Visionary women


Eileen Gavin’s new book tells the stories of 18 ‘Women of Vision’

Rachel Carson. Lucille Ball. Helen Keller. Shirley Chisholm. Though these women are household names, how much do you know about how and why they became transformational leaders? If the answer is “not much,” you can change that by reading “Women of Vision,” a fascinating posthumous look at the lives of 18 fascinating women-some famous, some not-through the lens, according to the book’s lead editor Eileen A. Gavin, of “psychology, circumstances, and success.”

Women of Vision, edited by Eileen A. Gavin, Aphrodite Clamar and Mary Anne Siderits

Though the book was meticulously researched and has been referred to as a “life course,” complete with an appendix of study questions, it’s anything but dry academic reading. The individual accounts of each woman’s life take a storytelling approach that pulls the reader into the story. The writers ask (and answer) the questions that allow us to understand why the women’s lives developed in the manner they did.

According to Gavin, who taught psychology for 40 years at the College of St. Catherine, where she is professor emirita, the women in the book were chosen based on “what they had accomplished, that was a given, but we were most interested in discovering how they became the women they became.” Gavin and her writers focused on the women’s personal development and how they shaped and were shaped by the times in which they lived.

Gavin commented on several common threads that wove themselves through the women’s lives. Many of the women had mentors who encouraged them and played significant roles in their development. Most of them had close family relationships, but interestingly, few of them were successful in sustaining intimate personal relationships. All of the women were strongly motivated, led a purposeful life, took responsibility for their lives and were, Gavin said, “authentic … they were true to themselves and did not compromise themselves.”

From anecdotes about dancer Isadora Duncan’s unconventional lifestyle to ERA author Alice Paul’s overcoming her natural shyness and introversion to fight for women’s rights, Rachel Carson’s unusually close relationship with her mother and Ella Fitzgerald’s feelings that she was unattractive leading to relationships where she was exploited, the book is a collection of fascinating stories that are rich with detail.

In discussing the importance of sharing these women’s rich stories and contributions, Gavin quoted historian Gerda Lerner, who said that women are often seen as “contributors to men’s history.” Gavin said, “I think both men and women will be fascinated by these women and how they achieved what they did … how they rose up and become the women they became.”

In addition to the aforementioned women, “Women of Vision” includes the stories of:

Anne Sullivan Macy, who grew up in a poorhouse and became Helen Keller’s brilliant teacher

Lillian Evelyn Moller Gilbreth, industrial engineering pioneer (and mother of 12 children) Georgia O’Keeffe, one of the best-known and loved American women artists

Mary McLeod Bethune, civil rights activist; the 15th of 17 children, she was the first to be born free

Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, who evolved from a fearful child to a courageous leader

Dorothy Day, journalist and activist who co-founded the Catholic Worker movement

Sister Annette Walters, a prominent psychologist and Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet

Evelyn Gentry Hooker, whose research led to the American Psychological Association’s decision to remove homosexuality from the sexual deviance category

“Babe” Didrikson Zaharias, the Olympic medalist named the “Athlete of the Century” by the Associated Press

Grace Brewster Murray Hopper, pioneering computer scientist and Rear Admiral in the U.S. Navy

Rosalind Franklin, pioneering scientist who did not receive proper credit for her contributions to DNA research