2020 National Women’s Hall of Fame Inductees

hall of fame

In December 2020, the National Women’s Hall of Fame held a virtual induction ceremony honoring six amazing women, posthumously. Henrietta Lacks is remembered for her immortal HeLa cells used in medical research the world over. Taken from the cancer tumor that killed her at age 31, the cells were used to develop the polio vaccine, treatments for the flu, Parkinson’s treatments and leukemia drugs. The cells were taken without her permission and without her family’s knowledge and have now been used in more than 76,000 medical studies. Because of this situation,

Henrietta Lacks

medical ethicists now credit Henrietta Lacks with paving the way for ethical medical research. A second inductee was Barbara Rose Johns Powell who, at the age of 16, led a student strike in Farmville, Virginia – protesting separate but equal education. The student-initiated lawsuit was consolidated into Brown v. Board of Education which repudiated the separate but equal doctrine. Let’s learn more about the other four – Mary Church Terrell, Toni Morrison, Aretha Franklin, and Barbara Hillary.

Mary Church Terrell

An activist for suffrage and women’s rights, Mary Church Terrell was one of the first African-American women to earn a college degree. Born in 1863 to parents who were both former slaves, Terrell received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Oberlin College, in Ohio. She taught at the high school and college level until she married. At that time in our history, only single women could be hired as teachers so she had to leave the profession. After a friend of the family was lynched in Memphis, Tennessee, she formed the Colored Women’s League with a focus on addressing the issues facing black communities and black families.

A few years later, she helped found the National Association of Colored Women and served as its first president. With a motto of “Lifting as We Climb”, the organization aimed to encourage education and community activism for societal improvements. This reflected Terrell’s belief that through education, work, and community activism the black community would lift itself up. She, along with others, believed that these actions would lead to the end of racism. An involved suffragist, Terrell spoke both in the U.S. and abroad. In 1909, she was a charter member of the National Association for Colored People – the NAACP. Terrell also actively participated in the effort to end legal segregation in Washington, D.C. including, when she was in her 80s, participating in picket lines outside of segregated restaurants.

Toni Morrison

Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison was a novelist, editor, professor, and essayist. She was the first black woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. The Nobel Prize citation included “who in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.” She had previously received the Pulitzer Prize in 1987 for her novel Beloved which was made into a 1998 movie starring Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover. Her 1977 book Song of Solomon had brought her work to national attention and she received the National Book Critics Circle Award for it.

In addition to her Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes, Morrison received many other awards including honorary doctorates and the National Humanities Medal. In 2008, she received a Grammy Nomination in the category of Best Spoken Word Album for Children for Who’s Got Game? The Ant or the Grasshopper? The Lion or the Mouse? Poppy or the Snake? In 2012, Morrison received the nation’s highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, from President Barack Obama.

Aretha Franklin grew up singing gospel in her father’s church. In 1961 she went under contract with Columbia Records, but it was after she went with Atlantic Records in 1967 that her many hits and nationwide fame occurred. By the end of the decade of the 1960s, she was referred to as the “Queen of Soul.” The most charted female artist in history, Franklin won 20 Grammy awards including a Lifetime Achievement and the Legend Award. The first female inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Franklin is listed by Rolling Stone magazine as one of the 100 Greatest Artists of all Time and the #1 Greatest Singer of All Time (out of their 100).

Franklin was also involved in the civil rights and women’s rights movements. She helped financially support groups advocating for these rights and performed at benefits and protests. In 2019, the Pulitzer Prize organization gave her a posthumous citation saying “for her indelible contribution to American music and culture for more than five decades.” She was the first individual woman to receive such a citation. Her many other honors include the Kennedy Center Honors and the National Medal of Arts.

Barbara HillaryAdventurer Barbara Hillary went to both the North and South Poles. The double cancer survivor (both lung and breast cancer) and retired nurse made it her mission to reach the North Pole after becoming aware that no African-American woman had yet done so. After retirement, she took up snowmobiling and dog sledding. Training in New York City presented it challenges, all of which she overcame. The first African American woman and the oldest woman to accomplish these achievements, Hillary reached the South Pole at age 75 (in 2007) and the North Pole (in 2011) at age 79.

Hillary was inspired to pursue adventure after reading Robinson Crusoe in her youth. She was able to pursue that wanderlust after her retirement. The recipient of many awards, Hillary served as an inspirational speaker after her Polar exploits; in her speaking she also identifies as an activist on the topic of climate change.

Women participate and contribute to every area of our lives. These women who have now been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, as well as many other women, almost all of whom we have not heard about nor learned about in school, are profiled in our book, Her Story: A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America. Help us by continuing to tell women’s stories. Write women back into history! Tell young women especially, that their dreams in any field of endeavor or interest, can become a reality.

Jill Tietjen
Author: Jill Tietjen

Jill S. Tietjen, PE, is an author, national speaker, and an electrical engineer. After 40 years in the electric utility industry, her professional focus is now on women’s advocacy, worldwide. She blogs for The Huffington Post, speaks nationally on the accomplishments of women, nominates women for awards, and continues to write books (8 published to date), following in the footsteps of her bestselling and award-winning book, Her Story: A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America (written with Charlotte Waisman). She is a frequent keynote speaker as her positive energy and her ability to relate to the audience result in inspired and energized listeners. The recipient of many awards, her induction into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame in 2010 remains one of her most treasured.

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