Barbara Walters Honors 100 Women of the Century

Barbara Walters, 1993
Barbara Walters, 1993. Frank Capri/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On Friday, April 30, 1999, ABC presented a Barbara Walters special honoring "100 Women of the Century." Part of a trend of many other "top 100 of the century" or even "top 100 of the millennium" lists, the special was organized around the list of 100 women found in the book of the same title by Walters, published by Ladies' Home Journal, though the special didn't stick strictly to that list. The book was rich in photographs.

Walters, a prominent journalist and herself a breaker of glass ceilings as a woman in that field, was famous for her specials on various topics, often interviews with celebrities. This special highlighted those women she thought made an impact on the century. Entertainers were prominent in the special. But many women who contributed to this century in other ways were also featured.  

Walters asked the key question: "Who in the world is Alice Paul, and why should I care?" Using Alice Paul to stand in for all women who contributed to history, Walters stressed the importance of getting acquainted with these women. All of them.

Who did Jane Fonda say popped into her mind as the most influential woman of the century? Coco Chanel! Fonda explains: "And here's why: She freed us from the corset."

Some of the women featured in the book included infamous women like Madame Mao (Jiang Qing) who oversaw China's bloody Cultural Revolution, and Leni Riefenstahl, known as Hitler's moviemaker.

Through talking about these women, Walters and her guests manage to cover the first and second waves of feminism, women who were activists for women's rights and other causes, women in film and television, women in fashion and fashion's effect on women's lives and health, women singers, and more.

Here is a list of women who appear or are named in the special. I include the long list as a reminder of the many women who've had an impact on our world, in many different fields:

Actresses, comediennes, and singers included: Janis Joplin, Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett, Katharine Hepburn, Oprah Winfrey, Jane Fonda, Madonna, Bette Midler, Rosie O'Donnell, Vivien Leigh, Hattie McDaniel, Jessye Norman, Maria Callas, Marilyn Monroe, Celine Dion, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Marian Anderson, Greta Garbo, Lauren Bacall ...

Included also were artists Georgia O'Keeffe and Frida Kahlo, photographers Margaret Bourke-White and Dorothea Lange, dancers Martha Graham and Isadora Duncan, poet Maya Angelou, and writer Ann Landers.

Sports figures included "Babe" Didrickson, Gertrude Ederle, Sonja Henie, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Wilma Rudolph, Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, and Nadia Comenici.

Aviator Amelia Earhart and astronaut Lt. Eileen Collins were listed, as was scientist Marie Curie, fashion designer Coco Chanel, executive Katharine Graham, and the created figure of Rosie the Riveter.

Women known for their activism or political involvements also appear. These included Gloria Steinem, editor of Ms. Magazine, Rosa Parks, Margaret Sanger, Jane Addams, Ann Richards, Alice Paul, Helen Keller, Annie Sullivan, Carrie Chapman CattRachel Carson, Betty Friedan, Phyllis Schlafly, Marian Wright Edelman, Anita Hill (the transcript calls her Anita Thomas at one point!), Mother Teresa, Margaret Mead, Madeleine Albright.

First Ladies Eleanor Roosevelt, Jacqueline Kennedy, Betty Ford, and Hillary Rodham Clinton were highlighted, along with Princess Diana and Hjeads of state Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir, and Margaret Thatcher.

And, though she professes embarrassment to be included: Barbara Walters herself.

Has the world changed with the impact of these women? Yes. Does it need to change more? Gloria Steinem says, in the special:

  • "But the problem is that when I go around and speak on campuses, I still don’t get young men standing up and saying, 'How can I combine career and family?'"

Added: Jane Fonda

Though Jane Fonda is not a major theme in the book or special, a long-term after-effect of the special is the email chain which has evolved over the years, accusing Jane Fonda of betraying American POWs in Vietnam. The emails continue to be circulated, often demanding that the 1999 Barbara Walters book or special be "stopped." Some of them have mentioned this review and its author as a supposed co-writer of Walters' book. (This author was not involved in the book, just this review.) In about 2009, the emails evolved to allege that President Barack Obama was a co-writer of the book.

Information on the Book

100 Most Important Women of the 20th Century by Kevin Markey, Ladies' Home Journal Books, Lorraine Glennon, Myrna Blyth (Introduction), Barbara Walters.

Featured in the April 1999 Barbara Walters special, this book is heavy on the entertainers but is itself an entertaining look at the women of the century.