20 Women who are making us stronger, healthier and happier

by Catherine Conelly
Dec 1, 2015 at 3:00 a.m. ET

Healthcare has never been more controversial, but these women made it their top priority long before politicians did.

1 /20: Chanel Porchia-Albert

1/20 :Chanel Porchia-Albert

An infant in the United States is three times more likely to die during their first year of life than in Japan. Hands down, we have one of the worst infant mortality rates when compared to other European countries and some experts point to more premature births as the cause for this gap. However, three researchers at The University of Chicago dug deeper and found that this gap is largely due to the fact that poor families in the U.S. simply have less access to quality health care during a baby’s first year of life and, therefore, babies born to financially disadvantaged moms in the U.S. are far more likely to die before reaching their first birthday than in other countries.

Suddenly the phrase “poor baby” takes on a whole new meaning, and it’s not a good one. So, thank goodness for Chanel Porchia-Albert who founded a doula program for low-income women that helps provide care to low-income families, who may not be able to afford it otherwise. Her company, Ancient Song Doula Services, not only offers doula services, but also counseling on childbirth, breastfeeding and other workshops that arm moms with information critical to raising a healthy baby.

Doula and midwifery may seem like an outdated practice, but the reality is that in many cases it’s actually saving infants’ lives, thanks to women like Porchia-Albert.

2/20 :Kris Carr

Sexy and cancer are two words you don’t typically put in the same sentence, but Kris Carr managed to take her rare cancer diagnosis as an opportunity to live an incredibly magical life, though not without a lot of tears along the way. Even the trailer for her documentary Crazy Sexy Cancer will leave you a little teary (or I’m just a wimp), but by the end, you’ll feel a spark of empowerment to play the deck of cards you’ve been dealt with total abandon.

When asked for her favorite piece of wisdom, she told us, “Be willing to fail greatly and then scrape your ass off the pavement and try again,” and she almost makes it sounds fun.

Now living with cancer for 10 years, she has turned her emotional journey into an empire of books that help others take their health, and their lives, into their own hands. She’s an iconic activist in the health community, not to mention one of my favorite Instagramers to follow and someone you’ll want to be best friends with. But it’s not about the fame and the popularity. “Don't get too distracted by shiny objects and glossy opportunities. When you stay focused on your goals and why you’re doing what you’re doing, you make a much bigger impact,” she tells us of what she’s learned over the years. Amen.

3 /20: Kacy Catanzaro

3/20 :Kacy Catanzaro

Kacy Catanzaro made headlines when she became the first woman to attempt and complete an American Ninja Warrior obstacle course. The real kicker? She is 5 feet tall. So, any delusions you had about size and strength going hand in hand, just forget them. Once you watch the video of Kacy scaling walls and mastering other incredible obstacles I don’t even know the names of, you’ll believe once and for all that big things can often come in small packages.

Her story inspired girls everywhere, so much so that #MightyKacy was quite the popular Halloween costume this year. In recent years, young girls and their parents have spoken up against sayings like, “Run like a girl,” and Kacy is the perfect example of just how powerful doing anything “like a girl” really is.

4 /20: Lindsay Avner

4/20 :Lindsay Avner

“It is better to play offense vs. defense. We are so fortunate to have the opportunity to know our risk for developing breast and ovarian cancer and do something about it,” says Lindsay Avner, and that’s essentially the principal she has built her entire nonprofit organization on, Bright Pink, which is dedicated to prevention and early detection of breast and ovarian cancer in young women. “Be proactive and intentional about knowing your family's health history.”

My favorite word there is “intentional.” It’s a theme we’re seeing more and more of in the conversations around women’s health. Advice like, “Take your health into your own hands” and “Get a second opinion,” radiate through almost any article you see on cancer. Women are making big decisions to remove their breasts and their ovaries in the name of defeating cancer, so the word “intentional” is carrying more weight than ever.

Avner cited Teddy Roosevelt’s famous quote on taking chances as a source of inspiration for her and other women, which says, “... at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

“I never, ever want to be among those cold and timid souls,” she said. She has also made it a personal goal to walk 10,000 steps no less than 250 days a year.

Who knows if we will ever defeat cancer entirely, but victory isn’t the whole point. Maybe simply making it a fight instead of death sentence is the true strength.

5 /20: Kelley Johnson

5/20 :Kelley Johnson

Beauty queens have too long been criticized as beauty without brains — but at the 2016 Miss America pageant Kelley Johnson, Miss Colorado, performed a monologue for the talent portion of the show. It was inspired by an Alzheimer’s patient she encountered as a nurse, another “role” that has too long been stereotyped as a female-only profession made of people who weren’t good enough to be doctors.

