Legendary Widow Role Model

Helena Znaniecki Lopata

Studying widowhood is not easy. People become widowed in several ways, and there are numerous influences on the consequences of this process.
— Helena Znaniecki Lopata

Sociologist, educator, and author Helena Znaniecki Lopata was most renowned for her research on women homemakers, receiving acclaim for her 1971 book Occupation: Housewife. When she was later challenged to write about aging, her research led to two groundbreaking books, Widowhood in an American City (1973) and Women as Widows: Support Systems (1979).

Born October 1, 1925, in Poznan, Poland, Helena and her American-born mother fled to the United States when Germany invaded. After graduating high school, Helena received a PhD in sociology from the University of Chicago and was a professor at Loyola University in Chicago until her retirement in 1997.

In 1946, after marrying business consultant Richard Lopata, she moved to suburbia to be a housewife and new mother. She said her mother advised her to “study where you are,” so she studied the housewives she met and based Occupation: Housewife on that research.

Role theory dominated Helena’s research, approaching the study of widowhood in terms of role loss – the ending of stable patterns of interactions and shared activity. She linked role loss and identity change, and examined the personal resources used by women in adapting to widowhood. Her final book, Current Widowhood: Myths and Realities, was written two years after her own widowhood. She acknowledged the importance of widowhood research in helping to eliminate the stereotype of the limited, suffering, and dependent widow, noting that the real image of widowhood is much more complicated and varied.

In 1994, Helena’s husband of 50 years passed away. When asked which aspects of her own widowhood had most surprised her, she said, “the extent and breadth of the emotions and sentiments in the process.”

During her career, Helena was elected to the presidencies of several organizations, published 20 books and numerous articles, and received many awards and honors.

Helena died in Wisconsin at age 77 on February 12, 2003. 

Learn more about: Helena Znaniecki Lopata


Tembi Locke

I wanted her to know that love can come in many forms. Sometimes it can look like letting go, but it can also look like never letting go. That one day she might have to love someone in ways the world wasn’t ready for. That reaching for that kind of love would bring with it struggle, but in the end, it could be grander than her wildest imaginings.
— Tembi Locke

Our February 2023 Legendary Widow Role Model, Tembekile “Tembi” Locke, was born in 1970 in Houston, Texas. An actress and writer, her first professional acting experience was in 1990 on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” where she played a love interest for Will Smith’s character.

Tembi is well-known from numerous TV shows, including “Castle,” “NCIS,” “Never Have I Ever,” and “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.” However, the popular Netflix limited series “From Scratch” isn’t a forum for her acting. Instead, it’s her memoir — an adaptation of the story of her love for her late husband Rosario “Saro” Gullo, adapted by producer Reese Witherspoon and writer Marguerite MacIntyre.

In 1990, when Tembi was 20, she moved to Florence, Italy as part of an exchange program from Wesleyan University. There she met Saro, a Sicilian chef, who worked at a restaurant near the National Museum of the Bargello.

Just as in a television drama, they first had to overcome obstacles, such as his traditional Sicilian family’s reluctance to embrace the Black American daughter of civil rights activists. They married in 1995. Tembi became fluent in Italian and acted in Italian television before they moved to the United States together. Their love expanded to include the adoption of a daughter, Zoela, born in 2005.

In 2002, Saro was diagnosed with leiomyosarcoma, a rare form of cancer that starts in the soft muscle tissue. Tembi cared for Saro for 10 years, until he passed away in 2012.

In her memoir, written years later, Tembi tracks three summers spent in Sicily after Saro’s death. There she finds literal and spiritual nourishment with her mother-in-law and the loving community. This healing journey has now grown to include a web series, “The Kitchen Widow,” where she combines her vegetarian lifestyle with conversations about grief.

Tembi is the sister of bestselling author Attica Locke, who co-wrote the Netflix script for “From Scratch.” She’s a TEDx speaker on resilience and is involved in several social activism programs.

Learn more about: Tembi Locke


Te Ata Thompson Fisher

I decided that my love was the folklore of my people. I simply wanted to give the best performance and in the best light that I could.
— Te Ata Thompson Fisher

Our January 2023 Legendary Widow Role Model was a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation and a performer of Native American stories. Her name means “Bearer of the Morning.” In a career spanning more than 60 years, she told Chickasaw legends, myths and chants, and performed rituals in native dress. Te Ata preserved and promoted great affection for old ways, Native Americans, and natural beauty.

