Leaders, risk-takers, activists: UK’s women alumnae model rich lives of service and courage

Simidele Adeagbo competes in a jumping event as an athlete at the University of Kentucky. Photo provided by Adeagbo. 

Sarah Michels

What do an Olympian skeleton racer, feminist activist, former United Nations ambassador, award-winning historian of medicine and Kentucky State Treasurer have in common? They are all women alumnae of the University of Kentucky, and they have all found ways to use their talents to make the world a better place.

Simidele Adeagbo: A risk-taker

Simidele Adeagbo takes Nike’s “just do it” slogan literally.

A former triple jumper at UK and Nike marketing employee, Adeagbo made history in 2018 as the first Nigerian to make it into the Winter Olympics in any event.

She thought her Olympic window closed in 2008 after she missed the triple jump standard at the trials. But when she heard about a team of women from Nigeria trying to make history by qualifying for the Olympics in the bobsled, she was inspired to join them – despite knowing nothing about the sport. When the women announced a team tryout, Adeagbo decided to take the 22-hour flight from South Africa, where she was working, to Houston for her second shot at her Olympic dream.

When she got there, she discovered that while the bobsled team was already set, skeleton was still an option. It was an opportunity to make history as the first Nigerian and Black woman to compete in the sport at the Olympic level. Adeagbo touched a skeleton sled for the very first time in September 2017, a little over 100 days before the 2018 Olympics opened.

While most people might have said “forget it” and moved on at that point, Adeagbo is not most people. She made it happen, just like she did when competing as a triple jumper at UK under Coach Don Weber.

Adeagbo said Coach Weber used to put her picture next to a phrase he thought embodied how she approached the sport—“who risks, wins.” Her propensity to take risks and willingness to do the work are the closest things she has to secrets to success.  

“There’s definitely a lot of risk involved in every move that I’ve made and I think that that has helped me, particularly in my Olympic journey,” Adeagbo said. “I remember kind of just approaching it with a very open mind and thinking that I have nothing to lose…what’s the worst that can happen?” 

When she’s facing skeleton’s mile-long frozen track, lying down head first, Adeagbo is scared. That fear never goes away, she said.

“I think that’s kind of part of life, and a lot of things you have to be willing to know that the fear is present, let’s still proceed,” Adeagbo said. “Skeleton makes that very real, like fear is part of it, but you have to be able to manage that fear and not let it distract you from the bigger goal.”

While it may be impossible to overcome the fear, Adeagbo learned to manage it by setting small goals. The first time she went down the track, her singular goal was to not scream. She also maintained her calm by thinking of her broader mission—inspiring the next generation of girls and Africans.

“When I thought about that, it helped ground me, and the fear seemed small, because the bigger purpose was so big,” Adeagbo said.

The Olympics is a three-week magical wonderland for athletes, she said. Since she broke the barrier as the first Nigerian to compete in the Winter Games, Adeagbo got to be the Nigerian flagbearer, which she described as an incredible, humbling experience.

But after the Olympics, she realized that there was more to be done. Adeagbo wanted to make a more concrete contribution to the next generation of girls across the continent of Africa. So she created a two-hour masterclass, designed specifically for teenage girls, to share the lessons she’s learned from sport and the corporate world on how to be an effective leader, stay disciplined, communicate well and build self-confidence.

Before her first masterclass in Nigeria, Adeagbo was nervous that she wouldn’t be able to hold the younger generation’s short attention span. But she had nothing to worry about.

“It was so awesome to see that not only did I hold their attention, but they were so engaged,” Adeagbo said. “I could see that they were hungry for this positive kind of reinforcement for people to pour into them for people to build them up.” 

Pam Elam: A lifelong activist

There was only one book about women in Pam Elam’s junior high school library.

Elam, a renown feminist activist, soaked up every chapter. She said the book, which included famous women like Helen Keller and Susan B. Anthony, changed her life.

“This was before there were copy machines available in the schools,” Elam said. “I wrote out by hand that whole chapter on Susan B. Anthony and I still have it.” 

Elam spent 1970-1978 in Kentucky fighting for women’s rights, earning a UK bachelor’s degree in political science and law degree along the way. But that wasn’t where her activism started. It began at the age of 13 at the Kentucky regional and state speech festivals, where Elam made her first public speech on women’s rights.

Her accomplishments in Kentucky alone are lengthy: organizing the Council on Women’s Concerns at UK, getting the first Women’s Center in Lexington, fighting in the General Assembly for the Equal Rights Amendment, creating the Women’s Law Caucus and attending the historic 1977 National Women’s Conference in Houston, to name a few.

But no matter how hard she works, the battle is never won, Elam said.

“It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” she said. “The bottom line is, it’s a continuum, and activism doesn’t stop and start, stop and start—it never ends. Once you’re committed to it, you’re on for the whole ride. 

