It’s uplifting to open up a book—or in my case, an audiobook app—or turn on the television and see a strong female lead or hear stories that highlight the experiences of women. But what’s especially refreshing is when women’s stories are told by women—women authors, songwriters, screenwriters, directors, journalists, graphic designers, photographers, illustrators, poets, coders (yes, coders are storytellers too), and so on.
Why is that important? Well for starters, it means the inclusion of more women in roles that are often dominated by men. But equally important is the fact that the music we listen to, the books we read, the apps we use, the television shows and movies we watch, the news publications we subscribe to, and the photos and art we see can affect the way we perceive the world and the people around us. Take movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp for example; when women control the narrative surrounding our lives and experiences, we are empowered to positively influence society’s perception of women, and how women are treated as a result.
Today is World Intellectual Property Day and this year’s theme—Women in innovation and creativity—was selected to “celebrate the brilliance, ingenuity, curiosity and courage of the women who are driving change in our world and shaping our common future.” The theme got me thinking about the role that intellectual property—copyright in particular—plays in empowering women.
Did you know that the Copyright Act itself is believed to be the first federal statute to use both masculine and feminine pronouns? And it should come as no surprise that this was done at the behest of Barbara Ringer, the first woman to serve as Register of Copyrights, and one of the primary drafters of the 1976 Copyright Act.
Copyright is unique in that ownership is premised primarily on authorship and originality, rather than on access to certain resources, like money, land, or raw materials—resources that, thanks to various legal and social barriers, men have had greater access to throughout history. At its very foundation, copyright’s admittedly low threshold for originality means an increase in opportunities for property ownership among groups of people that have been historically disadvantaged—including women, especially women of color. Because of copyright, talent and intellectual ability alone can open up endless possibilities.
So in honor of World IP Day—and the women around the world whose creativity pushes boundaries, challenges the status quo, and flies in the face of anyone who has ever doubted the strength, ability, or intellect of a woman—I’ve compiled a list of phenomenal women creators shedding light on important issues and working to make the world a better place, with the support and foundation of copyright behind them.
Last year, the documentary film Mankiller, which tells the story of the life of Wilma Mankiller—the first woman to serve as chief of the Cherokee Nation—premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival. The film was created by two women—director Valerie Red-Horse Mohl and producer Gale Anne Hurd—who felt that Wilma Mankiller’s incredible story was one that needed to be shared. “Before I started this documentary, I had never heard of Wilma Mankiller. That in and of itself is a travesty because she is an important woman. She achieved so much and the fact that our curriculum through the US does not feature her and we don’t learn about her is something we hope that this documentary is a step toward correcting,” said Hurd, who also produced The Terminator and The Walking Dead, among several other movies and TV shows, and was also a 1998 recipient of the Women in Film Crystal Award, which honors women who “through their endurance and the excellence of their work, have helped to expand the role of women within the entertainment industry.”
For Red-Horse Mohl, herself of Cherokee heritage, documentary filmmaking is “a way to change and improve the world around us […] it’s about shedding light on subjects that history has sort of forgotten.” The two women hope that in putting Wilma Mankiller’s story onscreen, they can not only educate people about this important historical figure, but also inspire others “to take action and to make a difference.”
Silje Vallestad is an entrepreneur specializing in technology innovation. As a woman in the tech industry, Vallestad experienced a scenario that many women know all too well: she was underestimated simply by virtue of her gender. In 2006, she got the idea to develop a cell phone just for kids that would allow parents to control the features accessible to their children. She started contacting investors to share her idea and the technical specifications for the phone, but she “waited, and waited, and waited for two weeks” with no response. So what did she do? She changed her signature from Mrs. Vallestad to Mr. Vallestad, and “everyone wanted to work with Mr. Vallestad.”
But, despite the blatant discrimination she faced as a woman, she fought to solidify her place in the tech industry. In 2011, Vallestad launched the safety app bSafe—with the tagline “never walk alone again”—which includes a variety of features aimed at making its users feel safe, including an SOS alarm, GPS location tracking that users can share with friends and family, and fake phone calls that allow users to “get out of unpleasant or threatening situations.” After winning the award for Female Entrepreneur of the Year in March 2011, Vallestad “promised to develop a mobile safety alarm for women with the $200,000 prize money she won,” and through the bSafe app, she did just that.
Motivated by statistics about the prevalence of sexual assault against women ages 18-24, and the Justice Department’s estimate that “one in five women will experience rape or attempted rape during their college years” Vallestad created the bSafe app to help empower women. As she puts it, “We all carry cell phones, so it’s only natural to make our phones into a safety device if needed. Most women already rely on their cell phone when feeling unsafe. Who hasn’t had the phone ready in hand when walking alone at night? Or called someone to keep them company? Or even pretended to be speaking with someone to avoid getting approached by strangers?”—unfortunately, this is another tale too many women know all too well.