Mary Frances Thompson Fisher was born in Emet, Chickasaw Nation on December 3, 1895. She attended Oklahoma College for Women (now the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma) in Chickasaw where Francis Densmore Davis, an active researcher of Native American cultures, recognized her talent for drama. Davis encouraged her to use Native American stories as the basis for her senior performance at college. Soon Mary began using the name Te Ata, reflecting her heritage.

After graduation in 1919, Te Ata developed her own style of storytelling using various Native American sources. She said she wanted to share with others the richness, wisdom, and wonder of her heritage. Her readings, storytelling, and dance were often accompanied by piano music, and she used small drums, rattles, and other traditional instruments.

In 1933 Te Ata performed for the first state dinner given by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1939 she performed again for the Roosevelts at their home in Hyde Park, New York, on the occasion of a state visit by the king and queen of Great Britain.

While working in theater in New York City, Te Ata met Clyde Fisher, a naturalist. The couple was married for 16 years, from 1933 until Fisher’s death in 1949 at age 70. After Clyde’s death, Te Ata continued to travel and perform.

In 1957 Te Ata was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame. She was named Woman of the Year by The Ladies Home Journal in 1976, and named Oklahoma’s Official State Treasure in 1987. In 1990, she was inducted into the Chickasaw Hall of Fame.

Te Ata died at age 99 in Oklahoma City on October 26, 1995. Her influence on the appreciation of native traditions, mentoring, and the art of storytelling is her enduring legacy.

Learn more about: Te Ata Thompson Fisher


Mary Magdalene

I was one way, and now, I’m completely different. And the thing that happened in between...was Him. - Mary Magdalene’s character in ‘The Chosen’
— Mary Magdalene

Our December 2022 Legendary Widow Role Model is Mary Magdalene, a woman of great virtue who dedicated her life’s treasures towards a mission and purpose.

According to the Bible, Mary of Magdala (her hometown, a prosperous fishing village on the shore of the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel) was one of the earliest followers of Jesus of Nazareth. She traveled with him, witnessed his crucifixion, and was one of the first people to learn of his resurrection.

Research at an archeological site in Magdala suggests that Mary Magdalene may have been a wealthy widow whose money funded a synagogue for followers of Jesus Christ.

There is no reference to Mary Magdalene being a sinner in any of the New Testament gospels in the Bible. The Gospel of Luke, however, refers to 7 demons being cast out of her body (Luke 8:2), which has been interpreted as the darkness of grief and the mental and physical anguish she was experiencing.

In the Gospels, Luke writes of her as one of the first women who took care of Jesus with her own resources. This reinforces the possibility that she was wealthy and free to do as she wished, choosing to support the Christian movement with her power and influence.

In 2017, Pope Francis declared Mary Magdalene as an “apostle of the new and greatest hope.” In some Christian traditions, Mary Magdalene is known as the “apostle to the apostles.”

Mary Magdalene is considered to be a saint by the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and Lutheran denominations.

In 2016, Pope Francis signed a decree marking July 22 as Mary Magdalene’s feast day alongside the other apostles.

Learn more about: Mary Magdalene
Photo: Engraving and etching by Domenico Cunego, circa 1745 –1803. Guido Reni, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.


Marie Jordan Speer

We just took up one thing at a time. But it took a long time, and a lot of people don’t realize how long it takes. Nobody ever taught us anything about how to lobby in Congress, but we certainly learned fast.
— Marie Jordan Speer

Our November 2022 Legendary Widow Role Model is Marie Jordan Speer, Founder of Gold Star Wives of America.

Speer was born May 9, 1921, in Tappan, New York. In 1942 she married Edward Jordan, who was drafted into the military in January 1944. He died in combat in Germany that same year.

In 1945, Speer reached out to several widows of other fallen soldiers and invited them to lunch in her New York apartment. They formed a volunteer group they called Gold Star Wives.

After the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt on April 12, 1945, Speer reached out to first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who joined the organization and signed on to help the cause.

The early organizers saw Gold Star Wives as an organization to collectively work to improve benefits for military surviving spouses and children of those lost in World War II. Gold Star Wives lobbied for monthly compensation checks and educational benefits. They pushed to ensure Social Security credit for servicemen, home loan benefits to war widows, and expanded medical care for Army personnel.

Today, Gold Star Wives of America is a national nonprofit organization that lobbies Congress to secure benefits for spouses and children of fallen soldiers. Through their 35 chapters, they provide assistance, support, and friendship to those who have lost their spouse to a military-related cause of death.

Speer ultimately married twice more, eventually settling in Corpus Christi, Texas where she and her son founded Sun Publishing. Speer produced three local newspapers until 2002, and ran for Corpus Christi City Council in the early 1990s.

