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25 of History's Greatest Moms

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With their words, actions, and unconditional love, mothers have a profound influence on their children. Our mothers give us life, nurture us, and support us as we grow from babies to adults. They teach us, take care of us, and give us advice (wanted or unwanted!), and often provide this sort of motherly presence for many others in their lives as well. To celebrate Mother’s Day, here are 25 of history’s greatest moms.

1. MARIE CURIE

Although scientist Marie Curie (1867—1934) is best known for being the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, she also raised her two young daughters alone after her husband died in an accident in 1906. One of their daughters, Irène Joliot-Curie, went on to co-win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry with her husband for their own work with radioactivity. Joliot-Curie said her mother instilled hard work and flexibility in her children: “That one must do some work seriously and must be independent and not merely amuse oneself in life—this our mother has told us always, but never that science was the only career worth following.”

2. SOJOURNER TRUTH

In 1826, Sojourner Truth (circa 1797—1883) and her baby daughter escaped slavery in Ulster County, New York. Soon after her escape, she heard that her 5-year-old son, Peter, was illegally sold to a man in Alabama. Truth raised money for a lawyer, filed a complaint in court, and successfully got Peter out of slavery—a landmark case in which a black woman successfully sued a white man in court. Truth went on to become a Christian preacher in New York City and toured the northeast, speaking about the Bible, abolition, and women’s suffrage.

3. ABIGAIL ADAMS

As the wife of President John Adams, Abigail Adams (1744 —1818) was the second First Lady of the United States. Because her husband was often away from home for work, she often single-handedly ran their farm, wrote letters supporting equal rights for women and the abolition of slavery, and educated their five kids who survived into childhood—including future president John Quincy Adams. Quincy Adams wrote: "My mother was an angel upon earth. She was a minister of blessing to all human beings within her sphere of action. Her heart was the abode of heavenly purity… She was the real personification of female virtue, of piety, of charity, of ever active and never intermitting benevolence."

4. IRENA SENDLER

Irena Sendler (1910—2008) was a Polish employee at the Warsaw Social Welfare Department who smuggled almost 2500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto during the Holocaust, saving their lives. Using the code name Jolanta, she gave these children false identification documents, established temporary (non-Jewish) identities for them, and placed them in convents, orphanages, and Christian homes. Although the Nazis arrested her, tortured her, and sentenced her to execution (she survived because the Gestapo was bribed), she didn’t give them any information about the whereabouts of the children or the inner workings of her smuggling operation. A mother of three kids herself, Sendler received Poland’s Order of the White Eagle award in 2003.

5. KATHY HEADLEE

Kathy Headlee, a mother of seven (the youngest of whom she adopted from Romania), started Mothers Without Borders to help orphaned children around the world. Beginning in 1992, she led a group of volunteers to distribute relief supplies to orphanages and train caregivers in Romania. Since then, Mothers Without Borders has sent volunteers to help children in Bolivia, Bosnia, Guatemala, India, Mexico, Zimbabwe, Uganda, and Nepal.

6. J.K. ROWLING

J.K. Rowling wrote the first four Harry Potter books as a single mother (while briefly receiving state benefits to get by), and she now serves as the president of Gingerbread, an organization that works with single parents and their children find resources and programs to help them succeed. “I am prouder of my years as a single mother than of any other part of my life,” Rowling said of that time and the work she put in. For Mother’s Day 2016 in the UK (which occurs in March), she tweeted: “Today's Mother's Day in the UK. If your mum isn't here to treat, do something nice for yourself, because she's part of you. Take a hug, too.”

