2016 was definitely not the Year of the Woman. In fact, it brought dashed expectations and frustrating reversals.
The candidate who most people predicted would become the first female president of the United States lost in a surprising election to a man who boasted of forcing himself on women. Elsewhere, two women who won elections as their countries’ first female presidents, in Brazil and South Korea, were impeached.
Women and girls kidnapped and taken into sexual slavery by the Islamic State remained in captivity, and the struggle for equality in places where women’s troubles are less extreme also seemed to lose ground.
Still, the year was also filled with heroic work, determined idealism and historic successes. Here are some of 2016’s remarkable women (and one girl).
The war in Syria is a mind-bogglingly complex conflict. What is beyond dispute is that civilians, including women and children, have endured unspeakable suffering. Seven-year-old Bana al-Abed became an unlikely channel for communicating to the world the wrenching reality of life for civilians in the city of Aleppo, under withering attack from the Syrian government and its Russian, Iranian and allied militias.
Bana’s Twitter messages caught the attention of Harry Potter author JK Rowling, drawing even more attention to her plight. Her tweets were so powerful that many doubted she really existed. But now that she is safe in Turkey, we can confirm she, unlike the boy wizard, is real.
Afghanistan’s first female rapper, Paradise Sorouri, puts her life on the line with her brave choices. Instead of keeping her head covered with the Muslim veil, the hijab, she often chooses a baseball cap. It’s not just her career choice and her wardrobe defiance that marks her courage. Sorouri is constantly threatened with death and was once assaulted by 10 men who struck her so brutally they left her for dead. Most women in Afghanistan have been beaten.
“I am speaking out and fighting for women who don’t have a voice,” she explained. “If I stay silent, nothing will change.”
After members of the military tried to overthrow Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the government launched a harsh crackdown, firing tens of thousands of people that authorities viewed as a threat. Among those purged from their jobs were thousands of academics, including one woman , Nuriye Gulmen, who simply refuses to accept the crackdown.
Gulmen has been arrested more than 30 times for her relentless protest of her suspension. She goes to Ankara’s Yuksek Street and, banner in hand, demands her job back from the foot of a sculpture that features a woman reading the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
When a young student at Stanford University was raped by 20-year-old Brock Turner, a judge convicted the college athlete to a mere 6 months in prison because he said a harsher sentence would have had a “severe impact” on his promising life. Brock’s victim, identified only as Emily Doe, wrote a devastating letter about the attack. “You don’t know me, but you’ve been inside me,” she started. “You took away my worth, my privacy, my energy, my time, my safety….my own voice, until today.”
Her powerful words garnered the attention of Vice President Joe Biden and of the entire country. They helped expose the chronic problem of campus rape and a system that too often treats the crime as a minor peccadillo.
It takes enormous courage, and more than a little strategic genius, to take down one of the most powerful men in the country. But Gretchen Carlson pulled it off. Carlson, an anchor for Fox News, found a way to unmask and defeat Roger Ailes, head of the network that became a powerhouse in conservative television news and transformed the media and political landscape.
Carlson sued Ailes for sexual harassment, and by the time she received a multimillion dollar settlement and Ailes was fired, she had drawn back the curtain on a culture of sexism. More than 20 women came forward to reveal a network that operates like what New York magazine called “a sex-fueled, Playboy Mansion-like cult.” Female employees were not only pressured into having sex and enduring humiliation, but also were forced to wear tight dresses and prominently display their legs while on camera.
The share of women leading Fortune 500 companies has fallen to a dismal 4%, another area where progress is in reverse gear. Each one of the 21 female CEOs faced challenges to reach the top level of the business world. Mary Barra, CEO and Chair of General Motors, is the first woman to lead a major car company and has successfully steered GM in a brutally competitive global market. GM’s latest earnings showed record growth, with income up more than 100%.
Ask Serena, if you dare, whether she is the greatest female athlete in the world. The legendary tennis champion, who has won scores of Grand Slam championships in singles and doubles, is still going strong at 35. That she did it in the traditionally white sport of tennis, and rose to stardom in a sport that (like most sports) has a history of dismissing a woman’s achievements, makes it all the more remarkable.
When a reporter asked, after a spectacular match at Wimbledon, how she feels about talk that she is “one of the greatest female athletes of all time,” she slammed back with a powerful return: “I prefer the words, ‘one of the greatest athletes of all time.'” Game, set, match.
The German leader has stood at the epicenter of some of the most difficult challenges faced by the West in recent years. She has made tough, controversial decisions, including opening the doors to refugees. Merkel also has emerged as the conscience of the developed world, the guardian of democratic principles. When Donald Trump was elected, she issued a poignant warning, a guide for the rest of the world.
“Germany and America,” she noted, are connected by values of democracy, freedom and respect for the law and the dignity of man, independent of origin, skin color, religion….” She then offered her support to the incoming president, “on the basis of those values.”
Clinton lost the election, but history will remember her as the first woman to lead a major party ticket and come within arm’s reach of the presidency. Not only did she win almost 3 million more votes than Trump, she won more votes than any presidential candidate in the history of the United States other than Barack Obama. Her performance inspired a new generation and paved the way for the inevitable, too-long-delayed rise of a woman to become president of the United States of America.