Speer remained active in the Gold Star Wives until her early 90s. She passed away peacefully on October 19, 2019 at age 98.

In March 2020, Speer’s life and legacy were recognized on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. In April 2021, the U.S. Senate approved a resolution designating April 5 as Gold Star Spouses Day to honor the sacrifices made by the families of fallen members of the U.S. Armed Forces.

Learn more about: Marie Jordan Speer


Zöe Keating

Music, for me, has always been a way to communicate. It’s more direct than words. When I play music, and when somebody tells me that they experienced something, even if it’s different than what I intended, I feel so understood. And I feel connected.
— Zöe Keating

Zöe Keating is a cellist and composer, born in Canada in 1972 to British and American parents. Keating began playing the cello at the age of 8 and attended Sarah Lawrence College in New York, studying electronic music and contemporary composition.

Keating is a prolific composer and her songs have been featured in movies, TV shows, commercials, documentaries, video games, and dance performances.

In May 2014, Keating’s husband Jeff Rusch was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer and admitted to the hospital for emergency chemotherapy after he was found to have more than 20 tumors in his brain. He also had a softball-sized tumor in one lung, plus tumors in his other lung, liver, and bones.

Soon after Rusch was hospitalized, the family received a letter from their insurance company, Anthem Blue Cross, stating that insurance coverage was denied because the hospital stay was not medically necessary.

After local media publicized the story, Anthem Blue Cross reversed its decision, telling Keating in a phone call that the hospital stay would be covered.

Jeff Rusch died at age 52, 9 months after his diagnosis, on February 19, 2015, leaving Keating a solo parent to their 4-year-old son, Alex.

Watch Keating’s 2018 TEDMED Talk “Making sense of life, loss, and love through music” here, where she shares about her journey in widowhood and how music helped her grieve, communicate her feelings, and begin her healing process.

After Rusch’s death, Keating continued to advocate for patients, data portability, and the simplification of medical insurance. In October 2016 she was invited by President Barack Obama to participate in a panel discussion about brain science and medical information at the White House Frontiers Conference. The conference, co-hosted by the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, explored the future of innovation with a focus on building the United States’ capacity in science and technology.

In January 2011, Keating won the award for Contemporary Classical Album from the Independent Music Awards. Later that year she was named a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum. She performed at the closing ceremony of the forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland in January 2014 and 2016.

In July 2021, her score for the HBO movie “Oslo” (co-written with composer Jeff Russo) was nominated for two Primetime Emmy Awards.

A self-described “avant cellist,” Keating performs like a one-woman orchestra. Listen to her music this month at zoekeating.com. Her intricate, compelling music will inspire and calm you.

Learn more about: Zöe Keating
Photo credit: PopTech from Camden, Maine and Brooklyn, NY, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons


Betty Ford

I have an independent streak. You know, it’s kind of hard to tell an independent woman what to do.
— Betty Ford

Elizabeth (Betty) Anne Warren Ford, born April 8, 1918, was the first lady of the United States from 1974 to 1977, as the wife of President Gerald Ford. She also served as the second lady of the United States from 1973 to 1974 when her husband was vice president.

Betty, who grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, began taking dance classes at age 8, and dance developed into a passion for her. At age 14 she began teaching popular dances to children, and worked with children with disabilities at the Mary Free Bed Home for Crippled Children. She started her own dance school while still in high school, instructing both children and adults.

When Betty was 16, her mother became a widow when her father died from carbon monoxide poisoning while working in the family’s garage. With his passing, her family lost its primary breadwinner, and her mother began working as a real estate agent to support the family.

In August 1947 Betty was introduced to Gerald Ford, a lawyer and World War II veteran who had recently resumed his legal practice after returning from service in the Navy, and who was planning to run for the United States House of Representatives. They were married on October 15, 1948, remaining married for 58 years until Gerald’s death. They had four children together, three sons and one daughter.

Gerald Ford’s political career having progressed, he was nominated on October 12, 1973 by President Richard Nixon to serve as vice president of the United States. On August 9, 1974, after the resignation of Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford ascended to the position of president of the United States.

As first lady, Betty Ford was active in social policy and set a precedent as a politically-active presidential spouse, ultimately becoming a popular and impactful first lady. She was regarded as the most politically outspoken first lady since Eleanor Roosevelt.

In 1975, People magazine named Betty Ford one of its three most intriguing people in America. In 1977, the World Almanac ranked her as one of the 25 most-influential American women.

