By: Lila Chafe and Grace Calvert
SILVER SPRING, Md– This past March, communities came together to celebrate the role of women throughout history in honor of Women’s History Month.
A month later, it’s Mother’s Day season — another reminder of how important it is to thank the strong women in our lives.
Girls and women of all ages have been inspired by the women who came before them, and the history-makers will continue to inspire.
We examined nine women’s stories and asked the same question: what women inspired you?
Helen Lacy, Jeane Moore and Jaye Sutton: Inspiration across generations
Helen Lacy was born Aug. 23, 1901, near Cobb County, Georgia.
Her daughter, Jeane Moore, who died in 2014, recounts in a memoir that Lacy had a tragic childhood. Her parents died when she was 10 years old, and an uncle who was meant to take care of the family stole their fortune and dumped them in an orphanage shortly thereafter.
“Her stories were not happy,” Moore writes, “but I always felt that she was a strong, stable and intelligent lady. She managed to get a degree in teaching and taught grade school…she was a big influence on my life.”
In 1928, Helen Lacy had her first child with husband Russell White Moore, who was a “cowboy” according to their granddaughter, Jaye Sutton.
Lacy and her husband lived on a 30-acre homestead they had acquired through the Homestead Act, located on the outskirts of a small town in Montana.
Through the depression, the couple owned a potato chip business called Moore’s Potato Chips.
When World War II started, Lacy and her family moved to a house in Cincinnati, Ohio, drawn by a job at the Ohio Corps of Engineers.
Lacy’s degree in mathematics made her an asset, and she moved through the ranks.
Sutton remembers visiting her grandmother when she was young, and notes that she had her own office with “a candy bowl on her desk.”
When asked about her job, Lacy would simply reply “It’s just a job, Jaye. It’s just a career, it’s just something I do,” Sutton recounts.
In addition to work, Lacy enjoyed “gardening, cooking and working on needlepoint, all traditional pastimes for a woman at the time,” Moore writes in her memoir.
It’s suspected that Lacy’s husband, who would have been 58 at the time, may have been sent off to join World War II since he was able-bodied.
A subsequent divorce left Lacy as a single mother until around 1960, when she married for the second time.
It was at this point in her life that “she was winding down [her job],” Sutton says.
Lacy only lived a few years more after her second marriage but awed all the women in her life in that time.
“I sometimes don’t know how she found the energy to do all that she did,” Moore writes in her memoir.
Hardworking until the end, Lacy’s favorite piece of advice was “whatever you do in life, do your very best.”
For women today — especially those in her own family — Lacy’s story is a reminder of the brave women throughout history who stood up for their rights, worked jobs traditionally meant for men and promoted equity for the coming generation.
Susan Runner and Shirley Chisholm: Finding strength in empowered females
“Shirley Chisholm is my hero. We need to have our voice heard in places like the House and the Senate,” Susan Runner remarks.
“It’s very important that we take our place as time goes forward. History of men taking the first row is not acceptable,” Runner, who is an activist in the Washington, D.C. area, says.
She sees elected officials as a prominent reminder that men are still dominating in our culture.
“I remember back in the 70s the movements were led mostly by men,” she reflects, adding that males still make up the majority of politicians in the country today.
Despite her dismay at the lack of women in positions of power, Runner uses her admiration of Chisholm as a vehicle to advocate for more female representation in modern society.
Shelby French and Freya Stark: Traveling risk-takers
“My hero is Freya Stark,” Shelby French, another D.C. resident, says.
“She traveled by herself through various countries in the Middle East where women were not traveling by themselves [at the time],” French explains. “She went through and documented the livelihoods and communities that were there, and she did it in the face of a lot of risk.”
French looks up to Stark because she experiences similar situations. “Stark is inspirational to me as I travel through the same countries by myself,” she says.
“Often, women’s voices are subsumed by men’s voices,” French goes on to remark. “It’s time that we elevate and make sure that everyone is fully aware of the contributions that women have made.”
As stories like Stark’s are told, women of this generation, like French, are able to understand the importance of changing societal expectations and taking risks to feel empowered.
Katherine Kirsch: Looking up to the women of the future
“Women’s history month has taken on new importance now that I am an educator,” Kirsch, an English as Second Language (ESL) teacher. “It reminds me to be more intentional about weaving in women’s stories to the curriculum.”