But Johnson’s speech reflected on the importance of nurses, saying, “Joe reminded me that day that I’m a lifesaver. I’m never going to be just a nurse.”

The emotional moment paved the way for a new image of beauty queens, the one that’s been there all along, the one of women who are nurses and mothers and activists who pull their pants up every day and just try to make a difference. Not only that, her message called for more respect for nursing professionals, and it clearly worked because when The View cast took a jab at Johnson, social media went to work defending the hard work nurses do and the “thank yous” they deserve.

6 /20: Ernestine Shepherd

6/20 :Ernestine Shepherd

Up until 2012, Ernestine Shepherd was the oldest female competitive body builder at 74 years old when Edith Connor beat her record at age 77. Nonetheless, Shephard remains close to our memories as one of the first women to prove that age is what you make it, not what others tell you it will be. She’s competed, and won, body building competitions and has nine marathons under her belt, so it’s safe to say she’s helping redefine what it means to age as a woman.

"Years ago, I concerned myself about what people said concerning me,” she told ABC News in 2010. “But when you get (sic) 70-something and you don't have that many years in front of you, you don't concern yourself with that."

She turned 79 in 2015, but what’s more impressive is that she didn’t even touch weights until she was 56. So with that in mind, let’s have a cliché moment and just say it’s never too late to achieve something that seems impossible and show the world something unexpected.

7 /20: Jennifer Grayeb

7/20 :Jennifer Grayeb

FitFluential is a health and fitness site co-founded by Jennifer Grayeb in 2011 — it’s a website that doubles as a social media community of fitness enthusiasts and experts who provide workouts and recipes to each other. The community aspect is what’s most inspiring about the project because the advice comes from other women (and men) who have learned through trial and error and are speaking from experience.

Grayeb also used to manage a personal blog about health and fitness, which earned her a runner-up spot for Fitness Magazine’s Best Personal Trainer blog. It was called She's a Fit Chick, with the tagline, “Or at least she tries to be.” Amen to that, because who is perfect these days?

She has also blogged about blogging and how other women can do it. So, whether through her own writing or by starting the FitFluentual community, she makes giving women a voice part of her passion.

8 /20: Ashley Hicks-Rocha/Toni Carey

8/20 :Ashley Hicks-Rocha/Toni Carey

According to The State of Obesity report, as of 2014, 82 percent of African-American women are overweight or obese, and black children are more likely to be overweight than white children. So, back in 2009 Toni Carey and Ashley Hicks-Rocha set out to curb these rising rates by starting Black Girls Run! to encourage black women to make their health a priority, and therefore also reduce rates of chronic disease within black communities.

“Your blessing is always outside of your comfort zone,” Hicks-Rocha told us. “Through the years of inspiring and changing lives, BGR! has lived outside of the comfort zone. We've pushed the envelope and challenged the way the black community thinks about running and the way the greater running community embraces diversity.”

It’s an inspiring message to think about when it comes to anything in your life. Live outside your comfort zone, even just a little, and just like that you can achieve the unthinkable. Carey appropriately added, “Stay true to you, your purpose and your passion. As soon as those things fall out of line, it's time to step back and ask yourself some tough questions.”

9/20 :Cassey Ho

You’ll never see someone more excited to be working out. Click play on any one of Cassey Ho’s Blogilates Pilates videos and you’re in for a treat of smiles that make sweating look like the party everyone wants to be at. It’s a refreshing attitude when exercise is so often framed as an obligation. Instead, Ho’s enthusiasm is a much-needed reminder for girls and women that exercise is something we can choose to do because it’s fun and healthy. Yes, I said fun. To quote one of Ho’s videos, “You’re about to die, but it’s going to be fun.”

While her workout videos may have brought her to fame, it didn’t come without a lot of harsh criticism about the way she looked and she recently decided to face her negative commenters head on. Her video "The Perfect Body" received almost 8 million views, as it displayed real comments people made about her love handles and belly fat. 

“Where’s the six pack?” one person wrote, propelling the stereotype that every personal trainer is supposed to look one, single way. At the end of the video, her figure is warped to fit what others think the perfect body looks like, but she’s disappointed with the image.

The reality of fitness is about taking care of our bodies, not about looking the part. Cassey gets that. Her advice? "Never stop evolving. Too many people get stuck doing the same thing because they're afraid their audience will reject change. But the truth is... we all need to change to get better and get stronger."

10 /20: Katherine Stone

10/20 :Katherine Stone

Remember when Tom Cruise made headlines for essentially saying Brooke Shields’ post-partum depression was b.s.? Oh, how far we have come. Katherine Stone founded a post-partum blog called Postpartum Progress, dedicated specifically to the mental health of new moms. It’s raked in several awards, as it continues to bring awareness to post-partum depression. She later started a nonprofit based on the same principals of advocacy, partnership, awareness building, fundraising and policy changing.