7. HOELUN

Famous as the mother of Genghis Khan, she survived getting kidnapped, widowhood, and being an outcast, to becoming the mother and advisor to one of the largest empires the world has ever known (as well as being one of the few people who could yell at Genghis and get away with it). Around the time of her first marriage, she was kidnapped by Yesukhei, the chief of a minor clan (legend has it she took off her shirt, threw it to her husband, and shouted “Fly for your life, and while you live remember my fragrance”), and was forced to marry her captor. Several years (and children) later, Yesukhei was killed and Hoelun and her young children were kicked out of the clan, forced to barely survive on whatever they could forage on the Mongolian steppes. Eventually, one of her children with Yesukhei, Genghis Khan, would become a great conqueror—but his mother could still put him in his place. According to Frank McLynn in Genghis Khan: His Conquests, His Empire, His Legacy, Genghis was planning to execute his brother for treason when Hoelun found out, traveled to Genghis’s headquarters, and begged Genghis to be merciful. When that didn’t work, “Hoelun grew angry, got to her feet and roundly rebuked the khan for thinking to execute his brother … Genghis raised her up and said he would grant the boon because of his love and deference for his mother.”

8. CANDY LIGHTNER

In 1980, a hit-and-run drunk driver killed one of Candy Lightner’s 13-year-old twin daughters, Cari. The driver had had three prior convictions for drunk driving, and had been arrested two days prior for a different hit-and-run. Within a few months, Lightner founded Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) to try to end drunk driving, pass tougher legislation, and help the victims of drunk drivers. Through its work to raise awareness and get legislation passed, MADD has helped save hundreds of thousands of lives.

9. WARIS DIRIE

In 1970 when she was 5 years old, Waris Dirie was a victim of female genital mutilation in her home of Somalia. Then, when was 13, her parents arranged for her to marry a man in his sixties; she ran away from home and eventually arrived in London. Although she became a successful model (and even appeared in a 1987 James Bond film), she retired from modeling in 1997 to devote her time to combating female genital mutilation, partially through her work as a UN Special Ambassador. She founded an organization called Desert Flower that combats female genital mutilation around the world. As the mother of four children, she told Harper’s Bazaar that female genital mutilation isn’t just a women’s issue: “Every education begins with Mama. We have to rethink what we teach our sons. That's the most important thing."

10. INDIRA GANDHI

As India’s first female Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi (1917—1984) worked to institute democracy and create jobs to combat food shortages—she was responsible for India's green revolution, which made the country self-sufficient and no longer reliant on imported grains. “Education is a liberating force, and in our age it is also a democratizing force, cutting across the barriers of caste and class, smoothing out inequalities imposed by birth and other circumstances,” she famously stated. She also entrusted a sense of duty in her two sons, Rajiv and Sanjay Gandhi, who both grew up to become politicians; Rajiv became Prime Minister of India after his mother was assassinated in 1984.

11. ANNE-MARIE SLAUGHTER

After working as a law professor and academic dean, Anne-Marie Slaughter (born 1958) was the first woman to serve as director of Policy Planning for the U.S. State Department. In 2012, she wrote a massively popular article for The Atlantic, called “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” She discussed her decision to leave her high-stress government job so she could be closer to home and take better care of her two teenage sons. Her article sparked a national discussion about how mothers balance work and home life, and how society and the workplace need to change to better facilitate mothers who work.

12. ELIZABETH CADY STANTON

Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815—1902) was a leader in the women’s suffrage and abolitionist movements, all while raising her seven children. She worked with Susan B. Anthony to establish the National Woman Suffrage Association, successfully helping to get women the right to vote via the 19th Amendment. In addition to writing articles and giving speeches on the topic of universal suffrage, Stanton supported education for girls, and her own daughters went to college at Vassar and Columbia.

13. DANA SUSKIND

Dr. Dana Suskind, a widowed mother of three, is a pediatric surgeon at the University of Chicago who founded the Thirty Million Words Initiative to encourage parents to talk frequently to their babies. Based on her research, she focuses on educating parents on the importance that speaking and interacting in the first three years of a child’s life has on that child's brain growth and development.

14. NANCY EDISON

The youngest of Nancy Edison’s seven kids was Thomas Alva Edison. Although some stories about his mother’s virtues were most likely exaggerated, we do know that rather than give up on his education, Nancy Edison decided to homeschool her son after his teacher deemed him "addled" (i.e. mentally ill or incompetent). Edison, who may just have been dyslexic in a time before that learning disorder was studied or understood, said of her: “My mother was the making of me. She was so true, so sure of me; and I felt I had something to live for, someone I must not disappoint.”

