Friday, December 31, 2010

89: The Self-Empowered Woman: CCSVI

Dear Followers,As you may have noticed, I've only posted one blog in December. My explanation has nothing to do with research or inspiration (you should see the huge pile of "Blog subjects" waiting to be attacked!), but everything to do with our medically motivated trip to New York. The photo above is of Tony and me in Albany, and was taken the night before my CCSVI procedure.

CCSVI stands for Chronic Cerebro Spinal Venous Insufficiency, a term coined by Dr. Paolo Zamboni of Ferrara, Italy. When his wife developed MS, he explored the disease from a Vascular rather than Neurological perspective, and discovered that most people with MS have a congenital restriction of several major veins. This stenosis interferes with the venous blood flow, and that causes a back flow of iron molecules.

This angioplasty-like procedure is (finally) being performed in the U.S., and after spending 54 weeks in search of a skilled American doctor, Tony and I hit the jackpot. Our friend Bea Lewis introduced us to Dr. Gary Siskin, who has performed more of these procedures than any physician in North America.

We travelled to Albany with Ed Broderick, and learned that both Jugular veins and the Azygous were all compromised. Dr. Siskin and his staff completed the CCSVI procedure the next day, and two days later we flew back to Florida.

There are several CCSVI YouTube videos (see The Reformed MS Society) where patients have had dramatic improvements. In my case, I'm having small positive changes in my ability to move my right hand and left foot. And even though it's hard to explain, I just generally feel better and a bit stronger. In theory, if the veins remain open the improvements will continue.

Next week The Self-Empowered Woman blog will continue with more stories about amazing women, but for now here's hoping 2011 will be a fabulous year for all of us.

Looking forward to your comments...

Monday, December 6, 2010

88: The Self Empowered Woman: Angelina Jolie

Dear Followers:

This blog was started before the trip to Albany, but completed after the New Year. Apologies for the numerical mix up and the delay...
Even though she is always controversial, Angelina Jolie is the topic of today's blog because she will be starring in the film adaptation of Stacey Schiff's (Blog # 83) biography of Cleopatra.

Jolie is the daughter of the late actress Marcheline Bertrand and Jon Voight and her godparents are Jacqueline Bisset and Maximilian Schell. When Angelina Jolie was only a year old her parents separated (1. No Paternal Safety Net), and she remained estranged from her father for many years (14. Selective Disassociation). As a child, she lived in Palisades, New York with her mother and brother, and during this time (after regularly attending movies with her Mom), she decided that becoming an actress would be a good career choice (2. An Early Sense of Direction).

When she was eleven years old, the family moved back to Los Angeles and she enrolled at the Lee Strasberg Theater Institute, where she trained for two years. When Jolie was 14, she began modeling, and appeared in several music videos. She also quit her acting classes, dyed her hair purple, adopted a black wardrobe, and toyed with the idea of becoming funeral director.

Jolie attended Beverly Hills High School and Moreno High School, but felt “isolated” (5. Life Is Not A Popularity Contest), particularly because her mother didn’t have much money and her clothes were second-hand. The other kids teased her because of the way she looked, and the fact that she was extremely thin, wore glasses, as well as braces (6. Life Is Also Not A Beauty Contest).

By the age of 16, Jolie was living in a small apartment near her mother’s home and returned to her acting classes. Her brother was attending film school at USC, and she appeared in five of his student films before landing her first leading role in the independent film “Cyborg 2.” Jolie is famous for doing many of her own movie stunts, and has admitted that she is “fearless to a fault” (11. Risk Addiction).

During her first Hollywood movie (Hackers) in 1995 she met her first husband, Jonny Lee Miller, but their marriage was short lived. And the same was true for her marriage to Billy Bob Thornton (15. Forget About Prince Charming). For the past five years, she has lived with Brad Pitt (ergo Brangelina) who is the father of her three biological children: they also have three adopted children (16. Intensive Motherhood).

Here are a few things you may not know about Angelina Jolie:

  • She has thirteen tattoos
  • As part of her work for the United Nations , she has visited over 20 countries
  • She has received one Academy Award, two Screen Actors Guild Awards, and three Golden Globe Awards
  • She has donated millions of dollars for Afghan refugees, Haiti earthquake victims, relief organizations in Chad and Darfur, Global Action for Children, Doctors Without Borders and a wildlife sanctuary in Cambodia
  • Her children are being exposed to Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Buddhism so they can decide for themselves which religion they want to follow
  • Jolie has a private pilot license (with instrument rating) and owns a Cirrus SR 22 airplane
  • She has no agent and no publicist

Looking forward to your comments...

Sunday, November 21, 2010

87: The Self-Empowered Woman: Saudi Women/Sports

Dear Followers,

Thanks to Katherine Zoepf of the New York Times, I've learned about an issue that should be of interest to all of us who took sports and physical activity for granted as just another unremarkable part of life as an American woman.

The girl wearing a green jacket is Dalma Malhas, an 18 year-old Saudi Arabian equestrian who recently won a bronze medal in show jumping at the first Youth Olympic Games in Singapore. What makes this achievement noteworthy is that she had to enter the competition on her own and pay her own expenses. Malhas is the first Saudi woman to ever compete in an international event.

Physical activity is forbidden in Saudi Arabia's state-run girls' schools, and conservative Muslims consider sports for women either immodest or (potentially) immoral. A few large Saudi cities have gyms where women can workout, but they are usually unmarked to avoid attention.

So here comes the kicker. Saudi Arabia (like Brunei and Qatar) does not permit women to compete in international athletic competitions, which means no women can be part of the Olympic Games.

The man pictured above is Ali al-Ahmed, a Saudi dissident, who directs the Institute for Gulf Affairs in Washington, D.C.. Three months ago, he began a campaign called No Women, No Play, with the goal of urging the IOC (International Olympic Committee) to suspend Saudi Arabia from future competitions until women are allowed to participate.

Critics might consider this a case of feminism gone wild, but the precedent was set in 1964, when the IOC banned South Africa because of apartheid. The Olympic Charter states, "... sport is a human right..." and "... discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic movement."

The woman in white is Lina al-Maeena, who founded a growing and very popular women's basketball team named Jeddah United. But whether or not liberal Saudis approve of gyms for females, the fact is that Saudi Arabia is a monarchy in which the king and a Salafist religious establishment create the laws. Unfortunately, most of the clerics oppose sports for women because it's felt that athletic females might a) wear immodest clothes, b) want to travel, c) compete in public, d) leave their homes unnecessarily, and (if virgins) e) damage their hymens and become unmarriageable.

Ms. Maeena has tried to put a good face on her country's restrictive approach by arguing that the U.S. didn't give women "equal rights" in sports until Title IX passed in 1972. And while that "equality" changed academic sports, the truth is that American women had been participating in sports and competing in the Olympics decades earlier.

