By Emaan Thaver
Women have achieved incredible heights in history.
We are tremendously lucky to be living in a time where female empowerment and gender equality take top priority in international development forums, where world leaders come forth and declare themselves feminists, where there are discussions, movements and real changes taking place across the globe.
And while there is admittedly a long way to go, we have the luxury of living in what is arguably the most progressive period in history.
Time hasn’t always been this kind to women.
Female leaders in fields traditionally associated with men had a very different set of challenges to take on a hundred years ago.
They lived in a time where platforms for expression were limited, where there was no framework to assist their participation and where their ambitious plans faced oceans of opposition from society.
They had to pave their own paths.
They had to carve out their own successes in worlds they didn’t belong to quite yet.
I have always drawn strength and inspiration from hearing the incredible stories of women who may have been overlooked by history, but who deserve to be remembered for their contributions to womenkind and society.
Here are just five of the admirable women I’d like to highlight today:
Elizabeth Cochran Seaman, who went by her pen name Nellie Bly, was an American journalist, traveler and charity worker born in 1864.
Now, we’ve all read Jules Verne’s fictitious novel Around the World in 80 Days but Nellie was the first woman to make it a reality. Nellie started off her career as an investigative journalist with her first major undercover assignment at Blackwell Island on the coast of New York City.
She feigned insanity to gain entry into the notorious women’s asylum to investigate reports of patient abuse. Upon spending ten days at the institution and experiencing its horrors, Nellie wrote a report that shot her to nationwide fame. She then took on an assignment to “turn the fictional ‘Around the World In Eighty Days’ into fact for the first time.”
Traveling almost entirely alone, she began her trip on November 14th, 1889 and journeyed through England, France, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Singapore, Japan and China.
She visited a leper colony in China, bought a monkey in Singapore and met Jules Verne in Amiens.
Photo Source: http://www.pbs.org
Nellie made it back to New York seventy-two days after she started the journey, due to a missed ship connection.
Nevertheless, Nellie’s feat made history.
Never before had a woman taken on such a gargantuan task- traveling alone was a risky enough venture exclusive to men, but traveling alone around the world to strange, unfamiliar lands under a deadline? Unheard of.
Nellie’s love for adventure, spontaneity and fearlessness are something all women aspiring to see the world solo (including our own campus blogger, Tasnim!) can draw inspiration from.
2. Irena Sendler
The unsung hero of the Holocaust period, Irena Sendler was a Polish nurse and charity worker who headed the ‘Zegota’ or the Polish Council to Aid Jews during a time when Hitler’s anti-Jewish policies were at their peak. Entire Jewish families were being rounded up and sent to live in appalling conditions in ghettos, the largest of which was the dreaded Warsaw Ghetto, located in the capital city. Roughly 375,000 Jews lived on meagre scraps of food in tiny, cramped quarters and as a result- thousands, including children, began to die of starvation.
Under the guise of being a health worker, Irena would enter the Ghetto and persuade parents to make a heartbreaking decision: part with their children so she could smuggle them out to safety.
With the help of a few accomplices, she hid children in body bags, potato sacks and coffins- one baby was even hidden in a toolbox- to sneak them out of the ghetto without being caught by the Nazis. Once outside, the children were given false names and identities and adopted by families. Irena’s efforts resulted in the rescue of some 2,500 Jewish children until she was caught and tortured by the Nazis. Although she managed to avoid a death sentence, the secret police hounded her until Germany’s defeat in the Second World War.
This remarkable woman lived the rest of her days in relative anonymity until her story was uncovered.
Even so, she resisted being called a hero.
““I could have done more,” she said. “This regret will follow me to my death.”
She was awarded Poland’s highest distinction, the Order of the White Eagle, in 2003. She passed away in 2008 at the age of 98.
3. Mary Kom
Mangte Chungneijang Mary Kom, who goes by just Mary Kom, is a record-breaking champion boxer from Manipur, India.
