As a young woman in Spain, a country in which women’s rights have progressed a lot ever since the end of the dictatorial times, I am aware that women’s situation in the world has improved in several countries. However, there is still much to develop regarding women’s education, rights, and equality to men; and there are many places in which women are still subjugated to the traditionally passive role that has been imposed to them. With the recent celebration of the International Women’s Day, I would like to pay a tribute to several great women who have made a difference and positively contributed to several good causes on an international scale. This article is dedicated to all the wonderful women that have been and currently are in the world, as well as to those who are yet to come.
Maria Skłodowska Curie (1867 – 1934)
Better known internationally as Marie Curie, was a Polish-French scientist. Born in Warsaw, she would experience as a young girl the loss of her sister Zofia and her mother (who died of tuberculosis when Maria was just ten years old). When she was older, she became a first-hand witness of the male chauvinism that prevailed in the contemporary society of her native country, for she was denied access to any official superior education institution just for being a woman. Therefore, she attended the clandestine “Floating University” (Uniwersytet Latający) together with her sister Bronisława. Shortly after, she started working as a private tutor and governess in order to financially help her sister, who was studying in Paris. In 1891, she went to France as well, and enrolled in studies of Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics at the Sorbonne University of Paris, while still working in the evenings in order to support herself.
In 1894, she met Pierre Curie, while seeking a larger laboratory in order to develop her experiments and a year later, they were married. Together, they would investigate radioactive materials and, in 1903, received the Nobel Physics Prize, along with the physician Henri Becquerel. Thus, she became the first woman who received a Nobel Prize. Sadly, Pierre Curie died in 1906, but that didn’t stop Marie from becoming the first woman ever to teach at the Sorbonne University and proceeding with her scientific research. In 1910, she was able to obtain one gram of radium chloride after having manipulated tons of uraninite for years and, in the following year, received the Nobel Chemistry Prize, becoming the first person in history to obtain two Nobel Prizes in different areas. Unfortunately, her committed research took a significant toll on her health, and she died in 1934 at the age of 66 due to complications of aplastic anaemia, believed to have been contracted due to constant exposure to radioactive materials.
Elsa Triolet (1896 – 1970)
Born as Ella Yurievna Kagan in Moscow to a Jewish family, this future writer was from a very young age exposed to French culture. During her youth, she often visited intellectual social circles and eventually befriended Vladimir Mayakovsky, a prominent figure of the Russian Futurist movement. She married a French officer, André Triolet, in 1919, and immigrated with him to France. After some time, she divorced him but still kept his surname. In 1928 she met the poet Louis Aragon, whose muse she would become. They married in 1939 and remained together for about 42 until Elsa’s death in 1970. The couple were both very politically engaged and confirmed communists, frequently using their literature to denounce the abuses of fascist ideologies and actively working for the French resistance movement during the time of Nazi-occupied France. For instance, Triolet’s famous short novel “Les amants d’Avignon” (The lovers of Avignon) has a notable autobiographical component: the protagonist is a strong, independent woman called Juliette, who works as some sort of “secret agent” for the French Resistance and can be clearly identified with the writer, manifesting her feminist ideas. However, Elsa Triolet’s feminism is notably different to Simone de Beauvoir’s: while Simone de Beauvoir actively seeks the eradication of women’s alienation and their role as “the others”, firmly opposing marriage and manifesting her belief that women should be equal to men in everything, Elsa Triolet defended what could be called as “the feminism of difference”. In fact, she said that women should not renounce to their unique qualities in order to gain equality to men, and defended marriage and motherhood as a way to educate children better and contribute to the creation of a more open-minded and equalitarian society.
Simone de Beauvoir: (1908 – 1986)
Simone de Beauvoir was a French writer, philosopher and feminist. Born in Paris to a well-off Catholic family, she renounced her Christian faith when she was still a teenager and became an atheist for the rest of her life. She became keen on writing since she was a young girl, and by the time she reached the age of fifteen, she had decided that she wanted to become a writer. In 1925, she started studying both Mathematics and Literature at the Sorbonne University of Paris, and about one year later, in 1926, she took up Philosophy classes.
