Women We Laud

By Christina Verigan

Aimee Mullins

Chef de Mission for Team USA at the Paralympic Games

The 2012 Olympics are over, but Olympic Park has welcomed another round of elite athletes for the Paralympic Games (August 29 – September 9). Serving as Chef de Mission for Team USA is Aimee Mullins, a retired Paralympic track star and world record breaker—who also happens to be an actress, model, and spokesperson for L’Oréal Paris.

Mullins was born without fibular bones, which support the legs below the knee. At just a year old, doctors amputated her lower legs so she could use prosthetic legs instead of a wheelchair. This gave her the opportunity to grow up playing sports—she even held the record for stolen bases for her high school’s softball team. In college, Mullins earned a spot on Georgetown University’s Division I track and field team. Not only was she the first amputee to ever compete in the NCAA, but she was also the first person to use woven carbon-fiber prostheses that were designed to mimic the movements of a cheetah’s hind legs. Today this is the standard among athletic prostheses.

When she hit the track in the 1996 Paralympics, she set world records in the 100-meter, 200-meter, and long jump. Mullins’s grace and athletic prowess caught the eyes of magazines and fashion designers alike, and she graced the pages of Life, Vogue, People, and Sports Illustrated, among others. The swift, brainy beauty graduated from Georgetown’s renowned School of Foreign Service in 1998, but she put a political career on hold. Her experience as a world-class athlete inspired her to publicly challenge traditional perceptions about beauty, disabilities, and women in sports. In 1999 she hit the runway as a model for Alexander McQueen and in 2002 she played the part of the cheetah woman in Matthew Barney’s cult art film Cremaster 3.

Image courtesy of USOC/Long Photography, Inc.

Marsha Serlin

Founder and CEO of United Scrap Metal
Squashed soda cans and leftover pieces of industrial sheeting are pressed together so tightly they can be stacked like giant bricks, spanning United Scrap Metal’s 40-acre site in Cicero, Illinois. When Marsha Serlin walks among them, she stands out thanks to her bright pink hard hat. Last year United Scrap took in $200 million in revenue, but 34 years ago, the business was one woman with a rented truck and an unbreakable spirit.

In 1978, after a difficult divorce, Marsha Serlin was struggling to support her two children and forge an independent life. Her primary source of income came from taking care of houseplants in Chicago, but it wasn’t enough to keep her family afloat. In a stroke of kismet, she asked a wealthy client what he did for a living. He was in the scrap metal industry, and Serlin quickly asked him to mentor her. Soon, she was trolling the streets of Chicago 16 hours a day, looking for scraps of metal and building relationships with factories that would eventually become her clients.

As the only woman in the industry, many businesses and competitors doubted she’d have what it takes. Scrap metal recycling is not a glamorous industry, and it takes a great deal of physical strength to load and unload truckfuls of metal all day. But Serlin stuck with it. Her moxie paid off when a blizzard hit Chicago in 1979 and many bigger scrap companies shut down. Serlin hit the streets with her truck, impressing local businesses with her reliability enough to score long-term contracts.

As the CEO of a multimillion-dollar company, Serlin hasn’t forgotten what it’s like to struggle. United Scrap supports about 20 non-profits—including the Ronald McDonald House and the Lincoln Park Zoo. On Saturday, September 8, 2012, United Scrap will host Cans for Cash in Chicago, IL with Rexam (a can manufacturer) to celebrate America Recycles Day. Cans for Cash aims to increase recycling awareness and raise money for charity. Non-profits can gather beverage cans and recycle them for cash, or individuals can bring cans and donate the proceeds to the Ronald McDonald House or another charity of their choice. Despite having once told Forbes, “I never looked at where I started, because it’s always where you’re going to end up that’s important,” it’s clear that Serlin’s difficult past inspired her compassion.

Classic Heroine
Jane Addams (1860–1935)

Social activist
Women have always taken a special interest in helping each other to improve their communities through public health initiatives, supporting local children in need, and providing communities with emotional stability. Jane Addams was proud of what women were accomplishing but felt that women were missing one crucial thing to be able to actually have an impact on the country: the vote.

Addams grew up privileged; her father was a businessman and banker with substantial political clout. He eventually embarked on a career in politics, serving as Illinois State Senator, while family friend Abraham Lincoln climbed the ranks from senator to president. Initially Addams dreamed of becoming a doctor, but health problems prevented her from completing her coursework. Looking for another way to help people, she traveled to London to visit Toynbee Hall, the world’s first settlement house. Toynbee Hall aimed to reduce socio-economic inequality by establishing communal living quarters in poor areas and finding volunteers from the middle and upper classes to live there. Through true friendship, the poor would gain cultural knowledge and social currency and the rich would understand the difficulties of the lower classes.

When Addams returned home to Chicago, she bought an old mansion called Hull House and established a settlement house for women. Hull House also provided a number of educational programs for the local community, including a kindergarten, adult literacy programs, an art gallery, a gym, a music school, and outreach for those in poverty. Addams is often credited with founding the earliest continuing education classes—in the form of night school—for working adults.

These social services were funded entirely by private donations and Addams’s inheritance. Across the country, other settlement houses and universities adopted similar strategies to bridge the income divide. Addams’s success gained her national attention, and from 1911–1914 she was the Vice President of the National Women’s Suffrage Association. While women didn’t get the right to vote until 1919, her political activism shifted the tides of perception, clearing the way for the 20th Amendment. After that, she stayed active in politics, founding the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom—a coalition of pacifist women. She also co-founded the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

In 1931, the international community recognized her accomplishments by awarding her the Nobel Peace Prize, which she shared with Nicholas Murray Butler, an education reformer who was also the president of Columbia University. Four years later, Addams died, but her legacy for social programs and the generosity of the American spirit live on.

Originally published September 2012
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