Florence Violet McKenzie, who would later take on the name Mrs. Mac by her students, was the first female electrical engineer in Australia and founder of the Women’s Emergency Signalling Corps. McKenzie trained thousands in emergency signaling before, during and after World War II and remained a lifelong supporter of women pursuing education in technical fields.
Violet was born in 1890 as Violet Wallace. She was the second child of Marie Annie and James Granville, both of whom were English born. Her father James died when she was young and so when her mother remarried in 1894 to George Wallace, Violet too adopted George’s name.
Violet received her early education at the Girls’ Public High School in Sydney and initially enrolled in the University of Sydney where she passed both Chemistry and Geology. Then, Sydney Technical College invited Violet to move to Ultimo and pursue an Electrical Engineering diploma, which she became the first woman in Australia to be awarded in 1923.
Beginning a Career and Breaking Down Gender Barriers
In 1921, while Violet was studying, she purchased and ran a radio sales and repair shop in Royal Arcade, Sydney. This is where she met Cecil Roland McKenzie, who was one of her customers. The two fell in love and got married in 1924.
In addition to becoming the first woman in Australia to win a degree of its kind, she also became the country’s first female certified radio telegraphist and first woman member of the Wireless Institute of Australia.
She didn’t stop with simply becoming the first woman to hold these roles though. In 1934, Violet founded the Electrical Association for Women. The Association helped women use electronic kitchen and other modern appliances, learn about electronic safety, attend meetings and more. She also published several books and essays about using electricity while cooking, children’s safety with electricity and she even corresponded with Albert Einstein.
World War II
With war approaching, McKenzie joined the Australian Women’s Flying Club where she served as treasurer. She also trained women pilots to use Morse code and recognized the need to train women as wireless telegraphists and in 1939, Violet and Cecil formed the Women’s Emergency Signalling Corps. Before the war even began, McKenzie had trained nearly 1,000 women. She went on to train another two thousand. Despite public resistance to women joining the forces, a third of McKenzie’s students did. In 1941, she was appointed an honorary flight officer in WAAAF for her work.
After the war, she went on teaching and by 1952, she had trained 2,540 civil airline crewmen and 1,050 merchant navy seamen. Despite being highly regarded and producing well trained students, her school was never officially recognized.
In her later years, McKenzie closed her school and was appointed OBE. Later, in 1964, she served as the patroness of Ex-WRANS Association.
McKenzie, or Mrs. Mac as her students called her, died 1982. She spent her life helping others--from elevating women in the field of technology, to helping the Allies during the war by making sure armed forces were properly trained in emergency signaling. Her persistence, interest in her students and passion toward advancing women in technological fields made an impact and are remembered.
Madam C.J. Walker, born Sarah Breedlove, was an entrepreneur and philanthropist whose successful creation of hair products specifically designed for African American hair in turn made her the first woman to become a self-made millionaire in America. Born with little-to-nothing, Walker helped provide for others throughout her life and beyond--leaving two-thirds of her wealth to charities and educational institutions.
Born two days before Christmas on a cotton plantation near Delta, Louisiana, Walker was Owen and Minerva’s the fifth child, but she was their first free-born kin. Unfortunately, both her parents died when she was very young, leaving Walker an orphan at only the age of seven.
Walker moved in with her sister Louvinia and her sister’s husband. When Walker was 10, the three moved to Mississippi. Here Walker worked on a cotton plantation. Due to treatment of her brother in-law and harsh work environments, Walker escaped by way of marriage to Moses McWilliams at the mere age of 14.
In 1885, Walker and Moses had a daughter, A'Lelia. However, two years later Moses died, leaving Walker a widow and a mother at not even 20 years old. The young mom and child left for the "Gateway to the West," also known as St. Louis. With her brothers nearby, working as barbers, Walker found a way to earn $1.50 per day as a washerwoman. This was just enough to send A’Lelia to public school. It was in St. Louis that Walker first met Charles J. Walker, an advertising man whom she would marry years later.
