Unsung: Women Who Shaped Society

Unsung: Women Who Shaped Society

February 21, 2017
Categories: Seattle Women's Chorus

By Eric Lanes Barnes, Associate Artistic Director


When Artistic Director Paul Caldwell asked me to consider writing a suite of songs about inspiring women for A Woman’s World, my first thought was "There are so many to choose from!" Indeed, my first draft - inspired by ideas from SWC - included Hypatia, Joan of Arc, Hildegard von Bingen, Cecelia Payne, Annie Jump Cannon, Hedy Lamarr, Shirley Chisholm, Chavela Vargas, Bell Hooks, Serena and Venus Williams, Ellen Degeneres and more. Paul pointed out that the concert I’d mapped out would last about 14 hours. “If we tried to include every inspirational woman we know we’d never stop singing.” While I think it is a marvelous goal to never stop singing, we did have to take into consideration the limits of what we could accomplish in half of one concert. So we began to streamline the list, a daunting task.

In the end, we decided on seven women, each of whom contributed something remarkable or significant to our shared history. Those persons who did not make this List of Seven were not assigned to the cutting room floor, but rather to files for consideration for future concerts and songs. Here, then, are the women we are celebrating in Unsung: Women Who Shaped Society.

1) Susan B. Anthony - Any woman who has voted in the United States has Susan B. Anthony to thank. This strong Quaker woman fought tirelessly throughout her life for a woman’s right to vote, often working in tandem with colleagues Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott. “Men, their rights and nothing more; women, their rights and nothing less.”

2) Queen Lili’uokalani - The overthrowing of the Kingdom of Hawaii is a sad chapter that is often overlooked in many history books. Hawaii’s last monarch was also its first queen. Lili’uokalani ruled from January 29, 1891 to January 17, 1893 when she was forced to abdicate her throne. While it broke her heart to sign the abdication papers, Queen Lili’uokalani was willing to do so in order to prevent any bloodshed. Although she continued to beseech the American government for the return of the Hawaiian Crown Lands, her pleas fell on unsympathetic ears. She lived the rest of her life as a private citizen, admired and beloved by her native Hawaiian people. “Never cease to act because you fear you may fail.”

3) Katherine Johnson - A brilliant mathematician, she was one of several African American women who worked in NASA’s ‘human computer’ department. Her genius for visualizing geometric patterns and creating new ways of applying mathematics skyrocketed her to fame within NASA, eventually earning her a place at strategic planning sessions which had up to that point only been attained by white men. Katherine Johnson plotted the courses and re-entry trajectories for the first Americans in space. John Glenn famously refused to fly any mission whose numbers were not checked by Katherine Johnson.

In 2015, President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor. The current film Hidden Figures celebrates Katherine Johnson’s achievements in the space program along with her real-life colleagues Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan.

4) Billie Jean King - In 1973 a much-hyped tennis match ended up forever changing the landscape of women’s tennis - and women’s sports in general. Pitted against self-described ‘male chauvinist pig’ Bobby Riggs, Billie Jean King swept the court with a 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 decisive victory. King has gone on to become one of the most celebrated and honored women in tennis history, winning dozens of matches and garnering a long list of awards.

5) Ruth Bader Ginsburg - An outspoken champion for women’s rights (and human rights in general), Ruth Bader Ginsburg has earned her anecdotal title of ‘The Notorious RBG.’ From donning her ‘collar of dissent’ when offering an opposing viewpoint on a SCOTUS decision to sharing her personal training workouts to her fiery opinions, Ruth Bader Ginsburg is the kind of woman we like to sing about.

6) Margaret Cho - The fact that Margaret Cho is a success is a testament to her own tenacity, determination and commitment to her craft. Presented by Sensible Shoes, this tribute is couched in a theatrical scene as ‘The Million Mothers’ protest Margaret Cho as not being ‘American’ enough. Resistance in the movement grows until the voices of dissent win, asserting that Margaret Cho is not only a comic genius but represents the kind of strong, independent American spirit on which our very nation was founded.

7) The final song in Unsung is dedicated to ‘The Most Inspiring Woman We Know.’ We feel the need to keep the identity of this woman under wraps until the show is presented. There is a very strong chance that you know this woman...but...we don’t want to give anything away quite yet.

These women represent the tiniest drop in an endless sea of those who inspire us, whose words and actions galvanize and energize us to action. With such inspiration to guide us, it is safe to say Seattle Women’s Chorus will never stop singing.

A Woman's World is presented at Cornish Playhouse at Seattle Center, March 17-19.