by Ashton Pittman
“She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” Expect to see those words, spoken by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, in Senator Elizabeth Warren’s 2018 Senate campaign, on the cover of her autobiography, and perhaps in a potential 2020 presidential run.
They were the Republican leader’s explanation for why he silenced the Democratic senator. Warren was on the Senate floor arguing against the nomination of Senator Jeff Sessions to be the country’s new Attorney General. While doing so, she read from a decades old letter by Coretta Scott King – the wife of Martin Luther King, Jr. – in which King argued that Jeff Sessions’ civil rights record made him ineligible for a federal court appointment he’d been nominated for at the time. McConnell found the letter from the Civil Rights hero so offensive, that he accused Warren of violating a rule against impugning fellow senators. That, coupled with McConnell’s “she persisted” remark, ensured that King’s letter and Warren’s statement would be heard by millions more people than it would’ve if she had not been silenced. Like Coretta Scott King, Elizabeth Warren persisted, and continued reading the letter outside the Senate over Facebook Live (a video that garnered millions of views within hours).
In celebration of Senator Warren’s persistence, here are 10 other women whose persistence should inspire us all – whether we always agree with them or not.
1. Malala Yousafzai
“Extremists have shown what frightens them most: A girl with a book.”
Born to a Sunni Muslim family in Pakistan, Malala Yousafzai was only 15 years old when she was shot in the head. When she was 11, she had begun writing a blog with the BBC as an act of resistance against the Taliban, who had moved into her home of Swat Valley and banned girls from going shopping and from being educated (as well as banning music and television). “How dare the Taliban take away my basic right to education?” 11-year-old Malala said, speaking out before an audience at the local press club in Peshawar in 2008. Malala continued to attend classes despite the bans on girls’ education. In 2012, a Talibani gunman attempted to assassinate her in October 2012 as she returned from taking an exam. Malala recovered from a shot to the head with no brain damage. Since then, she has continued to advocate on behalf of women and girls around the world, meeting with the likes of Barack Obama and Queen Elizabeth II, releasing a bestselling book titled “I Am Malala,” and becoming the youngest ever Nobel-Prize laureate. She persists.
2. Monica Lewinsky
“Imagine that you’ve gone through this horrific, life-changing experience and you were traumatized and humiliated and all of a sudden you realized one day that you could actually help other people because you had survived it. It would just be really hard to sit back and remain silent.”
After her youthful affair with President Bill Clinton became the biggest political story of the 90s, the name Lewinsky name became synonymous with “sex scandal” – so synonymous that Beyoncé has even used ‘Lewinsky’ as a verb for a sex act in one of her songs. Back then, Lewinsky was a former White House intern in her twenties who now admits her focus had been on finding a man who would validate her self-worth. She describes herself as having become “patient zero” – the first victim of mass public shaming and humiliation in the Internet era that is now a daily ritual. Lewinsky has put the past behind her. Today, she speaks out against bullying and is part of Bystander Revolution, an activist group that seeks to curb that epidemic of bullying that has spread throughout our culture and the raft of suicides that have followed in its wake. Rather than allowing the slut-shaming she endured to force her into the shadows, Monica Lewinsky is using her personal hell to help others fight out of theirs. She persists.
3. Mae Jemison
“Too often people paint him like Santa – smiley and inoffensive,” says Jemison. “But when I think of Martin Luther King, I think of attitude, audacity, and bravery.”
Born in Decatur, Alabama, to an elementary school teacher and a maintenance superviser for a charity organization, Mae Jemison always had an interest in science. She also learned from an early age that women weren’t treated the same as men. “In kindergarten, my teacher asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I told her a scientist,” Jemison once said. “She said, ‘Don’t you mean a nurse?’ Now, there’s nothing wrong with being a nurse, but that’s not what I wanted to be.” When everyone else was excited about the Apollo moon landing, Mae Jemison was mostly irritated over the lack of female astronauts taking part. After entering Stanford University at the age of 16, she found herself irritated at the disregard some of her professors showed her as both a woman and a minority. But she persisted, and in 1992, she became the first black woman to fly on a space mission for NASA aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour. After leaving NASA, she set out to study the interaction between the social sciences and technology. She is an engineer, physician, astronaut, dancer, and actress (Star Trek: The Next Generation) who holds nine honorary degrees. She persists.
4. Carrie Fischer
She will always be known for her role as Princess Leia and, later, as the badass General Organa, but Carrie Fisher was just as brave as the role she was best known for. In the 2000s, the accomplished actress and author publicly revealed that she had Bipolar Disorder. Fisher became a vocal advocate for those struggling with mental illness, helping to foster a social conversation about mental illness and chip away at the stigma surrounding it. Her advocacy became so prevalent, in fact, that she even once joked that, “having waited my entire life to get an award for something, anything . . . I now get awards all the time for being mentally ill. It’s better than being bad at being insane, right? How tragic would it be to be runner-up for Bipolar Woman of the Year?” Her untimely death – if anything – made the conversation around mental illness that she began grow exponentially. In death, she’s still making a difference. She persists.
5. Melissa Stockwell
“…I was one of the lucky ones. I had three good limbs, my mind, my eyesight and I was alive. It was then I made a promise to live my life for those that didn’t make it back and who gave the ultimate sacrifice. I was a lucky girl.”
