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The Quotable Woman Speaks

Living History Portraits of Amazing Women



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EDNA ST. VINCENT MILLAY The American poet and dramatist who came to personify romantic rebellion and bravado in the 1920s, Millay was born in the small town of Rockland, Main on February 22, 1892. She grew up in Camden, Maine and her poetry is filled with imagery of the sea and the mountains of her childhood home. When she was eighteen she completed a long poem, Renascence, published in The Lyric Year in 1912, which catapulted her to fame. One of the quatrains included in her first book, Renascence and Other Poems (1917), almost became a slogan for the day: "My candle burns at both its ends/It will not last the night/ But ah my foes, and oh my friends/It sheds a lovely light." In addition to her several books of poetry, she wrote some well-produced plays as well as an opera. Her marriage to a Dutch businessman, despite their devotion to one another, did not seem to affect the several love affairs both enjoyed. They purchased a farm in Austerlitz, New York, dubbed Steepletop, now a writers' colony. Millay died there on October 19, 1950. (Literary)

GABRIELA MISTRAL Born Lucila Godoy Alcayaga in the small Chilean town of Vicua, of Spanish, Basque and Indian descent, Mistral was the first Latin-American ever to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1945. She was also a cultural minister and diplomat, who served posts in Madrid, Lisbon, Genoa and Nice. An educator who worked untiringly to improve the her country's schools, Mistral's principal themes as a poet were love of children and of the downtrodden. Today there is no country in Latin America that does not have several schools bearing her name, a name the poet assumed, derived from two of her favorite poets: the Italian, Gabriele d'Annunzio and the Frenchman, Frederic Mistral. Her childhood sweetheart was a railway clerk. He committed suicide -- shot himself -- because of a misappropriation of funds. One of her biographers stated, "The echo of that shot was the birth of the poet, Gabriela Mistral." She never married. She died in 1957 in New York City. In her will, Gabriela left her Latin American royalties to the children of her native village of Elqui, in the valley of Montegrande, and asked to be buried there because she hoped that thus the children of this poor and isolated mountain hamlet might never be forgotten by her country. (Hispanic; Literary)

FLORENCE NIGHTINGALE (1820 1910).  Known as “The Lady with the Lamp,” after her custom of making rounds at night during wartime, Nightingale was a nurse, a social reformer, and a statistician. When she established of her nursing school at St Thomas' Hospital in London, the first secular nursing school in the world (it is now part of King's College London), she truly became the mother of modern day nursing. Her social reforms include improving healthcare for all sections of British society, improving healthcare and advocating for hunger relief in India, helping to abolish laws regulating prostitution that were overly harsh to women, expanding the acceptable forms of female participation in the workforce, and popularizing the graphical presentation of statistical data. The Nightingale Pledge taken by new nurses was named in her honor, and the annual International Nurses Day is celebrated around the world on her birthday. (Healing Arts)

GRACE PALEY (1922-2007). Paley’s parents had emigrated from the Ukraine. They changed the family name from Gutseit to Goodside. Grace grew up speaking Russian and Yiddish along with English.  She taught at Columbia and Syracuse Universities during the ‘60s, then at Sarah Lawrence. Early in her career she was a poet, but she is most noted for her mastery of the short story form, for which she has received many honors, including Senior Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts in recognition of her lifetime contribution to literature (1987). No matter how many times I read her stories, certain lines always make me laugh out loud.  Paley was quite the feminist and peace activist in her day.  (Literary; Jewish)

LA CONDESA EMILIA PARDO-BAZAN was a leading figure in the school of naturalism and an important Spanish novelist, and a noted stateswoman. When her feminist opinions began to manifest themselves, literary critics of the time criticized her harshly. She never yielded to their pressure and maintained the conviction that her own upper social class could be greatly improved. In 1916, five years before her death at the age of sixty-nine, a statue was erected in Pardo-Bazan's honor in La Coruna, the city of her birth. (Hispanic)

DOROTHY PARKER (1893-1967). She was born to a Jewish father (Rothschild) and a Scottish mother who died when Parker was five years old; her father remarried a strict Roman Catholic, whom Dorothy bitterly disliked. Parker always maintained an image of herself as an outsider and often said of herself that she was "just a little Jewish girl trying to be cute." Her first volume of poetry, Enough Rope (1926), became an instant best-seller. She was a core member of the celebrated "Algonquin Round Table.” Her acerbic and irreverent sense of humor marked Parker's work with uniqueness and made it memorable. (Jewish; Literary)

EVA DUARTE DE PERON The Argentinean film and radio actress who married Juan Peron in 1945, became a powerful albeit unofficial political leader who was adored by the poor: she organized female workers, secured women's suffrage, directed government spending on welfare, and introduced compulsory religious education into all Argentinean schools. She was also reviled by her detractors. Evita's pitch to the United States to support her social aid programs raised a million dollars--most of which ended up in a Swiss bank account. She created the Eva Perón Foundation (1948) and formed Peronista Feminist Party in 1949. Born Eva Marie Ibaguren in 1919, her life was cut short by cancer in 1952. (Hispanic)

JOAN RIVERS (1933- ). Born Joan Molinsky in Brooklyn, New York, Rivers gained notoriety while working as the regular stand-in for Johnny Carson for several years in the 80s. She honed her act in comedy clubs. She won an Emmy for The Joan Rivers Show and has also appeared on other television programs and in feature films. Following the suicide of her husband, producer Edgar Rosenberg, Rivers and her daughter Melissa starred together in Tears and Laughter (1994). In 1998 she and Melissa began co-hosting fashion specials on the E! cable network. Rivers is just one of scores of Jewish comediennes who’ve been making them laugh since the early days in Catskills and The Yiddish Theatre. (Entertainment; Jewish)

JULIA WARD HOWE Born May 27, 1819 in New York City, she was an author and lecturer best known for her "Battle Hymn of the Republic," first printed in 1862 in the Atlantic Monthly, a magazine still being published. She composed songs for children in addition to her travel books, biographies, dramas and verse, and was an activist for equal educational, professional and business opportunities for women. She died October 17, 1910.