After her graduation from law school, Elam pursued her masters in women’s history at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. She said this knowledge of women’s history and activism is essential to being an effective feminist organizer.

“It’s like a treasure chest filled with all kinds of stories that energize you and inspire you and you can learn from,” Elam said. “I want people to know about these women, I want them to know the stories and the contributions these women have made, because certainly none of us ever learned that in school.”

After her graduation, Elam secured a series of jobs related to her activism. She served under feminist elected officials in New York City, organized over 100 hearings and drafted legislation concerning women’s issues for the New York City Council. While “feminist organizer” isn’t technically a paid career, Elam said that she creates her own way no matter her employer. 

 “You can’t just look at the paper online and say, ah, feminist organizer, I think I’ll apply for that position. It doesn’t exist,” she said. “(The job description) could have said legislative aide or assistant commissioner or deputy comptroller or whatever, but what I’ve always been and always will be is a feminist organizer.” 

Kelly Craft: A mentor collector

It only took a week at UK for Ambassador Kelly Craft to get homesick. Separated from her hometown of Glasgow, Ky., Craft missed the small-town community where she was raised.

Luckily, she happened upon that missing sense of community on campus. Craft was searching for her classroom when she ran into President Otis Singletary, who was walking around and introducing himself to students. When he approached Craft, her homesickness reached a peak, and she burst into tears.

That afternoon, Singletary invited Craft to his office, and later that night, to dinner with him and his wife. The Singletarys generous gift of a safe, comfortable home environment away from home shaped Craft’s years at UK, she said.

 Craft, the first female ambassador to Canada from 2017-2019 and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations from 2019-2021 under the Trump administration, said that there is someone who shapes your life every step along the way. The Singletarys were only one example in a long line of mentorship for her.

Craft remembers her third grade teacher, Mrs. Conway, telling her she could do anything she wanted in life. The boss of her first job in middle school, well-traveled local dress shop owner Mabel Wells, showed her what maturity and social etiquette looked like. Craft’s mother always pushed her one step further than she thought she could go.

“I think it’s really important that we all have mentors,” Craft said. “Mentors that don’t necessarily think the same way that we think, or maybe are not the same political ideology, but people that are going to be honest with you—your group of friends that are smarter than you are in areas that you want to be, that help you to be curious and to just to push yourself to always do better.”

Being an American is a blessing and responsibility. Ambassador Craft always knew this, but the lesson hit home during her tenure as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.

Before she began the job, she spent the day with George W. Bush talking about how his father, George H. W. Bush, had approached his former position as UN ambassador. Bush had reached out to every country, not just the 15 members of the Security Council.  Craft followed the same strategy, which paid off when COVID-19 arrived and the smaller countries felt comfortable asking Craft for assistance due to their preexisting relationship.

Craft worked to maintain a border crossing opening between Turkey and Syria to send humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees. She said it is her proudest accomplishment so far. 

“To know that we as Americans were able to be part of saving millions of lives, and giving them human dignity, to me, is something that I will, I will always remember and I’m still working on,” she said.

Craft’s work as the first female ambassador to Canada was no less consequential. She helped negotiate the largest trade agreement in the world, the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Being in such visible positions of power comes with a lot of criticism—some constructive, some not so much. Instead of letting it affect her negatively, Craft takes criticism as energy, the wind at her back.

“Whenever somebody criticizes you, either you acknowledge, thank you so much for that criticism, I’m going to be better, I’m going to have a course correction, or you just take it as a personal challenge,” she said.

Now, Craft has her eyes set back on her home state, Kentucky. She wants to help bring manufacturing jobs back and attract successful young adults to stay in Kentucky and contribute to the Commonwealth, to name a few goals.

“I feel we’re at a real crossroads and I want to make certain that I am part of the future, to better the state of Kentucky,” she said. “I still got a lot more to do, I can be better and do better and give more and be more and I’m not finished yet.”

Nancy Tomes: An alliance-builder

When she went off to college in 1970, Nancy Tomes’ mother told her the goal wasn’t to get a class ring on her finger, but an engagement ring.

Tomes, an award-winning historian of medicine and professor at Stony Brook University, was raised to see other women as competition for the grand prize—“finding the perfect man to take us off into the sunset or whatever.”

Tomes had a different plan in mind. She found solidarity, rather than competition, with a community of women at UK. She was a member of the Council of Women’s Concerns, a student organization meant to promote feminism in Kentucky.

“It was just the point where the women’s movement was really starting to percolate,” Tomes said. “And so, we were very visible, sometimes I think to the annoyance of many of our fellow students, but it was like we had a cause. And it was really exciting.”

Several decades later, women are enjoying the fruits of the 1970s feminist movement. However, despite some improvements, Tomes said that her history of medicine field is still dominated by white males.