Ford was an outspoken advocate for women’s rights during her time as first lady. She was a prominent force in the Women’s Movement of the 1970s and a vocal supporter of the proposed Equal Rights Amendment. In 1975, Ford successfully lobbied her husband to sign an executive order to establish the National Commission on the Observance of International Women’s Year.

Ford supported numerous charities as first lady, assisting in fundraising for the little-known Hospital for Sick Children in Washington, D.C., whose patients were predominantly African American, as well as No Greater Love, an organization benefiting the children of Vietnam war MIAs and POWs. She served as honorary president of the National Lupus Foundation, seeing lupus as a disease which greatly impacted women yet received minimal public attention.

After leaving the White House in 1977, Ford continued to lead an active public life. She remained involved in women’s issues, accepting numerous speaking engagements and lending her name to charities for fundraising. Ford continued to lobby for the ERA and remained active in the feminist movement.

Ford raised awareness about addiction when she sought help for, and publicly disclosed, her long-running struggle with alcoholism and substance abuse, ultimately founding, and serving as the first chair of the board of directors for, the Betty Ford Center for substance abuse and addiction. She tackled the stigmatized issue of HIV/AIDS during the HIV/AIDS crisis, receiving the Los Angeles AIDS Project’s “Commitment to Life Award” in 1985.

Ford was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 1998 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1991. In 2013, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

Betty Ford became widowed on December 26, 2006 when her husband Gerald died at age 93 of heart failure. She died of natural causes on July 8, 2011, three months after her 93rd birthday.

Learn more about: Betty Ford


Annie Edson Taylor

If it was with my dying breath, I would caution anyone against attempting the feat ... I would sooner walk up to the mouth of a cannon, knowing it was going to blow me to pieces than make another trip over the Fall
— Annie Edson Taylor

Annie Edson Taylor was an American schoolteacher who, on October 24, 1901 — her 63rd birthday! — became the first person to survive a trip over Niagara Falls in a barrel.

She was born on October 24, 1838 in Auburn, New York, one of 11 siblings. Her father ran a prosperous milling operation. He died when she was 12 years old, leaving her mother widowed. Fortunately, her father left enough money to provide a comfortable living for the family.

At age 17, Annie met David Taylor and they married after a short courtship. They had a son who died in infancy. Annie became a widow at age 25 after David was wounded in the Civil War. After being widowed, she spent her working years in between jobs and locales. By 1900, she had fallen upon hard times.

When she read about the 1901 Pan-American Exposition, a World’s Fair to be held in Buffalo, New York, and hoping to secure her later years financially, she decided to do something that had never been done before: ride over Niagara Falls in a barrel.

Taylor designed a custom-made barrel for herself, first making a prototype out of cardboard and string. The final barrel was constructed of oak and iron with a leather harness and cushions inside. It was 4-1/2 feet high and about 3 feet in diameter, with tapered ends. It was secured by 10 metal hoops and weighted with an anvil to keep it upright during its plunge over the falls.

On October 24, 1901, her 63rd birthday, Taylor was sealed inside the barrel along with her lucky heart-shaped pillow. After screwing down the lid, a bicycle tire pump was used to pump air into the barrel, and the hole was plugged with a cork.

Taylor was towed from the Canadian side of the Niagara River toward Horseshoe Falls, the biggest of the three falls at the site, and set adrift. The barrel went over the edge of the falls at 4:23 pm. Taylor fell nearly 160 feet, hitting the surface of the water below seconds later. A team of boatmen quickly reached her barrel after the plunge, and she was pulled from the water.

Taylor became the first, and oldest, person to accomplish such a trailblazing feat — and she is the only woman to have done it alone. Taylor died on April 29, 1921 at age 82. She was interred in the “Stunter’s Rest” section of Oakwood Cemetery in Niagara Falls, New York next to English-born daredevil Carlisle D. Graham.

Learn more about: Annie Edson Taylor


Dominique de Menil

I am one of many who believe that we cannot live in isolation because isolation leads to sterility and eventually destructive confrontation. I am one of many who believe that not only can we maintain our identity but we can enrich it by contact and exchanges with others.
— Dominique de Menil

A French-American art collector, philanthropist, founder of the Menil Collection, and an heiress to the Schlumberger Limited oil-equipment fortune, Dominique de Menil was born in 1908 in Paris, France. She studied physics and mathematics at the Sorbonne and developed an interest in filmmaking.

In 1930 she met banker John de Menil and they married the following year. They had five children together. Following the outbreak of World War II and the Nazi occupation of France, the de Menils emigrated from Paris to the United States, eventually settling in Houston, Texas.

