Passion, Purpose, and Persistence: Our List of Women Who Shaped 2021

By Michelle Milford Morse on December 21, 2021

Photo: Lindsay LaMont / Unsplash

What did we get from 2021? If that question makes you want to put your head on your desk and sigh, I get it. I understand that urge. But we must cope and carry on as best we can, and especially for gender equality. Our movement for equality everywhere rode the roller coaster of the year, earning a high watermark for pledged investment and action while still lurching about, well, the same frustrating status quo. (A long list of surveys, indexes, and reports verifies the situation. If your head wasn’t already on the desk, it might be after looking at these.)

So then, how about a different kind of list? Everyone else is making their end-of-year lists, so why not our team, too? Here are just a few of the women who shaped our year, shared our hopes, and stood up for all of us. They set bold examples, acted with purpose, and demonstrated exceptional compassion and courage.

And they reminded me of the wise words of bell hooks (may she rest in power): “To truly be free, we must choose beyond simply surviving adversity, we must dare to create lives of sustained optimal wellbeing and joy.”

It is a joy to watch and to write about these women.

PERSISTENT | The Scientists Fighting COVID-19: Katalin Karikó, Kathrin Jansen, Kizzmekia Corbett, and Sarah Gilbert

So much remains uncertain and unsettling as the two-year anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic approaches, especially given an emerging and wildly infectious variant, Omicron. But amid our worries and frustrations, there is also a reason to cheer: Several women you may not yet know were working around the clock to produce safe, effective vaccines, breaking records and stubborn expectations about women in science with their ingenuity and persistence.

Hungarian chemist and RNA researcher Katalin Karikó. Photo: Manu Fernandez /AP

Indeed, the world owes a lot to the persistence of Katalin Karikó and her fixation with the potential of RNA to transform human health. Kariko overcame repeated setbacks and frustrations on a journey that took her from Hungary and a childhood without running water or a refrigerator to Pennsylvania, from barrier after barrier to breakthrough.

"I think I was rejected at least 24 times, but I kept pushing, because every time, I wanted to understand why they rejected it and how could I improve."

Katalin Karikó

Hungarian biochemist

Kariko joined BioNTech in 2013 to head its messenger RNA (mRNA) program. When in January 2020, Chinese researchers published the genetic sequence of the new coronavirus causing COVID-19, Kariko was ready. In partnership with immunologist and physician Drew Weissman, she had already created “the perfect vehicle for targeting any virus or pathogen” — a vaccine decades in the making, ready and waiting for the right virus.

Kathrin Jansen, Pfizer’s head of vaccine research and development. Photo: Twitter / Pfizer.

Kathrin Jansen, Pfizer’s head of vaccine research and development known for developing vaccines for human papillomavirus (HPV) and pneumococcal disease, is described as “fearless” and unwilling to “sacrifice quality for speed.” Working with BioNTech, Jansen and her team wielded the new technology of mRNA to take on COVID-19. Jansen is also an advocate for vaccine uptake and a source of information about COVID-19 science.

Immunologist Kizzmekia Corbett of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH). Photo: Evan Vucci /AP

Immunologist Kizzmekia Corbett of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) collaborated with Moderna to develop its vaccine in record time. Corbett helped design the vaccine, led preclinical studies for the clinical trials, and then offered her voice and her time to communicate with her hundreds of thousands of social followers about the importance of getting vaccinated, helping her audience, and particularly people of color, overcome vaccine hesitancy.

Sarah Gilbert, a vaccinology professor at Oxford University’s Jenner Institute. Photo: Steve Parsons /AP

Sarah Gilbert, a vaccinology professor at Oxford University’s Jenner Institute and one of the scientists behind the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, had already developed a vaccine for another coronavirus disease, MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome), when she turned her attention and her team to COVID-19, using the MERS vaccine as a blueprint.

In a field notorious for its underrepresentation of women, and particularly Black women and women of color, these leaders overcame bias in funding and advancement, along with all the other routine barriers women endure in the workplace. At the same time, their sisters in medicine and public health were dealing with personal protective equipment made to fit men, a system in which women deliver care and men make the decisions and the money, and the absence of women’s perspectives and expertise in media coverage about the pandemic.

Thus, these scientists and their colleagues in medical and global health and social workforce demonstrated persistence. We should learn from it since we benefited mightily from it.

COMPASSIONATE | The Poet Uniting the Country with Her Voice: Amanda Gorman

American poet and activist Amanda Gorman. Photo: Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Carlos M. Vazquez II /Department of Defense.