Finding her Calling
At the turn of the century, Walker started struggling with hair loss and a scalp problem. She sought to find a household remedies and began testing product solutions. In 1905, Walker was hired by a black hair care product entrepreneur, whom she’d met during the St. Louis World’s Fair, and moved to Denver. In Denver, Walker split to begin working on her own hair and beauty products specifically for African American women. In 1906, while in Colorado, she also married Charles and officially became Madam C.J. Walker--a name she gave to the hair and cosmetics line and manufacturing company she founded.
Initially marketing herself as an independent hairdresser and cosmetics retailer, Walker began expanding, along with the help of some of her husband’s sales expertise and advice. Walker also began selling her products door-to-door and taking mail orders.
The family moved to Pittsburgh where Walker opened up a beauty and training saloon, which she left for her daughter to run while establishing a new headquarters in Indianapolis in 1910. Walker and Charles also toured and promoted Walker’s hair and cosmetic products, teaching “The Walker System,” which promoted hair growth and treated hair loss through the use of her products.
Walker’s Manufacturing Company became one of the largest employers of African American women, with a 3,000-person sales force.
Walker and Charles divorced in 1913, but Walker continued her work. She traveled to promote her products and hair treatment methods in Latin America and the Caribbean, while her daughter established a new base for the business in Harlem. Walker joined her daughter in New York in 1916, leaving the business's day-to-day operations in Indianapolis.
Throughout her life and career, Walker generously supported African American communities not only through employment, but also by founding philanthropies, getting involved with charities and creating educational scholarships. Walker died at only 51 due to complications with hypertension; however, her business and her commitment toward helping others continued--even in death. Walker left two-thirds of her wealth toward charitable causes and is still remembered for her generosity, ambition and for the dreams she inspired others to conceive.
Several years before her death, Walker told Booker T. Washington, “I have built my own factory on my own ground.... Not for myself alone, but to do all the good I can for the uplift of my race.”
Today women know that after the words “I am woman” are spoken it’s very likely, thanks to Helen Reddy, the following three inspirational words will follow: “hear me roar.” The Australian singer, actress and activist not only wrote and performed the now well known, "I Am Woman," which became the anthem to the second wave feminism, but also became a cultural and symbolic icon for the movement too.
Helen was practically born into show business; her father Max was an actor, writer and producer, and her mother, Stella, was a singer. Born in In 1941, just outside West Richmond, Victoria, Helen was performing at the age of 4. Later, Helen attended Tintern Girls Grammar School in Melbourne, Australia.
Helen toured with her family on the vaudeville circuit until she was 17. Then, somewhat surprisingly given what she later came to symbolize, Helen decided to get married, become a stay at home mom and leave show business behind. However, shortly after their daughter Traci was born in 1963, the couple divorced and Helen returned to show business as a single mother seeking a way to support herself and her young daughter.
Making Her Move
After winning a competition on Bandstand, an Australian television show, Helen believed her prize included tickets to the United States and a recording contract with Mercury Records in New York City; however, this was not accurate. Her award was the tickets and a chance to audition for a record contract. Despite this, Helen decided to stay in the U.S. with her daughter.
Without a U.S. work visa though, Helen found earning money challenging in the States. Due to this, she frequently crossed the border to Canada for performances so she could earn enough to live. In 1968, her friend organized a party to help Helen pay rent. Guests paid to get in the shindig and Helen performed. It was at this party where Helen met her second husband and future manager, Jeff Wald. Three days after the party, Jeff and Helen were married.
Helen helped support the family with charity and lounge performances while still pursuing her own career. She recorded her first single, a cover of “One Way Ticket,” in 1968. The family moved to Los Angeles, and in 1971 Helen recorded her first hit, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” from the musical Jesus Christ Superstar, with Capitol Records.