“You do have to put up with being condescended to,” she said. “I think the line that for women in any field that you have to be twice as good before you get any attention—I think there’s a certain element of truth in that. I think that’s also true if you’re not white.” 

Tomes wishes that she had been less afraid of reaching out to women different than her at UK to escape her “white bubble.” She encourages women there now to find strengths and build alliances with other women, no matter their race. 

“One of the good things about my career has been putting me in a setting where I’ve been in with more diverse faculty and students and I’ve kind of gotten to a point in my life where I don’t feel like I’m in a white bubble anymore,” Tomes said.

Tomes remembers visiting her father’s parents’ home near Mammoth Cave, with an outhouse and no electricity. She marveled at the changes that had transpired in her father’s life, and thus, her lifelong fascination with history emerged.

At UK, Tomes’ professors pushed her to get serious about being a historian. They connected her with esteemed women and gender studies historian Carol Rosenberg to guide her toward University of Pennsylvania graduate school.

“The special attention that I got from my professors was just transformative, they gave me a confidence in myself that I didn’t have, and I will be forever grateful for them,” she said. 

However, it wasn’t until she met Rosenberg’s former husband, Charles Rosenberg, that Tomes discovered her ultimate path. Charles Rosenberg was the preeminent historian of medicine at the time, and he secured a job for Tomes working with historic collections at the Pennsylvania Hospital. She was instantly hooked.

“I can’t describe it, I just got fascinated,” Tomes said. “There are no doctors in my family, I cannot explain this, but it was like, wow. And I basically specialized in that my entire career, and still do.”

Allison Ball: A statewide trailblazer

Kentucky State Treasurer Allison Ball never had a five-year plan. After graduating from UK law school in 2008, she knew she wanted to have a family and a meaningful career, but she had no idea how to make those goals a reality.

Over a decade later, Treasurer Ball is married with a 2-year-old son and a baby girl on the way, and she holds an office that allows her to spend her days making her state better.

“Who could have figured out that all those pieces would have come together when they did, but they did,” Ball said. “I would encourage my old self, you know, just keep going for the things that you believe in and pushing forward and don’t worry if you don’t know exactly what comes next.”

Not only did Ball successfully join the ‘boys’ club’ of government, she made history while doing it. When she was elected in 2015, she became the youngest statewide elected woman in the U.S. A few years later, Ball became the first statewide elected woman to have a baby while in office.

For Ball, the future now has a face. She said she’s always worked for a better future for Kentucky, but since she gave birth to Levi, her motivation to make the world better for him and his soon-to-arrive sister has intensified.

Ball hopes her trailblazing shows women that they can do it all and do it all well.

“(Women) don’t have to wait until they’re older, until their families are established, until their careers are established to do things that they feel called to do,” she said. “I think there is a recognition that you can have a successful, happy family life—if you want to do that— and have a successful meaningful career.”

‘Color outside of the lines’

A year or two before the Olympics, Adeagbo took a trip back to Lexington for a friend’s wedding. She took a tour of campus while she was there and happened upon an unexpected source of inspiration.

Adeagbo noticed flags around campus featuring the names of prominent alumni and their accomplishments. She noted that many of these banners didn’t list people like CEOs, but rather people who had created their own distinctive lane. At the time, Adeagbo was climbing the Nike corporate ladder, but she began to think bigger. What unique thing could she bring forth into the world?

When she learned about skeleton, she had her answer.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever get one of those banners, it’s not about the banner, but it’s about really kind of just opening yourself up to, what is that that footprint that you’re leaving in the world?” Adeagbo said.

 Currently, Adeagbo is training full-time for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China. This time, she’s aiming to compete in both skeleton and monobob, a single person bobsled event making its Olympic debut. She wants to make sure the continent of Africa is represented at the Games.

She is also re-exploring journalism, her UK major. Adeagbo wants to take her marketing and journalism skillsets to tell athletes’ stories, hopefully at the 2024 Paris Olympics. 

“You can’t be afraid of building your own path. Yes, it is easier to follow a path that’s already been made, but also be willing to step off the path that’s been made and explore and see what happens,” she said. “You can’t be afraid to color outside of the lines.”

‘A source of inspiration’

It took Monumental Women seven years to get New York City to place a statue of a real woman in Central Park. Elam, Monumental Women president, and her team fought against the city’s bureaucracy to establish a women’s rights pioneers monument. 

“People find it hard to believe that New York City didn’t already have any kind of tribute to women, let alone something that focused on women’s rights,” Elam said. “You can take a place like Central Park, and know that 42 million people go to that park every year and they can see statues of Alice in Wonderland and Mother Goose and Juliet with Romeo but no real women. I mean, unbelievable.”