How lucky we are that our grandmothers and granddaughters were and are able to play tennis, golf, ride, run, and compete without fear of government reprisal. Hats off to Dalma Malhas!

Looking forward to your comments...

Saturday, November 13, 2010

86: The Self-Empowered Woman: Taylor Swift

Dear Followers,

As I reviewed the last dozen or so posts, I noticed that there was (possibly) an overdose of women who were either foreign or older. So today's Self-Empowered Woman is 20 year-old American recording sensation Taylor Swift.

When she was only ten years old (2. An Early Sense of Direction), a computer repairman showed her how to play three chords on a guitar, and that inspired her to learn as much as she could about music. Soon after, she wrote her first song, "Lucky You."

At age eleven, she persuaded her parents to take her to Nashville because she wanted to get a record deal. She bravely showed a demo tape of her singing to recording companies (11. Risk Addiction), but even though she visited all of the label companies in town, she was rejected by every single one (13. More Than Meets the Eye).

At the age of twelve, she began playing the twelve-string guitar; writing songs and playing the guitar helped Swift cope with the pain of being bullied at school (5. Life is Not a Popularity Contest). Soon she was performing at Pennsylvania fairs and festivals.

When she was 14, her family moved to a Nashville suburb to help her chances of getting a recording deal. That year, she became the youngest staff songwriter ever hired by the Sony/ATV Tree Publishing House. For her junior and senior years of high school she was home schooled. She received her diploma in 2008.

Not surprisingly, Swift has used her personal life as the basis for many of her wildly popular songs. Her romantic disappointments with Joe Jonas, Taylor Lautner, and John Mayer have become public knowledge (15. Forget About Prince Charming).

One can only imagine how much those other labels regret overlooking her early talent. Here are a few of her musical accomplishments:

  • Her 2008 album "Fearless" was the bestselling country album in digital history.

  • Swift was the first artist ever in the history of Nelsen SoundScan to have two different albums in the Top 10 year-end album chart.

  • She is the youngest artist in history to win the ACM Album of the Year Award.

  • She was also the youngest ever to win the Country Music Association Award for Entertainer of the Year (only six other women have won this honor).

  • Swift has sold more than 28 million digital tracks, as well as received three Gold Mobile Ringtones for the 14 million ringtones sold. She has sold more than 13 million albums worldwide.
  • She was the first country music artist to ever win a MTV Video Music Award.
  • Last year, Swift became the first female artist with the most Top 40 singles of the decade, surpassing Beyonce.
  • She made her acting debut in the movie Valentine's Day, and her song "Today Was a Fairytale" was on the movie's soundtrack.
  • Swift was on People magazine's "100 Most Beautiful People" list in 2008, 2009, and 2010.
  • According to Forbes, she is this year's twelfth most-powerful celebrity with earnings of $45 million.

Imagine what she'll have accomplished by the time she's 40! A big thank you to everyone for all the amazing birthday wishes.

Looking forward to your comments...

Sunday, November 7, 2010

85: The Self-Empowered Woman: Dilma Rousseff

Dear Followers,

Now that our American election fever is over (for a little while) I thought that today I would introduce you to Brazil's first-ever female president. Dilma Vana Rousseff (who was born on December 14th, 1947) is the daughter of a Bulgarian immigrant; her father had been an active member of the Bulgarian Communist Party in the 1920s. He moved to Brazil to escape political persecution, and became financially successful. He married Dilma Jane Silva, a schoolteacher, and they had three children, but he died when Dilma Vana was only 15 (1. No Paternal Safety Net).

The new President of Brazil (which has the seventh-largest economy in the world) received her early education at a Catholic (3. Belief in the Unbelievable) boarding school, where the students and nuns primarily spoke French. After her father's death, the teen aged Rousseff went to the Central State High School where she became more aware of politics and realized that "The world was not a place for debutantes." This is where she first became interested in The Worker's Politics Organization (POLOP), and became opposed to Brazil's dictatorship (2. An Early Sense of Direction).

Rousseff became so involved with politics that the authorities gave her several nicknames: "The Joan of Arc of Subversion," "Political Criminal,"
"Female Figure of Sadly Notable Aspect," and "the She-Pope of Subversion." Obviously, such name-calling didn't upset her (5. Life Is Not a Popularity Contest).

In 1968, she married Claudio Galenao Linhares, a political activist five years her senior. Two years later, he was arrested; she was captured by the authorities, sentenced to six years in prison, and her political rights were suspended for 18 years. During her time in prison, she was tortured for several weeks with punching, ferule, and electric shock devices (12. Hard Times).

She was released from jail in 1972, but was barred from continuing her university studies the next year. Ultimately, she applied to the Rio Grande do Sul Federal University, where she majored in economics and graduated in 1977. In addition to politics and economics, Rousseff is an opera lover (9. Music).

Her first marriage (in 1968) ended with an amicable divorce in 1981, but she used her first husband's name until 1999, when she reverted to her maiden name. Her second (common law) marriage was to Carlos Araujo, even though he had an affair with actress and fellow militant Bete Mendes, he and Rousseff had a daughter, Paula Rousseff Araujo, who was born in 1976. In 1994, Rousseff found that another woman was pregnant with Araujo's child (15. Forget About Prince Charming); Rousseff and Araujo separated, but later reconciled. They remained together until 2000, when she left.

Politically, Rousseff had served as Brazil's Energy Minister and was chosen by former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (Lula) to be his Chief of Staff, the first female to hold that position. Many believe that his support helped her win last month's election.

In 2009, Rousseff disclosed that she was battling Lymphatic System Cancer, and she also suffered from Myopathy as a result of the cancer treatment. During much of her campaign, she wore a wig due to chemotherapy-related hair loss. The story of a former left-wing, urban guerrilla who has risen to become her country's (first female) leader is a stirring one.

Looking forward to your comment...

Sunday, October 24, 2010

84: The Self-Empowered Woman: Iana Matei

Dear Followers,

It's no secret that I really admire brave women. And last week I learned about a woman who has truly put her own life at risk in order to try to help others. Her name is Iana Matei; she lives in the small town of Pitesti, Romania (about 300 miles North of Istanbul), and she has rescued over 400 young girls who were victimized by human traffickers.

In her words, "It is a crime against humanity to sell and buy life. There are many girls in Eastern Europe, including in Romania, forced into prostitution...Kept in captivity, abused and forced to have paid sexual intercourse with strangers, they become what can only be labeled as slaves."

