Tough Broads – Nelle Harper Lee

On Christmas Day 1956, Nelle Harper Lee was given an extraordinary gift. A year. Two of her closest friends had saved their money in order to give her a year off work to devote herself to writing. Her friends had  often heard the stories that Nelle wrote at night after getting off her job as an airline reservation clerk. They knew that she was extraordinary and had a story to tell the world. They were right.


That year Nelle wrote the manuscript that would become To Kill a Mockingbird. Drawing from her own past, Nelle, writing as Harper Lee, created a tale that showed its audience over and over again that people are more than their skin color, their family line, their bank account, or even their oddities. People are beautifully complex, each of them are struggling, and each of them have value. 


At a time when racial tensions were rising and rhetoric wars were being fought, Nelle’s tale made the world stop, breathe, and see each other as human beings despite their differences. To this day Nelle’s book is still read in nearly every high school in America.


Nelle did not care much for fame though. She did not appear in person to accept the many awards that she has been given. She did not give interviews. In fact, when a friend asked her if she would like to create a form letter to refuse her many interview requests, she replied that all it should say is “hell no.”


Nelle had already said what she needed to say to the world, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view […] until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” That is all. Nelle Harper Lee died last week, but she will live on in the pages of her book, beloved by so many, and she will continue to move hearts toward compassion.


Let nothing stop you.

Tough Broads – Kakenya Ntaiya

Kakenya Ntaiya, of the Kenyan Maasai,  became engaged to be married at the age of 5, in exchange for seven cows. It was her duty then to learn everything that she must do to be a good wife before her wedding, which would occur when she was around 13 years old. Her mother, aunts and grandmother would remind her often of her duty by pointing as the boy passed, telling her, “You see? There goes your husband.”



Kakenya, however, craved learning of a different kind. She loved her classes at school and desperately wanted to continue her education through high school. She dreamed that she might even be able to become a teacher herself one day, and escape the hard life that she knew awaited her as a typical Maasai woman. So, in desperation, she made a choice to give up a piece of her body, willingly, in exchange for the hope of a future. She convinced her father to allow her to go to high school, if in return she would allow herself to undergo her culture’s traditional female genital mutilation ceremony.



At 13, while her village watched, without anesthesia, a rusty old knife sealed her fate. Three weeks later, she had healed enough to attend school.

After she graduated, she was given a full scholarship to a university in America and managed to convince 17 elders, all men, one at a time, to let her go. This time her price was a promise that she would return and be a value to her community.



She did return and once more used her wit and intelligence to win the men over to yet another idea. She began a school for girls in her village. To date, 125 young women have been spared the knife and given hope for a bright future.



As Kekenya says, these girls will, “be stepping on my shoulders to move up the ladder—they’re not going to start on the bottom.”

Let nothing stop you.


Listen to Kekenya’s store in her own words HERE.

Tough Broads – Samantha Smith

Samantha Smith, of Maine,  was only 10 years old when she decided to confront the leader of the USSR. A child of the Cold War Era, she had often seen ominous news reports about missiles, scary documentaries about the ravages of nuclear war, and more than once, this young lady woke up wondering if this would be the day that the world came to an end.


When Samantha asked her mother who would start a war and why, she was shown a TIME magazine cover featuring the Soviet’s new leader Yuri Andropov. She decided to write to him and just ask, point blank, if he planned to start a nuclear war.


In time, Samantha received a response, from the leader himself, saying that his people were too busy building, inventing, farming and exploring space to want a war, and he invited her to come to the USSR for a visit. By that afternoon, Samantha’s lawn was a sea of reporters and she was on her way to New York to appear on television.


In the summer of 1983, Samantha did, in fact, take a tour of the USSR. Both countries were glued to their television sets, watching this young ambassador visit Red Square, shake the hands of diplomats and swim with Soviet children. On both sides, for a moment, the tensions eased, shoulders relaxed, and people  remembered what it was like to be a sweet, freckle-faced innocent just exploring and making friends. With an uncanny understanding of human nature, Samantha said, “I mean, if we could be friends by just getting to know each other better, then what are {we} really arguing about?”


