Boomers Saw Women Make History

In honor of Women’s History Month, Mister Boomer takes a look back at some contributions made by women who made a difference during the boomer era:

Lucille Ball (1911-1989) was known far and wide for her role on the I Love Lucy show (1951-57). Yet many boomers do not realize she was the first woman to own a major television production studio: Desilu Productions. She co-founded the company with her then husband, Desi Arnaz, to produce and control creative aspects of their TV show. The couple divorced in 1960 and in 1962, Lucy bought out Arnaz to became sole owner of Desilu. Further, many boomers do not know that Desilu brought us the TV series, The Untouchables (1959-63) and Star Trek (1966-69). In 1968, Lucy sold the company to Gulf + Western, the parent company of Paramount Pictures; she then formed Lucille Ball Productions.

Rosa Parks (1913-2005) refused to give up her seat and move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955. Though not the first person arrested for violating city segregation ordinances, her actions inspired a boycott of Montgomery city buses. She was immediately and forever linked to the struggle for Civil Rights. In 1963, she attended the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (though no women were invited to speak), and was present when President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Trivia tidbit: Rosa Parks was the guest speaker at Mister Boomer’s college graduation.

Aretha Franklin (1942-2018) was certainly known to boomers for her rendition of Respect (1967) and many other hit songs. Yet some boomers may not realize that she was first women to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (1987). Another fact that many boomers may not know is that Aretha sang the national anthem to open the now-infamous Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968. She also performed at Jimmy Carter’s presidential inauguration in 1977.

Barbara Walters (1929-2022) was a fixture on TV during the boomer years, beginning with the Today Show in 1961. In 1972, she was chosen to be part of the press corps that accompanied President Nixon on his historic trip to China. Walters moved from NBC to ABC in 1976 to became the first woman co-anchor in network evening news. It was reported that ABC lured her to take the job with a $1 million salary, unprecedented for a woman in TV news at that time.

Ruth Handler (1918-2002) may not have been known by name by every boomer, but her work certainly was recognized. In 1959, Ruth invented the Barbie doll (Ken was introduced in 1961) and became a co-founder of Mattel with her husband. Boomer boys and girls had many Mattel toys, including See ‘N Say, Chatty Cathy, Hot Wheels, Batmobile and Creepy Crawlers.

Katherine G. Johnson (1918-2020) was hardly known to boomers until the film Hidden Figures (2016) brought her name forward as one of a group of women whose mathematical calculations were crucial to the landing of the first man on the moon in 1969.

Marion Donovan (1917-1998), a housewife turned inventor, came up with the first practical disposable diaper in 1951. It would take another decade before Procter and Gamble would make the product available, as Pampers, to mothers of boomers.

Betty Friedan (1921-2006) published The Feminine Mystique in 1963, which became instrumental in her forming of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966.

Shirley Chisholm (1924-2005) became the first African American woman elected to Congress in 1964, after serving in the State Legislature in her native New York. She was a champion of women’s rights and civil rights. In 1972 she was the first black woman to run for president from a major political party (Margaret Chase Smith became the first woman to run for president in 1964 in the Republican Party). Chisholm wrote that through her time in Congress, she experienced more discrimination as a woman than as an African American.

Stephanie Kwolek (1923-2014) was working as a chemist for DuPont when she patented a synthetic fiber known as Kevlar. The fabric’s strength, light weight and fire resistance properties lends itself to many uses, from the aerospace industry to automotive and consumer product applications. However most boomers know Kevlar as the material from which bullet-proof vests are made.

Katherine Graham (1917-2001) became the president of The Washington Post in 1963, and was the first woman to lead a Fortune 500 U.S. corporation in 1972 when she assumed the role of CEO. She presided over and supported investigations into the Watergate break-in by Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein. The Post’s published articles began the debate over the involvement of President Richard Nixon, which ultimately led to his resignation in 1975.

Of course, there were many others. Certainly Jackie Kennedy had tremendous influence during the boomer years. Gloria Steinem is another influencer of the era. Plus, many stars in the music and film industry held sway with boomers as well.

How about you, boomers? What contributions by women during your formative years do you recall?