Few Americans know about Ms. Matei's work, but for the past decade or so, her efforts have become more publicized, particularly in Europe. In 2006, the U.S. State Department gave her the Hero of the Year Award, in 2007, she received the Abolitionist Award from the U.K.'s House of Lords, and this year, she became the 15th recipient (and the first Romanian) to be chosen Reader's Digest European of the Year.

Matei is her country's leading advocate for victims of human trafficking, and that means that she often single-handedly rescues (11. Risk Addiction) girls as young as thirteen who have been either sold into sexual slavery or tricked into phony offers of marriage or "foreign job opportunities." Matei frequently "kidnaps" these girls from their often-violent captors, and then offers them a place to live as well as heal and rebuild their young lives. Her determination to help these young victims (and bring their tormentors to justice) has become her 7. Magnificent Obsession.

A psychologist by training, Matei is livid that there is no real, adequate legal punishment for the people who sell young girls into prostitution. In her words, "When these guys get caught, they get what? Six years? Maybe. They destroy 300 lives and they get six years. You traffic drugs, you get 20 years. There is something not right... I would like to see these criminals locked behind bars forever. I would throw away the keys of their cells. Let's have them locked up for 100 - 150 years." (5. Life Is Not a Popularity Contest)

Matei began caring for these young girls when a policeman asked her to let three "prostitutes" stay at her home because their allotted ten days for "re-integration" had expired. The girls were 14, 15, and 16 years old, "frozen, badly dressed and starving"; there was no official welfare service available to help them recover from the trauma of being locked up in a brothel and forced to work the streets.

Matei is so devoted to her young charges that she even adopted three year-old twins who had been the children of one of the young girls that she had recently rescued. Fortunately, the 52 year-old Matei has plenty of energy.

Matei's dream is to own a self-sustaining hotel where the girls can work, learn skills, and earn a living. Currently, though, she houses them in the small shelter she runs. While the Reader's Digest Award contributed $5,000 towards her goal, the Make Way Partners in Birmingham, Alabama also helps fund Matei's shelter.

Over 400 young girls have looked to Ms. Matei as a real life heroine. Thanks to her, they are able to heal the wounds inflicted by the traffickers, society at large, and (all too often) their no-longer-loving judgmental families.

If you would like to help support the work of this brave, nurturing woman, visit the link below to learn more about the Make Way Partners. And, in case you wondered, all three of the teenagers Matei picked up at the police station are now married and have children of their own.

Looking forward to your comments...

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

83: The Self-Empowered Woman: Stacy Schiff

Dear Followers,

As you know, it's important to me to introduce readers to remarkable women-- regardless of how many of the 17 traits that appear in their lives.

The latest woman who has caught my attention is Pulitzer-Prize winning biographer Stacy Schiff. The recipient of an excellent education (Phillips Academy, and Williams College -- class of 1982), Schiff was a Senior Editor at Simon & Schuster until 1990.

In 2000 she won the Pulitzer Prize for her biography "Vera (Mrs. Vladimir)Nabokov): Portrait of a Marriage, the wife of the man who wrote "Pale Fire" and "Lolita". Five years later she was a Pulitzer finalist for her biography of Antoine de Saint Exupery. In 2005, she wrote "A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America," which was published as "Doctor Franklin Goes to France" in the UK.

As if all that brilliant writing weren't enough, Schiff has won fellowships from John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the 2006 Arwen Taylor book prize, the Ambassador Award in American studies, the Institut Francais's Gilbert Chinaid prize, the 2006 George Washington Book prize, and 2006 Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Whew!

Now Schiff has a new biography out about Cleopatra, whom she fells has been misrepresented for years. When recently asked by the New York Times if Cleopatra had "slept her way to the top," Schiff answered " has always been preferable to attribute a woman's success to her beauty rather than brains. We seem convinced that men strategize while women scheme. Men are authoritative while women are shrill."

Those of you who have heard me lecture about how my library trips as a young girl helped me identify the 17 traits of Self-Empowered Women, will find Schiff's comments of interest: "...I was nostalgic even as a child. I was happiest in my hometown library in Adams, Mass., where nothing seemed to change... I notice in retrospect that biographies for kids seemed to be about women who are famous for their disabilities, delusions or sensational deaths. The big three were Helen Keller, Joan of Arc and Isadora Duncan...I fear that sudden demises always help. Think Lady Di or Amelia Earhart or Sylvia Plath."

The undeniably brilliant Schiff has an unusual lifestyle. Her husband, Marc de la Bruyere, is a real-estate developer who spends large chunks of time in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, while she and their three children live mostly in New York City.

Schiff's articles, essays, and book reviews have also appeared in The New Yorker, The Times Literary Supplement, and The New York Times.

Looking forward to your comments...

Thursday, October 14, 2010

82 The Self-Empowered Woman: French Women

Dear Followers,

Who would argue with the idea that French women are undeniably amazing? Those of us who've spent time in Paris know how amazing French females seem -- slim, well-dressed and oozing sophistication from every pore. I've always wondered how they learn to work magic with a simple scarf...

Naturally, when I read Katrin Bennhold's article in The New York Times titled, "For Women In France, Dim Outlook on Equality," I was amazed. Here I'd spent a lifetime thinking that their lives were effortless and enviable, when in fact they have struggles of their own.

To wit, Valerie Toranian (who is editor-in-chief of French Elle) observed that "French women are exhausted. We have the right to do what men do -- as long as we also take care of the children, cook a delicious dinner, and look immaculate. We have to be Superwoman."
On average (according to INSEE, The National Institute for Statistics and Economic Studies), French women spend five hours and one minute each day on child care and domestic tasks; men spend two hours and seven minutes. And a recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center revealed that three out of every four French people believed that men have a better life than women. People in 22 different countries were surveyed and this was the "highest share" of any respondents.

According to the European Union's statistical agency, French women have more babies (1.89 per woman) than any other country in Europe (for example, Italy is 1.38 and German is 1.32), but they also are Europe's biggest consumers of antidepressants.

The majority of French medical school graduates are female, but most hospital department heads are male. Overall, French women earn 26% less than men, and in 2009, even childless French women who were in their 40s still earned 17% less than men. Eighty-two percent of French women aged 25-49 are employed, but 82% of National Assembly members are male.

The French Government spends 5.1% of its gross national product (twice the European Union average) on family, childcare and maternity benefits. Women are encouraged -- via tax benefits and childcare assistance -- to have children. According to Genevieve Fraisse (an expert on gender history), "French mothers have conditions women everywhere can only dream of. But stereotypes remain very much intact."

France ranks 46th in the World Economic Forum's 2010 Gender Equality Report, which means its lower than the U.S., most of Europe, as well as Jamaica and Kazakhstan. In theory, the French Republic made equality a founding principle, but women were not able to vote until 1944!

Years ago, the French philosopher, Bernard-Henri Levy observed that "France is an old Gallic macho country."

