and girls. Fisher founded Abataka Foundation, named for a pan-African term for “community,” to support her work in Zambia and other hard-hit countries. Fisher also founded what now is the Mary Fisher Clinical AIDS Research and Education Fund at the University of Alabama, supporting outreach to black and Hispanic women and urging them to be tested.
The other killer epidemic, domestic violence, has been taken on by a now-retired founder of the nation’s largest content marketing company.
Preston V. McMurry, Jr., along with his son Chris McMurry, used their marketing experience to begin developing a database listing of all the domestic violence shelters in the United States, the services they provide and the rules they enforce. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence soon began collaborating. The McMurrys then designed and launched http://www.domesticshelters.org, the first online and mobile resource of more than 3,000 U.S. domestic violence shelters.
The site, with many built in protections for users’ confidentiality, launched in August 2014, on the day the woman Preston V. McMurry, Jr. describes as the love of his life, Donna Theresa Della Croce, passed away.
Years after unearthing Della Croce’s painful history, realizing she was abused by her father as a child, McMurry dedicated himself to combating child abuse and domestic violence by creating in 1992 Theresa’s Fund. Since then, McMurry has donated and raised more than $49 million for Arizona-based family violence organization.
This May, McMurry will return Della Croce’s ashes to the village of her birth, as she had asked. Theirs is a story of an incredible love affair that produced indelible pain and a profound reduction in the suffering experienced by others.
The successful retail executive Marcy Syms overheard at age 11 what her mother hoped her story to be: Someone who married well. She intensely rejected that limited vision of her future. After reading Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique,” Syms realized she didn’t want to be “like the women who could not make their own choices and had to ask their husbands for allowances.”
She set out to ensure she had the means to support herself. She got her first job at age 14 and eventually joined her father’s retail clothing business, Syms Corp. Twenty years later, she was CEO of Syms, with 2,500 employees and 37 stores in 16 states. She also served as founder and trustee of the Sy Syms Foundation, and Syms has been the mainstay of support for women’s rights ever since.
Syms was an early co-chair of Take Our Daughters to Work Day and an early supporter of the Women’s Campaign Fund, NOW Legal Defense Fund, Empower and other advocacy organizations. She also underwrote the publication of Jessica Newirth’s book “Equal Means Equal ERA Now.” Syms now is pushing for medical research in heart disease–the largest killer of U.S. women. She is supporting work to identify how statins, the cholesterol-lowering drugs, affect the bodies of post-menopausal women.
Rita Henley Jensen is founder and editor in chief of Women’s eNews.
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