11 Incredible Women We Lost in 2016 Who You Maybe Haven't Even Heard Of
By all accounts, it seems like we've lost a whole lot of beloved stars this year, a fact that has been sadly crystalized by the deaths of Carrie Fisher and her mother, Debbie Reynolds, just a day apart in this final week of the year. Other celebrities we lost in 2016 included Alan Rickman, Prince, David Bowie, and George Michael. Patty Duke and Doris Roberts, who gave us iconic television performances on The Patty Duke Show and Everybody Loves Raymond, respectively, also passed away in 2016. All of these people made significant contributions to film, television, music, and writing that will be revered long after they are gone.
Outside the glitz of Hollywood, we lost some deeply admired athletes and authors. Harper Lee, the author of the American classic, To Kill A Mockingbird, passed away in February. The world of journalism lost a standard-bearer when CBS' 60 Minutes Morley Safer died in May, just a week after retiring. Muhammad Ali, one of the most respected and quotable athletes of all time, died in June. Antonin Scalia's death in February not only drew an outpouring of praise for the oft-controversial conservative Supreme Court judge, but his vacant sat became one of the most important topics of the presidential election (and will continue to be when Donald Trump nominates someone to take his spot).
Yet there were many others, and specifically many women, who died this year who received insufficient attention. These are some of those women.
Models may not often be thought of as revolutionary, but in many ways the late China Machado was exactly that. Machado, who is of Chinese and Portuguese descent, was one of the first major nonwhite models in high fashion. She appeared in Harper's Bazaar in the 1950s, in part due to photographer Richard Avedon, who reportedly threatened to cut ties with the magazine if they did not publish the photos. Later, Machado became the first woman of color to appear on the front cover of an American fashion mazagine. Machado was also a clever investor: one real estate investment in the Hamptons reportedly sold for 20 times what she paid for it.
At the time of her death in May, Jane Little was the world's longest-serving symphony player. The double bassist died at 87, onstage, playing "There's No Business Like Show Business" for an encore with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Little was 4'11" and weighed 98 pounds, yet she played the enormous double bass. Her late husband, also a member of the orchestra, played the flute — she once told NBC that they often carried each other's instruments. After her death, colleague Michael Kurth told the Washington Post, "to me, it seems like more than the end of an era."
The first female Attorney General, Janet Reno is quite familiar to politics junkies. But even people who aren't as involved with politics should know about Reno's life and legacy. Reno's death on Nov. 7 may largely have been overshadowed by the presidential election that occurred the next day, but her life nonetheless left a significant mark on the United States. The New York Times described Reno as "a strong advocate of guaranteeing federal protection to women seeking abortions and safeguarding abortion clinics that were under threat." She served as Attorney General during many moments of extreme political significance, including the controversy over Cuban refugee Elian Gonzalez.
Any woman who's ever done the work and not received the credit will find the story of Marni Nixon familiar. Nixon, who passed away in July, was an American soprano who dubbed the voices for some of the biggest movie musicals of all time, including My Fair Lady, West Side Story, and The King and I. The New York Times obituary for Nixon called her "America's most unsung singer," an apt description, considering that her roles were often uncredited and frequently, reportedly, underpaid. Apparently, even the actresses she dubbed were sometimes unaware that she would be recording over their voices — Natalie Wood and Audrey Hepburn reportedly expected only the highest notes to be corrected by Nixon. Instead, her voice was used in its entirety for many songs.
Did you know that the winningest coach in NCAA Division 1 basketball history was a woman? Pat Summitt, who passed away in June, coached the University of Tennessee women's basketball team to over 1,000 wins. One of Summitt's former players, Tamika Catchings, told ESPN, "We learned [from Summitt] what it takes to be a leader, what it takes to be a great woman, what it takes to be a great lady, what it takes to have character, what it takes to have poise, how not to buckle under adversity."
Concepción Picciotto may well be one of America's longest-serving protesters. Picciotto held a peace protest outside the White House for more than 30 years. She was a controversial figure, but the longevity of her protest vigil nonetheless ensured that many were exposed to her message of peace and opposition to nuclear proliferation. Even White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said when she passed away, “We’ve certainly got to pay our respects, not just to the life that she lived but her passion for making the world a safer and more peaceful place.”
Gwen Ifill, who died in November, was a Peabody-winning journalist who most recently served as an anchor on PBS. According to Politico, Ifill was "outspoken about the barriers she broke through" as a black female journalist, which included being called racial epithets and being told to "go home" while working in newsrooms as a young reporter. Among the many journalists and politicians who paid tribute to Ifill was President Obama, who described her as an "especially powerful role model."
One of the saddest deaths of 2016 was Michelle McNamara, the crime writer and wife of actor Patton Oswalt. McNamara, who ran the investigative website True Crime Diary, was an "early proponent of using social media to search for clues" to unsolved crimes, as Amelia McDonell-Parry wrote on CrimeFeed.com. At the time of her death at 46, McNamara was working on a book aimed at identifying the so-called "Golden State Killer," who raped and murdered dozens of victims in the 1970s and 1980s. In a heartbreaking Facebook post last August, Oswalt announced that he had been working with researchers to complete her book. "In comic book terms," he told the New York Times, "I was married to a great crime fighter."
After Suzanne Wright's grandson was diagnosed with autism, she knew she had to get involved. Wright and her husband founded Autism Speaks, one of the world's largest autism research and advocacy groups. The organization has reportedly raised more than $570 million since its founding for autism-related research. Wright addressed the United Nations General Assembly on Autism Awareness Day for many years. After her death in July, the charity's board wrote that "what Suzanne Wright has done to raise awareness of autism is immeasurable."
Anyone suffering from a quarter-life (or, for that matter, midlife) crisis should read about the life of Sharon Jones. The soul singer had her first single as a frontwoman at the age of 40. Only then did she rise to fame, along with her band, the Dap-Kings. Jones was open about the challenges she faced in her career, particularly when a record producer in the 1990s told her she was "too fat, too black, too short, and too old." But Jones didn't let petty insults hold her back, and she went on to record multiple hit albums, tour with Lou Reed, appear as a singer in a Denzel Washington movie, and even perform with Prince.
There were a number of unknown heroes during World War II who risked their own lives to save European Jews. One of the finest examples was Marion Pritchard, who died Dec. 11 at the age of 96. During the Holocaust, Pritchard was a Dutch social work student who helped as many as 150 Jews escape from the Nazis, including dozens of children, according to her obituary in the Washington Post. She sacrificed her own reputation to claim to be the unwed mother of one child, an act known as a "mission of disgrace" and fatally shot a Dutch police officer who came to her house searching for possibly hidden Jews. She was honored by Israel's Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem, in 1981 as one of the "righteous among the nations."