The Presidential Medal of Freedom may not have the name cachet of an Oscar, but it is our nation's highest civilian honor and an award to be celebrated. Established by President John F. Kennedy over 50 years ago, the President of the United States awards the Medal for "meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors." We are going to remember and honor a few of the accomplished women who have received that honor from the President at the White House.
The first Native American to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1963), Annie Dodge Wauneka worked to eradicate tuberculosis on the Navajo Reservation and to significantly reduce infant mortality. Elected to the Navajo Tribal Council in 1953 (the first woman), Wauneka was assigned the responsibility of health care -- as her name started with a "W" and health care was the lowest priority committee. With her knowledge of Navajo and English, she was able to bring modern medical practices to the reservation, particularly cleanliness. Wauneka said "Over the years, I have learned that one failure, or even half a dozen failures should never be the end of trying. I must always try and try again, and I will continue to try as long as there is breath to do so." She has been inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.
Wauneka changed life on the Navajo Reservation and Martha Graham changed the world of dance. Revered as the mother of modern dance, Martha Graham changed dance movements and the set designs. She established her own dance troupe, one of the oldest in America, and trained generations of dancers and choreographers. Graham said "I wanted to begin not with characters or ideas, but with movements... I wanted significant movement. I did not want it to be beautiful or fluid. I wanted it to be fraught with inner meaning, with excitement and surge." She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1976.
From performing arts, we move to visual arts. Well known for her hundreds of flower paintings and landscapes of New Mexico, artist Georgia O'Keeffe was determined to be an artist from an early age. Her marriage to photographer Alfred Stieglitz benefited both of their careers and has been deemed to be one of history's great creative partnerships. O'Keeffe painted her entire life. She said "Art is a wicked thing. It is what we are." She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977. O'Keeffe has been inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.
Georgia O'Keeffe left her mark on the world of painting; Maya Angelou has made her mark in a different area of culture -- writing. A woman with an amazing story and incredibly lyrical voice -- both personally and in her writing -- Angelou has inspired women and African-Americans to overcome discrimination, abuse and social injustice. A former San Francisco streetcar conductor and actor, her 1970 autobiography Why the Caged Bird Sings was nominated for the National Book Award and became a bestseller. Angelou was the first Black woman whose screenplay (Georgia, Georgia) was produced as a film. She has received many awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011. Angelou has been inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.
From arts and culture to labor movements, women have contributed in every area of endeavor. Labor leader and social activist Dolores Huerta helped found the United Farm Workers (UFW) in 1962. She helped to organize a successful boycott of California's table grapes that lasted for five years. As a result of the boycott, the California grape industry signed a three-year collective bargaining agreement with the UFW. Huerta is considered one of the twentieth century's most powerful and respected leaders of labor movements. She led the effort to provide services to the children of immigrant workers. In addition, she led efforts to provide insurance and other services to farmworkers under the Rodino amnesty legalization program. Huerta said "Walk the street with us into history. Get off the sidewalk." Huerta received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012 and has been inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.
All of these Presidential Medal of Freedom recipients changed the world and are profiled in the book Her Story: A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America. We acknowledge the significance of their accomplishments and are proud to stand on their shoulders.