DOLORES HUERTA A Mexican-American union organizer who was born in 1930, Huerta has served as vice president and was a founding member of the United Farm Workers of America. For years she was Cesar Chavez's right hand person, and was the first Chicano, and the first woman ever to negotiate a farm labor contract. Her Indian/Mexican father was a mine worker who did farm work during slack periods. Dolores describes her fiercely independent divorced Spanish mother as a "Mexican-American Horatio Alger type" who saved enough money as a cannery worker and waitress to buy a restaurant and small hotel in which she often put up destitute farm workers at no cost. Like all UFW organizers, Dolores learned to live on about five dollars a week, with bare room and board provided wherever she happens to be. She's been living this way since 1962.

ALBERTA HUNTER (1895 1984) was an African-American singer, songwriter, actor and nurse.  Her recordings and nightclub performances in the 1920s and 1930s had her right up there with Ethel Waters and Bessie Smith. She appeared opposite Paul Robeson in the first London production of Show Boat at Drury Lane in 1928, portraying the role of Queenie. She also appeared in the film Radio Parade of 1935. She entertained the trips on USO tours in the 1940s and 1950s, but after her mother died in 1954 she decided to walk a different path. She enrolled in nursing school, somehow managing to convince the administration that she had a high school diploma and was 12 years younger than she actually was (she was 59 at the time). She spent the next 23 years devoted to her profession until she forced to retire at what the hospital thought was 70 (she was 82). During the last two years of her life she enjoyed somewhat of a comeback as a blues and jazz singer. (Healing Arts; Entertainment)

DOLORES IBARRURI A great military leader and heroine of the Spanish Civil War, affectionately known as "La Pasionaria," she lived from 1895 to 1989 and emigrated to Russia after Franco overthrew Spain's democratic republic. There she received the Lenin Peace Prize (1964) and the Order of Lenin (1965). In an interview when she was ninety one, she described herself as "a simple woman... A woman who has fought much and hard to bring socialism to Spain." She was the eighth of eleven children, the granddaughter, daughter, sister and wife of exploited Basque coal miners. Though painfully shy in one-on-one situations, she was a charismatic orator. She had no text and she never used notes; she needed none. During more than one rally at which she spoke, bombs exploded right outside the hall. (Hispanic; International)

FLORYNCE KENNEDY Born in 1916, she became a lawyer who specialized in fighting for civil rights, especially those of black people and of all women. Known for her feistiness and irrepressible use of language, and her audaciousnessBshe would often wear cowboy hats in courtBin 1966 she created the Media Workshop, the purpose of which was to fight discrimination in and through the media. She was one of the first to be labeled a "bra burner" when she helped form and march with Radical Women (organized in 1967) at the Atlantic City Miss America pageant in 1968. In 1971 she formed the Feminist Party, whose first order of business was to support Shirley Chisholm as a presidential candidate. 1975: She founded the National Black Feminist Organization (NBFO; 1975) and co-authored one of the first books on abortion, Abortion Rap. She lives in San Francisco and continues to speak out for equal rights everywhere. (American)

ELIZABETH KENNY  (1880-1952). Before polio was wiped out in most countries by the Salk vaccine, the established treatment for victims of the horrible disease was to immobilize them. Kenny, a nurse born in New South Wales, turned that treatment on its head when she developed, between the years 1928 and 1940, a method of treatment for the paralysis brought on by poliomyelitis; largely scoffed at by established medicine, it eventually became accepted. It was a fall from a horse that started her interest in medicine: while convalescing, she studied the anatomy books of Dr. Aeneas McDonnell, who became her mentor. The Australian began work as an unofficial bush nurse in 1911, when she was 31. In 1917 she earned the title of Sister, which in the Australian Army Nurse Corps is the equivalent of a First Lieutenant. She used that title for the rest of her life. She developed the "Sylvia Stretcher"(named for the patient for whom it was first devised). She gave the profits to the Australian Country Women's Association, who administered the sales and manufacture and marketed it in Australia, Europe and America. Kenny died in 1952. The Sister Kenny Memorial House was established to commemorate her works in her home village of Nobby. (Healing Arts)

GOLDA MEIR A legend in her own time, Meir was one of the few women in the world to have led a nation. Her compassion for the needy, her sense of equity, and her efforts at peace-making were characteristics apparent even when she was a youngster growing up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Born to Moshe and Bluma Mabovitch in Kiev, Ukraine, on May 3, 1898, the family emigrated in 1906. After a teaching career in the U.S., she and her husband, Morris Meyerson, settled in Palestine (1921), first on a kibbutz, then in Tel Aviv, where she devoted herself to the Histadrut, the national labor confederation. She was appointed many important posts, was one of the signatories of the proclamation of the independence of Israel on May 14, 1948, and, in 1969, became Israel's fourth prime minister, a position she held until 1974, when she stepped down. Particularly remembered for her eloquent appeals for peace at the United Nations and her country-saving fund-raising efforts in the United States, Meir has acquired folk-hero status, and is ingrained in the public's imagination as a bobe figure who rose to greatness in her nation's hour of need. Meir died in Jerusalem on December 8, 1978. (International; Jewish)

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