After graduating in 1929, she became a teacher. In the same year, she had met Jean-Paul Sartre, who would later become one of the most prominent figures of Existentialist French philosophy. Even though they would eventually spend the rest of their lives together, they never married nor had children of their own. Simone de Beauvoir’s writing career was a prolific one: she wrote several articles for the magazine “Les temps modernes”, whose foundation she had contributed to, along with Sartre and other intellectuals such as Boris Vian and Maurice Merleau-Ponty; and in 1949 published her most famous work, “The second sex”, in which she would reflect on women’s condition, the situations that led to women’s domination and how the discrimination of men towards women is a social construction based on opposition; that is to say, considering women as “the others”, like something “inessential”. Also, Simone de Beauvoir’s idea of freedom notably contrasted with Sartre’s. While he defended the existence of an absolute freedom, De Beauvoir stated that freedom is actually limited by the situations and context we are in. In fact, according to De Beauvoir, the subject is not fully free, because it is built according to social and cultural context. Simone de Beauvoir died of pneumonia in 1986, but her philosophy has notably contributed in favor to the situation of women in France.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta: (1910 – 1997)
Mother Teresa’s birth name was Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, and she was a Catholic nun and missionary. She was born in Skopje, now Macedonia, then part of the Ottoman Empire, in 1910, to a very religious family. As a little girl, Agnes developed a fascination towards the stories of religious missionaries and made the decision of becoming a Christian missionary herself when she was just twelve years old, inspired by these testimonies and by her mother’s religious devotion as well. When she turned 18, in 1928, she left her home and joined the congregation of the Sisters of Loreto in Rathfarnham, Ireland, where she learned the English language in order to go to India as a missionary. She never returned to her native country nor saw any of her relatives again. Agnes travelled to Bengal in 1929, where she received a special training programme that enabled her to teach at a school near the convent she was staying in.
After taking her religious vows in 1931, she chose Teresa as her new name, in honor of Saint Thérèse de Lisieux. Soon afterwards, she went to the city of Calcutta, where she taught for almost twenty years at a local school. Even though she enjoyed her job, the extreme poverty that afflicted many people in Calcutta deeply affected her. It was then when she decided to entirely dedicate herself to help those who were in most need. In 1950, three years after the independence of India from the British Colonial Empire, Mother Teresa obtained the Indian citizenship and founded the congregation of the Missionaries of Charity. She also founded several other charity centers, where thousands of homeless and ill people were sheltered, regardless of their religion. Fifteen years later, in 1975, Mother Teresa was appointed as a representative of the United Nations’ World Conference celebrated in Mexico for the International Women’s Year; and in 1979 received the Nobel Peace Prize for her selfless and laudable work for the improvement of the less fortunate ones’ living conditions. Mother Teresa died in September of 1997 at the age of 87, after a long struggle with respiratory and cardiac problems. She was beatified in 2003 and, some years later, in 2016, canonized; and several of the institutions she founded are still active, such as the Missionaries of Charity religious association.
Wangari Maathai: (1940 – 2011)
Wangari Muta Maathai was a Kenyan biologist and ecologist. Born in the town of Nyeri, Maathai would soon prove to be a studious and hard-working young woman. After finishing high school, she obtained a scholarship to study at Mount St. Scholastica College in Kansas, in the United States; where she obtained a degree majoring in Biology with minors in Chemistry and German in 1964. After that, she studied a masters’ degree in Biology at the University of Pittsburgh, in Pennsylvania, where she would become acquainted with environmental restoration. Two years later, in 1966, after having completed her degree, Maathai went back to Kenya, where she started working as a research assistant in Microanatomy at the University of Nairobi. She later went to Germany to obtain a doctorate, and studied both at the University of Giessen and the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, and in 1969 returned to Nairobi, to further her studies at the local University, where she would eventually become a professor and, in 1976, head of the Veterinarian Anatomy Department. Around that time, Maathai also became concerned with the conditions of extreme poverty in which many Kenyan women lived. She became a firmed fighter for these women’s rights in the National Council of Women of Kenya and, in the same year, she began promoting the “Green Belt Movement”, whose objective became the planting of trees as a resource for people’s life improvement, and that ultimately spread to several other countries.