Looking forward to your comments...

Monday, October 4, 2010

81: The Self-Empowered Woman: Ntozake Shange

Dear Followers,

Sorry I haven't posted as regularly as normal, but the hunt for CCSVI treatment has entered an exciting new phase. If I'm lucky, I may be able to receive the procedure in Albany before the end of the year; anyone who knows what it's like to live with MS (Multiple Sclerosis) will understand my scattered state of mind as I wait for a date...

Today's blog is prompted by the news that on November 5th, Tyler Perry will release his new film "Colored Girls," which is based on the play "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf." This Obie Award-winning play has long been considered Ntozake Shange's signature work, and it was produced on Broadway in 1976, when she was 28 years old.

The film is expected to be successful (like most of Perry's productions, but Shange's new novel, "Some Sing, Some Cry," which she co-authored with her sister (Ifa Bayeza) is getting lots of positive press and is expected to become a national bestseller. It took the two women almost 15 years (7: Magnificent Obsession) to complete the story of seven generations of black women who - with the help of music - overcome the violent challenges and heart breaking roadblocks that stopped them from reaching their dreams.

As Kaiama L. Glover wrote in the New York Times "[the authors] give us generation after generation of black women whose greatness and potential for happiness are undone, or nearly so, by men...If any of the Mayfield women managed to realize some measure of success, it's despite-or to spite-the men in their lives...After every near defeat, these women pick themselves up, sometimes literally off the ground, and take the next impossible step."

Shange was born Paulette L. Williams in Trenton, New Jersey; her father was an Air Force Surgeon and her mother was a Psychiatric Social Worker. As a little girl her family moved to (segregated) St. Louis, and she was bussed to a white school where she experienced racism. After completing high school in New Jersey, Shange attended Barnard College (where she graduated Cum Laude in American Studies) and USC (for her Master's Degree in the same field).

During her first year in college, Shange married, but the relationship ended bitterly; reportedly, several suicide attempts followed (15: Forget About Prince Charming), and soon after she adopted her Xhosa/Zulu name which - roughly translated means - "she who walks with her own things" and "she who walks with lions."

Shange is no stranger to challenges. In 2004, she learned that she had suffered a series of minor strokes, which at one point left her unable to read, speak, or write (12: Hard Times). Today her balance and speech are still mildly impaired, but the playwright and poet who calls herself "A Black Feminist" is ready for a new chapter in her life to begin.

Looking forward to your comments...

Friday, September 24, 2010

80: The Self-Empowered Woman: Eileen Nearne

Dear Followers,

Not all remarkable women receive the standing ovations that they deserve. Today's blog is about a remarkable Self-Empowered Woman who embodied honor, bravery and fortitude, but died penniless and alone.

Eileen Nearne was 89 years old when she died in the English seaside village of Torquay. Because she had lived alone for many years, and had few friends, and there was no one to pay for funeral expenses after her body was found. Council officials, while in the process of looking through her things in an effort to find a relative, discovered that she wasn't just another little old lady who had lived--and died--alone.

The book and movie "Charlotte Gray" (the film starred Cate Blanchett) was rumored to be based on Nearne's life, and the London Times posthumously referred to her as a real-life Eleanor Rigby, the spinster who died alone in the Beatles' song.

In fact, when she was 24 years old Eileen Nearne had had a remarkable career as a young spy during World War II. She was dropped behind enemy lines near Chateauroux in occupied France, and was assigned to transmit wireless radio messages to London from Paris in order to help the Allies keep track of Nazi activities. During her five months in Paris she sent 105 messages--including one that told the British that the Germans had hidden 2,000 rockets in a stone quarry located north of Paris.

Three times during her career as a young spy, Nearne was captured by the Gestapo. Her two other female British contacts were executed, and the Nazis used that era's form of waterboarding--holding Nearne underwater in a bathtub full of near-freezing water--but she never admitted her involvement with the British. She was sent to Ravensbruck and Markleberg prison camps after being arrested by the SS (the Schutzstaffel), but eventually convinced the Nazis that "Mademoiselle du Tort" was simply a shop girl who knew nothing about military matters.

The woman whom the British War Office referred to as "Agent Rose" walked to Leipzig, where a local priest let her hide in the belfry of his church. When she saw white flags being flown on April 15, 1945 she went to greet the liberating Americans.

Nearne returned to the UK, where her mental state remained (understandably) precarious; her older sister took care of her until Jacqueline accepted a job offer at the United Nations. From that time on, Nearne was essentially a woman who retreated into herself.

When the War was over she admitted that what kept her going was "The will to live. Will power. That's the most important. You should not let yourself go. It seemed that the end would never come, but I have always believed in destiny and I had a hope."

In the picture at the top of the page, she is attending a memorial service at Ravensbruck where she had once been a prisoner. The medal on the left is the Croix de Guerre (from the French government) and the one on the right is the MBE (from the British government.

She received a pension from the British government until she travelled to Paris to stay with friends, at which time her stipend was terminated. The British population was justifiably irate that a true war hero had been forced to live in poverty. She was buried three weeks after her body was found, and her funeral expenses were ultimately paid by the Royal British Legion, whose motto is "Lest We Forget."

Looking forward to your comments...

Sunday, September 12, 2010

79: The Self-Empowered Woman: Ruth Gruber

Dear Followers,

Today I would like to introduce you to a truly remarkable Self-Empowered Woman named Ruth Gruber who was born in 1911, and still lives in New York City. She grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn, and devoted her life to working on behalf of the underdog (7: Magnificent Obsession). Her parents were Russian-Jewish immigrants (3: Belief in the Unbelievable), and they encouraged her to get as much education as possible.

Gruber entered New York University when she was only 15 years old, and three years later she won a post-graduate fellowship at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (13:More Than Meets the Eye). Gruber had been so inspired by her German professor that she learned the language and studied the culture thoroughly enough to win another fellowship from the Institute of International Education to study at the University of Cologne.

While in Cologne, she became - at 20 years old - the youngest person in the world to receive a doctorate. Her Ph.D. (believe it or not) was in German Philosophy, Modern English Literature, and Art History. During this time, she became close friends with Virginia Woolf.

While in Germany, Gruber witnessed Nazi rallies, and when she returned to the U.S. she worked to make Americans aware of the dangers of Nazism. Her writing career began in 1932, and in 1935 she wrote a series about women living under Communism and Fascism for the New York Herald Tribune. And while working for that newspaper she became the first foreign correspondent to fly through Siberia into the Soviet Arctic (11: Risk Addiction).

