Celebrate the L.A. Legacy of Ten Extraordinary Women

Mary Pickford
Photo courtesy of Mary Pickford, Facebook

From science to film, sports to politics, Los Angeles has been home to many women who have risen to the top of their fields. They made great strides in medical research, won championships, fought for the rights of others and contributed to our rich tradition of arts. For International Women's Day on March 8, we salute just a few of the great women who have called L.A. home.

Francesca Lia Block

L.A.-native Francesca Lia Block is a prolific, award-winning author with more than 25 titles to her credit. Still, she remains best known for the Weetzie Bat series of books, chronicling the life of an L.A. woman who comes of age during the city's punk era. Block writes about Los Angeles with such vivid detail that you can practically smell the jacaranda trees and Oki Dogs as you read. Block remains a local where, in addition to writing, she teaches the subject at various locations. 

Misty Copeland

Misty Copeland didn't begin studying ballet until she was 13, but her talent was undeniable. As a teenager, Copeland trained at San Pedro Ballet School. Today, you'll find her image muralized on the side of the building and an adjacent intersection named for the famed dancer. In 2015, Copeland made history as the first African-American promoted to principal dancer in the American Ballet Theatre. Copeland has had lead roles in famed ballets like Swan Lake and Firebird.

Jeanne Cordova

After a stint as a nun, Jeanne Cordova came out as a lesbian and embarked on her calling as an author and activist in the early 1970s. She went on to become the publisher of the magazine Lesbian Tide while also working as a columnist for the Los Angeles Free Press. Later on, she founded Community Yellow Pages to support gay and lesbian business owners, and continued to write. Her work appeared in publications like The Advocate and The Nation, as well as in a number of anthologies. She authored three books, including the memoir When We Were Outlaws. Cordova died in Los Feliz in 2016. 

Helen Liu Fong

Pann's Restaurant in Westchester
Pann's | Photo courtesy of Mike Hume, Discover Los Angeles Flickr Pool

Googie architecture developed and thrived in Los Angeles, where car culture lent itself to buildings and signage that was noticeable to those those driving along the city streets. One of the pioneers of this style was architect and interior designer Helen Liu Fong. Born in Chinatown, Fong went to work for the firm Armet & Davis, who were responsible for many iconic mid-20th century diners. She worked on projects like Norms on La Cienega, Pann's in Westchester, and Johnie's in the Miracle Mile. Located at Wilshire and Fairfax, Johnie's is a former coffee shop and popular film location, appearing in The Big Lebowski, Reservoir Dogs and more.

Lisa Leslie

Lisa Leslie was the first player drafted by the Los Angeles Sparks when the WNBA was founded in 1997. A native of Gardena in L.A.'s South Bay, she won acclaim as a player as far back as high school, when she played on Inglewood's Morningside High School state championship team. She went on to play for USC, and won a gold medal at the Summer Olympics in Atlanta, before joining the WNBA. Leslie spent her professional career with the Sparks, winning two championships and three MVP awards along the way. In 2002, Leslie became the first player to dunk in a WNBA game. She retired in 2009 at the age of 36 and her jersey was retired the following year. Today, she's a partial owner of the team.

Ida Lupino

Director Ida Lupino behind the camera
Ida Lupino behind the camera | Photo courtesy of University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Born in the U.K. into a family of well-known performers, Ida Lupino began acting for the camera as a teenager and eventually headed out to Los Angeles. As an actor, her career was prolific and lasted from the 1930s through the late 1970s. However, she became a trailblazer when she stepped behind the camera. Lupino was a director when that was an incredibly rare position held by a woman. In 1949, she made her directorial debut (uncredited) with the film Not Wanted. A number of directing credits followed, from the noir flick The Hitch-Hiker to the teen comedy The Trouble with Angels. She flourished on television, directing episodes of classic series like The Donna Reed Show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone and Bewitched.

Mary Pickford

The Theatre at Ace Hotel
The Theatre at Ace Hotel | Photo courtesy of Ace Hotel

Undoubtedly, Mary Pickford was one of the most influential people in young Hollywood. She started out as an actor, rising to fame with the success of silent films. Pickford was more than a movie star; she was a force behind the camera too. In 1919, she co-founded United Artists with Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith and Douglas Fairbanks. Pickford was influential in the design of the studio's flagship movie house, now known as The Theatre at Ace Hotel. She produced films after she retired from acting in the early 1930s, and helped found both the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Motion Picture Relief Fund. Pickford died in 1979, but the foundation that bears her name continues her philanthropic work.

Norma Merrick Sklarek

Night view of the "Blue Whale" at the Pacific Design Center
Pacific Design Center | Photo courtesy of stevebev, Flickr

A trailblazing architect, Norma Merrick Sklarek's work is spread across Los Angeles, from Terminal 1 at Los Angeles International Airport to the Pacific Design Center and the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising. When she earned her California architect license in 1962, she was the first black woman to do so in this state. She had already earned a license in New York, where she was previously employed. Sklarek enjoyed a long career in architecture, but it was not an easy one; the L.A. Times obituary that ran after her 2012 death noted that Sklarek dealt with racist and sexist attitudes in her field. She went on to co-found an all-female firm in the mid 1980s and was ultimately elected to the American Institute of Architecture College of Fellows.

Hilda Solis

Hilda Solis
Photo courtesy of Hilda Solis, Facebook

In her long and distinguished political career, Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis has served in the U.S. House of Representatives and was the Secretary of Labor under Barack Obama, where she became the first Latina to hold a Cabinet position. A champion of environmental issues for low-income and minority communities, Solis was instrumental in passing California's environmental justice law in 1999. For her efforts, she received the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award in 2000.

Dr. Elizabeth Stern

Elizabeth Stern
Photo courtesy of The Jackson Laboratory

Born and raised in Canada, Dr. Elizabeth Stern earned a residency at Good Samaritan and Cedars of Lebanon in Los Angeles in 1942 and remained in the city until she died in 1980. In L.A., Dr. Stern focused her research on cervical cancer and made huge strides in understanding the development and possible causes of the disease. She studied how the disease slowly took shape. In 1963, after joining UCLA's School of Public Health, she wrote a paper on the link between herpes simplex virus and cervical cancer. Later on, after more than a decade of studying local women, she found a link between oral contraception use and the disease. Today, cervical cancer is often caught and treated early and thanks in part to Dr. Stern's lifetime of research.


Liz Ohanesian