Equal opportunity and the Top 10 list

June 04, 1999|By Jamie Stiehm

RECENTLY, on this page, columnist Ronald Brownstein gave his Top 10 list of the most effective American political one-liners of the century, mainly from presidents and politicians. All men.

Please allow me to add to the record with my own Top 10 list of great one-liners by women in U.S. history, not just this century.

Note that since holding public office is a recent career step for the fairer sex, this list comprises people from various walks of life. Two were wise political helpmates; two were dauntless suffragettes; another was a world-famous anthropologist. Two were distinguished writers. And only one ever held elected office, as a senator.

Let's start in 1776, when Abigail Adams penned her immortal line, "Remember the ladies," in a letter to her husband John, urging him and his fellow patriots to treat women citizens well in the drafting of the new republic's rights and laws -- because, she added, men would run the place if they could.

Fast forwarding several decades to the pre-Civil War era, Sojourner Truth made a fiery, impromptu speech at an 1851 women's rights convention in Akron, Ohio, including the memorable line: "Ain't I a woman?" It presaged the modern women's and civil rights movements.

"Failure is impossible!" Susan B. Anthony was right, when she assured friends at her 86th birthday party in 1906 that women would win the struggle for voting rights. But she didn't live to see the day American women prevailed as citizens in 1920.

In the 1930s, Eleanor Roosevelt, tirelessly toured the country's deprived and depressed rural and urban areas, as her husband's "eyes and ears." Her gift was to uplift people less fortunate without making them feel patronized. In a book about her life, she wrote, "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent."

In 1935, the adventuresome aviator Amelia Earhart explained in a letter to her husband why she felt compelled to do crazy things such as fly around the world: "Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail, their failure must be but a challenge to others."

Likely the most profound, but not the best-known, observation comes from Margaret Mead, the anthropologist and world traveler: "Never doubt that a small group of dedicated individuals can change the world . . . Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

When the country was going through the dark McCarthy era, two courageous women stood up and spoke out. One declared, "I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashions," in front of the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952. That was playwright Lillian Hellman, who refused to name names for the committee.

Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, a Maine Republican, gave the first sweeping speech against Sen. Joseph McCarthy's Communist-hunting activities. On the Senate floor on June 1, 1950, she said, "I do not want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the four horsemen of calumny: fear, ignorance, bigotry and smear."

In 1986, a woman who was to have been the first teacher in space penned these memorable words: "I touch the future. I teach." Christa McAuliffe, of New Hampshire, perished in the Challenger explosion that year.

Finally, breathe in the beauty of this oft-quoted phrase by Gertrude Stein: "Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose." It sounds as fresh now as it did in 1913.

Jamie Stiehm is a Sun reporter.

Pub Date: 6/04/99

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