15. JULIE ANDREWS

Although you may know Dame Julie Andrews (born 1935) for her film roles as Mary Poppins and Maria Von Trapp (two surrogate-mothers of sorts for generations of children), she’s also an author. Andrews writes The Very Fairy Princess children’s book series with her daughter, Emma Walton Hamilton. Hamilton told Today that her mom was firm, protective, and despite her busy schedule, “very hands-on, always there making eggs at 5 o’ clock in the morning before we went to school.” Practically perfect in every way.

16. LOU XIAOYING

Lou Xioaying was a poor, uneducated woman who supported herself by scavenging through the trash in Jinhua, China, but starting in 1972, she adopted or rescued 30 babies she found in the trash. The chaos of the Cultural Revolution (and later China’s one-child policy), and extreme poverty, especially in rural areas, meant that some parents dumped their unwanted babies in the garbage. “These children need love and care. They are all precious human lives," Xioaying, who had one biological daughter at the time she began rescuing infants, told the press in 2012. "I do not understand how people can leave such a vulnerable baby on the streets.”

17. PRINCESS DIANA

Diana, Princess of Wales (1961—1997) used her status as a royal figure to work with charities that supported children’s hospitals and to raise awareness and combat landmines, which were a significant problem in the '90s. Years after her death in 1997—her sons were 15 and 12 years old when she died—her legacy remains one of humanitarianism. Her oldest, Prince William, notably became a royal patron of a Child Bereavement charity. Speaking about Mother’s Day, he said: “I too have felt and still feel the emptiness on such a day as Mother's Day.”

18. ERMA BOMBECK

Humor writer Erma Bombeck (1927—1996) wrote books and syndicated newspaper columns about life as a suburban housewife in the Midwest. Taking inspiration from her experiences with her adopted daughter and two biological sons, she told stories and made quips about housework that helped a generation of stay-at-home and newly working mothers find humor in the messiness of their lives. And as one might assume from her sharp-witted jokes, she brought her children up to be independent and passionate. “She liked people who were strong and held their own—she was a very big presence,” her daughter Betsy told People. "If you couldn't hold your own, she could roll over you."

19. THERESA KACHINDAMOTO

As a Malawi chieftain, Theresa Kachindamoto presides over nearly 900,000 Malawians. Because poor parents struggle to feed their children, Malawi has a high child marriage rate—one in two girls is married before age 18. Kachindamoto, who has put laws in place to break up approximately 850 child marriages, organizes meetings to speak to Malawians about the dangers of child marriages (including HIV) and the benefits of education for girls and boys. And although she's received backlash for telling families how to raise girls when she herself has five boys, she also works to end cultural sexual initiation rituals, in which a young girl’s parents pay an older man to “teach” her how to have sex, and she's trying to raise the legal age of marriage in the Dedza district of Malawi to 21.

20. ANGELINA JOLIE

Because of her humanitarian work supporting refugees and education, Oscar-winning actress Angelina Jolie has become as well-known for her charity work as she has for her film roles. Jolie first got involved with humanitarian work for refugees and people displaced because of conflict when she was filming Lara Croft: Tomb Raider in Cambodia in 2000. She adopted a son from the country, and eventually adopted children from Ethiopia and Vietnam as well (in addition to her three biological children with husband Brad Pitt). And though she has traveled to more than 30 countries in her role as a UN Goodwill Ambassador, Brad Pitt told The Wall Street Journal that when she has a day off, “the first thing she does is get up and take the kids out. This is the most important ‘to do’ of the day. No matter how tired she might be, she plans outings for each and all.”

21. MARY KAY ASH

Mary Kay Ash (1918—2001) was 45 years old when she founded Mary Kay Cosmetics in 1963, and it has since become a billion-dollar cosmetics company. As a single mom, she was working in sales at a home products company to support her three children, but she was repeatedly passed over for promotions, despite her being one of the top sales directors. Ash took those skills with her when she launched her namesake company, and she worked to give hundreds of thousands of women the opportunity to work as sales consultants on their own time, effectively becoming their own bosses.

