Breaking Barriers: Influential Women Then and Now

From the women’s rights movement in the late 1800’s to the influx of women in the workforce during WWII, women have helped shape the country you see today. American women have become icons within the public and private sector, making an impact across industries.

Several influential women in IT, business, criminal justice and psychology have proven they can overcome adversity and pave the way for future female leaders.

Meg Whitman: Fortune 500 CEO, IT Mogul

Meg Whitman is widely regarded as one of the most powerful women in IT.

Whitman, who has more than 30 years of business experience, is most recognized for her time as CEO for eBay and Hewlett Packard. At eBay, she is credited with growing the company from a small business with just a few dozen employees in 1998 to a multibillion-dollar corporation with about 15,000 employees in 2008.

In 2011, she joined Hewlett Packard and led the technology company through a massive split, creating HP Inc. and Hewlett Packard Enterprise. Six years later Whitman announced she was stepping down as CEO of Hewlett Packard Enterprise and Antonio Neri would take over as of Feb 1, 2018.

In early 2018, Whitman was appointed CEO of a new entertainment start-up that will produce bit-size, high-end content exclusively for mobile. The company, called NewTV, is backed by Hollywood studio executive Jeffrey Katzenberg. 

Read more about the history of women in computing here.

Lilly Ledbetter: American Worker, Champion for Fair Pay

Lilly Ledbetter worked for Goodyear Tire and Rubber for nearly two decades before finding out she was paid less for doing the same work as her male colleagues.

The events that followed her discovery led to a legislative change at the federal level. With Ledbetter by his side, former President Barack Obama signed The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009.

Ledbetter’s fight for fair pay began in 1998 when she received an anonymous note that outlined her pay side by side with her male counterparts. She filed a lawsuit against the company – she won $3.3 million through a district court ruling. However, Goodyear appealed the ruling and in 2007, it was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Lilly could have accepted her lot and moved on, she could have decided that it wasn’t worth the hassle and the harassment that would inevitably come with speaking up for what she deserved but instead she decided that there was a principle at stake. Something worth fighting for. So, she set out on a journey that would take more than 10 years, take her all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States and lead to this day and this bill which will help others get the justice that she was denied,” said former President Barack Obama during a White House press conference on Jan 20, 2009.

The new law allows workers to file wage discrimination complaints with the EEOC within 180 days of receiving any discriminatory paycheck. The previous law, which was upheld by the Supreme Court’s ruling, only allowed individuals to file a claim within 180 days after receiving the first paycheck. Because she learned of the pay differences years after her first check, the Supreme Court ruled she was not entitled to any compensation.

Today, Ledbetter, who is now 70, is retired and lives in Jacksonville, Alabama.

Alice Stebbins Wells: Social Welfare Worker Turned Police Officer

In 1910, Alice Stebbins Wells was appointed the first female police officer for the Los Angeles Police Department, attracting nationwide attention.

Wells fought for the position, collecting a petition signed by 100 citizens, asking the police commissioner, city council and mayor to appoint her as a police officer. Once appointed, Wells’ duties were limited to supervising public recreation areas including movie theatres, dance halls and skating rinks, as she did not wear a uniform or carry a weapon.

Wells took advantage of the opportunity, traveling around the country promoting the recruitment of female police officers, citing that women officers could make communities safer and improve social conditions. Wells also served as an advocate for the welfare of children and speaking frequently about the prevention of juvenile crime.

Wells later spearheaded the creation of several organizations including the International Association of Policewomen in 1915, Los Angeles Policewomen’s Association in 1925 and Women Peace Officers Association of California in 1928.

Wells completed 30 years of police work and retired in 1940. Even during retirement, Wells advocated for the inclusion of women police officers. She passed away in 1957, and her funeral was attended by high-ranking LAPD officers and a ten-women Honor Guard.

Discover the top women in law enforcement today here.

Margaret Floy Washburn: Psychologist, Author, Educator

Margaret Floy Washburn made history by becoming the first woman to earn a PhD in psychology in 1894. She was also one of the first women to make academic strides during a time when women were denied positions based on their gender.

Washburn went on to make several contributions within the field of psychology, including extensive research on animal behavior which resulted in her book, “The Animal Mind” (1908) and developing a motor theory of consciousness, as explained in her book, “Movement and Mental Imagery” (1916). Washburn was fascinated with both the human and animal mind, which spurred years of studying animal cognition and the link between consciousness and motor activity.

Washburn served as the second female president of the American Psychological Association in 1921 and spent the remaining of her 43-year-career as an educator at various higher education institutions including Vassar College. Washburn passed away in October of 1939.

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