“We are catalysts. We are champions. We are instigators and innovators. We know without a scintilla of doubt that the mental health of every mother is absolutely crucial to the current and future health of her child, and we’re determined to make sure mothers are able to recover from perinatal mood and anxiety disorders as soon as possible,” reads the nonprofit site.

Some of the most inspiring women in the health space — and there are a lot of them — take big chances to make a change. As women, we can’t let controversy stand in the way of what we know is best for our bodies. It’s not an easy row to hoe, but women like Stone make it easier.

11 /20: Julie Creffield

11/20 :Julie Creffield

Over the past few years, through viral stories and social media, I’ve been honored to witness women redefine what being healthy and beautiful really looks like and how the world perceives both. It should be clearer than ever that beauty doesn’t fit into one box, nor do body types. Julie Creffield is a runner in the UK, who started a site called The Fat Girls' Guide to Running to prove just that.

So many women who are overweight are just plain afraid to exercise because of what people might say when they see them in the gym or running on the side of the road. I’d venture to say that overweight women may have seen the most evil sides of people. Just read any article about a plus-size woman — the comments can get nasty and cruel fast. Creffield, herself, was inspired to run her first 10K, and later start her website after a child mocked her for being a “fatty” when he saw her out of breath from running.

Creffield decided to blog about training for her first marathon and was astounded by how many other plus-size runners were relating to her journey. Today, her key messages remain, “Any woman can do it” and “It’s not obesity that kills us, it’s inactivity.”

12 /20: Gretchen Witt

12/20 :Gretchen Witt

Some stories are just bittersweet — and there’s no way to get the sweet without the bitter. Gretchen Witt’s son Liam was diagnosed with childhood cancer at 2 years old, and it wasn’t until then that she and her husband realized just how little was being done to improve outcomes and treatments for children cancer patients. It’s the leading cause of death for children in the United States, so Witt didn’t falter with her next move: getting involved. She and her husband started Cookies for Kids’ Cancer by baking 96,000 cookies with 250 volunteers, raising $400,000 for pediatric cancer research. Word spread quickly, and more people got involved. Today, their organization has supported 48 research grants for childhood cancer through funds raised at events around the world.

This is a silver lining for the roughly 13,000 children that will be diagnosed with cancer annually in the U.S. and the 40,000 already fighting. If you want to get involved you can host an event, join their #36aDay social campaign (the amount of children diagnosed daily) or donate here

13 /20: Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha

13/20 :Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha

Everyone loves a good Erin Brockovich story, right? Well, this isn’t that exactly, but definitely has the same woman-takes-on-the-unimaginable-and-wins kind of vibe. Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha is the director of the pediatrics program at Hurley Medical Center at the University of Michigan, more commonly known as the woman who got the state of Michigan to acknowledge there was lead poisoning in their water that children were drinking.

Hanna-Attisha was said to have looked at over 1,700 test results from children in Flint, Michigan after the city switched their water supply from Lake Huron to Flint River. She found that lead levels in children had doubled, and even tripled in certain areas. But, when the information went public, the city insisted the drinking water was safe and almost immediately criticized Hanna-Attisha’s data and questioned her credibility to conclude this. She was dismissed, but she kept pressing, and the state health officials eventually confirmed that her data was correct.

It just goes to show that when things get tough, believe in yourself and you can do more than you imagined.

14 /20: Miriam Zoila Pérez

14/20 :Miriam Zoila Pérez

What’s a Doula, exactly? Someone who provides emotional support for pregnant women. Nope, that’s wrong. Follow Miriam Pérez’s Radical Doula movement and you’ll quickly learn that a doula is someone who provides emotional support to pregnant people.

To her this means many different things, some which include making doula services available to those who don’t currently have access to one, volunteering Doula services for free, learning to support pregnant women who have a disability, and supporting gay and non-gender conforming people through childbirth. Through this message, Perez has demonstrated the intersection of social activism and Doula work. 

Traditionally, Doula work doesn’t involve a lot of social activism.  And it’s not political. It’s simply providing emotional and physical support during childbirth. At a basic level, a doula is a birthing coach with benefits. They are trained in massage therapy, emotional support tactics, acupressure and the list goes on. But for Perez, that only make a difference if you’re providing those services to women who wouldn’t otherwise have access to them.

She’s working to change the politics around pregnancy through her work as a Doula. As she writes, “For me birth activism is about working to improve the pregnancy and birth experiences of those who are already suffering the most–not just improving the experiences of those who already have the best outcomes.”

