Share this article

print logo

Balancing Act: Women I loved getting to know in 2015

I interviewed a ridiculous number of inspiring women in 2015. Women who gave me perspective. Women who gave me hope. Women who are changing the world for the better, for all of us. Here are some, in no particular order, who stood out.

Gloria Steinem, whose new book, “My Life on the Road,” explores her life as an activist, an educator and a wanderer. We talked about her book and other events during the same week Playboy magazine announced it would no longer publish nude photos. Her take: “For Playboy to stop publishing nude photos of women is like the NRA saying it’s no longer pushing handguns because machine guns and assault weapons are so easily available,” she said. “Playboy would have to change its title, heart and brain cells in order to express the full humanity of men or women.”

K. Sujata, president of the Chicago Foundation for Women, whose 100 Percent Project aims to end gender bias by 2030. Make no small plans, right? “There’s a sense that gender violence and gender bias are happening elsewhere, because looking in a mirror can be hard,” she told me. “Men in India might burn their wives with kerosene, but here we have easy access to guns, so one shot is deadly. We say, ‘Why should we think about child marriage here?’ But teen girls are getting pregnant, and that interrupts their education and takes a toll on their health too.”

Sarah Zematis, who has become a tireless advocate for pediatric cancer research since her 3-year-old daughter, Sophia, was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor in January. “I want to do something that helps not only Sophia, but all these kids whose families we see, families who travel from all over to be at Lurie (Children’s Hospital),” Zematis told me. “What kids with cancer really need is answers and help and good drugs that will target their cancer.”

Dr. Mae Jemison

Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman to travel in space, is now setting her sights on helping kids fall (and stay) in love with science. “The whole idea is to keep kids engaged and not let them think science is something other folks do,” Jemison told me. “Science is around us everywhere.”

Judy Blume, who graced the stage at the Chicago Humanities Festival to discuss her new book, “In the Unlikely Event.” She talked about her desire to speak truthfully to children – in her writing and in life. “Adults kept secrets from kids,” she said of her childhood. “No adults – parents or teachers at school – ever talked to us about what was going on in our community.” She’s made a career of righting that wrong.

Bridget Gainer, a Cook County commissioner, teamed up with U.S. Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York to launch Off the Sidelines Chicago, a nonprofit aimed at connecting women and their allies with opportunities to agitate for change. “There are clearly women who want to be engaged and want to get involved,” Gainer told me. “And there are clearly organizations that need people to be involved, and issues around which they need to put their action and energy, but that ability to connect the two – it’s like it’s broken.” She’s mending it.

Ylonda Gault Caviness, whose long-overdue parenting manual, “Child, Please,” told us all to just cool it. “Once I stopped trying to control and master everything, I was delighted with who my kids became,” she told me. “They’re really funny and really sensitive and really cool. By trying to make sure they were confident and make sure they’re this and make sure they’re that, I wasn’t letting them become themselves.”

Sarah Attar, who competed as part of Saudi Arabia’s first delegation of female Olympians in 2012, traveled here in October for the Bank of America Chicago Marathon. She told me about visiting an all-girls school in Saudi Arabia, where she asked the auditorium of 700 girls whether any of them would like to run in the Olympics. “All of the girls’ hands shot up,” she said. “To see that and know that just by participating I had inspired them, and now a generation of girls grows up with that example and that possibility – that was so powerful to me.”

Happy holidays to you all.

Contact Heidi Stevens at, or on Twitter: @heidistevens13.