If you’ve heard anything about Super Bowl XLVII this Sunday, willingly or not, you’ve probably heard about one of the central storylines – brothers Jim and John Harbaugh, head coaches of the 49ers and Ravens, respectively, facing off on opposing sidelines for the biggest prize in American football. And, you’ve heard about it for good reason – two brothers winding up as head coaches in the NFL is an incredible accomplishment. Both brothers reaching the peak of their pursuits in the same year, on the same stage? Almost unthinkable, right?
Well, brothers aren’t the only ones who can make it big. Besides the obvious (who we’ll get to first), it’s a little harder to pop off names of accomplished, famous sisters. And, before you bring up Paris and Nicky Hilton, we’re talking about sisters who made it in tough, competitive fields with an appreciable degree of autonomy from their siblings. A totally arbitrary appreciable degree of autonomy that is determined wholly by me, and is not met by the Hilton sisters. So, with respect to them and the Olsen twins and all the other famous sisters I’m leaving off this list, here are some of the most impressive sisters from the past and present.
We know, pretty obvious. So, what should we say about the Williams sisters, who met on the biggest stages of women’s tennis eight times from 2000 to 2009? Venus and Serena Williams have faced each other in the finals at least once in all four major Open tournaments, with Serena boasting a 6-2 advantage over her older sister. And, those are just the times when they competed against each other – overall, Serena has 15 Grand Slam singles titles (sixth all time), while Venus has notched seven, becoming the first two African-American women to hold the world #1 ranking. Then, consider they competed together in many of those Opens in the doubles tournaments. That hardly seems fair. Oh, and the Williams sisters came from a family with absolutely no history in tennis.
Those are their birth names, anyway. Better known as Ann Landers and Abigail Van Buren (Dear Abby), the Friedman sisters made it big by making the advice column hugely popular nationwide. Esther took over the Ann Landers name at the Chicago Sun-Times, while Pauline became Abigail Van Buren, and started the syndicated Dear Abby column with the McNaught Syndicate. From there, both sisters amassed millions of readers, their pen names becoming as synonymous with the advice column as Google is today to the search engine.
Better known under her married name, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Harriet authored Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852, an enormously important abolitionist work in the run-up to the Civil War. Her novel helped to galvanize the anti-slavery movement, and has been read by millions then and now. Her sister, Catharine, didn’t achieve the same level of fame, but was every bit as accomplished in her goals of education reform and increasing educational opportunities for women, by publishing dozens of works and opening a few schools dedicated to higher education for women.
Obviously, Reggie Miller is not female. Still, it didn’t seem right to leave the accomplishments of his sister, Cheryl, off this list. Reggie’s exploits as a college and professional basketball player are well documented, but his sister has also been an influential figure in basketball. Cheryl Miller was an outstanding forward at USC in her college days. Injuries kept her out of playing at the professional level, although she was head coach and general manager of the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury for four seasons. She’s been a reporter and analyst for TNT, ABC, TBS, ESPN, and NBA TV as well. And, let’s not forget Olympic gold in 1984 with the U.S. national team.
Who was Elizabeth Blackwell? She was the first woman in the United States to earn an advanced medical degree, way back in 1849. So, what did younger sister Emily do as a follow up? She became number three, and at a different institution, no less. Elizabeth swallowed rejections from multiple schools because of her gender before being accepted into Geneva Medical College in New York – as a joke, by the male students studying there. Her graduation two years later was no joke, with the dean of the college bowing in respect as she received her degree. The younger Emily matched her sister’s accomplishments, receiving her degree five years later from Western Reserve University, after trudging through her own series of rejections. One of those rejections came courtesy of none other than her sister’s alma mater, Geneva Medical College.
Laszlo Polgár didn’t care much for ethics in psychology. He wanted to prove that with the right training (however strict and regimented) from birth, children could be turned into experts at anything. It didn’t make much difference to him that he got three daughters, who would be destined for the male-dominated world of championship chess. It didn’t turn out to mean much to his daughters, either – the eldest daughter, Susan, refused to play in women-only tournaments, insisting on playing with the men. Susan would eventually earn the title of Grandmaster in early 1991, with the youngest sister, Judit, earning the same title later that year. At the time, Judit was the youngest player ever to become a Grandmaster, at 15 years, 5 months, besting Bobby Fischer. Judit, now recognized as the best female chess player in the world, has beaten a whole host of male champions, including Garry Kasparov. Middle sister Sofia is no slouch either, currently bearing the title of International Master.
There’s something to be said about two sisters producing two all-time works of English literature that still haunt unwilling high schoolers to this day. Charlotte’s Jane Eyre and Emily’s Wuthering Heights are both still pored over and analyzed today, both standing tall as classic works on their own merits. Emily alone should be commended for creating a character so brooding in Heathcliff that he makes Edward Cullen look like the Fonz. We also shouldn’t forget Anne, who didn’t end up as famous as her sisters, but was no less prolific of a writer before her early death.