A Wrinkle in Time
This year, the 1962 novel A Wrinkle in Time—which is unique in that it’s a sci-fi story with a female protagonist—was adapted for the big screen. The novel was written by Madeleine L’Engle. The film was written by Jennifer Lee and produced by Catherine Hand. It was directed by Ava Duvernay—who is now “the fourth woman to solo-direct a movie with a budget over $100 million and the first African-American woman ever to do so.” The film stars Storm Reid, Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, and Mindy Kaling. Notice anything? That’s right—a powerful group of women (and Reid, a 14-year-old girl) both onscreen and behind the scenes.
With Wrinkle, Duvernay set out to show Black women and girls onscreen in a way they had not been portrayed before. “All kinds of people deserve to see themselves in these films, and that’s what we’re trying to do,” she said. Witherspoon, a veteran actress who has starred in movies including Cruel Intentions and Legally Blonde, and produced movies like Gone Girl said “I’ve never seen somebody demand inclusiveness like that.”
In an interview with NBC, Duvernay said that she identifies with the lead character in the story, who she describes as awkward and nerdy, but a leader in her own right. “I want black girls and little girls of all colors to see themselves as the hero. In this film, Meg is the leader of her crew. She’s got her little brother, Charles Wallace, who’s in her ear. She’s got her friend, Calvin, who’s in her ear. But they’re in her ear because they’re asking her, “Meg, what do we do?” She’s the leader.”
In 1996, award-winning photojournalist Yunghi Kim began what would become one of her most meaningful endeavors; through photography, she documented the lives of former South Korean “Comfort Women”—Korean women, many of whom were only teenagers at the time, who were “forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese army during its occupation of Korea during World War II.” Many of the women were deceived by false promises of job opportunities cooking, cleaning, or in factories; Kim—whose family emigrated from South Korea to the United States for better economic opportunities—said that she “could relate to going to a foreign land for economic reasons … to send money [home]” and that it’s an especially important issue throughout the Korean and Korean-American communities because “it could have happened to [anyone’s] daughter.”
As a Korean-American woman, Kim wanted to meet these women and document their stories—stories that had been kept secret for decades. Her photo essay, which “helped introduce the Comfort Women to the West” also played a substantial role in the Japanese Government’s apology to South Korea “which included a promise to account for this atrocity for historic purposes in Japanese historical texts.
For Kim, photojournalism is a powerful tool for visual storytelling: “Most of the grandmothers that I photographed are gone, except for one. So, their stories, their legacies live on with images… That’s the power of photojournalism.”
Women’s March Logo
Nicole LaRue is an illustrator and graphic designer, and the woman behind the logo for the 2017 Women’s March on Washington—“a women-led movement bringing together people of all genders, ages, races, cultures, political affiliations and backgrounds in our nation’s capital … to affirm our shared humanity and pronounce our bold message of resistance and self-determination.”
In an interview, LaRue explains that the logo—which she created in a single day—was designed to represent all women and “the sense of feeling united, and speaking out with one voice.” She also participated in the march in Washington, D.C. “I march as a woman defending human rights. I march as a lesbian fighting -isms and -phobias. I march as a feminist confronting inequality,” she said. She continued:
“I’d been reeling from the recent election when I was given the rare opportunity to volunteer my professional skills to strengthen the visibility of this movement by contributing to the design campaign. I’m absolutely proud to have created the official Women’s March logo that conveys diversity and women standing together and speaking out in a united voice—a voice that calls for solidarity, demands equality and confronts injustice.”
Amisha Padnani is a journalist for the New York Times, and the woman behind Overlooked—“a history project recalling the lives of those who, for whatever reason, were left out of The Times’s obit pages.” The project, which focuses on women but will eventually expand to include other notable people, was inspired after Padnani discovered that, despite publishing thousands of obituaries since 1851, most of the obituaries in the New York Times “chronicled the lives of men, mostly white ones.”
“It is difficult for me as a journalist to see important stories go untold. But perhaps more important, as a woman of color, I am pained when the powerful stories of incredible women and minorities are not brought to light,” she said.
The first set of obituaries created through the Overlooked project—which included Ida B. Wells, Qiu Jin, Mary Ewing Outerbridge, Diane Arbus, Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Plath, Henrietta Lacks, and Madhubala—were published on International Women’s Day 2018. Since then, the project has added several additional obituaries commemorating the lives of other remarkable women, including Lillias Campbell Davidson, Charlotte Brontë, Belkis Ayón, Alison Hargreaves, Ruth Wakefield, Yu Gwan-sun, Bessie B. Stringfield, and Lin Huiyin (along with her husband Liang Sicheng).
So on this year’s World IP Day, as people and organizations across the country gather to celebrate the achievements of women in the creative and innovative space, I challenge everyone to think about the stories that would go untold, characters unwritten, people and events of the past forgotten, and lives untouched if not for the work of women around the world. But the challenge doesn’t end there. I also challenge everyone not to forget the role that copyright plays in affording these women the financial freedom and security to tell these stories, write these characters, commemorate those people and events, and touch countless lives through their work as creators.