Kirsch, who works in Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) doesn’t look to the past to find her inspiration — instead, she looks forward and appreciates the achievements of the young girls who practice activism today.
“In particular, [I look up to] the young women who started the movement at the Dakota access pipeline to protest, the women who started Black Lives Matter and the women who are in the leadership of the Dreamers movement,” Kirsch remarks. “I am so optimistic that our future is in these women’s hands.”
Kirsch’s words are a reminder to many women to not only celebrate yesterday’s women but tomorrow’s women too.
Lyssia Merriman and Harriet Tubman: Celebrating the diverse experiences of women
“If we look at the reason why we need to have Black History Month and Women’s History Month, it’s because the histories of certain people are not written down as much in our books and in the articles we read. Because of who writes history, [certain people] are voiceless,” Lyssia Merriman says. “[Uncovering their voices] will empower us and give us a new idea of who we are and what our nation means.”
Merriman, who lives in Washington, D.C., says there is also a global aspect of women’s history that many are prone to forget. “We tend to focus on our own issues in our own community and not remember that the experience of being women and girls is very diverse around the world,” she says.
For her, Harriet Tubman is a female leader that she sees as “an angel-like figure.”
“[Tubman] came into my life when I was in second grade and I was so deeply moved by the risks that she took in her life to help others. She became lodged in my heart as a strong woman… She still is one of my favorite women today to look toward for guidance,” Merriman says.
As women are celebrated today, many, like Merriman, find a way to draw inspiration from women who were not connected to them in any way but hold a special significance in their lives.
Cecelia and her mom: Drawing inspiration from family
“Women’s history is important to celebrate because it [teaches] young girls that they are just as important as young boys [and] that they have a place in the world,” Cecelia, a student at Montgomery Blair High School, says.
When asked who her hero is, she immediately answers, “My mom! She is hardworking and always sets a good example. She is really caring about other people and she tries her hardest to make sure that everyone else is happy.”
“I love her because she is my mom,” she adds simply.
Many women, like Cecelia, don’t have to look far to find their female inspirations — people everywhere look up to the women in the family as a source of strength and empowerment.
Marcella and Rosa Parks: Celebrating women in U.S. history
“We learned about Rosa Parks in school [and] we learned about women in media,” Marcella, 10, says.
Celebrating women like Parks is important to Marcella every day, but she especially enjoys occasions like International Women’s Day.
“There wasn’t a big celebration [for International Women’s Day], but my mom reminded me and we talked about it,” she remarks.
Marcella appreciates that girls like her can be seen making their own history around the world by getting an education for the first time, making efforts in school desegregation and more.
“Women are really important to not [just] U.S. history, but world history,” she says.
When young girls like Marcella are taught about the impact that strong historical figures like Parks had, they adopt them as heroes to serve as their examples for the future.
Haya and Maame Biney: Inspiring women in sports
For girls who love sports, female athletes are some of the biggest inspirations.
“Maame Biney!” Haya, 9, replies without hesitation when asked who her hero is.
“She’s a speed skater,” Haya adds.
Biney was the first African-American woman to qualify for a U.S. Olympic speed skating team — for girls like Haya, that is a huge inspiration.
Seeing successful, confident women like Biney in the world today helps young girls such as Haya learn to feel empowered.
Grace, Helen Keller, Michelle Obama and more: Finding heroes from then and now
Grace, an elementary school student, can’t decide on just one woman who inspires her. Her list of role models is made up of many popular women throughout history.
“Helen Keller is really amazing. I also look up to Michelle Obama and many more,” says Grace.
Grace believes it’s up to the younger generation to any injustice in the world. “I think [gender discrimination] is really unfair,” she says. “I don’t get why people would do that today. I thought we were supposed to change.”
“Women were treated [poorly] back in the day, and I think that it is really important that people make it up to them [now],” she remarks.
By being able to look to strong women like Keller and Obama who have created change overtime, girls like Grace become inspired to take action. Yesterday’s role models create the strong women of tomorrow.
From Harriet Tubman to Helen Lacy to those leading current resistance movements, women have contributed thousands of valuable assets to society.
Today’s women and girls agree that even more change needs to be made and that it is up to them to make it.
All the young girls, passionate teens and experienced women looking to use their talents to improve the world take inspiration from varied heroes; they’re looking to make history with her story.