Legendary Widow Role Model
LEGENDARY WIDOW ROLE MODEL

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

LEGENDARY WIDOW ROLE MODEL

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

LEGENDARY WIDOW ROLE MODEL

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

LEGENDARY WIDOW ROLE MODEL

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

LEGENDARY WIDOW ROLE MODEL

Mary Oliver

Instructions for living a life. Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.
— Mary Oliver

Mary Jane Oliver was an American poet born September 10, 1935 in Maple Heights, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland. As a child, she spent a great deal of time outside and in the woods where she enjoyed taking solitary walks.

Oliver began writing poetry and prose at the age of 14. Her poems are filled with imagery from her daily walks in Ohio and, later, her adopted home of New England, where she moved in the 1960s.

Influenced by Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver’s poetry is known for its straightforward language and moving celebrations of the natural world. Oliver, who valued her privacy, gave very few interviews, saying she preferred for her writing to speak for itself.

On a visit in the late 1950s to the town of Austerlitz in the Czech Republic, Oliver met photographer Molly Malone Cook, who would become her partner for more than 40 years. They made their home primarily in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where they lived until Cook’s death in 2005.

A prolific writer of both poetry and prose, Oliver routinely published a new book every one to two years, beginning in 1963 up to the time of her death. Some of her best-known poems include Wild Geese, The Swan, Don’t Hesitate, The Summer Day, and When Death Comes.

Mary Jane Oliver was an American poet born September 10, 1935 in Maple Heights, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland. As a child, she spent a great deal of time outside and in the woods where she enjoyed taking solitary walks.

Oliver began writing poetry and prose at the age of 14. Her poems are filled with imagery from her daily walks in Ohio and, later, her adopted home of New England, where she moved in the 1960s.

Influenced by Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver’s poetry is known for its straightforward language and moving celebrations of the natural world. Oliver, who valued her privacy, gave very few interviews, saying she preferred for her writing to speak for itself.

On a visit in the late 1950s to the town of Austerlitz in the Czech Republic, Oliver met photographer Molly Malone Cook, who would become her partner for more than 40 years. They made their home primarily in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where they lived until Cook’s death in 2005.

A prolific writer of both poetry and prose, Oliver routinely published a new book every one to two years, beginning in 1963 up to the time of her death. Some of her best-known poems include Wild Geese, The Swan, Don’t Hesitate, The Summer Day, and When Death Comes.

Oliver is the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including the 1984 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, the 1992 National Book Award for Poetry, and a 2003 honorary membership into Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard University. She held the Catharine Osgood Foster Chair for Distinguished Teaching at Bennington College and was granted numerous Honorary Doctorates, including from Dartmouth College (2007), Tufts University (2008), and Marquette University (2012). Oliver received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, and won the American Academy of Arts & Letters Award and the Poetry Society of America’s Shelley Memorial Prize. Oliver was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2012. After receiving treatment, she was given a clean bill of health. She died at the age of 83 on January 17, 2019 of lymphoma.

Learn more about: Mary Oliver

LEGENDARY WIDOW ROLE MODEL

Jane Goodall

You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.
— Jane Goodall

Jane Goodall, born in 1934 in Hampstead, London, is a primatologist and anthropologist who is considered the world’s foremost authority on chimpanzees. Goodall is best known for her 60+-year study of social and family interactions of wild chimpanzees, undertaken upon her arrival in 1960, at the age of 26, at Tanzania’s Gombe Stream National Park. There, Goodall witnessed chimpanzees exhibiting unique and individual personalities, along with human-like behaviors such as hugs, kisses, pats on the back, tickling, and even armed conflict — actions considered “human.” Her work challenged existing beliefs and concepts about chimpanzee behavior and diet, ultimately leading to the world’s largest scientific knowledge base about chimpanzees, now serving primatologists around the globe.

Goodall credits her mother with encouraging her to pursue a career in primatology, at that time a male-dominated field. Today, the field is made up almost evenly of women and men, in part due to Goodall’s trailblazing and her encouragement of young women to join the field.