It was the youngest inaugural poet in U.S. history, Amanda Gorman, who harnessed language and insight to reassure a nation and ask its citizens to cast a collective gaze to a future that is better, and possible. On a crisp and clear morning dedicated to the democratic transfer of power, Gorman, a 22-year-old woman in a bright yellow coat, reminded us that our nation “isn’t broken but simply unfinished” and that “to put our future first, we must first put our differences aside.”

"Where a skinny Black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother can dream of becoming president only to find herself reciting for one."

Amanda Gorman

American poet and activist

Gorman, who struggled with a speech impediment as a child, turned to writing and poetry to find her voice and now uses it advance literacy, equality, and environmental action. She’s also a pathbreaker in the realm of writing and publishing, in which, again, women have often been relegated and refused. Eschewing an estimated $17 million in endorsement deals until she found the right one, Gorman finally chose The Estée Lauder Companies. She became the brand’s first Global Changemaker as part of a three-year partnership that includes a contribution of $3 million by the female-founded company to Writing Change, a new literacy initiative aimed at fostering opportunity and equality.

Gorman has shown her determination to act and speak with compassion. I’ll take her words with me into 2022: “Even as we grieved, we grew; that even as we hurt, we hoped.”

BOLD | The Clarion Call of a Climate Action Champion: Mia Mottley

Mia Amor Mottley, Prime Minister, Minister for National Security and the Civil Service, and Minister for Finance, Economic Affairs and Investment of Barbados. Photo: Cia Pak /UN Photo

The podium in the United Nations General Assembly Hall is often if not typically used to repeat polite ideas and platitudes. But Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley, speaking at the 76th UN General Assembly in September, had other plans. In remarks studded with wit and wisdom, Mottley railed against inequity and inaction in the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, the digital spread of fake news, and the risky and inadequate response to global climate change, a challenge that will disproportionately affect the people of her island nation. Mottley posed a critical question: “How many more, how many more crises and natural disasters before we see that assistance does not reach those who need it most and those who are most vulnerable?”

Named a 2021 Champion of the Earth for Policy Leadership by the UN Environment Programme, Mottley has been a reliable and respected voice against delaying climate action. Under her leadership as Barbados’ first female prime minister since the country’s independence in 1966, the country has promised to become the first island country to phase out fossil fuels by 2030 and to plant 1 million trees to help mitigate climate change effects. The country’s “Roofs to Reefs” national resilience program was launched to place the island on a path of sound sustainable development.

Mottley’s leadership is crucial for the world’s girls and women, who will endure greater risk and deprivation from climate change effects, including loss of water, wood for cooking, and farmable land. According to UN Women, 3.8 million people — most of them women and children — are killed by air pollution each year as a result of unclean energy used in cooking and heating. Another study shows that in the past year alone, at least 4 million girls in lower-income economies were unable to finish their education because of climate-related events.

Canada, Germany, and Nigeria each made commitments at this year’s UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) to focus on the needs, rights, and inclusion of girls and women. That’s great. It’s not enough. We need action as bold as Mia Mottley’s words and example.

PURPOSEFUL | Grit, Grace, and Gumbo Diplomacy: Linda Thomas-Greenfield

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Permanent Representative of the United States to the United Nations. Photo: Eskinder Debebe /UN Photo

She experienced some of the worst aspects of life in America but holds a high standard for what the country can be at its best. A child of segregated Louisiana who routinely observed the acts of hate groups, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield is now in charge of how America acts on a global stage and has made clear her purpose, saying after her nomination, “America is back, multilateralism is back, diplomacy is back.”

"My mother taught me to lead with the power of kindness and compassion to make the world a better place."

Linda Thomas-Greenfield

U.S. Ambassador to the UN

Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield has been tasked with the not insignificant challenge of restoring American leadership at the UN after several difficult years. From restating U.S. support of sexual and reproductive health and rights on the global stage to highlighting its leadership on climate action, the current Administration has a long list of priorities that Thomas-Greenfield has been championing. It’s a role she for which she is optimally prepared. Thomas-Greenfield worked her way up the ranks of the foreign service, serving in Nigeria, Pakistan, and Switzerland and as U.S. Ambassador to Liberia and later as Assistant Secretary for African Affairs under President Barack Obama. Throughout these experiences, she finessed her unique brand of “gumbo diplomacy,” her approach to forging relationships with foreign partners through home cooking.