Gruber was appointed Special Assistant to the Secretary of the Interior (Harold L. Ickes) during World War II, and was asked to conduct a study that would permit G.I.s to homestead in Alaska after the war. In 1944, she undertook a secret mission to bring 1,000 Jewish refugees and wounded American soldiers from Italy to America. Ickes made her "a simulated general" so that if her plane were shot down the Nazis (under the Geneva Convention) would keep her alive. Her book Haven describes this harrowing journey, and a 2001 film of the same name was based on the book: Natasha Richardson portrayed Ruth Gruber. Sadly, it took two years for the government to allow the quarantined refugees to apply for American residency.

Gruber returned to journalism and continued to work to help displaced Jewish refugees, particularly those who wanted to move to Palestine. She met and photographed many of those who were on the 1947 ship Exodus as well as the prison ship Runnymede.

When she was 40 years old, Gruber married, then had two children, but continued her career as a journalist. Her column for the Hadassah Magazine, "Diary of an American Housewife," was a particularly popular feature.

In 1979, when she was 68 years old, she won the "National Jewish Book Award" for Raquela: A Woman of Israel, which was about an Israeli nurse; Gruber had spent an entire year in Israel researching Raquela Prywes' life.

In 1985, Gruber travelled to Ethiopia, and later wrote a book about Ethiopian Jews called Rescue. Gruber has written over 18 books and received awards from the National Coalition Against Censorship and the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Museum of Tolerance.

This brave, talented woman is now the subject of a documentary film "Ahead of Time," which chronicles her amazing life. Gruber's story reminds us all that age is just a number, compassion can be more than a virtue, and hard work can be the most rewarding rejuvenation tonic ever.

Looking forward to your comments...

Thursday, September 9, 2010

78: The Self-Empowered Woman: Elizabeth Gilbert

Dear Followers,

Today's blog is slightly different in nature, however, it continues my perpetual theme of Philogyny (i.e., admiration for women).

As many of you know, Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert was made into a movie this summer that starred Julia Roberts. The film may not have been a huge success, but the book has been on the New York Times Best Seller list for close to 200 weeks! Gilbert is a mesmerizing writer who has won a variety of awards for her magazine articles, which is not all that surprising in light of the fact that she grew up on a rural Christmas tree farm in a home that had no record player or television. Reading and writing little books and plays was the primary source of entertainment for Gilbert and her older sister.

Because I loved the book, I could hardly wait to get my hands on Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage, her next book. I thought I'd be learning about her relationship with Felipe, which I did. But I didn't expect to be given (as a bonus) a history lesson as well as a mini-memoir.

Gilbert needed to get rid of her gun-shy feelings about marriage in order to build a new life with the man she loved, and her research (which is every bit as valuable and informative as Gail Collins') helped her do just that.

As with so many developments today, being a wife in the 21st Century is a piece of cake compared to what women experienced hundreds of years ago. Gilbert write about the European system of Coverture, which was the belief that a woman's individual civil existence is erased the moment she marries. Gilbert writes that "If there is one word, by the way, that triggers all the inherent terrors I have ever felt about the institution of marriage, it is coverture...It wasn't until the year 1975, for instance, that the married women of Connecticut - including my own mother - were legally allowed to take out loans or open checking accounts without the written permission of their husbands."

Gilbert also writes about the "Marital freedom movement," where people began to marry whom and how they chose, regardless of what society thought. She tells of Lillian Harman (a suffragette) and Edwin Walker (a journalist) who fell in love in Kansas in 1887. They created an "autonomistic marriage" with their own wedding vows, but without a judge or minister or license. As a consequence, they were arrested on their wedding night because "...what they wanted was the liberty to define their own relationship based on their personal interpretation of love."

Gilbert writes touchingly about her remarkably selfless grandmother and the other women in her family: "They cut up the finest and proudest parts of themselves and gave it all away. They repatterned what was theirs and shaped it for others. They went without. They were the last ones to eat at supper, and they were the first ones to get up every morning, warming the cold kitchen for another day spent caring for everyone else. This was the only thing they knew how to do. This was their guiding verb and their defining principle: they gave...And if I were to tell you that this...has not shaped forever my feelings about marriage, or that it has not forged within me a small, quiet sorrow about what the matrimonial institution can take away from good women, I would be lying to you."

Happily, Gilbert and Felipe survived all the "issues" addressed in Committed, and had a real, albeit casual, wedding (including a flower girl). I'm willing to bet that Hollywood won't be interested in turning this book into a movie, but Gilbert has given us a priceless, multilayered look into both the institution of marriage and the evolution of her own heart.

Looking forward to your comments...

Monday, September 6, 2010

77: The Self-Empowered Woman: Sarah Bernhardt

Dear Followers,

As you know, I enjoy sharing the stories of a wide variety of women. To me, the era, country of origin, type of talent, or passion are not what's important. What matters is the struggle to fulfill a dream or survive challenges, and there seem to be an unlimited number of women who capture my attention ( and, hopefully, yours as well).

Today's woman worth knowing is the legendary actress Sarah Bernhardt, who was born in 1844 in Paris, and died 1923. She has often been called "the most famous actress the world has ever known."

Her birthname was Sara-Marie-Henriette Rosine Bernard; she was born in Paris as the illegitimate daughter of a Dutch courtesan - she never knew who her father was (1: No Paternal Safety Net). Much of her early life was spent in a convent (3: Belief In The Unbelievable).

When she was thirteen years old she entered the Conservatoire, the government sponsered French school of acting (2: An Early Sense Of Direction). In 1862, she entered the Nationaal Theater Company, the Comedie - Francaise, but the next year her contract was cancelled because she slapped a fellow actress (5: Life Is Not A Popularity Contest).

She left Paris and moved to Belgium where she had an affair with Henri, Prince de Ligne and had his son, Maurice, in 1864. Because his family disapproved of their relationship they ended their love affair. In later years she married a Greek-born actor (Jacques Damala) who became addicted to morphine, and had affairs with a number of men including Victor Hugo and the Prince of Wales (15: Forget About Prince Charming).

By 1866 she was back in Paris, and was soon popular not only in Europe but in New York, as well. She was known as " the Divine Sarah". In 1905, she was performing in Rio de Janeiro when she injured her knee during a performance. It never healed properly, gangrene set in, and her right leg had to be amputated. In spite of her loss, she continued to act even though she couldn't really move around the stage (12: Hard Times).

If you would like to know more about the amazing woman who was known around the world long before jet travel and the internet were available, I recommened Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt by Robert Gottlieb (Yale, $25.00).

Looking forward to your comments...

Monday, August 30, 2010

76: The Self-Empowered Woman: Bibi Aisha

Dear Followers,

There were a lot of celebrations last month because 90 years ago, women in America were (finally) given the right to vote. And even though I was one of the women "publicizing" this important anniversary, it's important to remember just how lucky we are to live in America, rather than in a country where women really are (and probably always have been) undervalued.

