“We can have feminist icons, but the real heroines are just quietly doing what is needed.” Osyth
The New York Times went one step further and solicited stories about the “real heroines”. I know you are going to enjoy these stories and the love of the writers telling their stories.
Readers Nominate Their Overlooked Grandmothers for a Times Obit
By now, we have received close to 2,500 submissions. Among these were about 30 from readers who told us of their own grandmothers or great-grandmothers who often fought strong institutional prejudice against them.
We found their stories moving, fascinating and inspiring and wanted to share them with you. A selection of these tributes, submitted by the grandchildren or great-grandchildren of the subjects, is below.
The biographical details of these submissions have been independently verified or corroborated by reviewing news reports and source material. We have also condensed and edited them for clarity.
Dr. Anita V. Figueredo
1916 to 2010
My grandmother was one of the most remarkable female physicians of the 20th century. Born in Costa Rica, where the idea of a woman doctor was far-fetched, she declared her intent to pursue medicine when she was 5. Her mother believed in her, and the two set sail for New York, where they settled in Spanish Harlem.
At 19, Dr. Figueredo was one of only four women at Long Island College of Medicine. She was one of the first two female surgical residents at what is now known asMemorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Her 4-foot-11-inch frame required her to use a step stool to perform surgery.
As San Diego County’s first female surgeon, she maintained an oncology practice throughout motherhood (she and her husband had nine children; legend had it she sometimes went right from operating room to maternity ward). She was credited with introducing the Pap smear to the West Coast, having been trained by George Papanicolaou himself.
Her other great passion was humanitarianism, which produced a long friendship with Mother Teresa, who called her “The Smiling Apostle of Charity.” These details represent the tip of the iceberg of Dr. Figueredo’s life. (I have not, for example, mentioned the time she rode the New York subway with a severed head in a paper bag.) —Submitted by Lila Byock, Los Angeles
Peggy Jean Connor
1932 to 2018
She sued the governor of Mississippi and other state officials in 1965 for voting rights reapportionment and finally won. She was secretary of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which challenged the all-white Democratic Party at the national convention in Atlantic City alongside Lawrence Guyot and Fannie Lou Hamer.
She’s a Carter G. Woodson award recipient. She has a research grant named in her honor at the University of Southern Mississippi. She passed in January 2018. She is my grandmother. —Submitted by RJ Young, Tulsa, Okla.
Dr. Marguerite Rush Lerner
1924 to 1987
My grandpa Aaron B. Lerner received a New York Times obituary in 2007, but my grandma never received similar recognition, though they worked as a team and she had incredible achievements in her own right. I think their relationship dynamic is what allowed both to achieve great things together.
Her parents did not believe women should have careers, so she worked as a typist during World War II to save money for her education. She began her medical degree at Johns Hopkins but transferred to Case Western Reserve to be closer to my grandpa.
She was the first female chief of Yale University Health Services’ dermatology clinic in 1971; was a very successful author who wrote children’s books centered around public health and diversity, as well as medical texts; performed early research in breast cancer; and raised four boys.
Behind the scenes, she significantly helped my grandpa’s team showcase its groundbreaking discovery of melatonin. Sadly, she passed away from early onset Alzheimer’s, which shortened her career. —Submitted by Lane Rush Lerner, Chicago
Mafalda (Muffy) Katherine Vessella Caliri
1912 to 2015
My great-grandmother had only an eighth-grade education, yet was a woman of wisdom. She lived at home, cooked meatballs on Sunday and shoveled snow until age 99. She adored her family and was close to God. She nurtured plants and people, loved music and saved aluminum foil in perfectly neat little squares.
She was born to two Italian immigrants from Caserta. In 1935, she married a Sicilian cobbler, Antonio Caliri, in a simple wedding with just three orchids as a bouquet. Around the same time, she registered to vote to cast a ballot for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who made an impression on her when he spoke in Providence.
When I was 30, she said she wanted to show me something and led me to her dresser drawer. Wrapped in a silk handkerchief was a dinner roll, shrunken from its original size and fossilized by time. “It was blessed by the spirit of St. Anthony,” she said. “It’s over 60 years old and it’s good luck — I carried it in my suitcase everywhere, even to Italy.”
When Mafalda got sick and needed long-term care, I hid the dinner roll in my own dresser, periodically checking to make sure it was still there. When she was laid to rest, next to her husband, Antonio, so too was the magical roll. —Submitted by Erica Laros, Cranston, R.I.
