PBS’ Favorite Unsung Heroines

staff | March 24, 2009

March is Women’s History Month–but we’d like to shine a light on women of immense accomplishment, fortitude and inspiration, though not an equal amount of recognition. From Bill Moyers, Maria Hinojosa, Judy Woodruff, Lidia Bastianich, Martin Savidge, Tom Stewart and Paula Zahn, their personal unsung heroines.

Bill Moyers from Moyers Journal, on Grace Lee Boggs

“One of America’s unsung heroines is 92-year-old community activist Grace Lee Boggs, who has spent a lifetime working for change from the bottom up. Boggs says: ‘These are the times to grow our souls. Each of us is called upon to embrace the conviction that despite the powers and principalities bent on commodifying all our human relationships, we have the power within us to create the world anew.'”
Read more about Grace Lee Boggs, and watch her interview on Moyers Journal.

Maria Hinojosa, Senior Correspondent from NOW on PBS,
on Carissa Picard

“Carissa Picard is an inspiration. The wife of an army pilot and mother of two toddlers, she lives on a military base in Texas. She sees many military spouses on the base who feel powerless and lonely. But Carissa is a lawyer, so has taken her legal skills and created an organization–Military Spouses for Change (now Military Spouses for America)–to help the wives (and husbands) speak out and feel empowered enough to challenge one of the biggest and most powerful institutions in our country…the military. She helps women own their voices and their power to challenge authority.”
Carissa was featured in the NOW Program “Fighting the Military“, you can watch it online.

Judy Woodruff, Senior Correspondent on NewsHour,
on Mary Woolley and Cindy Brownstein

“Mary Woolley, President of Research!America, has been an advocate for medical and health research for more than 30 years. She has worked tirelessly to raise awareness of the vital role that research plays, and to make the case – through her writing, lobbying and public speaking — for more funding for life-saving and life-lengthening medical research across a broad spectrum.”

“Cindy Brownstein, CEO of the Spina Bifida Association of America, has played a critical role at the head of this organization that advocates for individuals with spina bifida, the most commonly occurring disabling birth defect. Through her leadership and ceaseless efforts, she has helped increase public awareness and helped raise crucial funding to improve prevention and treatment of this too little-known disability.”

Martin Savidge, anchor on Worldfocus, on Wyn Savidge

“When I was a kid I put my mom through hell…As she would put it I was “accident prone”– a polite way of describing a child who was so frequently injuring himself that in the ER of the local hospital they knew me by my first name. Broken bones, concussions, bee stings by the swarm, I even managed to set myself on fire. My mom seemed to take it all really well, but then, she had been through hell before.

She lived in London during World War II and the Blitz–when carrying a gas mask was normal just like running for the shelter of the subway at the sound of an air raid siren, wondering if your neighborhood would still be there when you emerged. For her, WWII began in the fall of ’39, not December of ’41. Back then she worried about my dad in the British Navy as he made six trips to rescue soldiers from the desperate beaches of Dunkirk, then 4 years later cleared the way for the landing craft to return to France on D-day.

After I grew out of my ER phase I went on to become a journalist. And once again my mother worried about wars and this time whether I would return from places like Afghanistan, Iraq, East Timor, Kosovo, Gaza, Lebanon and many more distant datelines.

Now my mother is 90. Dad passed away nearly a decade ago. She lives alone, still cleaning her home, still independent. She bakes for the church and cares for the shut-ins most younger than herself. My mom is my heroine — perhaps that‘s selfish, but it also happens to be true.”

Lidia Matticchio Bastianich, host of Lidia’s Italy, on Erminia Motika:

“Erminia, my mother, is my unsung hero, who at age of thirty-seven decided with her husband to take their two children, me Lidia (then 12) and Franco my brother (then 15), and flee communism. To achieve ethnic and religious freedom, she guided us, comforted us and worked cleaning jobs, even being an educated teacher, so we could have extra food and shoes during the two years we awaited our visa in a political refugee camp. We resided in a long hall where every family’s small square space was divided by sheets hanging from a line. Many a night, while she thought we were sleeping, my mother would cry and ask my father whether the choice they made was the right one. Coming to America sponsored by the Catholic Charities and being inserted in the American life, she represents many an immigrant mother who worked from early morning until late at night to create a new life of freedom and opportunity for her children. It was never about her. It was always about her family.

Saluting her, I salute all the immigrant mothers that travel the world looking for freedom and opportunity for their children. Our family was ever so greatly blessed by arriving on American shores.”

Tom Stewart, the voice of Thirteen, on Dr. Connie Guion

Dr. Connie Guion in 1946 was named the first woman professor of Clinical Medicine in the United States. She taught at Cornell University Medical College from 1929-1951. She is responsible for a Comprehensive Care Program for outpatients, which was studied worldwide. There is a building in the Cornell-New York Hospital campus which is named for her, but I don’t believe she is widely known. My awareness of Dr. Guion stems from my sister-in-law, a physician, who graduated from Cornell in the early ’60s.”

Paula Zahn, host of SundayArts, on Elizabeth Zahn

“I have had the privilege of meeting and interviewing some extraordinarily courageous and tenacious women. I don’t have to look very far though, to zero in on my ultimate unsung heroine. She is the one who’s been with me from the very beginning…my mother, Elizabeth Zahn. She is a woman of incredible strength, resilience and grace. She grew up in the shadows of a steel mill in West Aliquippa, Pennsylvania. She went onto earn her doctorate in Spanish literature and became Geneva College’s youngest tenured professor.

Her life as she knew it would come to a screeching halt when she was severely injured in a car accident. Her doctors didn’t think she’d ever walk again nor be able to have children. My mother being the brave and determined woman she is, soldiered through a year of brutal rehabilitation and proved her pessimistic doctors glaringly wrong. She walked out of her rehabilitation center with no assistance and into the next chapter of her life. She eventually got married, had four children and worked part-time as a teacher. In addition to mastering the art of the car pool, she studied painting and became an accomplished watercolorist.

Her greatest test came when both she and my father were diagnosed with cancer within weeks of each other. My father’s cancer was more advanced than my mother’s. While she cared for father, even as she fought for her own life, she never gave in to self-pity. When my father lost his battle against cancer, she remained positive and resolute. Those qualities served her well as she conquered breast cancer while coping with her loss.

When she was again diagnosed with cancer after a thirteen-year reprieve, my mother never surrendered to rage or disappointment. I don’t remember her even once asking ‘Why me?’ She has always found negativism and pessimism corrosive and unproductive. So she did what she always did. She absorbed the news and then went to battle. I’m happy to say that today she is a healthy survivor living a very full and happy life.

Throughout her painful journey, it was my mother’s love of family and her spirituality that kept her going. Today she plays a very important role in her children’s lives and her seven grandchildren’s. She maintains a vital faith, while continuing to examine its underpinnings. She has taught all of us to be open to many paths on the road to spiritual growth. But perhaps the most important lesson she’s imparted is the power of gratitude and optimism, especially during life’s greatest challenges.
And that is why she is my ultimate heroine.”