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Here's to Female "Troublemakers" Making History

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Admit it. Somewhere in the back of your desk drawer is a greeting card that says, "Well-behaved women rarely make history." It's probably from a friend encouraging you to "just do it" -- apply for the big job or run for office, maybe just speak up about something that needs to change. For many women of the baby boom generation, "making trouble," even in the name of just, worthy and important causes, requires a gentle nudge.

Happily, that's changing. In 2010, barrier-breaking women across America showed impatience with the status quo and traditional expectations, sparking controversy as they made unexpected choices and refused to settle or pipe down. (Or maybe, their motives weren't quite so high-minded. Maybe, they just took to heart Katharine Hepburn's famous admonition: "If you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun.")

Whatever the reasons: Great job, ladies.

Imagine where the country would be today if there were more of these risk takers leading American institutions. From law firms to corporate boards, from the United States Congress to university presidents, our country is stuck in low gear when it comes to gender parity. Almost half of the talent pool remains largely untapped. Consider: women hold 14% of executive officer positions at Fortune 500 companies; 17% of U.S House and Senate seats; 17% of U.S. law partnerships and 18.7% of university presidencies.

So, with hope that many more will join their ranks in 2011, here's to American women who went their own way to take charge in 2010:

Elizabeth Warren, the Harvard professor whose early warnings about the consumer debt crisis proved true. She raised hackles in the banking industry by shining a light on predatory lending and incomprehensible credit card rules. Now, she's setting up the Consumer Financial Protection Agency.

More than 50,000 Catholic nuns who, through the heads of their religious orders, sent a letter to Congress urging passage of the health care reform bill despite opposition from the all-male church hierarchy.

Film director Kathryn Bigelow, who became the first woman to win an Oscar for best director. Her film The Hurt Locker told the story of a U.S. Army bomb squad unit in Iraq. She had audiences flinching, cringing, cowering and understanding the adrenalin rush and intense anxiety that is life in a war zone.

Women's college basketball coaches, who fought through budget cuts, small audiences and peer skeptics to keep building the bench for great women's teams. They've delivered sold-out games and beat the boys with the longest win streak in NCAA basketball history. (Hat tip to the man leading UConn's women's team Geno Auriemma.)

Shirley Sherrod, the Georgia State Director of Rural Development for the U.S. Agriculture Department, who shared her personal evolution on race relations and poverty at an NAACP conference, got fired from her job, was offered a new job by her former employer when he got the full story, and declined. Instead, she is leading more discussions on race relations.

U.S. District Judge Virginia Phillips, who ordered the government to stop enforcing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," prompting government officials to come to a resolution on the controversial policy that ended with its repeal.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski, one who lost her majority in the U.S. House of Representatives and the other who lost her Party's nomination for the U.S. Senate -- enough to make most politicians exit the arena. Instead, Pelosi easily retained both the confidence of her colleagues and her leadership position within her caucus. Murkowski launched a creative and ultimately successful write-in campaign to win re-election to the U.S. Senate, only the second person in 50 years to win by write-in ballots.

The list should go on. Who's on yours?

Note: An earlier version referred to women's college basketball coaches. Thanks to the reader who pointed out that UConn is led by a man. We salute the female coaches who fought to raise the quality, gate take and visibility of women's basketball.