Wangari Maathai became involved in politics, firmly opposing the dictatorship of Daniel Arap Moi and in 2002 was elected as Kenya’s Vice Minister of Environment, under the mandate of President Mwai Kibaki. Two years later, in 2004, she became the first African woman ever to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. It is estimated that the Green Belt Movement has planted more than 30 million trees in African soil since its foundation. Sadly, this brave and determined woman left us a few years ago, due to ovarian cancer that claimed her life. Nevertheless, her legacy lives on, and her contribution to women’s rights and for the ecological world will always be regarded as of incalculable value.
Rigoberta Menchú: (1959 -)
Rigoberta Menchú is a Guatemalan political and human rights activist of K’iche’ origin. Born in the municipality of Uspantán to a poor family, she would become acquainted from a very young age with the discrimination that the indigenous communities of Guatemala suffered, injustices that would later motivate her to participate in manifestations for the defence of the rights of indigenous people. She would also experience the hardships of child labor, a horrible reality that would eventually cost the lives of several of Rigoberta’s friends and siblings. During the dictatorship of Fernando Romeo Lucas García (1978 – 1982), several of her family members were tortured and murdered by the militias, including her father, who was burnt alive during a protest action in the Spanish Embassy of Guatemala, and her mother. In spite of these atrocities, Rigoberta chose not to respond violently against the Guatemalan political regime, opting instead for a peaceful campaign denouncing the oppression against her people. She published her autobiography in 1983 while living in exile in Mexico, “Me llamó Rigoberta Menchú y así me nació la conciencia” (“My name is Rigoberta Menchú and this is how my conscience was born”), which granted her international prestige. In 1992, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, whose economical endowment helped her found an association that bears her name, first in Mexico, and later in her native country. She also worked as a mediator for the process of peace between the Guatemalan government and the different guerrilla movements that had appeared in opposition to it; and later, she fought for the reintegration of the political expatriated in Guatemala. Some years later, in 1998, she received the Prince of Asturias Prize for her novel “La nieta de los mayas” (“The Maya’s granddaughter”), which could be considered as a feminist manifesto.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: (1977 -)
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a Nigerian writer and feminist. She was born in the Nigerian city of Enugu to a large family and grew up in Nsukka. After giving up on a medical degree at her local university, Adichie went to the United States to study communication and political science and graduated at the top of her class at the Eastern Connecticut State University in 2001. She later completed a Masters’ Degree in creative writing at Johns Hopkins University in 2003, the same year in which she published her first novel “Purple Hibiscus”, for which she received in 2005 the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. In 2006, she published another novel about the civil war of her native country, which took place between 1967 and 1970, for which she would be awarded both the Orange Prize for Fiction and the Anti-shield-Wolf Book Award. One year later, in 2008 Adichie would complete a Master of Arts degree in African studies at Yale University; and her third novel, “Americanah”, which possesses a notable autobiographic component, made its way to the list of the 10 Best Books of 2013.
But Chimamanda Adichie’s writing career doesn’t only include novels: she has also published several poems; short stories, such as “Ceiling” and “You in America”; plays, such as “For the love of Biafra” and various essays, in which she approaches several contemporary issues such as how stereotypes limit and shape our ways of thinking and how feminism isn’t a range of aggressive and tyrannical movements and ideologies as many people believe. In fact, her latest book, “Dear Injeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions” focuses about how children should be educated in order to create a more just and peaceful world where women shall never more be objectified and discriminated. Nowadays, Adichie conducts lectures and coordinates several writing workshops in both Nigeria and the United States, without neglecting her vibrant and thoughtful writing.
With this article, I wanted to pay a tribute to all the wonderful women of yesterday and today on the planet, who have contributed and are contributing to make the world a better place. Even though being a woman is not easy in many aspects and that the road towards the equality of men and women is long and winding, our fight continues.