International Women’s Day Special: Under-Appreciated Lady Heroes

Illustration by Desiree Nasim

March 8th, 2017

One of the added perks of being interested in people who are in the public eye is that they, ideally, offer a portal to a larger world: what was it like where they’re from, who influenced them, who do they admire? In other words: women in the public eye are a great way to find out about other women—especially since, far too often, women get less public attention and credit for their achievements. With that in mind, for International Women’s Day we asked the women we’ve interviewed, “Tell us about one of your Under-Appreciated Lady Heroes.” Because being against sexism is good, but being for women is better. Here are some of their answers.


“The person who comes to mind for me today is Maya Deren. I first saw Maya’s films in a Dance Criticism class at Barnard (taught by the great Mindy Aloff) and I’ve sought her out at Anthology Film Archives and various museums since then. Maya was an experimental filmmaker, choreographer and performer in the 40s and 50s, and her films appeal to me on a variety of levels. She has a wicked sense of humor, an easy kinship with the absurd, and an infectious sensuality and passion. Her kineticism as a performer and cinematographer are super compelling, and images and sequences from her films have stayed with me for decades. She seems to free-associate visually—for example, in one sequence a dancer ‘spotting’ morphs into a many-headed Buddha at the Metropolitan Museum. I also love her earthiness and gravitas. Much to admire in her!” – Adrienne Campbell-Holt

“Lorraine Hansberry, because people only think of her as the playwright who wrote A Raisin in the Sun. In fact, not only did she write other works, not the least of which is The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, but she was primarily an activist. Her theatrical work was just one of many tools she used to express her political sentiments. She is one of our greatest writers, thinkers, and activists—one of the most important voices of the 20th Century. I’m gonna toot the Sidney Brustein horn a bit, since it’s such an under-appreciated work: the scope of this play is Shakespearean. Hansberry wrote this as a warning, a clarion call to shake the country (with a heavy-duty focus on the white liberal faction) out of its complacency, to put a mirror up and expose the ills of our community and their complex origins. And now unfortunately, it is of its time again given what’s been unleashed through Trump’s candidacy. The good news is Hansberry is an optimist. She believes that humans have the potential to do great harm, but also the capacity for great healing and humanity… and it’s that compassion that makes the play and her life’s work so very inspiring.” – Anne Kauffman

“I’m currently sitting in the Supreme Courthouse downtown waiting to be called for jury duty, and the first person I thought of when it comes to “underappreciated lady heroes” is the mother of intersectionality, Ida B. Wells. I remember hearing a little bit about her in elementary school, but like many black women throughout history, her contributions to society have been erased. She feels particularly important to talk about right now because in addition to being a caregiver, teacher, writer, suffragette, and all around badass during a time when women, and particularly black women, were marginalized by society, she was also one of the first investigative journalists. While she was taking care of her six siblings in Memphis, she was a teacher in an all black school (where she was paid $30/month in contrast to a white woman’s salary of $80/month) and a writer for local newspapers. During this time, three of her black friends opened a grocery store that provided competition to a local white grocery. A large white lynch mob killed the 3 black men. Wells wrote investigative articles uncovering why blacks were being lynched and focused on the data of why blacks were being put in jail. She encouraged boycotts of white-owned businesses and deemed Memphis unsafe for black people. This resulted in 6,000 black people leaving Memphis. And this is only the beginning, there’s so much more to her. Look her up, she deserves a national holiday.” –Celia Keenan-Bolger

“Lucinda Childs. Whenever I feel choreographically stuck, or feeling derivative, I watch Einstein on the Beach. It still feels cutting edge.” –Lorin Latarro

“The woman who keeps popping into my head is Marin Mazzie, my actress friend. She’s well-known in theatre circles and is an old friend. I admire her for her courage in her fight with ovarian cancer. Marin’s determination to survive and to help others fight this disease is so admirable and amazing to me. Marin has the Ovarian Cancer gene called BRCA. Angelina Jolie was one of the first celebrities to shed light on this gene, as she too, has it. So, Marin, not one to let the grass grow under her feet, has made trips to Washington, DC to speak at the OCRFA (Ovarian Cancer Research Fund Alliance) about funding research of the BRCA gene. She’s an inspiration to me and all of my acting community family.” –Rebecca Luker

“Julia Miles is my Underappreciated Lady Superhero. In 1978, Julia was the Associate Artistic Director at the American Place Theatre, producing incredible work by artists like Sam Shepard, Steve Tesich and Jack Gelber. She started to notice that the work she was producing at APT was terrific but testosterone heavy, and way out of whack with the ideals of inclusion and representation of the growing feminist movement around her. She did a little calculation and discovered that only 6% of the work being produced at the time was written by women. Clearly something needed to be done. And if you know Julia, you know you don’t get in her way when she wants to do something. And do something she did. Julia founded WP (then called Women’s Project) which is now the oldest and largest theatre in the country dedicated to work by female-identified artists.  Her guidance and influence made me who I am as a person of the theatre today—both her passion to make sure women’s voices get heard, but also her drive to make change in the face of incredible adversity. She gave me my first paying job in the theatre and taught me that art can be an agent for change in the world. I hope every day to live up to her legacy, and to be as brave, as visionary, and every bit as ornery. Here’s to the tough broads that change the world.” –Lisa McNulty

“Dael Orlandersmith. A daring actor-performer-thinker-activist who has the courage to create work that is both personal and political. She also has the ability to ignite a community with her sage words, her powerful presence and her deep sense of humanity.” –Daniella Topol

“My ultimate muse is also referred to as “The Tenth Muse” and “The Phoenix of Mexico.” She’s Mexico’s most important female figure, the nun Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. She was the continent’s first feminist and regarded as the first great Latin American writer. A Criolla (of Spanish parents) born out of wedlock in New Spain (now Mexico), Juana was a child prodigy who taught herself Latin in twenty lessons (who cut pieces of her hair whenever she’d make a mistake.) When she had devoured all she could from her grandfather’s library, Juana asked her mother to let her dress in boy’s clothes in order to attend the University. Instead, she was sent off to relatives who procured for her a place in court where she went head to head with the brightest men of the day. There, Sor Juana made devout fans of the Viceroy and his wife, the Countess Maria Luisa de Paredes, who is said to have carried out an amorous affair with the brilliant nun. Sor Juana chose the nunnery in order to continue her studies. She developed the most magnificent salon which attracted the most cultured patrons in the New World. She wrote poetry (some of a racy nature in honor of the Vicereine), plays, scientific theories, and hundreds of musical compositions (none that remain). But when Juana caught the ire of the Inquisition with her now famous feminist letter and manifesto, “La Respuesta a Sor Filotea de la Cruz,” and was forbidden to ever write again, except for sacred texts. She refused to ever pick up a quill again and died 3 years later of the plague. Although not canonized by the Catholic Church, I consider this feminist visionary baddass to be my patron saint. “ –Tanya Saracho

“I want to write to you about Maryann Thebus, who is a Chicago actress who has been acting for over 40 years. Before acting, Maryann had several careers—and lives, it seems—and she brings that rich history to all of her work. She’s a dynamic woman, never shy with an opinion. Maryann raised two amazing daughters and is an active grandmother. Maryann was the first person I met when I moved to Chicago 22 years ago and her support, encouragement, and collaboration has guided me through many years.  Although a Chicago treasure, Maryann never seems to need to be famous, or working outside the city. Her priorities have always felt about the work, about the story, about the conversation she inspires. I had lunch with her just last Monday, and she looked me in the eye and said, “Kimberly, you must live a truthful life.” And it’s what she does, what she inspires, and are truly words to live by.” –Kimberly Senior