Growing up in a rural district in eastern India, Mary’s parents were agricultural workers who did not have the financial resources to fund their athletic young daughter’s boxing ambitions.
In a country where physical strength is an attribute often considered ‘unladylike’ and ‘manly’, Mary’s dreams of becoming a professional boxer were ridiculed by her community and most of society.
But despite financial problems, possible ostracization and dishonour, Mary’s determination and resolve helped her reach incredible heights. She moved to a nearby town, Imphal, in her mid-teens and began training with the state boxing coach, M. Narjit Singh.
With rigorous training, Mary worked her way up the ladder and went on to win five world championships and became the first Indian woman boxer to have qualified and won a medal at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. She is also the only woman to have won a medal in each of the six world championships and inspired a 2014 Bollywood movie about her achievements.
Not only did Mary pave the way for future female athletes intimidated by the exclusivity of sport, but she also proved that one does not need to boast a privileged background in order to participate- thus breaking stereotypes alongside world records.
4. Valentina Tereshkova
The first woman in space!
Like Mary, Russian-born Valentina Tereshkova started from humble beginnings.
Her father worked as a tractor driver while her mother worked at a textile plant and money was hard to come by. Valentina dropped out of school at the age of sixteen and took up a number of odd jobs, including a stint as a textile worker at a local factor. It was around this time that she began training in skydiving, something she had always been interested in as a child.
Her interest in parachuting led her to be accepted into the Soviet space program despite having no experience because she had completed a whopping 126 parachute jumps over the years. Parachuting is seen as a highly valuable skill because it imitates the movements astronauts have to make during the descent to Earth.
After months of training, Valentina was finally selected to run the Vostok 6 mission to orbit 48 times around Earth.
She successfully logged 70 hours in space, making her the first woman to do so. She was awarded with the Order of Lenin for her contributions to the space program.
Following Valentina’s admirable feat, over 40 women have gone on to participate in space missions from around the world, proving that women have the stamina, strength and level-headedness to partake in space exploration.
5. Sybil Ludington
One of the overlooked heroines of the American Revolutionary War, Sybil was a girl of just sixteen, living on the Ludington family farm in Dutchess County, New York.
It was April 1777.
The fierce War for Independence was underway with the British and Sybil’s father, Colonel Henry Ludington, had volunteered his services as a militia officer and community leader.
On the night of April 23rd, Sybil was awoken by the sound of horses’ hooves thundering outside. Sybil overheard a messenger on horseback telling her father that British troops were on their way to Danbury, Conneticut- where all the American guns and ammunitions were stored.
“Colonel Ludington! Colonel Ludington!” the messenger urged. “The British are burning Danbury, Sir! You must gather your men and march against the British!”
Colonel Ludington’s men lived in farms all over the vast countryside. The roads were rickety, unpaved and held danger in the form of street side bandits and British loyalists.
It would be a task to warn them of the British and rally them all together for battle.
Sybil volunteered herself.
Armed with a mere stick and her horse Star, she set off in the dark night for a 40-mile journey across the countryside, rapping on the doors of the men and awakening them to the marching British. She fended off an outlaw with a manoeuvre of the stick, rallying over 400 soldiers together in the pouring rain by dawn.
Sybil’s incredible initiative in the face of the British threat sadly went unnoticed, only recorded in writing by her great-grandson. She is one of the quieter heroes of the American Revolution, living out a discreet life in the Catskill mountains of New York until she died in 1839 at the age of 77.
And we’ve come to the end of this list of admirable achievements for today’s blog post!
A few parting comments:
Here at U of T BIAAG, we celebrate women- past and present.
We know that the only way to progress forward as a society is to learn and draw from the strengths of others in the past. Even when faced with insurmountable challenges, as many of these women encountered, there is always hope and help.
I hope that Irena, Sybil, Mary, Valentina and Nellie’s stories help you draw strength and assure you that, nothing, nothing is impossible just ‘because you are a girl’.