22. MARY MAXWELL GATES

The mother of Bill Gates, Mary Maxwell Gates (1929—1994) served on the board of directors for corporations and nonprofit organizations in Seattle. She helped convince leaders at I.B.M. to hire Microsoft to create an operating system, and following that contract, Microsoft went on to achieve massive success. But more importantly, Gates encouraged her son to focus on philanthropy, and the effects of his success are now contributing to worldwide causes because of it. As of 2015, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has given billions of dollars to fight malaria, HIV, polio, and poor sanitation, and to improve opportunities for education.

23. ALBERTA KING

The mother of Martin Luther King, Jr., Alberta Williams King (1904—1974) played the organ and founded the choir at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, and she was also involved with women’s groups, the NAACP, and the YWCA. She set about to raise her three children with a healthy sense of self-respect and taught them that the segregation they saw every day was simply "a social condition rather than a natural order," as MLK Jr. wrote in his autobiography. "She made it clear that she opposed this system and that I must never allow it to make me feel inferior. … At this time Mother had no idea that the little boy in her arms would years later be involved in a struggle against the system she was speaking of." In 1974, six years after her son was assassinated in Memphis, Alberta King was shot and killed at her organ at her church.

24. JULIA WARD HOWE

In 1870, writer Julia Ward Howe (1819—1910, who is best known for writing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic") merged her interests in suffrage and pacifism by writing an “Appeal to Womanhood throughout the World.” Also called the “Mother’s Day Proclamation,” the appeal urged women to come together to support peace. Howe viewed women, who were the ones losing husbands and sons to war, as responsible for stopping war. Although she had six children, Howe made time to write essays and organize rallies for an annual Mother’s Day for Peace, planting the seeds of what would eventually become Mother’s Day.

25. ANN JARVIS

Ann Jarvis (1832—1905) inspired the movement that eventually made Mother’s Day into a national holiday. After most of her babies died of diseases—only four of her possibly 13 children survived to adulthood—she wanted to help other mothers. She organized Mother's Day Work Clubs in what is now West Virginia to help provide medical care, raise money for medicines, and improve sanitary conditions for poor mothers.

After her death, Jarvis’s daughter Anna Jarvis built off of the work of her mother by writing letters and giving speeches in support of Mother’s Day, and President Woodrow Wilson designated Mother’s Day as a national holiday in 1914. Ironically, Jarvis never became a mother herself, and she became horrified by how flower, chocolate, and greeting card companies exploited Mother’s Day for their own financial gain. Jarvis advocated boycotts of Mother’s Day and tried to sue companies that were commercializing the holiday. But the sentiment of appreciating mothers and all the work they do remained, even if the commercial aspect never disappeared.

All images courtesy of Getty Images unless noted otherwise.

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Pop Culture
Fumbled: The Story of the United States Football League
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There were supposed to be 44 players marching to the field when the visiting Los Angeles Express played their final regular season game against the Orlando Renegades in June 1985.

Thirty-six of them showed up. The team couldn’t afford more.

“We didn’t even have money for tape,” Express quarterback Steve Young said in 1986. “Or ice.” The squad was so poor that Young played fullback during the game. They only had one, and he was injured.

Other teams had ridden school buses to practice, driven three hours for “home games,” or shared dressing room space with the local rodeo. In August 1986, the cash-strapped United States Football League called off the coming season. The league itself would soon vaporize entirely after gambling its future on an antitrust lawsuit against the National Football League. The USFL argued the NFL was monopolizing television time; the NFL countered that the USFL—once seen as a promising upstart—was being victimized by its own reckless expansion and the wild spending of team owners like Donald Trump.

They were both right.

