A Tribute to the Strong Women of Oklahoma

Some of the economic issues that are resulting from the pandemic of 2020 evoke images from the Great Depression and the drought of that same time. The combination that resulted in Oklahoma led to it being referred to as the “Dust Bowl.” We thought a tribute to the strong women of Oklahoma was fitting.

MILDRED PIERCE, Joan Crawford, 1945

Although born in Texas, actress Joan Crawford spent much of her youth in Lawton, Oklahoma. She aspired to become a dancer and realized that ambition in the early 1920s. Shortly thereafter she took a screen test and was signed to a contract by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). Her entertainment career in movies and television lasted more than six decades and survived multiple studios and controversies. In 1946, Crawford won the Best Actress Oscar for her performance in Mildred Pierce. She would receive two additional Best Actress Oscar nominations: for Possessed in 1948 and for Sudden Fear in 1953. Joan Crawford has been ranked number ten on the listing of the greatest female stars of classic Hollywood cinema by the American Film Institute.

Maria Tallchief

Born in Fairfax, Oklahoma of Osage heritage, Maria Tallchief broke significant barriers in 1947 when she was named the first Native American prima ballerina of the New York City Ballet. During the 13 years that she was in that role, she became the first American to dance with the Paris Opera Ballet. While she was married to choreographer George Balanchine, he created many works designed for her strengths of technical precision, strength, and musicality. After her retirement in 1965, Tallchief served as the artistic director of the Lyric Opera Ballet. She then founded and served as artistic director of the Chicago City Ballet. She received the National Medal of the Arts for “helping bring ballet to America:” Her many other honors include the Kennedy Center Honors and induction into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame and the National Women’s Hall of Fame. She is one of five Oklahoma Native American ballerinas to be featured on a mural in the Oklahoma State Capitol and in a 2000 documentary film.

Jeane Kirkpatrick

Born in Duncan, Oklahoma, Jeane Kirkpatrick was encouraged to believe she could be anything she wanted when she was growing up. She said, “I had a wonderful Oklahoma childhood. My family imbued me with the frontier spirit. It is a can-do spirit. . . the frontier ethic that you can do anything – everything – always. This is what I heard, ‘Jeane, you can do that.’ I was always told doing something well is just a matter of trying harder.” A foreign policy advisor to Presidential candidate Ronald Reagan, he asked her to serve as Ambassador to the United Nations after his election. She served from 1981-1985 and became the only woman on the 154-member United Nations Assembly. Through this position, she served as a member of Reagan’s cabinet – the first woman and only Democrat to do so. Kirkpatrick has been inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame.

Wilma Mankiller

The first female chief of the Cherokee Nation, Wilma Mankiller worked to improve the education and health care systems as well as the government of her people. Elected as chief in 1985 after years of service to the Cherokee Nation, Mankiller served for ten years until ill health forced her to step down. The recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Mankiller said “Prior to my election, young Cherokee girls would never have thought that they might grow up and become chief.” She also said, “I advise young people to always be fully engaged. Speak out against injustice. Don’t lead a moderate life. Don’t let society define who they are. No one needs to waste their lives living someone else’s dream.” Born in Oklahoma, she authored the bestselling autobiography Mankiller: A Chief and Her People. Among her numerous honors, Mankiller has been inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame and the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

Anita Hill

Born and raised in Oklahoma, Anita Hill earned her undergraduate degree at Oklahoma State University as a National Merit Scholar, before obtaining her law degree at the Yale University Law School. She then taught law students at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma and the University of Oklahoma. She became the first tenured African American professor at the University of Oklahoma Law School in 1989. Anita Hill’s name became known internationally in 1991 when she testified about alleged sexual harassment during the confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court. This was one of the first times that sexual harassment had come into the forefront of national attention. Hill is currently on the faculty at Brandeis University. The recipient of numerous awards, she was the subject of the documentary Anita that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2013.

Shannon Lucid

Although born in China, astronaut Shannon Lucid considers Bethany, Oklahoma her home town. A biochemist by training, Lucid was selected in the first class of woman astronauts in 1978, along with Sally Ride and four other women. Lucid flew in space five times, including her 179 days aboard the Russian space station, Mir which occurred in 1996. When she completed the Mir mission, she had travelled over 75 million miles in those 179 days! For some time, she held the record for the longest duration in space by an American. In addition, she is the only American woman to have served aboard the Mir. From 2002-2003, Lucid served as NASA’s chief scientist. From 2005 until her 2012 retirement from NASA, she served as the lead Capsule Communicator in Mission Control. She was the tenth person and first woman to be awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor. Lucid has been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

Women participate and contribute to every area of our lives.  These amazing women with Oklahoma ties, as well as many others, 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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