In celebrating Women's History Month, it’s our final installment highlighting incredible women who were their own champions, making waves then and now. For a look back, here are remarkable women of the arts, fearless women who changed our political landscape, and women who built a better world through courage and connection.
Today we highlight women of immense style, both personal and notorious. Allow us to introduce a few women who are unabashedly their own, who contributed to fashion as we know it today, and who pushed stylistic boundaries to influence culture. They are brave and bold, and allow us to act likewise.
Agnes Varda (1928-2019) was a French filmmaker and director, a pioneer during the new-wave revolution of the 1950s and '60s and who kept making important films for the next five decades. She did not shy away from addressing taboo topics such as sex and death, and defying the boundaries of gender. Her work exhibited a formal daring, using an unorthodox approach and stylistic touches that became mainstays for a new wave of film. In 2017 she was awarded an honorary Oscar, a Governors Award, becoming the first female director to receive the accolade. Varda reminds us the necessity of pushing boundaries: "All life is about borders. Language borders, ethnic borders, etc. And in the cinema, I tried to erase borders, or make them smooth: between documentary and fiction; black and white and color; cinema and art."
Selma Blair (born 1972) is an actress and, recently, an outspoken advocate for people with disabilities. She announced her diagnosis of multiple sclerosis last year, and since has become more open about her pain, struggles and overwhelm in dealing with debilitating symptoms. With a new, braver voice to reach women, and with a courageous take on her personal style, Blair continues to share her rollercoaster of emotions. She says, “I thought, Holy shit, there’s a need for honesty about being disabled from someone recognizable.” So she is, cane and all, redefining what disability looks like. As one who has always used style as a form of self-expression and a matter of identity, she’s dreaming up solutions for people like herself who need adaptive clothing. Ultimately she’s brave, and she knows it: “There’s no tragedy for me. I’m happy, and if I can help anyone be more comfortable in their skin, it’s more than I’ve ever done before.”
Gladys Bentley (1907-1960) was an American blues singer, pianist, and notorious entertainer during the Harlem Renaissance — and one who broke all the rules. She created a gay nightlife scene 100 years ahead of its time as a nonconforming lesbian superstar, and was the first prominent performer of her era to embrace a trans identity. Bentley’s rise to fame demonstrated how liberated the Prohibition culture of the Harlem Renaissance had become, and how welcoming the blues tradition could be to gay expression. She often confronted male entitlement and sexual abuse in her lyrics while declaring her own sexual independence. She wrote in a 1952 essay for Ebony: “Even though they knew me as a male impersonator, they still could appreciate my artistry as a performer.”
Madam C.J. Walker (born Sarah Breedlove, 1867-1919) was the first Black millionairess, and first female self-made millionaire. How? She invented the process for straightening kinky hair. Called “Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower,” she was a smart, capable business women while also advocating for Black women’s economic independence. She opened training programs in the “Walker System” for her national network of licensed sales agents, and, ultimately, Walker employed 40,000 African American women and men in the US, Central America, and the Caribbean. She also founded the National Negro Cosmetics Manufacturers Association in 1917. She knew her strengths and played them well: “I know how to grow hair as well as I know how to grow cotton. I have built my own factory on my own ground.”
Eliza Lucas Pinckney (1722-1793) is owed our thanks for North America’s indigo industry, and, in turn, our range of denim colors. She was the daughter of a prominent Lieutenant-Colonel in the British Army and is most likely the first important agriculturalist in our country. In 1739 Pinckney began cultivating and creating improved strains of the indigo plant, which was being used to dye textiles in the burgeoning manufacturing mills in England. She helped create an industry that would sustain the Carolina economy for three decades. Indigo exports grew from 5000 pounds to 130,000 pounds within two years, and became second only to rice as a cash crop. She ran both her estate and crop experiments with proud determination: “I find it requires great care, attention and activity to attend properly to a Carolina Estate.”