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Spring football. That was David Dixon’s pitch. The New Orleans businessman and football advocate—he helped get the Saints in his state—was a fan of college ball and noticed that spring scrimmages at Tulane University led to a little more excitement in the air. With a fiscally responsible salary cap in place and a 12-team roster, he figured his idea could be profitable. Market research agreed: a hired broadcast research firm asserted 76 percent of fans would watch what Dixon had planned.

He had no intention of grappling with the NFL for viewers. That league’s season aired from September through January, leaving a football drought March through July. And in 1982, a players’ strike led to a shortened NFL season, making the idea of an alternative even more appealing to networks. Along with investors for each team region, Dixon got ABC and the recently-formed ESPN signed to broadcast deals worth a combined $35 million over two years.

When the Chicago Blitz faced the Washington Federals on the USFL’s opening day March 6, 1983, over 39,000 fans braved rain at RFK Stadium in Washington to see it. The Federals lost 28-7, foreshadowing their overall performance as one of the league’s worst. Owner Berl Bernhard would later complain the team played like “untrained gerbils.”

Anything more coordinated might have been too expensive. The USFL had instituted a strict $1.8 million salary cap that first year to avoid franchise overspending, but there were allowances made so each team could grab one or two standout rookies. In 1983, the big acquisition was Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker, who opted out of his senior year at Georgia to turn pro. Walker signed with the New Jersey Generals in a three-year, $5 million deal.

Jim Kelly and Steve Young followed. Stan White left the Detroit Lions. Marcus Dupree left college. The rosters were built up from scratch using NFL cast-offs or prospects from nearby colleges, where teams had rights to “territorial” drafts.

To draw a line in the sand, the USFL had advertising play up the differences between the NFL’s product and their own. Their slogan, “When Football Was Fun,” was a swipe at the NFL’s increasingly draconian rules regarding players having any personality. They also advised teams to run a series of marketable halftime attractions. The Denver Gold once offered a money-back guarantee for attendees who weren’t satisfied. During one Houston Gamblers game, boxer George Foreman officiated a wedding. Cars were given away at Tampa Bay Bandits games. The NFL, the upstart argued, stood for the No Fun League.

For a while, it appeared to be working. The Panthers, which had invaded the city occupied by the Detroit Lions, averaged 60,000 fans per game, higher than their NFL counterparts. ABC was pleased with steady ratings. The league was still conservative in their spending.

That would change—many would argue for the worse—with the arrival of Donald Trump.

Despite Walker’s abilities on the field, his New Jersey Generals ended the inaugural 1983 season at 6-12, one of the worst records in the league. The excitement having worn off, owner J. Walter Duncan decided to sell the team to real estate investor Trump for a reported $5-9 million.

A fixture of New York media who was putting the finishing touches on Trump Tower, Trump introduced two extremes to the USFL. His presence gave the league far more press attention than it had ever received, but his bombastic approach to business guaranteed he wouldn’t be satisfied with an informal salary cap. Trump spent and spent some more, recruiting players to improve the Generals. Another Heisman winner, quarterback Doug Flutie, was signed to a five-year, $7 million contract, the largest in pro football at the time. Trump even pursued Lawrence Taylor, then a player for the New York Giants, who signed a contract saying that, after his Giants contract expired, he’d join Trump’s team. The Giants wound up buying out the Taylor/Trump contract for $750,000 and quadrupled Taylor’s salary, and Trump wound up with pages of publicity.

Trump’s approach was effective: the Generals improved to 14-4 in their sophomore season. But it also had a domino effect. In order to compete with the elevated bar of talent, other team owners began spending more, too. In a race to defray costs, the USFL approved six expansion teams that paid a buy-in of $6 million each to the league.

It did little to patch the seams. Teams were so cash-strapped that simple amenities became luxuries. The Michigan Panthers dined on burnt spaghetti and took yellow school buses to training camp; players would race to cash checks knowing the last in line stood a chance of having one bounce. When losses became too great, teams began to merge with one another: The Washington Federals became the Orlando Renegades. By the 1985 season, the USFL was down to 14 teams. And because the ABC contract required the league to have teams in certain top TV markets, ABC started withholding checks.

