Home Economy In a Year of Notable Deaths, a World of Women Who Shattered Ceilings

In a Year of Notable Deaths, a World of Women Who Shattered Ceilings

by William McDonald

Almost all were born between the world wars, one even before women had the right to vote. They came from white-collar homes and blue-, from black households and white. But when they died this year, they had something in common besides the final leveling that death brings.

They had all found a place in a world that rarely, if ever, had been open to women.

Whether one or the other was the absolute first to break a glass ceiling could be open to debate. But let’s say, at the least, that each planted a foot inside a door that had long been closed to women and then shouldered her way in — to a roomful of men.

Ruth Abrams was one. In 1977 she became the first woman to take a seat on the highest court in Massachusetts, the Supreme Judicial Court. It had taken 285 years (that is not a typo) — since the court’s founding in 1692. (Another notable juridical event that year was the start of the Salem witch trials.)

Ellen Bree Burns overcame similar obstacles in Connecticut, also in the 1970s — a signal decade in which feminism’s second wave was just beginning to build strength. She became the first woman to rise to the bench of her state’s major trial court and the first woman to be named to a federal court there.

They are on a long roster of sports stars who died this year. The N.B.A. mourned the loss of John Havlicek, a basketball dynamo who tasted championship glory in two distinct eras with the Boston Celtics. The N.F.L bade farewell to Bart Starr, the Green Bay Packers’ champion quarterback, whose sterling execution on the field was a visible manifestation of Coach Vince Lombardi’s genius.

Athletes give us drama about human struggle, determination and excellence, but they also entertain us, and in that they share something with all those who mount stages and appear in front of cameras. Broadway typically (and wonderfully) dims its lights when one of its own has gone. But when it did so for Carol Channing last January, the gesture was never more apt. It may be falling back on press-agentry boilerplate to say that the star of “Hello, Dolly!” and “Gentleman Prefer Blondes” lit up stages with her irrepressibly high-spirited performances over an impossibly long career. But, really, more than almost anyone, didn’t she?

Equally incandescent was the ballerina Alicia Alonso, who overcame near-blindness to become a globe-trotting star and ambassador of Cuban ballet; Norma Miller, the “Queen of Swing,” who cut rugs, stages and even Harlem sidewalks with her spectacularly acrobatic Lindy Hopping; and Jessye Norman, the magnificent American soprano who seemingly collected as many laurels — Grammy Awards, Kennedy Center honors — as curtain call bouquets.

Like Ms. Channing, Doris Day, too, bridged singing and acting. But she did it in Hollywood, becoming its biggest box-office star in diverting romantic comedies opposite leading men like Rock Hudson and Cary Grant, all while earning a reputation, deserved or not, for sugary wholesomeness to rival that of apple pie.

His death was followed 10 days later by that of his colleague John Conyers, the longest-serving African-American in congressional history (52 years).

The Senate, too, lost pillars. Birch Bayh, the liberal Democrat from Indiana, had as impactful a career as any in that chamber, attaching his name to landmark legislation identifiable by numbers: enforcing fairness through Title IX, lowering the voting age to 18, and providing for the removal of a president through a constitutional mechanism other than impeachment, the 25th Amendment.

Within about six weeks of his death, in March, two former colleagues, Senate lions both, were gone: Ernest Hollings (Fritz to almost everyone), a South Carolinian and Democratic civil rights champion who had his eye on the White House at one point; and the courtly Republican Richard Lugar, another Hoosier, who had as much clout in foreign affairs as any modern-era senator ever had.

In July, the 99-year-old body of Justice John Paul Stevens lay in state across the street from the Capitol in the Great Hall of the Supreme Court of the United States, where he arrived in 1975 as a former Republican antitrust lawyer and left 35 years later a changed man — a stalwart of the court’s liberal wing.

And in early December it was Paul Volcker who was remembered — for shaping his country’s economic policy and taming inflation from the corridors of another marble-clad Washington institution, the Federal Reserve, where he was chairman under Presidents Carter and Reagan.

If Mr. Volcker was at heart a public-spirited man of business, a well-paid product of Wall Street who took a cut in salary to work for his country, Ross Perot was a politically minded one who would have gladly given up his executive suite in Texas for the Oval Office. A billionaire force in the computer services industry, he became an unlikely and surprisingly strong independent populist candidate for president in the ’90s, a folk hero to some and a folksy odd duck to others.

For all the publicity Mr. Perot received, however, his influence on American politics paled before that of the industrialist David H. Koch, who went about his work far less noisily. He and his brother Charles tapped their vast energy and chemicals fortune to finance a right-wing libertarian movement that by all indications will far outlive both.

The most powerful of business leaders inevitably acquire a public face, and none did so more successfully than Lee Iacocca. More than running two of the nation’s biggest automakers, he “came to personify Detroit as the dream factory of America’s postwar love affair with the automobile,” as his obituary said. A son of a hot-dog vendor, he was a gregarious self-made man who became a household name as an industry titan, television pitchman and best-selling author.

Felix Rohatyn, too, became a public man after scaling the heights of Wall Street, summoned to rescue New York City in the gritty, scuffling ’70s as it teetered on the edge of a fiscal abyss. And while we’re thinking about New York (command central for eruptions of “Auld Lang Syne”), let’s not forget Robert Morgenthau, a patrician son of the city who chased every known sort of criminal as Manhattan D.A. for so long that one might be forgiven for mistaking his age at his death, 99, for the number of years he served.

Other giants fell. The world of letters lost Toni Morrison, still another groundbreaker as the first African-American woman to win a Nobel Prize in Literature, honored for her powerfully moving novels that sang of an often brutal, racially torn America in the resilient cadences of the black oral tradition.

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