In 1975 Goodall married Derek Bryceson, a member of Tanzania’s parliament and director of the country’s national parks. Bryceson died of cancer in October 1980, leaving Goodall widowed at the age of 46.

Goodall founded the Jane Goodall Institute in 1977 to support the research at Gombe. She has worked extensively on conservation and animal welfare issues and is a global leader in the effort to protect chimpanzees and their habitats. Roots & Shoots, a global conservation and education program for youths, was founded in 1991 when a group of 16 local teenagers met with Goodall on her porch in Tanzania. The program now has more than 10,000 groups in more than 100 countries.

Goodall has served on the board of the Nonhuman Rights Project since its founding in 1996. In April 2002, Goodall was named a UN Messenger of Peace, and she’s an honorary member of the World Future Council. She serves on the advisory council for Save the Chimps in Fort Pierce, Florida, the world’s largest chimpanzee sanctuary outside of Africa.

In 2020, continuing her organization’s work on the environment, Goodall vowed to plant 5 million trees as part of the World Economic Forum’s 1 trillion tree initiative. In February 2021, Jane Goodall and more than 140 scientists called for the EU Commission to abolish caging of farm animals.

In March 2022, in celebration of Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day, The Lego Group issued a new set, “A Jane Goodall Tribute,” depicting a Jane Goodall minifigure and three chimpanzees in an African forest scene.

Goodall turned 88 years young on April 3, 2022 and continues her passionate advocacy on behalf of chimpanzees and the environment.

Learn more about: Jane Goodall

LEGENDARY WIDOW ROLE MODEL

Queen Elizabeth II

Photo of Queen Elizabeth II
When life seems hard, the courageous do not lie down and accept defeat; instead, they are all the more determined to struggle for a better future.
— Queen Elizabeth II

Elizabeth II (born Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor on April 21, 1926) is Queen of the United Kingdom and 14 other Commonwealth realms. She was born in Mayfair, London, as the first child of the Duke and Duchess of York (later King George VI and Queen Elizabeth).

Queen Elizabeth II suffered the loss of her husband, Philip Mountbatten, Duke of Edinburgh, on April 9, 2021 when he died at the age of 99. Elizabeth is now one of the most well-known widows in the world. She and the Duke were married for more than 73 years, a period in which she came to describe him as her “constant strength and guide.”

Elizabeth was brought up in the public eye, raised from a young age to represent the people of Britain. She and her younger sister Margaret were home schooled under the supervision of their mother and governess, concentrating on history, language, literature, and music. Elizabeth took it upon herself to learn about matters of state that would one day be part of her daily life. She attended lessons at Eton about constitutional history and began broadening her knowledge of European History.

In September 1939, Britain entered the Second World War and Elizabeth began to undertake public duties. In 1943, Elizabeth made her first solo public appearance on a visit to the Grenadier Guards, of which she had been appointed colonel the previous year. In February 1945, she was appointed as an honorary second subaltern in the Auxiliary Territorial Service. She trained as a driver and mechanic and was given the rank of honorary junior commander (female equivalent of captain at the time) five months later.

In November 1947 Elizabeth married Philip Mountbatten, a former prince of Greece and Denmark. They had four children: Charles, Prince of Wales; Anne, Princess Royal; Prince Andrew, Duke of York; and Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex.

Elizabeth acceded to the throne in 1952, at the age of 25. She is the longest-lived and longest-reigning British monarch, the longest-serving female head of state in world history, the world’s oldest living monarch, the longest-reigning active monarch, and the oldest and longest-serving current head of state.

The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee began on February 6, 2022. It marks 70 years since she acceded to the throne. In her Accession Day message, Elizabeth renewed her commitment to a lifetime of public service, which she originally made in 1947.

Elizabeth is patron of over 600 organizations and charities. The Charities Aid Foundation estimates that she has helped raised over £1.4 billion (US $1.8 billion) for her patronages during her reign. Elizabeth has held many titles and honorary military positions throughout the Commonwealth and has received honors and awards from around the world.