In 1985, Samantha and her father died in a plane crash. Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev both sent heartfelt condolence letters to her mother, saying that the world had been a more hopeful, peaceful place because of her daughter.


Let nothing stop you.

Tough Broads – Misty Copeland

My latest, in a series of tough women, is Misty Copeland.

Misty Copeland was one of six siblings living with a single mother in a hotel room in LA. While she was never sure there would be dinner on a given night, and although she would have to vie for her place to sleep on the floor, she was not unhappy. She was close to her siblings, doing well in school and was well liked.  


At 13, she decided to join her sister in trying out for the school’s drill team. She had, of course, never had a dance or gymnastics lesson, but she most definitely had raw talent. After one astonishing audition, she was made captain of her squad, and was soon encouraged to take ballet classes at the local Boys and Girls Club. Her teacher knew that Misty was special after just one lesson.



At 17, Misty traveled with her teacher to New York, where she tried out for the summer intensive. At the end of the session she was asked to join the company.


Misty was an unlikely ballerina. She was curvy, muscular, and African American, and yet she continued to rise. She rallied back from serious injury and self doubt. She began, in time, to know that her struggle was not only to be a great ballerina for herself, but to prove to the world that despite her background, despite the fact that she had not trained in elite schools from age 3, despite her curves and her skin color, she could achieve her dreams.


Last summer, Misty Copeland became the very first African American principal female dancer in the American Ballet Theater since its inception in the early 1930s.


Watching her dance is a breathtakingly beautiful experience, as is watching her hug and speak with the young girls who wait outside the theater to catch a glimpse of her. For them, she is walking, talking, dancing proof that their dreams are attainable too. 


Let nothing stop you.

Tough Broads – Marion O’Brien Donovan


In 1946, Marion O’Brien Donovan tore down her shower curtain and changed the world. Exhausted and frustrated, this young mother had been awakened in the night to find her baby soaked through once again, clothes, sheets and all. IMG_3457

Although rubber diaper covers were available, they often caused diaper rash and the elastic irritated babies’ tummies and legs. Marion knew there had to be another way.


The daughter of a mechanical engineer, she had grown up among people who met everyday problems with practical genius. That shower curtain became a prototype of the “Boater”, a diaper cover that would be made with breathable nylon parachute material, and would close with snaps. The absorbent material fitted into a slot, which kept it away from the baby’s skin and prevented leaks. Marion eventually received 4 patents for this invention, which became the precursor to disposable diapers. 


Marion’s daughter recalls that in their home, every room was a laboratory, covered in straws and staples, tape, and prototypes of new ideas. Always on the go and always eager to learn, Marion installed a homemade cup holder in her car before they were available, and rigged up a tape player there so that she could listen to French lessons.


Marion went on to earn a total of 20 patents for her ideas. After raising her children, she went to Yale, got her degree in architecture, and was one of only three women in her graduating class.


Let nothing stop you.

Tough Broads – Lou Xiaoying

Lou Xiaoying, of Jinhua , China, made her living by rummaging through the trash bins for anything recyclable, usable, or worth selling.


She was going about her daily garbage run one day in 1972, when she came across a tiny baby girl who had been thrown out among the heaps of trash. Lou took the child home and raised her as her own.


That little girl was the first of 33 babies that Lou drug from the trash, nursed back to health and gave a future. Four of those children she raised with her own very modest means, the rest she was able to place in loving homes.


Lou says, “how could [I] not recycle something as important as human lives?”


Let nothing stop you.

Tough Broads – Bobbi Gibb

Each of these girls is inspiring beyond all measure, but this one, this one really moved me. I’ve tried several times to tell her story to friends and family and cannot get the words out without getting choked up. Amazing.

Bobbi Gibb’s love of running began in childhood and continued long past adolescence, when all the “decent” young ladies left behind such behavior and took up their roles as housewives. “We weren’t expected to have minds, and we weren’t expected to have bodies that ran” she said. Bobbi, however, had both.


She ran often, just for the joy of it, wearing a swimsuit with her shorts and nursing shoes, because athletic companies weren’t yet making supportive garments or footwear for female athletes. In 1965, Gibb loaded up her dog and a VW bus and headed west. Her plan was to see the country and train for what she considered the ultimate challenge, the Boston Marathon. Everyday, she drove and ran… Across the Mississippi, the Midwest, the Rockies. By the end of her journey she could run 40 miles at a time. 