Tatyana Y. Kosolapova
1918 to 2016
My grandmother was born in Odessa, Ukraine, and died in Brooklyn, N.Y. She was a material scientist, with books translated into English and Japanese. She headed a lab at the Institute for Problems in Materials Science, one of the premier research institutes in Kiev.
She was involved in the design for, among other projects, the Soviet space program and the Chernobyl reactor cover. When she died, her colleagues in Kiev held a one-day conference in her memory.
She accomplished all this as a Jewish woman in the Soviet Union, going through World War II and Stalin’s repressions; an aunt and uncle arrested in the 1930s were sent to Siberia for 10 years. She had an incredible work ethic, writing her books and dissertation at night after a full day of work and caring for her family.
She emigrated here in 1995, after she retired. She was the best example of the Russian intelligentsia I can think of: well read, intellectually curious, kind, helping other people as much as she could. —Submitted by Julia Bardmesser, New York City
Mary Stanley Low
1912 to 2007
Mary Low was my grandmother.
She was a political activist, poet and teacher born in London. She was a co-author, along with her Cuban first husband, of “Red Spanish Notebook,” a very early English-language eyewitness account of Barcelona at the start of the Spanish Civil War.
She wielded both a pistol and a pen to fight fascism when it still had no name, helping organize a women’s militia. She escaped Franco and the Nazis, to Cuba, where she lived for 25 years, leading a surrealist movement and a Trotskyist group. She then escaped to Miami, where she taught Latin and the classics.
I grew up with stories of George Orwell (she said he was very brave), Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, André Breton and Wifredo Lam — all artists and writers — told amid songs she sang about anarchists and workers. (And she really loved the Beatles.)
As a grandmother, she was equally doting and eccentric. She hand drew me playing cards of French monarchs; I think I was the only 8-year-old who knew the entire Plantagenet lineage. She once decorated my bedroom in the style of Caesar’s army tent.
But she was most proud of “Red Spanish Notebook,” written in the midst of a civil war. People need to know a woman told that story, risking her life to do so. She can inspire other women to shine a light and tell the truth to the world. —Submitted by Laylah Bulman, Miami
1901 to 1997
One of the earliest female literary agents, Bertha Klausner represented such figures as Upton Sinclair, Eleanor Roosevelt, Basil Rathbone, Robert Payne, Marcel Marceau and Representative Adam Clayton Powell Jr.
For decades she worked out of her New York apartment on 40th Street and Lexington Avenue, and in the late 1940s she set up a satellite office in Los Angeles, at a time when few women operated on the business side in Hollywood, selling radio television, and film scripts.
Known for her loyalty to writers, Klausner worked until two months before she died, at the age of 96. She was my great-grandmother. —Submitted by Rebecca Spence, Taos, N.M.
Dr. Priscilla Frew Pollister
1903 to 1992
My grandmother was a biology researcher and professor at Brooklyn College at a time when there were few full-time professional women scientists.
She and my grandfather were from a mill town in Maine and did their undergraduate studies at Bates College; she went to grad school at Columbia University with a specialization in invertebrate biology and got her Ph.D. there in 1936. She spent several summers doing research at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
I have been told she was an effective and inspiring lecturer; undoubtedly there are students who remember her. I recall her sharp wit and cackling laughter. In later life, her overall look and demeanor did little to dispel the notion among neighborhood children that she might be a witch — and this absolutely delighted her! —Submitted by Penelope Jane Pollister Price, Souderton, Pa.
Mary Sherwood Wright Jones
1892 to 1985
My grandmother was an artist and illustrator who created original, sequential illustrations for the children’s classroom newspaper My Weekly Reader from 1928 to 1960. Her weekly contributions supported the publication’s pioneering reading readiness program and reached millions of readers.
Using pen, ink and brush, she created several hundred short narratives for children featuring, among others, her earnest, enterprising character Peek the Brownie.She illustrated many other books as well, including “A Child’s History of the World” and was my first mentor in my own career as an artist.
Her legacy will continue as she was honored in 2015 by the Ohio State University Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum, which accepted her work into its permanent collection. —Submitted by Anne Sherwood Pundyk, New York City
If you have a story about an inspiring woman, please feel free to leave a link to your post in the comments section.