15 /20: Christy Turlington Burns

15/20 :Christy Turlington Burns

Most know her as a model, but not everyone knows about her organization Every Mother Counts. We were lucky enough to host Burns and BlogHer15 earlier this year, where she shed light on the amount of women who die annually due to birth complications. And that 289,000 number can come as quite a shock when you think about how many women seem to leave hospitals with a newborn baby. While 99 percent of these deaths occur in developing countries, the United States still loses two women to childbirth every day and we’re ranked an impressive 60th when it comes to maternal health (sarcasm on the word “impressive”).

Along with starting Every Mother Counts, Burns produced a documentary called No Woman, No Cry to raise awareness for maternal health. Her key message? These deaths are nearly 100 percent preventable, so let’s step up.

And step up she has. The organization has impacted 312,000 lives with about $2.6 million raised. They actually provided a grant to Ancient Song Doula Services founder Chanel Porchia-Albert, who also made our list of 20 inspiring women in health. You can learn more about their grants here

16 /20: Nancy Frates

16/20 :Nancy Frates

Remember when you were tagged in a Facebook post last year because someone requested you so kindly to dump a bucket of ice over your head and film it? You can thank Nancy Frates and her family for that, who started the Ice Bucket Challenge and set off the social media firestorm that was packaged as an awareness campaign meets fundraiser for The ALS Association.

“We didn’t even understand that it had been 75 years since Lou Gehrig and nothing had been done in the progress against ALS,” she said during her TED Talk of her inspiration to start the challenge. Her son had been diagnosed with ALS, and it wasn’t until then that she realized there really was no cure. Later, her son’s roommate posted the first Ice Bucket Challenge video and within about three weeks, it went from their news feeds to news feeds around the world.

Since the campaign, according to CNN, after the Ice Bucket Challenge, 2.5 million people donated a total of $115 million, making it the largest donation outside of a natural disaster. I’d say that’s a win.

17 /20: Marion Nestle

17/20 :Marion Nestle

What does food and nutrition have in common with society and socioeconomics? A lot, according Marion Nestle. Can food and nutrition make the world a better place? Yes, according to Marion Nestle. She’s written nine books and the politics of nutrition including Food Politics, What to Eat: An Aisle-by-Aisle Guide to Savvy Food Choices, Why Calories Count and Soda Politics. So, she knows a thing or two.

Most importantly, she became known for pointing out that just as cigarettes had been marketed to children, so has junk food. The weapons were different, but the crime was the same and marketers were to blame.

18 /20: Alice Domar

18/20 :Alice Domar

Mind-body research is often written off as “quackery,” but as a pioneer for mind-body medicine, Alice Domar has witnessed the role stress can play in chronic physical health conditions and has taken the initiative to study how it affects women.

She is one of the first researchers to study women’s health issues like infertility, endometriosis, high-risk pregnancy and others from a mind and body approach, specifically how stress triggers them. She has the science to back up why the mind and body should be studied together instead of separately. It’s far from quackery — and many researchers now recognize that it’s the golden age of science, thanks to women like Domar.

19 /20: Dr. Lissa Rankin

19/20 :Dr. Lissa Rankin

Oh, health care. It’s a dirty word these days, and basically guaranteed to start a debate in any room within seconds. So, if you’re looking for more controversy in your life, lead with that at your next happy hour. Meanwhile, Lissa Rankin is boldly out on a mission to not only help women heal themselves, but to heal the health care system. Much like there is a push to merge mind and body within the medical field, Rankin wants to merge science and spirituality.

After working as an OB-GYN at integrative medicine practice, she eventually opened her own practice for mind-body medicine, which later lead her to take up speaking, studying and writing full time about how fear affects everything in our lives, both physical and mental. And with 12 years' worth of medical education at three different universities under her belt, she’s beyond qualified to be an expert on the topic.

She describes her job as, “I doctor not just bodies, but souls.” And we could all use a little more soul work, eh?

20 /20: Dr. Regina Benjamin

20/20 :Dr. Regina Benjamin

Last, but definitely not least, Dr. Regina Benjamin became the first African-American woman to serve as president of a state medical society when she was appointed president of The Medical Association of the State of Alabama. To boot, she also set a record as the first African-American woman to be elected to the American Medical Association Board of Trustees.

Those are a whole lot of fancy words that can be broken down to: She’s a female physician who works really, really hard. She was appointed Surgeon General by President Obama in 2009, and during her term, she tackled high rates of overweight Americans, weight issues among women of color — specifically heart health — and suicide prevention.

But, like any woman in a powerful position, she faced critics who said her own weight was an issue and who didn’t approve of her pro-choice opinion. Nonetheless, she is cited as “having taught America to walk again,” reframing how we see exercise and how exercise and healthy living can actually bring communities together.