Bibi Aisha is a perfect example of what can happen to a woman who refuses to "obey" the cultural norms of a repressive society. Today, Aisha is a teenager from Afghanistan who is living in Calabasas, California at the Grossman Burn Foundation. Aisha is there to undergo surgery needed to repair her nose and both ears. She lost them because she refused to stay with the man her father had chosen--when she was only twelve years old--to be her husband. It is expected that it will take about six months to complete her reconstructive surgeries.

Aisha and her younger sister were given to the family of a Taliban member as part of a "Baad," which is a customary form of settling tribal disputes in remote areas of Afghanistan. Aisha's uncle had killed a relative of the "groom" so her father gave his two daughters to the victim's family as compensation.

When she reached puberty, Aisha was married to the Taliban fighter, but actually spent most of her time living with her in-laws because he was in hiding or in combat. Aisha and her sister were essentially slaves, and were beaten repeatedly in retaliation for her uncle's crime.

When Aisha fled, her husband and his brother (some say it was his uncle) tracked her down in Kandahar and took her back to Oruzgan, the province where his family lived. In the Pashtun culture, a man who has been "shamed" by his wife is considered to have "lost his nose." So, in retaliation, they took her to the mountains, where one held her down and the other cut off both ears and her nose. They then left her on a mountain side to bleed to death.

Somehow, she made her way to safety, and American aid workers took her to the Women for Afghan Women shelter in Kabul. Aisha cannot read or write, but the group helped her learn to do handicrafts. I've written before about my admiration for Greg Mortensen and his work to establish schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. But with the Taliban's increasing strength, some of the girl schools are being forced to close.

As one member of Parlament, Haji Farid said recently " Why our people focusing on education and sending girls to school? Boys walk three, four, five kilometers to their school. How can a girl walk two, three, four kilometers? During a war you cannot send a girl beyond her door. No one can guarantee her honor. So it is hard to send her daughter to school. "

The United Nations estimates that nearly ninety percent of women in Afghanistan face some sort of domestic abuse, and in an entire country there are fewer than a dozen women shelters. And a popular Kabul TV channel accuses those shelters of being sites for prostitution!

Aisha's damaged face appeared on the cover of Time magazine this summer, and her story prompted Christiane Amanpour of ABC to ask Nancy Pelosi if America was "going to abandon the women of Afghanistan?"

Looking forward to your comments...

Saturday, August 14, 2010

75: The Self-Empowered Woman: Carrie Chapman Catt

Dear Followers,

Today I'd like to introduce you to Carrie Chapman Catt, a woman who worked tirelessly to make life better for women, but has sadly slipped into the dusty pages of history books instead of becoming a household name.

It is worth getting to know about her because later this month (on August 26) we will celebrate Women's Suffrage Day. That is when - 90 years ago -the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote in 1920, officially became part of the U.S. Constitution.

Because my mother was a teenager at that time, I've always been attuned to the fact that the right to vote didn't happen automatically. Anglophile that I am, the story of the British Suffragette who threw herself in front of one of the King's racehorses (and died) in the struggle spearheaded by Emily Pankhurst to give women the vote.

Here in America the two names most often associated with women's right to vote are Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, but Carrie Catt (who was born in 1859) was the only one of the three who actually lived long enough to cast a ballot in a nation election.

Those of you who've heard me speak about how The Self-Empowered Woman began will remember that as a little girl I was baffled by the fact that boys had more life choices than girls. When Carri Catt was thirteen she asked why her mother wasn't getting dressed to go into town to vote with her father and the hired hand who worked on their farm. Her question was met with laughter and she was told that voting was too important a civic duty to leave to women. From that day forward her life had purpose (2: An Early Sense of Direction and 7: Magnificent Obsession).

When Carrie graduated from high school in 1877, her father refused to pay for more education so she taught school and saved enough money to enter Iowa State Agricultural College (now Iowa State University), where she supported herself by working in the college kitchen and the state library(17: Dreaming Your Own Dream). When she graduated, Carrie was valedictorian and the only woman of her class (13: More Than Meets the Eye).

In 1885 Carrie married the editor of the Mason City Republican. She had been forced to stop teaching because married women were not allowed to teach (!), so she began writing a "Woman's World" column for the newspaper. When he lost the paper she moved to San Francisco to find work, but caught Typhoid fever. Carrie left by train, but he died before she arrived; she was 27 years old and had lost her home, her income and her husband (12: Hard Times).

She stayed in California and worked as a freelance writer. She soon met a former college friend, George Catt, who became her husband in 1890. By that time she had begun lecturing and working tirelessly for women's rights . In 1900, Susan B. Anthony at 80 years old retired as the head of the National American Women Suffrage Association (NAWSA), and Carrie Catt became the new president.

In her long life (she died in 1947 at the age of 88) Carrie also worked hard on behalf of the United Nations and she established the Protest Committee of Non-Jewish Women Against the Persecution of Jews in Germany; she is the first woman to win the American Hebrew Medal. By the time of her death, women in most developed countries around the world had equal voting rights (8: Turning No Into Yes).

Looking forward to your comments...

Sunday, August 8, 2010

74: The Self-Empowered Woman: Elena Kagan

Dear Followers,

Regardless of your political persuasion, the fact that Elena Kagan has been sworn in as a Supreme Court Justice this week is a noteworthy event. She is only the fourth female Justice in the Court's history, and for the first time ever there are now three female Justices. Kagan is the eighth Jewish Justice to be appointed to the highest court in the land.

Elena Kagan began displaying traits of a Self-Empowered Woman from an early age. She was the middle of three children (the only daughter), and her mother taught fifth and sixth grade at Hunter College Elementary School and her father was an attorney.

Independent and strong-willed as a girl, Kagan went toe-to-toe with her family's Orthodox rabbi over the details of her bat mitzvah because she felt that it was no less important than the ritual bar mitzvah (5: Life is Not a Popularity Contest).

Kagan also had a clear idea of how she wanted her life to unfold. In the 1977 Hunter College High School yearbook, she is pictured wearing a judge's robe and holding a gavel, and one of her classmates remembered that her goal was to become a Supreme Court Justice (2: An Early Sense of Direction).

She attended Princeton University, where she majored in history, and in 1981 she graduated summa cum laude (10: The Critic Within). Her perfectionism continued when she attended Worcester College, Oxford University where she earned a Masters of Philosophy and when she graduated from Harvard Law School magna cum laude. Her father, who had earned his law degree at Yale was deeply disappointed that she chose Harvard over his alma mater (17: Dreaming Your Own Dream).