In early 1966, she submitted her marathon application and in return received a rejection letter informing her that women were not physically capable of such exertion. Enraged, she hatched a plan. She donned a hoodie and took cover in some bushes near the starting line, then, with no official number, she took off with the runners.


Soon, the men around her realized that she was a woman, but rather than calling in security or berating her as an intruder, they formed a barrier around her and promised to protect her if anyone attempted to stop her. Bobbi took off her hoodie and ran for all she was worth. Word got out, and the crowd went wild with excited enthusiasm. By the time she reached Wellesley College the students had poured out, crying and cheering her on. The mayor of Massachusetts met her at the finish line to shake her hand. She finished in the top 1/3 of the runners, even though she had to limp to the finish, feet covered in blisters from ill-fitting shoes. She went on to run the race 5 more times, and after being denied access to medical school for fear that a woman would “upset the boys in the lab”, got her law degree. She practiced law for 18 years before becoming a research associate of neuroscience at the University of California.


Let nothing stop you.

Tough Broads – Joan Trumpauer Mullholland

At 19, Joan Trumpauer Mullholland found herself incarcerated on death row in a prison notorious for its ill treatment of inmates and the occasional “disappearance.” She had been disowned by her family, shunned by her community, and had undergone psychiatric evaluations .


Her crime? She was a young, educated, white, southern woman who fought doggedly for civil rights.


She had participated in a dozen sit ins, had ridden with the Freedom Riders, had been dragged from a protest at the Jackson Woolworth counter by her hair, and had left Duke University to enroll in the all black college, Tougaloo. Despite spending two months in prison, receiving innumerable hateful letters from strangers, and even being hunted by the KKK, Joan refused to give in. 


She had made a promise to herself at only 10, when she began recognizing that the morality she had been taught in church was in direct opposition with the way society treated black people, and when, on a dare, she had walked into the African American side of town and seen the fear and the economic disparity there. She vowed then to do what she could to help change things. Joan has spent her life doing just that.


At 72, she continues to speak and to fight for equality. A foundation in her name works to educate youth about the civil rights movement and to train them to be agents for positive social change in their own communities.


Let nothing stop you.

Tough Broads – Emma Gatewood

In effort to practice my portrait skills, I have been working lately on a series of inspiring women and sharing them on Instagram.  Along the way though, the project has become about so much more to me than I ever imagined.

Learning these women’s stories, joys and struggles, defeats and triumphs… Paying close attention to the lines on their faces, and knowing both the smiles and the tears that traced them… They really move me. They are all just so damn beautiful. So strong. So absolutely themselves, whatever may come.

Wether or not I ever get any better at doing their beauty some justice, wether or not my drawings ever mean a single thing to a single soul, it is enough, more than enough, that each day I find new evidence that human beings can be such luminous things. Even when it seems that the darkness is overtaking us, there are glowing, immutable, incandescent souls inside all those fragile bones and scarred skins that you pass by each day, each of them fighting their battles and carrying on. Notice. Be kind. Take heart. There is light all around us.

I’ve decided to take photos as I draw, so that if you would like to follow along, you can see the drawings take shape as the stories unfold. I hope you enjoy them!


Emma Gatewood left her family’s farm at 19 to marry. For the next 30 years she endured life with a hard man who frequently beat her, until the night that he finally brought her near death with cracked ribs and broken teeth.


When the police were called it was she who was arrested. The mayor, however, stepped in to release her and she was given a, then rare, divorce. After raising the three of her eleven children who remained at home, she embarked on an adventure, as she said “because I could.”


With only a knapsack, ordinary sneakers, a blanket, plastic shower curtain, a few tins of Vienna sausages and boxes of raisins, she set out to hike the Appalachian Trail. With no compass, no map, and no hiking experience, she became, in 1955, the first woman to ever hike those 2,050 miles of terrain all alone. She was 67.


Two years later, she became the first person, male or female, to hike that trail twice.


Let nothing stop you!