Monumental Women unveiled the monument on Aug. 26, 2020, the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote.

Elam said that the project is her proudest accomplishment. The statue serves as a go-to place in New York, with various women’s groups hold meetings there. When Ruth Bader Ginsburg died, people came to the monument and left banners, flowers and tributes. When Kamala Harris was elected vice president, women left their “I Voted” stickers on the statues

“It meant so much on so many levels,” Elam said. “It’s not just that it’s a beautiful work of art, it’s the fact that it’s a living thing, because it inspires activism and people come to it as a source of inspiration and bring their children and tell them what these women did.”

Sharing women’s voices

Strong female leadership in Kentucky is nothing new. What’s missing is encouragement.

Treasurer Ball said that research shows that unlike men, women typically don’t run for office unless someone asks them to.

“I hope someday we get to the point where women don’t have to be asked. But for right now, I like to take the time when I see someone who has potential, when I see someone who has something to contribute—so many women do—that I ask them, run for office,” Ball said.

The need for women’s voices extends beyond the halls of government. Ball encourages every woman at UK to contribute to leveling the playing field in whichever way they feel called, whether by starting a business, becoming a doctor or scientist, or running for office.

“We need your voice,” Ball said. “Keep pushing for the things that you believe in and the things that you have an aptitude for.”

‘Do not put them to sleep’

In the decades since her 1974 graduation from UK, Tomes has researched and written multiple highly acclaimed books. In Remaking the American Patient: How Madison Avenue and Modern Medicine Turned Patients into Consumers, she explores the continuities of a troubled, patients-as-consumers health care system from the beginning of the 20th century to current day, according to a New York Times review.

Her work won her the 2017 Bancroft Prize in American History and Diplomacy, an annual award granted by Columbia University, considered to be one of the most prestigious honors in the field. Tomes said winning the Bancroft Prize was life changing. 

“There are days that I wake up and still, I still can’t believe it,” Tomes said.

She hopes that her work makes way for a more intelligent conversation about U.S. healthcare. In the past decade, she’s been happy to notice the conversation shift from a refusal to acknowledge the problems in the American healthcare system to an acceptance of their existence and a willingness to work on them. 

But Tomes is more than a scholar; she’s also a professor at Stony Brook University, a public university in New York. As someone whose parents didn’t go to college, she said it is exciting to be able to offer a high-quality education to students with a similar background to her. She said she thinks teaching has made her a better scholar. 

“It really helped my writing, because I just had to think about, here’s this sort of complicated abstract thing, but I’m going to try to explain it in a way so they can understand it, but also so I don’t put them to sleep,” Tomes said. “That has been probably my top goal as a professor—do not put them to sleep 

‘Reach across the aisle’

Treasurer Ball’s Kentucky roots run deep—200 years deep, to be exact. As a ninth generation Eastern Kentuckian from Floyd County, Ball said she recognizes and values the beauty and diversity of Kentucky.

Her campaign for Kentucky State Treasurer wasn’t Ball’s first election victory. While she was at UK law school, she ran for the second year (2L) representative position, campaign speeches and promises and all. She points to her success in that position as the beginning of her journey to her current position. 

“I think that prepared me in a lot of ways to think, you know what, I can do this,” Ball said. “If I did this with my classmates, I can do this for real, in the big time, running in all 120 counties in Kentucky.”

UK also taught Ball the importance of relationships, even with those whom she would never agree with politically. Ball and her classmates would often argue against each other during class, but they learned how to still be friends afterwards. This is a crucial lesson Ball said people today often forget.

“I know that I’m able to reach across the aisle to people from another political spectrum, and I’m able to pull in people who have different expertise than I do, because I know them— because we went to school together,” Ball said. “We don’t even have to agree on everything, we can still accomplish our goals and think long term.”

Never-ending road to equality

Since she was a little girl, Elam said she’s been operating under a system of absolute controlled rage.

This anger at the discrimination women have faced throughout history, along with her admiration for the women who have fought before her, is what keeps Elam motivated in her push for change when others might get burnt out. She found a particularly strong motivation at UK.

“In those years. UK didn’t really do anything for women’s rights, the only the only positive thing I could say is that it was a fertile ground for feminist organizing,” Elam said. “The need was so great. There was nothing already existing we had to, you know, start the engine and put the pedal to the metal.”

Elam hopes today’s UK students can learn something from the “Pam Elam Papers,” her donated collection of 1970s feminist organizing efforts to the King Library. She also wants the feminist activists on UK’s campus now to know that women like her are rooting for them—and to get as much as rest as they can now.

“You’re going to need it longer than you even thought in terms of the road to equality, but never give up, never give in,” she said. “All of us working together, we’ll have that fundamental change that we’ve sought for so long, it just takes longer than you ever thought it would.”