Changing The World: 11 Activist Moms Whose Names You Probably Don’t Know

All moms change the world in some way. It’s inevitable. The Butterfly Effect can not be ignored. As mothers, we have an influence on our community, the children we raise, and sometimes even a bigger part of the world through our work or our service to others. But most of us never get worldwide and acclaim and recognition, and we’re okay with that.

The moms I’ve highlighted in this article did huge things to make the world a better place, and though you may have heard of their contributions or parts of their stories, you’ve probably never heard their actual names. I imagine that they’re probably okay with that, too

Harriet Shetler

Founded the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) in 1979

Image source: MIWatch

The inspiration to form the alliance came from their sons – both of whom suffered from schizophrenia.

Within six months of their first meeting, 75 people had joined. After receiving a newsletter from a similar organization in California, Harriet had the idea to hold a national conference?bringing in 250 attendees, including many mental health professionals. At the conclusion of the conference, a national group had been formed, named and financed.

In 1999, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, Dr. Steven Hyman, called NAMI ?the greatest single advocacy force in mental health.?

Today, NAMI has affiliates in every state and more than 1,100 communities. (Source)


Gwen Matthews

Founder, Beau Foundation

Source: Facebook

Gwen and Terry Matthews were thrilled to find out they were expecting a third child, a boy, to join sisters Brooke and Brittany. Together, the Matthews? chose the name ?Beau? for their new addition to the family.
Although Gwen was experiencing a very normal pregnancy, at 20 weeks a hole was detected in baby Beau’s heart. Further tests confirmed Trisomy 18 ? an incurable and usually fatal disease.

Doctors informed the Matthews? that most babies with Trisomy 18 pass before birth, while those who do make it to birth typically live only a few days. Led by their faith, the Matthews? knew that if Beau even lived for a second, they wanted to be there with him. At 7:30 AM on August 21, 2003, tiny baby Beau arrived weighing just 3 lbs 9 oz. Marked by both joy and sadness, the Matthews? rarely left Beau’s side during his 11 days in the NICU.

Through this unimaginable tragedy, the Matthews? have turned their story into hope through Beau’s memorial foundation, a fund set up at Beau’s passing to ensure low income or uninsured women have access to prenatal vitamins and prenatal care. (Source)


Candace Lightner

Founded Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) in 1980

The tragic death of Candice Lightner’s 13-year-old daughter by a drunk driver prompted her to found MADD. Publicity in the form of a 1983 television movie about Lightner helped the organization grow rapidly, and soon, under MADD’s influence, the National Minimum Drinking Age Act was enacted.

Since MADD’s founding, the death rate from alcohol-related traffic accidents has declined?according to statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), alcohol-related deaths per year have decreased from 26,173 in 1982 to 16,885 in 2005. ?(Source)

Watch one of MADD’s powerful videos:



Donna Whitson

Founded People Against Sex Offenders (P.A.S.O.) – Amber Alert

Image source: Today

In 1996, Richard Hagerman and Donna Whitson reacted to the January 13th abduction of their daughter, 9-year-old Amber Hagerman, by calling the news media and the FBI. Amber’s body was found four days later.

The event inspired her parents to establish People Against Sex Offenders (P.A.S.O.). After receiving abundant local media coverage, President Bill Clinton signed the Amber Hagerman Child Protection Act into law in October 1996.

That summer, P.A.S.O. spokesman, Bruce Seybert, spoke about quick efforts the local police and media could take in order to help find missing children. Shortly thereafter, a reporter from Dallas radio station KRLD approached the Dallas police chief with Seybert’s ideas. This launched the Amber Alert.

In October 2001, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children?which had previously declined to be a part of the Amber Alert?launched a campaign to have AMBER Alert systems established nationwide. Since its founding, AMBER Alert has expanded internationally to nine countries.

Donna Whitson’s testimony:



Joanie Whitman

Activist and owner of The Soft Landing

The Soft Landing Team
Joanie, her sisters, and their mom
Image?source: The Soft Landing

During her first visit to the pediatrician with her newborn son, Joanie was advised to use only glass bottles, in order to avoid exposing her son to estrogen that leached from plastic. Skeptical about the doctor’s advice, Joanie called her sister, and retired nurse Alicia Voorhies for more information. Alicia and Joanie soon learned that the advice given by the pediatrician was not only correct, but quite alarming. Armed with this?new-found?information, each sister proceeded to call a couple friends, who called their friends. And so on.

Within two years after the BPA conversation started among moms, the entire U.S. baby bottle supply (millions of bottles) was completely reconfigured?showing just how powerful mom-to-mom word of mouth communication can be! (Source)

Alicia Voorhies discusses The Soft Landing:


Maria Teresa Tula

Human Rights Activist and leader of?Co-Madres (Mothers of the Disappeared) of El Salvador

Image source: Eddie Adams

During the bloody civil war that El Salvador endured in the 1980s and 1990s, many families didn’t know if their husbands or fathers or brothers would return home at the end of each day. Various ?death squads? and government security forces would round up men who were thought to be supporting their respective oppositions and take them away, many never to be seen again.

When the women of El Salvador tried to bring these human rights atrocities to the world’s attention in an attempt to save their families, their lives were endangered, too.

One of those women, Maria Teresa Tula, is now one of the leaders of that group, Co-Madres (Mothers of the Disappeared) of El Salvador. In working to bring attention to the human rights violations and political assassinations in El Salvador during those violent years, Tula endured her own abduction, torture and imprisonment. But that did not stop her efforts to end the violence in her country.

