When Valerie Harper was working for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment in the late 1960s, she saw a poster of Golda Meir, then prime minister of Israel, on the wall at a chapter of the National Organization for Women. "The caption said, 'But Can She Type?' " recalls Harper, with a big laugh. Forty years later the 66-year-old actress still best known as Mary Tyler Moore's sassy sidekick, Rhoda, is following in Meir's footsteps in more ways than one, playing the feminist icon in a touring one-woman play, Golda's Balcony, and working tirelessly in her spare time to improve the welfare of women around the world.
Since 1977 she has channeled much of her prodigious energy into The Hunger Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to eradicating hunger, in part by empowering women. "The real issue holding hunger in place is the subjugation, marginalization, and disempowerment of women," says Harper. "Wherever you have abject hunger, you will see low status of women. But when there are resources in the hands of women, the kids eat." The Hunger Project, which has aided some 2.5 million people in 13 developing countries in Africa, South Asia, and Latin America, provides women with loans for small businesses and farms, promotes girls' education, and helps build food banks, health clinics, and schools.
In the past year Harper has worked to raise consciousness about poverty and hunger by traveling to Africa, lobbying Congress, and hosting fundraisers. Activism springs from optimism, she says. "I believe I make a difference. I think we all do. I'm no special person." She pauses, then laughs. "And you know what? When you take action, you meet fabulous people."
*The name of this award was originally the Impact Award. In 2008, the awards were renamed as the Inspire Awards.