The de Menils began actively collecting art in the 1940s, developing a particular humanist ethos in which they experienced art as a central part of the human experience. Their collection was motivated by their shared interest in the many ways individuals from different cultures and eras reveal, through art, their understanding of what it means to be human.

The de Menils quickly became key figures in Houston’s developing cultural life as advocates and patrons of modern art and architecture. They also became vocal champions and promoters of human and civil rights worldwide. They hosted many of the leading intellectuals, U.S. Civil Rights activists, artists, and scientists of the day at their Houston home.

Plans to create a museum to house and exhibit their art collection began as early as 1972 when they discussed designing a museum campus on Menil Foundation property in Houston.

In 1973, John de Menil died following a long illness. Seven years later, Dominique began looking for an architect to design the museum, eventually commissioning Renzo Piano, a renowned Italian architect. The Menil Collection Museum was dedicated on June 7, 1987 and remains open today, with no admission fee, to the public.

In 1986, Dominique deepened her involvement in social causes, establishing the Carter-Menil Human Rights Foundation with former president Jimmy Carter to “promote the protection of human rights throughout the world.” The Foundation’s Carter–Menil Human Rights Prize, sponsored by the Rothko Chapel, is awarded to organizations or individuals for their commitment to human rights. Dominique also established the Óscar Romero Award, named after the slain El Salvadoran bishop. She was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 1986.

Dominique de Menil died in Houston on December 31, 1997.

Learn more about: Dominique de Menil


Lady Bird Johnson

Where flowers bloom, so does hope.
— Lady Bird Johnson

Claudia Alta “Lady Bird” Johnson, born December 22, 1912, was an American businesswoman, investor, and First Lady of the United States from 1963 to 1969, having also served as Second Lady from 1961 to 1963.

Lady Bird met Lyndon B. Johnson in Austin, Texas when he was a 26-year-old Congressional aide with political aspirations. They married in 1934. When Lyndon decided to run for Congress from Austin’s 10th district, she bankrolled his congressional campaign. They settled in Washington, D.C., after Lyndon was elected to Congress. Lady Bird ran Lyndon’s congressional office after he enlisted in the Navy during World War II.

During World War II, Lady Bird purchased KTBC, an Austin radio station, and went on to purchase several additional radio stations and a TV station. She served as president of the LBJ Holding Company and remained involved with the organization until she was in her 80s. She was the first president’s wife to have become a millionaire in her own right before her husband was elected to office.

Lyndon B. Johnson was elected Vice President of the United States in 1960 as running mate to John F. Kennedy. On November 22, 1963, the Johnsons were accompanying the Kennedys in Dallas when President Kennedy was assassinated. Lyndon was sworn in as president on Air Force One two hours after Kennedy died.

As First Lady, Lady Bird broke new ground by interacting directly with Congress and employing her own press secretary and chief of staff. Her tenure marked the beginning of the White House hiring East Wing employees to work specifically on the First Lady’s projects. She launched a capital beautification project and was an advocate for beautifying the nation’s cities and highways; the Highway Beautification Act was informally known as “Lady Bird’s Bill.” 

Former President Johnson died of a heart attack in 1973, four years after leaving office. After his death, Lady Bird took time to travel and spend more time with her two daughters. She remained in the public eye, honoring her husband and other presidents.

From 1971 to 1978, Lady Bird served on the board of regents for the University of Texas System. In 1982, she and actress Helen Hayes founded the National Wildflower Research Center west of Austin, Texas. She served on the National Park Service Advisory Board and was the first woman to serve on National Geographic Society’s Board of Trustees. She held honorary degrees from numerous universities. Lady Bird received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 1988, the highest honors bestowed upon a United States civilian. In 2013, Lady Bird was posthumously awarded the prestigious Rachel Carson Award.

Lady Bird Johnson died at home from natural causes on July 11, 2007 at the age of 94.

Learn more about: Lady Bird Johnson


MWC Legacy Award is given to one extraordinary person annually who goes above and beyond in serving to empower widows and their families around the world. They are of the highest excellence who possess the highest levels of virtue, nobility, humbleness, compassion, fortitude and the epitome of heroic leadership.
2022 Recipient

Heather Ibrahim-Leathers

Founder, Global Fund for Widows
2021 Recipient

Lord Raj Loomba

Founder, Loomba Foundation
2020 Recipient

Margaret Owen

President & Founder, Widows for Peace through Democracy
2019 Recipient

Roseline Orwa

Founder, Rona Foundation