When Kagan joined the faculty of the University of Chicago in 1991, she immediately became popular with her students. Several faculty members felt that she had not published enough to gain tenure, but it was awarded in 1995 (8: Turning No Into Yes).

Soon Kagan was lured to Washington to work in the Clinton White House, even though she would risk losing her teaching position and tenure if she stayed more than two years - which she did (11: Risk Addiction).

After leaving Washington, Kagan became a visiting professor at Harvard Law School and in 2001 she was named full professor. Two years later she was named the first-ever female Dean of the law school.

In January, 2009 President Obama nominated Kagan to be Solicitor General even though she had never argued a case at trial or appeared before the Supreme Court. Again, she was the first woman to hold this post and some critics questioned her experience. Fifteen months later she was nominated to fill the seat of Justice John Paul Stevens, and last week her nomination was confirmed by a vote of 63 - 37. Kagan is the first Justice in almost 40 years with no prior experience as a judge - William Rehnquist in 1972 was the other (13: More Than Meets the Eye)..

Looking forward to your comments...

Friday, August 6, 2010

73 The Self-Empowered Woman: Blog Hop 2010

Dear Followers,

As so many of you know, my blog has been sharing news about women of achievement from a wide variety of cultures, countries and eras. And this seemed like a perfect time to introduce you to another blog (Pensieve) that is written by an accomplished woman for females who are on the move -- both emotionally and intellectually.

My blog (and book) centers on the fact that it's amazing that a young woman in Cambodia, a retirement-age woman in South Africa, a deceased author in England and an Academy Award winning American actress would have so many things in common.

Most remarkable women just happen to be amazing mothers. And chapter 16 of The Self-Empowered Woman explores that issue and, hopefully, helps inspire all of us to accept that making our mark in the world and being successful mothers are not mutually exclusive.

My fifth non-fiction book, The Self-Empowered Woman, was inspired by my life-long interest in what women could do even though they faced obstacles. That interest (some call it an obsession) led me to study the lives of women as diverse as Isak Dinesen (remember the movie Out of Africa?), the singer Sade, the author Agatha Christie, the aviator Amelia Earhart, and modern-day women like T.V.'s Meredith Vieira, film director Nancy Meyers and Teresa L. King, who happens to be the first female Commandant of the Army's Drill Sergeant School.

I hope you enjoy The Self-Empowered Woman blog as well as the book (which is available on, and I look forward to many more stories that can inspire women of all ages and all interests.

Looking forward to your comments!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

72: The Self-Empowered Woman: Work and Women

Dear Followers,

Instead of writing about one individual woman today, I'd like to share information from New York Times economic write David Leonhardt. In today's paper he wrote a thought-provoking article about mothers and the labor market that punishes them.

Leonhardt uses the Supreme Court as a prototype for the job market. He points out that the last three men nominated to the court were all married and had seven children among them. But the last three women have all been single and childless.

He reminds us that only 15 Fortune 500 companies have a female chief executive, and men dominate the next executive rung as well. Sadly, full-time women workers earn almost 25% less than male employees. And, many experts think it's because there is a price to pay for not following "the old-fashioned career path." And according to Jane Wadfogel, a Columbia University professor who studies family and work: "Women do almost as well as men today as long as they don't have children."

A University of Chicago study found that shortly after graduation men and women usually worked the same weekly hours and had nearly-identical incomes. But 15 years later, the men were earning about 75% more than the women. The only group of women who kept pace with men were those who had no children and (therefore) never needed to take time off. This may explain why so many mothers stop working - since there are few options for part-time work, the switch is made to full-time parenting.

Leonhardt closes his column with this observation: "For almost 200 years, the Supreme Court did not have a single woman on its bench. Sometime later this week, it is likely to have three."

Looking forward to your comments...

Thursday, July 22, 2010

71: The Self-Empowered Woman: Kankuben Lalabhai Parmar

Dear Followers,

Today - thanks to Guy Trebay and the New York Times - I'd like to tell you about an amazing woman who has defied all odds and become an international business woman even though, for many years, she'd never traveled outside her own home.

Kankuben Lalabhai Parmar is from the village of Madhutra in the Indian State of Gujarat. To get to Manhattan, where her crafts are being sold at the Asia Society, her journey involved an oxcart, a trishaw, a jeep flatbed. an open-topped shuttle, and then her first-ever airplane ride.

Ms. Parmar officially belongs to a "scheduled caste," which meant that she was considered untouchable; the men were limited to their region or village, and the women were traditionally bound to their homes. She is now 50 years old, but never met a man who wasn't a close relative until she was an adult.

Married at 14, she is the mother of seven children, and her life changed dramatically when (two decades ago) the not-for-profit Sewa Project came to her village to help preserve native handicrafts and create "alternative employment."

Ms. Parmar creates patchwork embroideries that often include small pieces of mirror that she buys (as scrap) by the pound. Her pillow covers, for example, require almost a week's worth of sewing and sell for about $15 at her local market. Today, she earns about $60 a month, which has made her the family's chief breadwinner.

As she told Trebay, "When I was a girl, all the assets belonged to the father or the husband or the that I have my own business and make my own money, my husband shows me respect."

Ms. Parmar is an informal ambassador for Sewa and the Crafts Council of India; it's estimated that in India alone 40 to 60 million people earn part of their living making crafts.

In New York, Ms Parmar visited museums, bought gifts at CVS for her daughters, and enjoyed all the sophistication of Manhattan even though she is illiterate and must use her thumbprint for a signature.

Twenty years have made a huge difference in the lives of the once-untouchable women of Madhutra, India. Their quiet and dignified example of global feminism should inspire us all.

Looking forward to your comments...

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

70: The Self-Empowered Woman: Gloria Allred

Dear Followers,Lately these blogs have been introducing readers to accomplished women from a variety of nations, but today I'd like you to meet a home-grown Self-Empowered Woman who has - for most of her life - been comfortable with controversy.

Born in Philadelphia on July 3, 1941, Allred is possibly the most famous female attorney in America. She has consistently welcomed clients and cases that many other attorneys would avoid. According to Allred "My work is not about popularity contests...women can't enjoy equal opportunity if they are sexually harassed at work...[and] the defense just hopes the woman doesn't hire Gloria Allred (5: Life is Not a Popularity Contest).

In the 1960s, after her daughter was born Allred and her first husband divorced and in 1987 (after 19 years of marriage) she and her second husband divorced (15: Forget About Prince Charming).

Allred's daughter, Lisa Bloom, who is 20 years younger than her Mom, worked at the same law firm for nine years and the two are very close (16: Intensive Motherhood).

Thane Rosenbaum, a law professor at Fordham University has described Allred as a "moral attorney" because she accepts cases with no concern for her own reputation or for her (often unlikely) chances of winning (11: Risk Addiction). She has made her (7: Magnificent Obsession) defending women who have been taken advantage of by people in power.