Learn more about: Queen Elizabeth II
Photo credit: Library and Archives Canada via CC BY 2.0.

LEGENDARY WIDOW ROLE MODEL

Rosa Parks

Rosa Parks smiling
People always say that I didn't give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn't true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was 42. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in. I only knew that, as I was being arrested, it was the very last time that I would ever ride in humiliation of this kind.
— Rosa Parks

Rosa Louise McCauley Parks (February 4, 1913–October 24, 2005) was an African-American activist in the U.S. civil rights movement, best known for her pivotal role in the Montgomery bus boycott. She has been honored by the United States Congress as “the first lady of civil rights” and “the mother of the freedom movement.”

She married Raymond Parks in 1932 when she was 19 years old. They were married for 45 years, until his death from throat cancer in 1977, when she was 64.

Parks became an international icon of resistance to racial segregation after refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery City Lines bus on December 1, 1955. At the time, Parks was employed as a seamstress at a local department store and was secretary for the Montgomery Chapter of the NAACP. Parks was arrested and charged with a violation of the Montgomery City segregation law. The city ultimately repealed its law requiring segregation on public buses following a 1956 ruling by the United States Supreme Court that it was unconstitutional.

Parks played an important role in raising international awareness about the plight of African Americans and the U.S. civil rights struggle, organizing and collaborating with numerous civil rights leaders including Martin Luther King Jr. and E.D. Nixon. She went on to participate in activism at a national level during the mid-1960s.

In spite of her fame and constant speaking engagements, Parks was not a wealthy woman. She donated most of the money she earned from her speaking engagements to civil rights causes, and lived on her staff salary and her husband’s pension.

After retirement, Parks wrote her autobiography and continued to call for more work to be done in the struggle for civil rights justice. Parks received national recognition, including the NAACP 1979 Spingarn Medal, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal, and a posthumous statue in the United States Capitol’s National Statuary Hall. After her death in 2005, she was the first woman to lie in honor in the Capitol Rotunda.

In 1980, at the age of 67 and just 3 years widowed, Parks rededicated herself to civil rights and educational organizations, co-founding the Rosa L. Parks Scholarship Foundation for college-bound high school seniors, to which she donated most of her speaker fees. In February 1987, she co-founded the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development, which offers “Pathways to Freedom” bus tours to introduce people to civil rights and Underground Railroad sites throughout the United States.

Late in life, Parks, along with her mother, moved to an apartment for senior citizens. Parks nursed her mother Leona through the final stages of cancer and geriatric dementia until her death in 1979 at age 92. In 2002, as Parks struggled to support herself, a highly-publicized impending eviction caught the attention of the apartment building’s ownership company. They announced they had forgiven Parks’ back rent and would allow Parks, by then 91 years old, alone, and in extremely poor health, to live rent-free for the remainder of her life. Rosa Parks died of natural causes on October 24, 2005 at age 92, a woman of valor.

Read more about Rosa Parks Day, celebrated in the U.S. states of California and Missouri on her birthday, February 4, and in Ohio, Oregon, and Texas on the day she was arrested, December 1.

Learn more about: Rosa Parks

LEGENDARY WIDOW ROLE MODEL

Harriet Tubman

1860s photo of Harriet Tubman sitting in a chair.
Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.
— Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman (c. March 1822–March 10, 1913) was an American abolitionist and political activist. Born into slavery, Tubman and her brothers, Ben and Henry, escaped on September 17, 1849. Tubman subsequently made some 13 missions to rescue approximately 70 enslaved people, including family and friends, using the network of antislavery activists and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad. During the American Civil War, Tubman served as an armed scout and spy for the Union Army. In her later years, Tubman was an activist in the movement for women’s suffrage.

In 1844, Tubman married her first husband, John. Little is known about him or their time together; he died in 1867. In 1869, Tubman married Nelson Davis. Davis died in 1888 of tuberculosis.

