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Women's Day photo montage

Not all heroes wear capes: faculty discuss female trailblazers on International Women's Day


Kristen LaRue-Sandler

In celebration of International Women’s Day on March 8, several ASU English professors reflect on women who have made history. Following is partial list of our female heroes and role models; this ASU Now story has several more. Note: at least one of these women may have worn a cape.


From Jacqueline Wernimont, Assistant Professor of English and Interim Director of the Nexus Lab:

  • Emilie du Chatelet (1706 – 1749): French physicist, mathematician, and translator. In addition to developing her own physical theories, and a great book for teaching physics to children, she translated Isaac Newton’s Principia –  a translation so effective and clear that it is still used today.
  • Susan La Flesche Picotte (1865-1915): America’s first Native doctor (western certified). Trained as both a traditional healer and a western-style medical doctor, La Flesche Picotte served her Omaha tribe after her return from training. She cared for the hearts, bodies, and souls of her people in an era when it was common to claim that they were a “vanishing race.”


From Devoney Looser, Professor of English:

  • Jane Austen (1775-1817): I know it’s ridiculous, but my entire adult life is structured around this great novelist, whose bicentenary is celebrated this year. I’m passionate about researching her life and writings. (My forthcoming book, The Making of Jane Austen, considers her reputation and afterlife.). I teach her novels to ASU students, in person and online. I met my husband--also a Jane Austen teacher-scholar--over a conversation about her. I have played roller derby using a name inspired by hers: Stone Cold Jane Austen. I don’t think Austen is “just” a great woman novelist. I think she's the greatest novelist who wrote in English, period. Her fiction, centered on debates over gender and social power that still resonate with readers today, blows my mind on a daily basis. 
  • Audre Lorde (1934-1992): Lorde was a poet, essayist, and activist—American-born, of Caribbean descent. Her book, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (1984) is incredibly moving. It was in college that I first read her essay "The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action.” I was someone fearful of using my own voice. Her essay had a profound impact on me. Lorde acknowledges that speaking out about injustice and speaking your truth is dangerous in a world with inequalities. But, she writes, “Your silence will not protect you.” Her words continue to help me find my own voice and inspire me to speak my truths.
  • Gloria Feldt (1942-): Sometimes in life you actually get to meet one of your heroes. Gloria is one of mine. She got married at 15 and had three children by the time she was 20. She’s an advocate for women’s reproductive health and for preparing women for leadership. She’s also one of ASU’s own--a professor of practice in our School of Social Transformation. She co-founded a women’s leadership, mentoring, and networking, and role modeling project, Take The Lead. I love her book No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power.


From Angelita Reyes, Professor of English and African and African American Studies:

  • Michelle Obama (1964-): is a living inspiration for women and girls all over the world. A mom, a lawyer, and the first woman of color First Lady in the United States, which did not go unobserved in the global arena. When President Obama was first running for the presidency, many people were in awe that he could be the first black president of the United States. Yes, but I was more in awe that Michele Obama would be, might become the first black First Lady--and she did! She is a role model that little girls all over the world could witness, not just imagine.


From Melissa Free, Assistant Professor of English:

  • Wonder Woman (1941-): who burst onto the scene as the first female superhero during World War II, continues to serve as an example of female empowerment. Leaving her home on Paradise Island, an island inhabited exclusively by Amazonian women, she “turn[s] … man’s world topsy-turvy” by demonstrating the “true powers” of woman. Using physical strength, stamina, insight, and compassion, Wonder Woman challenged the notion that women were inherently weak, dependent, and domestically inclined. Resurrected as a feminist figure by Gloria Steinem after two decades as a significantly weakened figure in D.C. Comics, she strode supersized across city and battlefield alike in the inaugural issue of Ms. Magazine in 1972, beneath the caption, “Wonder Woman for President.” With Wonder Woman, the first feature film focused on a female superhero, hitting theatres this summer, she remains a symbol of possibility for women of all generations.
  • Queen Victoria (1819- 1901): As the Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and the Empress of India, Victoria ruled vast swaths of the world between her 1837 ascension to the throne at the age of eighteen and her 1901 death at the age of eighty-one. Parts of Africa, North America, South America, the Middle East, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and the Caribbean were all under her power. The acceleration of globalization, the widespread problems of racism, and many of today’s political tensions can all be traced back to the Victorian era. The British Empire that Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher infamously claimed she wanted to make great again was not, after all, so great, but it was undoubtedly among the most powerful forces of the last two-hundred years, and it was helmed by a strong female monarch.
  • The Third-World Woman (19th C.-), a concept crafted in large part by white middle-class European feminists in the nineteenth-century, has steadfastly rejected her reduction to a sign of oppression. Long positioned by white Western feminists as a figure in need of saving—by white women from white men, brown men, and from herself—she has refused her role as victim, as a vehicle for white women’s own access to power. Refusing simply to be spoken for, she has asserting her plurality, dynamism, and agency, through community networks and the press, from rural villages to cosmopolitan cities, in the marketplace and halls of government alike. She is, perhaps, the most promising figure of the current century, the one most likely to reorient the world.


Images from photo collage above, from left to right: Susan La Flesche Picotte, early 1900s. Nebraska State Historical Society Photograph Collections (via; Jane Austen (c. 1810), in a portrait by her sister, Cassandra. Public domain image, original in National Portrait Gallery (via; Michelle Obama, official White House photograph, public domain image; Wonder Woman toy, public domain image from Pixabay.