In 2004, at the age of 24, Melissa Stockwell woke up in a Baghdad hospital to find that she was missing one of her legs. As a gymnast and athlete, it could’ve be a devastating blow to her lifelong dream of participating in the Olympics. But the Bronze Star and Purple Heart she received for her injuries while serving in the U.S. Army wouldn’t be the only medals she would receive. Just four years after her injury, she competed as a swimmer in the 2008 Summer Paralympics, and again 8 years later in the 2016 Paralympics, from which she brought brought home a bronze medal on September 11, 2016. She cofounded Dare2Tri paratriatholon club to give other athletes with disabilities the same opportunities. She persists.
6. Laverne Cox
Laverne Cox was born in Mobile, Alabama. Assigned male at birth, she struggled as she began to feel attraction towards males classmates. She was bullied for badly for not acting the way someone thought to be male was supposed to act, she attempted suicide at age 11. She persisted, eventually graduating from the Alabama School of Fine Arts in Birmingham and eventually Marymount Manhattan College in New York City, where she found her true calling as an actress. Laverne Cox achieved international fame for her role in the hit Netflix series Orange Is The New Black, for which she became the first openly transgender actress to be nominated for an Emmy Award. She works as an advocate for LGBT people across the world, citing the enormous challenges that trans people – and particularly trans women of color – still face. She persists.
7. Benazir Bhutto
–Pakistani Prime Minister Benizar Bhutto, when asked by yet another journalist if she was pregnant.
The daughter of a Pakistani Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto and her family were placed under house arrest after a military coup in 1977. After her father was hanged in 1979, she and her mother led the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy. In 1988, Benazir Bhutto successfully led the People’s Party to power, assuming the office of the Prime Minister of Pakistan in 1988, making her the first woman to lead a Muslim majority nation. Though her government would be stripped of power in an election rigged in favor of the conservative party in 1990, she returned and led her party to victory once more in 1993, once again assuming the the role of prime minister until 1997, when she was forced to leave the office in scandal. Over the next decade, she would face corruption charges and be granted a controversial amnesty. Though she remained a controversial figure up until the moment of her assassination in 2007, her efforts continue to inspire millions, including the likes of Malala Yousafzai. She made clear that she did not fear those who sought to kill her: “I fully understand the men behind Al Qaeda,” she once said. “They have tried to assassinate me twice before. The Pakistan Peoples Party and I represent everything they fear the most — moderation, democracy, equality for women, information, and technology. We represent the future of a modern Pakistan, a future that has no place in it for ignorance, intolerance, and terrorism.” She persisted.
8. J.K. Rowling
“You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.”
A single mother whose marriage had failed. A jobless college graduate living on welfare. An aspiring author whose book – Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – had been rejected by a dozen publishers. Jo Rowling felt as if things would never look up. And then, one day, a publisher finally accepted her work. The Harry Potter series went on to become the best-selling book series of all time, with nearly half a billion copies sold. The Warner Bros. film adaptation became the top-earning film series of all-time. And J.K. Rowling became the world’s first billionaire author. Well, that is, until, she donated so much of her earnings to charity that she lost her billionaire status. Not only is J.K. Rowling a fantastic author, but she’s a dedicated philanthropist, too. In her spare time, she fights trolls, Death Eaters, and Nazis on Twitter. She persists.
9. Corazon Aquino
A self-proclaimed “plain housewife” who had never held elected office, Cory Aquino became the 11th President of the Philippines in 1986, overthrowing the 21-year-reign of authoritarian President Ferdinand E. Marcos and restoring democracy to the Philippines. Her husband – Senator Benigno Aquino, Jr. – had been Marcos’ staunchest critic when he was assassinated in 1983. His assassination trigged the People Power Revolution, which culminated in Cory Aquino’s election as the first female president in Asia. As President, she oversaw the drafting of a new Constitution that limited the powers of the presidency, and focused on returning issues of civil liberties and human rights to the forefront. After leaving the presidency in 1992, she remained outspoken until her death in 2009. She persisted.
10. Hillary Rodham Clinton
–Hillary Rodham Clinton, drawing from her Methodist faith
Hillary Clinton sent shockwaves across the world when, as First Lady, she made a radical statement in Beijing: “Human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights.” It’s a concept that we take for granted now. And thanks to Hillary Clinton, we take for granted the idea that the spouse of a President can go on to have a political career of her (or potentially his) own. From the start of Bill Clinton’s first term as President, Hillary set out to reform the American healthcare system. Though “Hillarycare” failed due to staunch Republican opposition, she was undeterred. Just a few years later, the First Lady championed, negotiated, and ensured the passage of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which to this day guarantees healthcare to underprivileged children who would otherwise have none. From the ashes of Bill Clinton’s sex scandal and impeachment, she rose to become the first First Lady to be elected to the Senate. In 2008, she sought the Democratic nomination for president, but was narrowly defeated by Barack Obama, who she went on to serve as his Secretary of State.
In 2016, Hillary made another go. This time, she became the first woman ever to win the nomination for president for a major party. Though she did not secure enough electoral votes to smash the glass ceiling once and for all, she won three million more votes than her opponent. Her 66 million vote tally is dwarfed only by Barack Obama’s record-setting 69 million votes in 2008. In other words, Hillary Clinton garnered more votes than any white many ever has – despite losing the presidency to one. The day after the devastating loss, Hillary Clinton tweeted a message to her supporters, quoting a Bible passage urging them to “not grow weary in doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not give up.” She hasn’t given up. After a short sabbatical, Hillary Clinton released a video message declaring: “The future is female.” Hillary Clinton isn’t finished yet, and she likely never will be. She persists.
Watch Hillary Clinton’s video message below: