In 2021, women literally run the world. The forty women who make our list this year are just a small representation of the long list of incredible women. Here are there stories.
Simone Biles, Champion Gymnast
Thanks to a global pandemic, the greatest gymnast in history was forced to spend part of the last year finding some equilibrium in a life that had previously been all about the work.
“I lived, I traveled, I did things I couldn’t do because of gymnastics,” she says. Now, as she prepares for the 2021 Olympics—maybe her last—the 24-year-old is approaching her sport with a new sense of joy.
Simone Biles is the greatest gymnast in history. No caveats, no gender qualifiers, no getting around the fact that at 24 she’s broken just about every record there is to break. Twenty-five World Championship medals, four never-before-been-done moves named after her, and a performance level so fearless, it raised the bar for the entire sport. And she’s still at the top of her game, making her one of the best all-around athletes of our time, a competitor whose name will forever belong in the same breath as Serena Williams and Michael Jordan and Michael Phelps.
But for all the gold and GOAT talk, it’s easy to forget that this is a woman who redefined the limits of what the human body is capable of while carrying the mental burden of competing for an organization that failed to protect its athletes—including her—from a documented culture of abuse. And that was before the stress of 2020 hit and the fate of the Tokyo Olympics, which were meant to be Biles’ last, became uncertain.
But more on all that later. Right now Simone Biles is just like the rest of us, signing onto Zoom from home, waiting to get back out there.
During the last year, Biles used her unexpected downtime to buy her own house in Texas, a space she designed for her and her two Frenchies, Lilo and Rambo.
Biles spent most of quarantine here during the early, anxious days of the pandemic, grappling with the fact that her chance to finish the career she’d sacrificed her entire life for might be stolen by the pandemic. Navigating a postponement would mean another year of pushing her body to its limit, and Biles’ job relies on her body—a finely calibrated machine conditioned by thousands of hours of workouts to peak at precisely the right moment every four years.
Then it became official: In late March, Texas went under total lockdown. No more training. For seven weeks Biles sat idle, weighing how to commit herself physically and mentally to the uncertainty. It took a toll. “I got to process all the emotions,” she says. “I got to go through being angry, sad, upset, happy, annoyed. I got to go through all of it by myself, without anybody telling me what to feel.”
She became depressed. She thought of quitting. But that didn’t last long. “I wanted to give up,” Biles says. “But it would have been dumb because I’ve worked way too hard.”
The decision to stay in gold-medal shape, even if the next Olympics weren’t for another year, wasn’t just about keeping her body in peak condition. It would also mean shouldering the mental burden of another year of having to compete as part of USA Gymnastics, the governing body of the sport. “I think that’s been the hardest part,” Biles says.
USAG has come under sharp criticism—with many powerful words from Biles herself—for failing to protect its athletes from a documented culture of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. Biles is the only known survivor of sexual abuse who is still actively competing for the organization, according to Insider, and her presence in the gym is a source of constant pressure on both USAG and the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee (also accused of failing to protect its athletes) to conduct further independent investigation. “I’m still here, so it’s not going to disappear,” she says. “We have power behind it.”
Biles bears the responsibility gracefully, despite the unfairness of asking survivors to be the spokespeople for their own abuse. I ask her how she deals, especially in a sport in which mental focus is so important to winning medals. “Probably by compartmentalizing,” she says. “I try not to think about it because I can’t afford to—if I let them rule me, they’re winning.”
The gymnast has already achieved an unmatched level of excellence, so choosing to put herself through another year was to prove to no one but herself that she could, that at 24 she was better than ever, and that even after everything she’s been through, she still loves her sport. “I know I’m doing it for me,” she says. “I do it because I still have such a passion for it.”
Naomi Osaka, Tennis Superstar
This summer’s Tokyo Olympics are extra special for Naomi Osaka — it’s not only the Japanese 23-year-old’s first Games, but also her homecoming.
“I have never competed in an Olympic Games before, but I can say, as an athlete, I’m excited to be competing in the most prestigious athletic event in the world,” Osaka said. “Like most competitors, I’ve been waiting for this opportunity my entire life, and the fact that they are being held in my birthplace of Japan, I just feel like I can’t stop smiling about it.”
While Osaka is filled with excitement about this year’s games, she also feels immense pressure to perform.
“You have to mentally prepare for these large-scale moments, and there are a lot of pressures associated with the Olympics because your country is looking up to you,” Osaka said.
Osaka has recently spoken out about her mental health and how the scrutiny that comes with being in the spotlight as an elite athlete affects her.
While competing at the French Open in May and June, Osaka said she didn’t want to do post-match interviews because they triggered her anxiety. She added that she’s struggled with depression since 2018.
Osaka was fined $15,000 for skipping a press conference. She ultimately resigned from the tournament, but the decision prompted a debate of how governing sports organizations treat athletes from a mental-health perspective.
Osaka, who also withdrew from Wimbledon in June, said in May that the pandemic allowed her to slow down and focus more on her emotional and mental well-being.
“I get impatient at times and have to remind myself to slow down and enjoy every moment,” she said. “This has helped me on the court to calm my nerves and dismantle some of the pressures that come with the stage.”
Osaka said that focusing on gratitude and remembering that success isn’t built overnight help keep her humble through the ups and downs.
Like all athletes, Osaka’s training regimen had to change a lot during the pandemic, and once the postponement of the Olympics was officially announced, she tried to stay positive.
“It was tough at first, but I appreciate that it would have hit some athletes harder,” she said. “In tennis, while the Olympics is the pinnacle, in my opinion, we are lucky enough to have some other big events throughout the year. While it was disappointing, I put it into perspective and realized that it was a much tougher year for so many people.”
Osaka flipped her mindset and decided to enjoy the downtime and break from endless travel between tournaments.
Usually, Osaka’s training is always focused on the next major tournament, and her schedule varies accordingly.
“I also have to change surfaces from hard courts to clay to grass, so all of that is a factor into my movement and on-court practice as well,” she said.
Over recent years, Osaka has centered her passion for activism in her athleticism.
At the 2020 US Open, during the height of the Black Lives Matters protests, Osaka used her public platform to highlight racial injustice.
Throughout the tournament, she wore seven face masks, each bearing the name of a Black person who had been killed by police violence or racial profiling, as Insider’s Darcy Schild reported.
“There was a lot happening in the world, and there were issues that were bigger than all of us, and I felt I needed to say something, even if it wasn’t through words,” Osaka said. “I didn’t feel that with all that I was seeing in the world around me I could just show up and play as if nothing had happened, as if lives were not unjustly taken.”
Osaka hoped the move could spark further conversations about systemic oppression.
“That was the very least I could do,” she said.
Dr. Jill Biden, First Lady of the United States
After Joe Biden was sworn in as president of the United States of America on January 20, Jill Biden took her rightful place as First Lady. She previously served as Second Lady under the Obama administration and has worked as an educator throughout her life — a role she has continued even after she moved to the White House.
On June 25, she joined a broadcast of the Daytime Emmys to co-present (alongside Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau) a posthumous award to Alex Trebeck. Biden called the late TV game show host “warn and funny” and said she loved how “he brought our families together every evening, racking our brains to keep up with the smartest contestants. Thank you, Alex. We miss you.”
It is the human moments like these that remind us that the First Lady’s role in the U.S. Government system doesn’t come with a job description. Each First Lady carves out her own priorities and platforms. As Biden settles in a job with which she is no doubt familiar, we surmise that her areas of interest may be similar to those from her days as Second Lady: working with and advocating for military families, highlighting the importance of community college education and women’s issues ranging from breast cancer prevention and gender equality in the United States and abroad.
VP Kamala Harris, Vice President of the United States
Vice President Kamala Harris holds the tie-breaking vote in an equally divided 50-50 U.S. Senate, but the Biden administration has made it clear that bipartisanship is high on the agenda.
To that end, she has a lot of work to do, and she’s digging in.
Harris recently relaunched the annual ladies’ dinner for female senators, which had been skipped as part of Covid-19 protocols last year. The private dinner was held at the Naval Observatory on Tuesday, June 15, for all female U.S. senators. Harris, herself, is a former U.S. Senator from California.
It was the first known time that Harris hosted lawmakers in the vice-presidential residence since moving in April, a process that was delayed due to renovations. She invited all 24 female senators: 16 Democrats and eight Republicans.
“What a wonderful bipartisan… dinner at our @VP’s residence!” Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) tweeted. In photos, Harris is seen toasting the group from her seat at the table between Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Aka.)
The senators dined on mahi-mahi and ended the night with strawberry rhubarb croustades and vanilla ice cream, according to a menu shared by Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) The meal was paired with wines from Harris’ home state of California.
The Vice President even made the cheese puffs herself, Stabenow tweeted to her followers.
Afterward, Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) told Fox News that Harris was a gracious host and that the dinner was a “lovely event,” while adding that it “wasn’t a policy discussion at all.” Pushed on whether there was any policy talk, Blackburn said it was an “evening of relationship-building.”
Blackburn said the dinner is an annual bipartisan event for the women of the Senate, but that last year’s gathering had been canceled due to Covid-19.
Harris is a former U.S. senator from California -- the chamber’s only Black female senator while she served -- before being tapped as now-President Joe Biden's running mate during the 2020 election.
Now as vice president, Harris returns to the Senate to be the tie-breaking vote and Pres. Biden has tasked her with spearheading the administration’s efforts on voting rights. The Senate is also negotiating on the President’s key priorities including an infrastructure package. Harris had recently returned from her first foreign trip as VP to Guatemala and Mexico as she sought a serious strategy for stemming migration from the Northern Triangle.
The senators who attended included Tammy Baldwin, Marsha Blackburn, Maria Cantwell, Shelley Moore Capito, Susan Collins, Catherine Cortez-Masto, Tammy Duckworth, Joni Ernst, Dianne Feinstein, Deb Fischer, Kirsten Gillibrand, Maggie Hassan, Mazie Hirono, Amy Klobuchar, Lisa Murkowski, Patty Murray, Jacky Rosen, Jeanne Shaheen, Debbie Stabenow, Tina Smith and Elizabeth Warren.
Meghan, The Duchess of Sussex
From her home in Santa Barbara, Calif., actress-turned-princess Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, continues to take the strides necessary to protect her family by any means possible.
Much has been said, leaked, rumored and confirmed in the whirlwind around the royal couple, who left Great Britain last year, first for Canada prior to settling into life in Southern California.
The Duchess is the mother of two royal children with direct, albeit lengthy, paths to the throne of the United Kingdom. Archie Mountbatten-Windsor, 2, and Lilibet Mountbatten-Windsor, who will be one month old on July 4, have been the subject of her, and her husband’s, concerns since the beginning of her pregnancy with Archie.
Hounded unbearably by the paparazzi and cut off from her social life in London, the Duchess confided in an interview taped earlier this spring with Oprah Winfrey that she reached deep levels of depression. Together with His Royal Highness, the Duke of Sussex, the royal couple planned an exit from the confines of traditional royal life.
Now, in the midst of an ongoing effort to clarify the reasons, which are many, for their exit from royal duties, they offered a proverbial olive branch to the head of the family: Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Their second child's given name, Lilibet, is after Elizabeth; while her middle name, Diana, is an obvious ode to Harry’s late mother, the Princess of Wales.
Lilibet, who was born in Santa Barbara, may not be eligible for any titles as the U.S. Constitution bans titles of nobility for American citizens. On Lilibet’s birth certificate, the Duchess is listed simply as Meghan Rachael Markle.
The Duchess in particular has been clear about her intentions for – and costs of – protecting her children: without royal titles, the children don’t qualify for palace-provided security. This means that as her children grow older, enter into kindergartens and schools, the security made available to their parents as the Duke and Duchess won’t follow and protect the great-grandchildren of the British monarch.
For Meghan, the angst of her children’s vulnerability was unbearable. Her husband, Prince Harry, is, of course, the son of a woman driven to death by the paparazzi even with a security detail in place.
At least in Santa Barbara, the press and paparazzi are kept largely at bay by the American ideology that the privacy of children of celebrities, presidents and personalities should be respected.
However untraditional raising royal children in the United States may be to one of the most traditional families in the world, the Duchess of Sussex and her family continue to make the hard decisions necessary, and to ensure that the tragic fate of other royal outsiders is not ever repeated.
Amanda Gorman, Youth Poet Laureate
Who knew? The Youth Poet Laureate sensation, Amanda Gorman, who wowed us during American President Joe Biden’s inauguration in January 2021 contends with speech and auditory processing challenges.
Never would this have been imagined while listening to Gorman’s truly memorable performance that day. This is a quintessential example of how one’s passion for her art is more than enough to rise above a diagnosis, inspire others and be remembered. It also illustrates that where a deficit exists, there are ways to compensate for it.
In addition to the auditory processing disorder, which had been diagnosed when she was in kindergarten, Gorman has speech articulation-related challenges which make it difficult to pronounce certain words and sounds. Consequently, she learned how to read later than her peers and depended upon special accommodations in school, given to students with disabilities. But once she learned how to read, she began to immerse herself in books, started to write her own material and discovered how adept she was at these pursuits. An appearance at the Library of Congress, the publication of her first book of poetry and being named the first-ever National Youth Poet Laureate soon followed.
It takes a great deal of courage to reveal one’s vulnerabilities, and when they come to light, the wow-factor that already surrounds an exceptionally talented person is elevated to a whole new level. The true strength of that individual surfaces when what had been overcome along the road to glory becomes known.
Mackenzie Scott, Philanthropist
Imagine for a moment being obscenely, outrageously rich. I know you’ve done it before. You probably have a list of priorities—college trusts for generations to come, a big yacht, a private island with a private jet. Forget that list. That list is puny. This is the kind of rich where nothing except a second home on an exoplanet is out of your reach.
That is the position in which MacKenzie Scott found herself in July 2019, when her divorce from Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, was finalized and she became the owner of four percent of Amazon’s stock. She was a single woman in her 50th year with about $38 billion to blow. Since then, Amazon’s share price has grown like the piles of cardboard boxes it leaves on homes’ doorsteps, so estimates of her wealth are even higher, something like $57 billion. And that’s after giving $5.9 billion away.
People have given away that much before. But not usually so fast. Or without starting a foundation first. Or without any of the recipients asking for it or even knowing in advance. Or with so few strings attached; the organizations can use the money in any way they see fit. According to Candid, an organization that tracks spending in the charitable sector, Scott was responsible for 20 percent of all the COVID-19-related philanthropic funds given away globally last year, and almost 75 percent of those given by individuals. More than half of the money given to BIPOC communities by rich people last year came from her.
Scott was rich before her divorce, of course. Increasingly so, during her 25-year marriage to Bezos. But perhaps because the wealth was not strictly hers to dispose of, she was not noted for her extravagant giving. In fact, she was not noted for her extravagant anything. She drove a Honda minivan. She wore a $700 jersey dress to the 2018 Vanity Fair Oscar party. Some of the dinners she hosted at her home were potluck.
So it’s probably not surprising that even before the stock transfer made her one of the richest women in the world, just a month after her divorce was settled, and two years ago this month, Scott signed the Giving Pledge, a public promise to give away the bulk of her wealth.
“We each come by the gifts we have to offer by an infinite series of influences and lucky breaks we can never fully understand,” she wrote in her pledge. “In addition to whatever assets life has nurtured in me, I have a disproportionate amount of money to share.”
Warren Buffett’s a signatory to the pledge, as are Bill and Melinda Gates; Sara Blakely, who invented Spanx; and Michael Bloomberg, among more than 200 others. But in her first year of giving her money away, Scott has been behaving quite differently from her fellow philanthropists. And in doing so, she is quietly changing the way the trillion-dollar-a-year philanthropy business operates.
Sharon Stone, Actor & Activist
Sharon Stone speaks candidly about her decision to come forward with details about her sexual abuse in her new memoir, The Beauty of Living Twice.
She recalled horrible memories from her past for the book, including a time when she and her sister, Kelly, were sexually abused by a grandfather when they were younger. Detailing that she and her sibling “made this decision together” to reveal the abuse in her memoir, Stone said, “We spoke to my mother and at first she was very stoic and wrote me a letter about how disconcerting all this information was. The whole pious, horrified, I-don’t-really-want-to-talk-about-it-directly kind of thing.”
Following a familial confrontation at her sister’s home, “Mom had a major breakthrough,” said Stone.
“When I finished the book, I read it to my mother over a three-day period. And I had the flu at the time. I was in bed and she got in bed with me as I finished the book, and then I recorded an hour and a half of her talking,” she added. “And then I rewrote a lot of the book. That’s when I dedicated the book to her.”
The Basic Instinct star says her memoir is coming after decades of reflection and coming to believe that as women reach the age of 40, “white male society starts to tell women you don’t have worth.”
“I think that as we grow older, we have this societal pressure when people start to try to tell us that our worth is diminished,” Stone told Oprah Winfrey during a taping of Super Soul Sunday. “I think when we get to 40 as women, that’s an incredibly powerful place. Though the patriarchy tells you that your worth diminishes after 40, I don’t believe that at all. Your worth becomes so much more.”
The actress also spoke to Winfrey about a near-death experience and her recovery after having a near-fatal stroke, alongside the trauma and abuse she experienced as a child. Her outlook on her openness is simple: it’s better to share these aspects of her life publicly. Otherwise, “People will make it all up for you,” she said about keeping details to herself. “There’s been pretty much an adult lifetime of people making up my life for me,” she said. “I’ve had quite a bit of tummy trouble waiting for this book to come.”
“Now I’m going to go out in the most menacing, disruptive, psychologically aggressive period that our world has been in since the ‘60s and be vulnerable and open,” Stone said. “I understand that I’ll be met with a certain amount of that. But I don’t want to gird my loins. I don’t want to be defensive. I want to prepare to be open and present. Because that’s the purpose of my journey.”
Sonia Sotomayor, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court
On January 20, 2021, Vice President Kamala Harris, a daughter of immigrants, and Sonia Sotomayor, the nation’s first Latina Supreme Court justice, met on the largest stage in the United States of America to reset a nation in crisis.
Harris and Sotomayor exchanged only a few words as they recited and repeated the vice presidential oath, but their presence marked perhaps the strongest visual cue of an abrupt change of course.
In choosing Sotomayor to administer the oath, Harris picked an ideological sister who has journeyed the same path, littered with familiar obstacles, to mark a turn in the direction of the country. As Sotomayor delivered the 71 words of the oath, Harris became the first female Black vice president, a woman born of an Indian mother and a Jamaican American father, and she joined Sotomayor in a small society of women at the top echelon of government.
Harris was inspired by Sotomayor’s legacy, a source familiar with the decision said. For progressives -- especially young women, daughters of immigrants, African Americans, Indian Americans, Jamaican Americans, Latinas, children of the projects -- the sight of the two women together sent a strong signal as the new government settled in for a bumpy ride.
Issa Rae, Actor, Writer and Producer
Issa Rae, the "Insecure" star, used modern tactics to grow her audience and made timeless moves to build synergies across her businesses.
After an 18-month break, Insecure is back. Rae needed that time off to live life. “Insecure takes nine months out of my life. I’m pulling from life experience, and if you’re not living, then what are you really making?” she recently said.
Her break also included four movies, a newly launched record label, a coffee shop in Inglewood, and more projects on the way. The multi-hyphenate shows no signs of slowing down.
Rae says she models herself after Oprah, Diddy and Ellen. But those three came up in a different time. Some of their tactics aren’t relevant for Rae, who started on the Internet. She developed her own playbook, but still learned from those who came before. Her journey is more relatable for the rising media mogul.
In 2007, Rae launched "Dorm Diaries," a YouTube series on black life at Stanford University. To get the word out, she used Facebook. The social network had just expanded to let anyone become a user. While many of us frantically hid our profiles from potential employers, Rae went all the way in.
“It started with Facebook randomly, trying to add friends. When they opened it up to the world I was like ‘Oh my gosh, I’m going to add all the Senegalese people.’ And that was a community, an African community where we shared stuff amongst each other,” Rae said. “Three shows down the line when I launched "Awkward Black Girl," I already had a fan base from the other two shows. I really learned from my mistakes, learned what people wanted to see, then studied the analytics. By the time that show came out, there was an audience. It wasn’t huge or anything, but it was enough for them to share with their friends, and they would share with their friends.”
"Awkward Black Girl" took off because of its strong base and word of mouth. Rae launched a Kickstarter for season 2. She nearly doubled her $30,000 goal.
Similarly, Rae’s Facebook groups brought together awkward black folks from all walks of life. Her content attracts those who can watch her show and say “YES! That’s def me.” Her audience is used to being the only ones in the room. Rae’s official Facebook page now has over 250,000 fans.
Rae built up her leverage. When HBO came around in 2013, it took some time but they got it right. Now, anyone who’s seen both Awkward Black Girl and Insecure can see the differences. The premium cable show has more sex appeal than Awkward Black Girl ever had. It’s HBO, what did we expect? But despite the glamour and glitz, the show maintains its awkward-as-hell identity.
Rae doesn’t own Insecure, HBO does. But she uses its intellectual property for a growing number of ventures. There are four key areas.
First, she uses Patreon to host behind-the-scenes interviews with Insecure cast members. She also grants exclusive access to events and offers other perks. That Patreon revenue is used to support other diverse and talented creators.
This challenges a misconception on Patreon. It’s often viewed as a donation platform for budding creators. But why should creators leave Patreon after they break out? Sure, Rae no longer needs that revenue to live life. But it’s more valuable to shift it to initiatives or philanthropic efforts that fans value. Otherwise, it’s harder to convene these passionate customers.
Second, she teamed up with Atlantic Records to launch her Raedio record label. The artists she signs will likely get their music played in Insecure and Rae’s other digital properties. Raedio recently acquired a music supervision company to oversee the use of music in both film and TV. Raedio also partnered w