Women’s History Month is an important time of reflection and celebration for all Americans. We recognize the extraordinary accomplishments of women throughout history, and we celebrate the power of their vital contributions to shape our Nation’s future.
American women have changed the landscape of scientific health research, medicine, and public health, and this year’s theme for Women’s History Month, “Women’s Education – Women’s Empowerment,” gives us the opportunity to reflect specifically on the contributions of a few trailblazers within our Department who during their lives made the education and empowerment of women a priority.
Dr. Mary Starke Harper began her career as a nurse in Alabama caring for an aging George Washington Carver and ultimately became one of the leading advocates to shine the light on health disparities. She served on advisory panels for every president from Carter to Clinton, wrote five books, and taught at many universities. Dr. Harper was the primary force in organizing one of NIH’s minority fellowship programs, which has educated more than 10,000 health professionals.
Felisa Rincón de Gautier, the first woman mayor of a capital American city, served as Mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico for over 20 years. She was an active participant in the suffragist movement, the fifth woman who officially registered to vote, and served as goodwill ambassador for four presidents. She revamped the San Juan public health system, established the school of medicine, and created the first pre-school centers, Las Escuelas Maternales, on which the Head Start program is based.
Dr. Ruth L. Kirschstein, a pioneer in polio vaccine development, former deputy director and acting director of the National Institutes of Health, and the first woman director of an NIH Institute, was a strong advocate for research training and increasing the number of women and minorities in science and technology. Nearly 70,000 biomedical research scientists have been recipients of the Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award named in her honor by Congress in 2009.
These women have made phenomenal contributions to the education and empowerment of women. To quote Dr. Dorothy I. Height, who was a leader in the civil rights and women’s movements, “Greatness is not measured by what a man or woman accomplishes, but by the opposition he or she has overcome to reach his goals.” These women have accomplished much despite what seemed like insurmountable obstacles.
Today, women continue to face many obstacles when it comes to education and health. But our Administration is working to ease the burden of going to college; increase the number of girls interested in science, technology, engineering and math; and promote equal pay for women. The Affordable Care Act expands health coverage to 34 million Americans, prevents the worst insurance company abuses, and brings new funding to community health centers. It also gives women greater control over their healthcare, covers their preventive health care services with no cost sharing for new health plans, and calls for an unprecedented coordinated, government-wide effort to end violence against women and girls.
Today, we rededicate ourselves to the work of making sure that every woman has the opportunity to achieve the highest level of health. We are inspired by the great pioneers of our past, and we challenge Americans everywhere to consider how we each can make our own unique contribution to ensure justice in health care and to improve the lives of women and girls.