In 1972 Helen’s career exploded when her single “I Am a Woman” reached the number 1 spot on Billboard Hot 100. Helen was the first native Australian to nab this prime spot in U.S. music charts. She co-wrote the hit song with Ray Burton and has been quoted saying that she was inspired by the women’s movement. The problem was, despite the women’s movement and the counterculture of the times, Helen reports that she didn’t hear any songs about strong women on the radio. In a 2003 interview with Australia’s Sunday Magazine, she explained that no songs seemed to exist that matched what she believed being a woman was all about.
“I thought about all these strong women in my family who had gotten through the Depression and world wars and drunken, abusive husbands. But there was nothing in music that reflected that. The only songs were 'I Feel Pretty' or that dreadful song 'Born A Woman'. (The 1966 hit by Sandy Posey had observed that if you're born a woman "you're born to be stepped on, lied to, cheated on and treated like dirt. I'm glad it happened that way".) These are not exactly empowering lyrics. I certainly never thought of myself as a songwriter, but it came down to having to do it," she said.
And, that she did. Helen remarked that she was surprised by the strong reaction to the song and how much it resonated with her audiences. Helen’s song not only earned a Grammy, but also came to represent the song, or anthem, for second-wave feminism. Additionally, the hit launched Helen’s career into the limelight. “I Am Woman” was just the first of 14 top 40 songs Helen would have in her career.
Later Years and Today
Helen and Jeff divorced in the mid 1980s. After a decades-long career in show business, Helen retired in 2002 and moved back to Australia where she studied clinical hypnotherapy and neurolinguistic programming. In 2012, Helen returned briefly to show business performing her biggest hits, but in 2015 she was diagnosed with dementia and retired for good. Today Helen lives in retirement community in California, but her illness did not stop her from once again being a part of an important women’s movement. Earlier this year, Helen joined more than 750,000 people in the 2017 Women’s March at the Los Angeles downtown march event where she performed a capella her still very relevant hit, “I Am Women.”
Mukai Chiaki was the first Japanese woman to go to space, and one of less than 60 women to ever share that privilege. As both an astronaut and surgeon, Mukai is an inspiration to young women breaking into the sciences.
Early Years and Education
Mukai was born in Tatebayashi, Gunma, Japan in 1952. Though Mukai grew up watching the space race happen, she did not have aspirations at that time to be an astronaut, but rather, she wanted to be a doctor. Her brother suffered from aseptic necrosis, a disease that caused his leg bones to be very brittle and caused difficulties when he walked. Mukai witnessed how her brother was teased and was determined to help others who suffered from illness. She also saw how much her brother improved with advanced medicine, which only made her more persistent in accomplishing her dream of going into medicine.
In 1977 she earned a doctorate in medicine and in 1988 she earned another doctorate in physiology; both degrees were awarded to Mukai from the Keiō University School of Medicine in Tokyo. A year later, in 1989, Mukai was board certified as a cardiovascular surgeon by the Japan Surgical Society.
Transitioning from Surgery to Space
Mukai accomplished her first goal by becoming a doctor at the age of 25. She went on to work as a heart surgeon and held a variety of positions at numerous hospitals. In 1983 she became chief resident in cardiovascular surgery at Keio University Hospital and she earned the title of assistant professor of the Department of Cardiovascular Surgery at the university.
Just three years later, Mukai’s career would become entangled with space. In 1985 Mukai was just one of three payload specialist selected by the National Space Development Agency of Japan (NASDA) for the ST-47/Spacelab-J mission; however it wasn’t until nine years later that she first flew into space on board the Columbia on the 15-day STS-65 mission where she helped conduct scientific and medical experiments.
While working with the NASDA, Mukai became a visiting scientist in the Cardiovascular Physiology Division of the Space and Biomedical Research Institute at NASA Johnson Space Center from 1987 to 1988. And, from 1992 to 1988 she worked at as a research instructor at the Department of Surgery at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston as well as a visiting professor professor in the Department of Surgery at the Keio University School of Medicine.
