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Project Honoring Women Pioneers Aims to Inspire Students - 2003-01-28

Four schools around the United States are taking part in a project that honors women pioneers in the arts, sports, media, and other fields. The program is designed to inspire students to pursue their dreams despite difficult odds.

The "Empowering America" project is built around one-minute audio vignettes that are already airing on U.S. radio stations. The audio series is being introduced in schools, along with study materials, to stimulate classroom discussions.

Mary Hart, a well-known television host, narrates the presentations. Some feature women who are known to the students, including Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, and the first American woman in space, Sally Ride. Another looks at a sports heroine.

Young Mariel learned at an early age that the only way to fit in at a new school was to get involved in sports, so she dove headlong into the soccer field. At age 15, she became the youngest player ever to make the U.S. national team.
Mia Hamm, as she's now known, went on to become a star in U.S. women's soccer.

Other figures profiled in the project are less well known to the students, including Mary Pickford, a star of silent films.

She was born in Toronto, Canada, in 1892. Five years later, her father left the family, and with three kids in tow, her mother moved from boarding house to boarding house. One day, a fellow boarder mentioned that a local theater company was looking for a young girl to perform in a play.

The eight-year-old got the part, and later became a star on the Broadway stage and in Hollywood.

The project on pioneering women was created by an organization called American Women in Radio and Television. Executive director Maria Brennan says the terrorist attacks of September 2001 gave impetus to the project.

"The idea was born before September 11, interestingly enough that summer. And once we faced the tragedy of September 11, we put it all on a fast track to try to get it out there. We felt that the country was at a time where we needed heroes. We were able to get these vignettes produced, put on CDs [compact disks], pressed, distributed," Ms. Brennan said.

As public service announcements, the vignettes are getting extensive play on U.S. radio stations. Together with a study guide, they have now been placed in the second of four schools, John Sutter Middle School in Los Angeles. The first was in Washington D.C. and later sites will be in New York and Chicago.

Ms. Brennan said the stories of pioneering women are reaching students at a critical time, in early adolescence. She notes the project is going to schools with large with minority populations, where some students face added difficulties. "Many of these kids are being raised by single parents. Some of them are women. That's why it's so important, not just for the girls to seek positive inspiration from these women, but also the boys, to see the difference that women have made in this world," she said.

Joan Gerberding heads a media firm in the state of New Jersey, and is president of American Women in Radio and Television. She said the project profiles 40 women, but selecting them wasn't easy with so many to choose from. "I think it was just really a facet of how interesting and successful their lives were," she said. "And I don't mean successful, that they made a lot of money. Some did, but [I mean] more successful as a human being and as contributing member of the human race," she said.

And so, those profiled include the former slave and anti-slavery activist Harriet Tubman, and the "unsinkable" Molly Brown, a wealthy philanthropist who survived the sinking of the Titanic. A center of Denver high society, she had a strong theatrical streak and later became the subject of a Broadway musical.

The program is intended to spark the imagination of youngsters as they plan for their careers. Sutter Middle School student Stanley Amaya is already making plans for life after high school. "I want to be an engineer," he said. Natasha Murkison also has plans for the future. "I want to be a doctor, an OB-GYN that delivers babies," she said.

Others in the crowded auditorium where the project was unveiled say they want to work with computers, discover a cure for AIDS, or be elected U.S. president.

School officials say students need role models to realize that these dreams are in their reach. "This is our last best chance to grasp their enthusiasm and to put them on the right path," said Marian Reiman, assistant principal of Sutter Middle School. "We want them to be happy, we want them to be productive, and we want them to be good citizens, and that's what we work on here."

Project organizers say that women pioneers, from New York's first female fire captain to entertainer Josephine Baker, a black American who became a star in Europe, can serve as an inspiration for boys as well as girls as they think about their future.