In an interview with Kerry Kennedy, another human rights activist, Tula said, ?I rejoice that peace has come to my country at last and that the human rights we fought for during those dark years now seem within our reach, not just in our dreams.? (Source)

Documentary trailer:



Waris Dirie

Desert nomad, bricklayer, maid, McDonald’s employee, supermodel, and United Nations special ambassador for women’s rights in Africa

Voris Diri - Somalka koja se borila protiv obrezivanja ?ena
Image source:

When Waris Dirie was 5 years old, she was subjected to the ritual female circumcision that was commonplace in her native Somalia. In that culture, female circumcision is performed to supposedly ensure a girl’s purity before her eventual marriage. But many times, as in Dirie’s case, it is performed under unsanitary conditions, without anesthesia, and can lead to death or lifelong pain.

At 13, Dirie managed to escape Somalia by agreeing to work in her uncle’s home during his tenure as Somalia’s ambassador to the United Kingdom. There, years later, Dirie was discovered by a fashion photographer, which led to her eventual career as a successful model.

To help prevent other girls and women from suffering her same fate, she created the Waris Dirie Foundation to shine a light on this cruel procedure. As a result of her work, she was named the United Nations Goodwill Ambassador for the Elimination of Female Genital Mutilation in 1997. (Source)
Trailer from the movie based on her life, Desert Flower:


?Dr. Wangari Maathai

Political and environmental activist and Nobel Peace Prize?recipient

Wangari Maathai

An environmental and political activist, Wangari Maathai was the first African woman to receive the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize, which she was awarded in 2004 for her ?contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.?

As founder of the Greenbelt Movement, Maathai was directly responsible for convincing Kenyans, mostly women, of the need to start a tree-planting campaign in their country, both to protect against soil erosion and to provide an ongoing source of firewood for cooking fires. That effort has led to planting more than 20 million trees in her nation.

In addition to her environmental activism, Maathai also was active in opposing the oppressive government of Daniel arap Moi. She was eventually elected to the Kenyan Parliament in 2002.
According to one news report, her former husband was said to have remarked at one time that they divorced because Maathai was ?too educated, too strong, too successful, too stubborn and too hard to control.??(Source)

Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai

Safiye Amajan

Teacher and Head of Afghanistan’s Ministry of Women’s Affairs

Image source:

Despite threats from the Taliban during their time in power in Afghanistan against those who defied their orders to cease educating girls, Safiye Amajan spent many years running a school for girls out of her home. After that oppressive government was toppled, Amajan served as the provincial head of the country’s Ministry of Women’s Affairs until she was murdered in 2006. In that post, she was responsible for opening several schools and vocational training centers specifically with the purpose of educating women and girls who had not had that opportunity under the Taliban.

Even though she must have known her life was still in danger from the Taliban, Amajan continued her commitment to educating Afghan girls. According to Amnesty International, the group that took responsibility for her death claimed Amajan had been an American spy, using the country’s nascent women’s movement as a cover for her activities. (Source)


Emme Aronson

First plus-size supermodel and spokeswoman for the National Eating Disorders Association

Why would a plus-size supermodel make my list? Why does she matter? Because every day in the U.S. and around the world, women die trying to be society’s standard of “beautiful.” Emme made it sexy to be plus-size. She showed us all how to be a beautiful woman with confidence – at any size.

Recent stories about the deaths of anorexic fashion models have suggested that more should be done to convince clothing designers and producers of runway fashion shows to resist hiring models unless they meet a certain body mass index requirement. In other words: No more stick-figure models.

Plus-size supermodel Aronson?a spokeswoman for the National Eating Disorders Association, has championed that cause for many years. The outspoken advocate tries to convince girls to embrace the fact that we all come in different shapes and sizes, and that being healthy doesn’t mean being a size zero.

?We need to take collective responsibility for this cultural catastrophe and recognize our obligation to not only learn as much as we can about eating disorders but also how our actions influence young women and girls,? Aronson says. ?It is imperative that we not just skim the surface, but dig deeper about unattainable ideals of beauty which can lead to life-threatening diseases with sometimes permanent consequences.?

We need more real women (and real men) to be willing to stand up & let young women know that beauty comes in all shapes and sizes, and that ?thin? doesn’t necessarily mean ?fit.? (Source)

Emme on Entertainment Tonight:


Mildred Muhammad

Wife of a serial killer, domestic violence survivor, founder of After the Trauma

In this riveting memoir Mildred Muhammad, the former wife of convicted DC sniper John Muhammad, breaks her silence about the domestic violence she suffered in their marriage and the tragic events that?occurred?after their divorce, which led up to the October 2002 sniper killings in DC. Mildred witnessed firsthand John’s bizarre behavior after he returned from the Gulf War, but no one — including her family, friends, and local police — took her warnings seriously.

Even when John kidnapped their three children for eighteen months, changed their identities and lived with them on the run in Antigua, or when he threatened to kill Mildred– her pleas for help went unfounded and she was forced to live undercover for eight months in a women’s shelter. Everyone knew John as a charming and intelligent man. No one could fathom that he posed a serious threat to Mildred, let alone the 11 innocent victims he and his 15-year-old accomplice Lee Malvo would later kill to carryout John’s heinous plot to get custody of his and Mildred’s children… permanently. What began as a domestic case eventually victimized millions. And it has taken years for Mildred and her children to heal from the fear and psychological trauma they endured.

In her book, Scared Silent, Mildred shares her personal story to show how domestic violence devastates entire families, including the children, and hopes that what she reveals will give new insight on this national social ill. (Source)

Muhammad discussing After the Trauma:


Tiffany Willis Clark is a fifth-generation Texan and the founder and editor-in-chief of Liberal America and An unapologetic member of the Christian Left, she had a long and successful career actively working with at-risk youth, people struggling with poverty and unemployment, and disadvantaged and oppressed populations. She’s passionate about their struggles. In 2011, she made the decision to pursue her dreams and become a full-time writer. Connect with her on LinkedIn, follow her on Twitter, and like her Facebook page.