Thomas-Greenfield’s appointment to the UN also sets a new standard for representation and inclusion. Recent figures show that Black women made up only 9% of State Department staff in 2020, down from 13% in 2002. Thomas-Greenfield has made it a central part of her career to mentor young, rising diplomats of color, saying in a recent interview, “I would hope that young people who see me — who are Black, who are women, who are people of color — will see me as an example for what they could achieve. And I’m hoping that I can use my voice and my presence to give them a reason to be hopeful.” They will also see her as a person who uses her power with great purpose.

COURAGEOUS | Defying All Odds, On and Off the Field: Zakia Khudadadi

Afghan taekwondoka Zakia Khudadadi. Photo: Shuji Kajiyama /AP

Zakia Khudadadi was ready to go to the delayed 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games in August and set to become only the second woman from Afghanistan to compete in the event, and the first taekwondoka of either gender to represent the country, when its government fell dramatically to the Taliban in a matter of days.

A video recording made clear her plight. Khudadadi asked for support for her participation in Tokyo, saying that she and a fellow athlete were stranded in the country along with thousands of other Afghans trying to evacuate. “I am currently imprisoned inside the house,” Khudadadi said, adding, “My intention is to participate in the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, please hold my hand and help me.” Her plea was answered. Thanks to the behind-the-scenes coordination of several organizations and governments, Khudadadi and her colleague were able to fly to Tokyo to compete.

Khudadadi’s story represents how difficult the playing field can be for women — in sports, in economies, in general. While there is no country in the world that fully protects or prioritizes the rights of girls and women, Afghanistan has again become a glaring example of the harm of gender inequality. UN Women has alerted us to restrictions on women’s movement; girls being barred from secondary education in most provinces; and an increased need in services for victims of gender-based violence. Across all sectors, women have reported job losses, with journalists taking a particularly hard hit. According to Reporters Without Borders, fewer than 100 of the capital city’s 700 female journalists are still working; others have been pushed out or attacked or have resigned. In September, Afghan women were banned from playing sports.

"The fact that we ourselves have lifted ourselves from this situation, that we have achieved so much, it cannot be taken lightly."

Zakia Khudadadi

Afghan taekwondoka and Paralympian

Even in countries where women can participate in sports, they never compete on a level field, court, pool, or track. Consider the pay gap between salaries in professional basketball in the U.S., with a high of $117,500 for women versus more than $40 million for men. Also in the U.S., only 4% of total sports media coverage is focused on women, and a measly 0.4% of corporate sponsorships benefit women.

We have a long way to go, and we must make every step count. Those who hold decision-making power in sports over television time, sponsorship deals, salaries, benefits, and policies must show a lot more courage. Zakia Khudadadi just showed them how.

PRESENT AND PREPARED | Leading a New Generation Towards Equality: Selin Özünaldim

Selin Özünaldim, the founder of the Istanbul chapter of Girl Up. Photo: Selin Özünaldim.

In June in Paris, Hillary Clinton, Nadia Murad, Melinda French Gates, and several country, philanthropic, and business leaders were at the Generation Equality Forum with Selin Özünaldim. Oh, you don’t know Özünaldim? You should.

The point is in the name itself: Generation Equality. We cannot achieve it unless young advocates lead it. Among those who attended the Paris gathering in person was Özünaldim, a 19-year-old Turkish student representing the hopes of activists of all ages and ambitions. The key to equality, she says, is, “involving young people and adolescents” and “ensuring adolescent girls are given space to express opinions, make meaningful decisions, and actively contribute and shape the agenda.”

Özünaldim’s path to becoming a feminist started with a comment from her younger brother that she didn’t have to worry about school because “she could simply get married.” The very next day, she reached out to UN Women to join the HeForShe campaign, which she later brought to her high school through conferences and events, and eventually, to schools across Turkey. She also founded the Istanbul chapter of Girl Up and was selected as one of 300 global Gender Youth Activists to participate in UN Women’s Generation Equality Campaign.

"Deep in my heart, I knew I had to do something."

Selin Özünaldim

Turkish feminist activist

For Özünaldim, the Generation Equality Forum in Paris was an eye-opening, once-in-a-lifetime experience — an opportunity for her to meet people she has long admired and discuss period poverty, LGBTQIA+ rights, and sexual and reproductive health. As she looks to 2022 and her future activism, Özünaldim remains focused and adamant that her generation’s participation be authentic, not tokenistic. “As participants and planners, we wanted to reduce tokenism as much as we could and make sure that our voices were being heard on a global scale,” she said.

The meaningful participation and youth in shaping the global agenda is not a favor to them, nor should it be a fad. Our fates and futures are tied, but the stakes are not the same. The leaders we need, leaders like Selin Özünaldim, are present and prepared.