International Women’s Day (March 8) is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. So we think it’s appropriate to present 10 amazing women who left a great mark in New York City. These 10 women from New York City helped shape the actual city itself. The neighborhoods, populations and culture, to be sure. But most importantly, they each effected perceptions of the city, both to its residents and outward to the world.1
Brooke Astor (1902-2007)
Roberta Brooke Astor was an American philanthropist, socialite, and writer who was the chairwoman of the Vincent Astor Foundation, which had been established by her third husband, Vincent Astor, son of John Jacob Astor IV and great-great grandson of America’s first multi-millionaire, John Jacob Astor. Brooke Astor was the author of two novels and two volumes of personal memoirs.
She was the last of the socialites, as they say. The queen of old American money, for 105 years Astor ruled as the last official vestige of one of Manhattan’s wealthiest families, setting a standard for philanthropy and sadly leaving an uncertain legacy amid scandals involving her heirs.2
Margot Gayle (1908-2008)
Margot McCoy Gayle was an American historic preservationist, activist, and author. Gayle, who died last year at age 100, loved her Victorian architecture and in particular cast-iron, the antiquated style of downtown New York warehouses. Seeing destruction imminent, she decided to save what she considered one of the city’s most neglected treasures. Forming her first community group in the 1950s to save castle-like Jefferson Market Courthouse, Gayle galvanized a grassroots architecture movement.
There might be no SoHo without Gayle; as a campaigner, her work in saving and preserving this heretofore disregarded part of downtown led to one of Manhattan’s great neighborhood success stories. The SoHo Cast Iron Historic District exists due to her efforts. And, more importantly, her work became a template for how future neighborhoods could be revitalized.3
Alice Austen (1866-1952)
Elizabeth Alice Austen was a Staten Island photographer. She was one of America’s earliest and most prolific female photographers, and over the course of her life she captured about 8,000 images. Few saw the Gilded Age city quite as Austen did, a Staten Island native who captured the beauties of New York, the horrors of Ellis Island’s quarantine station, and the wonders of the world.
Though she is best known for her documentary work, Austen was an artist with a strong aesthetic sensibility. Furthermore, she was a landscape designer, a master tennis player, and the first woman on Staten Island to own a car. For more than fifty years, Alice Austen was in a loving and devoted relationship with Gertrude Tate; nearly thirty of those years were lived together at the Austen family home. A rebel who broke away from the ties of her Victorian environment, Alice Austen created her own independent life.4
Leona Helmsley (1920-2007)
Leona and her husband Harry reigned over a vast Manhattan empire of highrises and hotels, permanently changing Park and Madison avenues, helping transform New York into a city of condominiums. Her status as the Queen of Mean also formed the modern caricature of overbearing and out of touch wealthy elite. Later convicted of tax evasion, Leona died in 2007 a laughing-stock. But her reach extends through many of the city’s great iconic buildings, including the Empire State Building, which she and her husband once managed.
Billie Holiday (1915-1959)
Eleanora Fagan, better known as Billie Holiday, was an American jazz musician and singer-songwriter with a career spanning nearly thirty years. Nicknamed “Lady Day” by her friend and music partner Lester Young, Holiday had a seminal influence on jazz music and pop singing. Her vocal style, strongly inspired by jazz instrumentalists, pioneered a new way of manipulating phrasing and tempo. She was known for her vocal delivery and improvisational skills, which made up for her limited range and lack of formal music education.
Of all the thousands of entertainers that have left their imprint on the city, Holiday’s is the one that makes the deepest impact. Her entire story — her birth, her rise to fame, her indiscretions and her tragic death — takes place in New York. Her greatest performances electrified and reshaped race assumptions in 1930s and 40s nightlife; legendary nights at places like Cafe Society ensured entertainment would no longer be strictly a black and white affair. Her performance style is emulated nightly in cabarets and clubs throughout the city.6
Jackie Kennedy Onassis (1929-1994)
Jacqueline Lee “Jackie” Kennedy Onassis was the wife of the 35th President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, and First Lady of the United States from 1961 until his assassination in 1963.
One of the youngest of America’s first ladies, Jackie became an icon of the era. Her beauty, fashion, beguiling family, and the cultural and historical sense she brought to the White House — at a time when television began to shape politics — changed how America and the world viewed the role of the first lady. “Everything about her seemed different,” said Kennedy biographer Barbara Perry.7
Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962)
Anna Eleanor Roosevelt was an American politician, diplomat and activist. She was the longest-serving First Lady of the United States, having held the post from March 1933 to April 1945 during her husband President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s four terms in office, and served as United States Delegate to the United Nations General Assembly from 1945 to 1952. President Harry S. Truman later called her the “First Lady of the World” in tribute to her human rights achievements.
A revolutionary first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt was one of the most ambitious and outspoken women to ever live in the White House. Although she was both criticized and praised for her active role in public policy, she is remembered as a humanitarian who dedicated much of her life to fighting for political and social change, and as one of the first public officials to publicize important issues through the mass media.8
Arianna Huffington is a Greek-American author, syndicated columnist, and businesswoman. Huffington was the co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post, which is now owned by AOL. She was a popular conservative commentator in the mid-1990s, after which, in the late-1990s, she offered liberal points of view in public, while remaining involved in business endeavors.
In 2003, she ran as an independent candidate for governor in the California recall election and lost. In 2009, Huffington was #12 in Forbes’s first-ever list of the Most Influential Women In Media. She has also moved up to #42 in The Guardian’s Top 100 in Media List. As of 2014, she is listed by Forbes as the 52nd Most Powerful Woman in the World.9
Hillary Diane Rodham Clinton is an American politician who was the First Lady of the United States from 1993 to 2001, and served as the junior U.S. Senator from New York from 2001 to 2009 and 67th United States Secretary of State from 2009 to 2013. She was the Democratic Party’s nominee for President of the United States in the 2016 election.
As First Lady of the United States, Clinton was an advocate for gender equality and healthcare reform. Her marital relationship came under public scrutiny during the Lewinsky scandal, which led her to issue a statement that reaffirmed her commitment to the marriage. In 2000, Clinton was elected as the first female Senator from New York. She was reelected to the Senate in 2006.10
Dame Anna Wintour DBE is a British-Americanjournalist and editor. She has been editor-in-chief of Vogue since 1988. She is widely regarded as the most influential figure in fashion.
Wintour is arguably the most commercially minded editor ever. She has parlayed US Vogue’s position as a documenter and badge of acceptance to place the magazine within the industry’s commercial heart. During her 25-year tenure at American Vogue, Wintour has spearheaded the editorial practice of featuring celebrities on the cover, taken the title’s fashion pages out of the studio and onto the street. Wintour also launched Fashion’s Night Out.
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