In 1998 Mukai hit another milestone - she became the first Japanese citizen to fly twice in space. As a payroll specialist onboard the Discovery space shuttle on the STS-95 mission, Mukai flew onboard with U.S. Senator John Glenn, who was the first man to ever orbit the earth in 1962. On their mission together in 1998, Glenn, age 77, became the oldest person to ever fly in space. During the mission, Mukai helped conduct medical, material and aging research, of which Glenn was a test subject for.
Since then Mukai has gone on to teach at the International Space University, serve as the Director of Space Biomedical Research office, advice the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and become the director of the Applied Space Science Research for JAXA. In 2015 she became Vice President of the Tokyo University of Science.
An Ongoing Influence
Mukai is an inspiration to women in the sciences and continues to influence the industry. She has shared her dreams and success by working in education and motivating others to chase their goals. She once wrote that she’s very thankful to those who encouraged her in pursuing her ambitions.“And, I strongly believe that education enables us to envision and pursue our dreams,” she wrote.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman was not only a writer, but a champion of women’s independence and reform. A major theorist in the women’s movement in the U.S., Gilman used her short stories, poetry, nonfiction and lectures in social reform, ethics and feminism to make a difference.
In the Beginning
Charlotte’s childhood was not the easiest. She was born in Hartford, Connecticut on July 3, 1860 to Mary Perkins and Frederic Beecher Perkins, but her father wasn’t in the picture for long. Early on, Frederic abandoned his family: Mary, Charlotte, and Charlotte’s brother, Thomas. Frederic’s abandonment left his family impoverished. In turn, during her childhood, Charlotte’s family was forced to move frequently just to make ends. This lack of a consistent environment impacted Charlotte’s education and friendships growing up.
In fact, Charlotte went through seven different schools and was never noted as a particularly good student; however, her teachers did note that Charlotte’s innate intelligence and the scope of knowledge were remarkable. This lead Charlotte to enroll in several courses at the Rhode Island School of Design in the late 1970s. It was during this time that Charlotte became more interested in creative pursuits, including painting and writing.
Adulthood: Marriage and Creative Pursuits
In 1884, Charlotte married a fellow artist, Charles Stetson, and the two had one daughter, Katherine. Charlotte and Charles were married for a decade, a time period that Charlotte spent a good portion of in depression. During this this time, Charlotte experienced a nervous breakdown and underwent odd treatments for her melancholy and desolation. In turn, her experiences inspired her most well-known work, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” which she published in the Feminist Press in 1892.
The short story details a woman who was suffered a mental episode after being emotionally deprived by her husband. The woman is stuck in a small room and becomes obsessed with the yellow wallpaper. The story illustrates how the woman is forced to “rest” and do only as her doctor and husband insist in the story, which leads her to become obsessed with the room’s yellow wallpaper. This prescriptive treatment completely forbids the character from any independence proves to be greatly destructive to her mental health. In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Charlotte showcased women’s lack of autonomy, and the great need for it, in society.
Charlotte went onto lecture about labor, ethics and the woman’s place in society in the 1890s. In 1898, she wrote Women in Economics, a nonfiction--frequently referred to as a manifesto and even used as a textbook--where she argued the case and need for women to have greater independence in economics. And, in 1909, Charlotte began a feminist magazine called Frontrunner, which she published and edited women’s issues and social reform articles. Additionally, Charlotte helped found the Women’s Peace Party in 1915 along with Jane Addams.
Death and Legacy
After suffering from breast cancer and going through ineffective treatments, Charlotte committed suicide in 1935. Her writings, though somewhat controversial at times, helped introduce feminist ideas and argued that women could do more than bare and raise children. Charlotte’s efforts assisted in leading the women’s movement and changing the way that women were not only viewed in society, but also laying the groundwork for the roles that women could, and would come, to play.