The 1890 Dependent and Disability Pension Act made Tubman eligible for a pension as the widow of Nelson Davis, but it took 5 years of activism on her part for it to be awarded. She was ultimately granted a monthly pension of $5 (equivalent to $250 today) and a lump sum of $500 (an equivalent of $15,500 today) to cover the 5-year delay.

Throughout the late 1800s, Tubman spoke out in favor of women’s voting rights. She talked of her actions during and after the Civil War, and highlighted the sacrifices of women throughout modern history, to illustrate women’s equality to men.

Tubman, a diligent, exemplary example of widow advocacy, fought for women’s rights and widow’s rights at a time when it was not even acknowledged as such. When asked if she believed women ought to have the right to vote, she replied “I suffered enough to believe it.”

Tubman continued to be active in the women’s suffrage movement until illness overtook her. As she’d aged, effects from a childhood head trauma began constantly plaguing her. By 1911, she was so frail that she was admitted into a rest home named in her honor. Surrounded by friends and family members, she died of pneumonia on March 10, 1913, not living to see the passing by the U.S. Congress, in June 1919, of the 19th amendment granting women the right to vote. Tubman was buried with semi-military honors at Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn, New York.

In 2021, under the Biden Administration, the United States Treasury Department resumed its effort to add Tubman’s portrait to the front of the $20 bill. We may once again see Tubman make history, as the first African American woman to be featured on U.S. paper currency.

Tubman’s life story has been featured in books, theater, opera, literature, visual arts, and on film and television, including “Harriett” starring actress Cynthia Erivo and the NBC miniseries “A Woman Called Moses” starring Cicely Tyson. Tubman is a key figure in the National Women’s History Museum and is the recipient of numerous monuments, memorials, honors, and commemorations.

Learn more about: Harriet Tubman

LEGENDARY WIDOW ROLE MODEL

Graça Machel

Graça Machel giving a speach
Our lives will only have a meaning if each one of us can confidently say that I was able to bring five, ten, fifteen and twenty women along with me. Do not climb alone.
— Graça Machel

Graça Machel, a Mozambican politician and humanitarian, was born October 17, 1945 in rural Incadine, Gaza Province, Portuguese East Africa (modern-day Mozambique). She’s twice widowed, having been married to Mozambican president Samora Machel from 1975–1986, and South African president Nelson Mandela from 1998–2013. She’s the only woman in modern history to have served as First Lady of two countries, Mozambique and South Africa.

Machel is an international advocate for women’s and children’s rights, having studied at the University of Lisbon in Portugal, where she first became involved in independence issues. In 1997 she was named Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II for her humanitarian work. That year she also received the Global Citizen Award of the New England Circle. In 1998, she was one of two winners of the North–South Prize awarded by the North-South Centre of the Council of Europe.

Machel is a member of the Africa Progress Panel (APP), a group of distinguished individuals advocating at the highest levels for equitable and sustainable development in Africa. From 1999 to 2019 she was chancellor of the University of Cape Town. In 2009, she was appointed to the Commonwealth of Nations’ Eminent Persons Group. She was named president of the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London in 2012, and in 2016 was named chancellor of the African Leadership University.

In 2007, Machel convened The Elders in Johannesburg, South Africa with Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. The Elders focus on both thematic and geographically-specific subjects. Machel has been particularly involved in The Elders’ work on child marriage, including the founding of “Girls Not Brides: The Global Partnership to End Child Marriage.”

In 2017, Machel was elected an Honorary Fellow of the British Academy, the United Kingdom’s national academy for humanities and social sciences. In 2018, she was awarded by the World Health Organization for her contributions to the health and well-being of women and children.

Machel has received numerous international awards, accolades, honors, and recognition throughout her lifetime for her many contributions to the fields of human rights protection, policy change, sustainable development, and equality for women and girls.

Learn more about: Graça Machel

MWC LEGENDARY AWARD


MWC Legendary 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.
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