Trump was unmoved. Since taking over the Generals, he had been petitioning behind the scenes for the other owners to pursue a shift to a fall season, where they would compete with the NFL head on. A few owners countered that fans had already voiced their preference for a spring schedule. Some thought it would be tantamount to league suicide.

Trump continued to push. By the end of the 1984 season, he had swayed opinion enough for the USFL to plan on one final spring block in 1985 before making the move to fall in 1986.

In order to make that transition, they would have to win a massive lawsuit against the NFL.

In the mid-1980s, three major networks meant that three major broadcast contracts would be up for grabs—and the NFL owned all three. To Trump and the USFL, this constituted a monopoly. They filed suit in October 1984. By the time it went to trial in May 1986, the league had shrunk from 18 teams to 14, hadn’t hosted a game since July 1985, kept only threadbare rosters, and was losing what existing television deals it had by migrating to smaller markets (a major part of the NFL’s case was that the real reason for the lawsuit, and the moves to smaller markets, was to make the league an attractive takeover prospect for the NFL). The ruling—which could have forced the NFL to drop one of the three network deals—would effectively become the deciding factor of whether the USFL would continue operations.

They came close. A New York jury deliberated for 31 hours over five days. After the verdict, jurors told press that half believed the NFL was guilty of being a monopoly and were prepared to offer the USFL up to $300 million in damages; the other half thought the USFL had been crippled by its own irresponsible expansion efforts. Neither side would budge.

To avoid a hung jury, it was decided they would find in favor of the USFL but only award damages in the amount of $1. One juror told the Los Angeles Times that she thought it would be an indication for the judge to calculate proper damages.

He didn’t. The USFL was awarded treble damages for $3 in total, an amount that grew slightly with interest after time for appeal. The NFL sent them a payment of $3.76. (Less famously, the NFL was also ordered to pay $5.5 million in legal fees.)

Rudy Shiffer, vice-president of the Memphis Showboats, summed up the USFL's fate shortly after the ruling was handed down. “We’re dead,” he said.

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entertainment
The Time Douglas Adams Met Jim Henson
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On September 13, 1983, Jim Henson and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams had dinner for the first time. Henson, who was born on this day in 1936, noted the event in his "Red Book" journal, in characteristic short-form style: "Dinner with Douglas Adams – 1st met." Over the next few years the men discussed how they might work together—they shared interests in technology, entertainment, and education, and ended up collaborating on several projects (including a Labyrinth video game). They also came up with the idea for a "Muppet Institute of Technology" project, a computer literacy TV special that was never produced. Henson historians described the project as follows:

Adams had been working with the Henson team that year on the Muppet Institute of Technology project. Collaborating with Digital Productions (the computer animation people), Chris Cerf, Jon Stone, Joe Bailey, Mark Salzman and Douglas Adams, Jim’s goal was to raise awareness about the potential for personal computer use and dispel fears about their complexity. In a one-hour television special, the familiar Muppets would (according to the pitch material), “spark the public’s interest in computing,” in an entertaining fashion, highlighting all sorts of hardware and software being used in special effects, digital animation, and robotics. Viewers would get a tour of the fictional institute – a series of computer-generated rooms manipulated by the dean, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, and stumble on various characters taking advantage of computers’ capabilities. Fozzie, for example, would be hard at work in the “Department of Artificial Stupidity,” proving that computers are only as funny as the bears that program them. Hinting at what would come in The Jim Henson Hour, viewers, “…might even see Jim Henson himself using an input device called a ‘Waldo’ to manipulate a digitally-controlled puppet.”

While the show was never produced, the development process gave Jim and Douglas Adams a chance to get to know each other and explore a shared passion. It seems fitting that when production started on the 2005 film of Adams’s classic Hitchhiker’s Guide, Jim Henson’s Creature Shop would create animatronic creatures like the slovenly Vogons, the Babel Fish, and Marvin the robot, perhaps a relative of the robot designed by Michael Frith for the MIT project.

You can read a bit on the project more from Muppet Wiki, largely based on the same article.

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