Perhaps the key to her passion is that she was - at age 21 - a divorced single mother with no child support. When she was 25, she was a teacher at a high school in Watts (a volatile neighborhood in Los Angeles) and took a vacation to Mexico. While there, she was raped; after undergoing an illegal abortion she almost bled to death, but a nurse in the intensive-care unit told her "This will teach you a lesson." (12: Hard Times). It was that experience that made the young Ms. Allred begin to fight against the systemic way that women were treated in America.

Allred has her share of critics in both the legal and media communities and Comedienne Chelsea Handler has been critical of Allred on both her blog and her late-night talk show and has accused the lawyer of "...setting the women's movement back 100 years." But what other people think (like when a California State Senator called her a "slick butch lawyeress") rarely seems to bother Allred.

Looking forward to your comments...

Thursday, July 8, 2010

69: The Self-Empowered Woman: Somaly Mam

Dear Followers,

I am frequently asked how I "discover" the amazing women who become part of The Self-Empowered Woman blog. Not surprisingly, the answer almost always has something to do with reading. But I was introduced to today's heroine when I read the wedding announcement in the New York Times of Michael Raymond Angelo and Scott Michael MacDougal. I was impressed that they were both involved in New York's Somaly Mam Foundation, which works to end child prostitution and sex slavery, particularly in Southeast Asia. The couple met Ms. Mam in New York and even traveled to Cambodia to visit one of her shelters. Their efforts on her behalf aroused my curiosity, so I did a little research in order to share her story with you.

Almost all of us have complained at one time or another, but when you learn about the amazing story of Cambodia's brave Somaly Mam you'll realize how lucky you are to have your "problems" rather than the ones she has faced!

Somaly Mam has endured enough in 40 years to encompass several lifetimes. She never learned who her parents were (1: No Paternal Safety Net) because she was abandoned; she was first raped at the age of twelve. By the time she was 14 she was sold into a forced marriage to a man who beat her, and eventually sold her to a Phnom Penh brothel where, in her words, "we were treated worse than dogs."

While there, Mam was repeatedly gang raped and tortured (12: Hard Times) and the awful things saw and experienced led her to make rescuing young powerless girls her life's work. The acronym for her organization is AFESIP (the English translation would be Acting For Women In Precarious Circumstances) and it works to rescue young girls from the pimps and brothels that abuse them.

In Cambodia, a five or six year old child can be sold into slavery for as little as $100, and the going price for a young girl prostitute is less than $2. So far, Mam has rescued over 5,000 girls and her shelters offer medical, psychological and educational care for the young girls who look to her for help.

According to the Cambodian Ministry of Women's Affairs there are over 1o0,000 prostitutes in Cambodia, almost half are under 16, and more than half are HIV positive.
The reason Mam was able to escape sexual slavery and work to help others is that her appearance was not appealing to Khmer and Chinese brothel customers. They prefer plump, light skinned girls, but she is tall, slim and dark skinned; the brothel eventually let her go. Since that time Mam's mission has been to help other girls (7: Magnificent Obsession).

Mam married a French expatriate, but they have divorced (15: Forget About Prince Charming). She is a devoted mother to her three children (16: Intensive Motherhood). Thanks to her and the shelters she has established in Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam, girls who otherwise had no future have been taught to read, write, and acquire skills to support themselves without having to sell their bodies.

Looking forward to your comments...

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

68: The Self-Empowered Woman: Juana Bacallao

Dear Followers,

Do you ever find yourself feeling tired? Ever wonder what it would be like top retire or take a permanent vacation? When you learn about today's Self- Empowered Woman, it just may reframe your thoughts about being too old (or too tired) to follow your dream...

Juana Bacallao is a Cuban diva who still performs (in a blond wig and a slinky red dress) almost every Friday night at the Havana nightclub Gato Tuerto (One-Eyed Cat) even though she is over 80 years old.

Nobody knows exactly when she was born, but some people suggest that she may be 93 years old. Her birth name was Neri Amelia Martinez Salazar and (1: No Paternal Safety Net) she was orphaned at the age of six. At that time she was sent to a Catholic boarding school (3: Belief in the Unbelievable).

By the time she'd become a teenager she'd landed the job of cleaning houses. Fortunately, a powerful music director (Obdulio Morales) heard her singing while she was sweeping, and immediately decided that she had what it took to become a star (4: Supportive Someone).

When most of us think of a female Cuban chanteuse we think of Celia Cruz, but Juana never left the cabaret scene in favor of becoming a TV or recording star. And although she still has not received a visa to perform in the U.S., this year she will travel to Mexico and Moscow for performances.

The now-elderly singer has always been known for her "unpredictable" behavior (5: Life is Not a Popularity Contest). It's not unusual for her to interrupt her performances to adjust her wig or makeup or even taunt male audience members for staring at her too intently.

Juana makes no secret that retirement is not an option. She told the AP "I will never retire. I will only stop when death has come for me...I have no age" (7: Magnificent Obsession).

Obviously, there's no tonic like doing what you love.

Looking forward to your comments...

Saturday, June 19, 2010

67: The Self-Empowered Woman: Beka Ntsanwisi

Dear Followers,

These days it seems that everyone is paying close attention to soccer's World Cup Competition in South Africa. So I thought - in the spirit of Self-Empowered Women everywhere - that you might like to meet an amazing woman named Rebecca Beka Ntsanwisi.

She was born in 1968 at Nkowankowa Village outside Tzaneen in Limpopo, a province of South Africa. Her father was an educator, and as a youngster she was encouraged to work hard at school and help improve her community (2: An Early Sense of Direction). After graduating from high school she attended the University of Venda, where she studied music (9: Music).

In the 1990s, she began working at a radio station, and soon became the head of its social responsibility program. She has been particularly effective at helping those in rural areas, especially impoverished people.

In 2003, Beka was diagnosed with colon cancer and two years later was wheelchair dependant (12: Hard Times). During her illness she worked with the Department of Health to a) form support groups for people with cancer and b) fight the belief in witchcraft that still exists in some communities.

During her own treatment, she often visited public hospitals and was saddened by how many elderly female patients were treated. Many of them seemed lonely, depressed and/or confused, but Beka felt that exercise (particularly soccer) just might give these women the lift they needed.

Today, the group that Beka founded in 2005 is known as Vakhegula Vakhegula (Grannies Grannies) and includes 35 players from 49 to 84 years old. The team has become so well known that it has been invited to come to America in August to compete in the Veteran's Cup (for teams with players 30 and over) in Lancaster, Mass. (13: More Than Meets the Eye).

After Beka's husband died the Grannies helped her deal with grief, and another player who lost eight of her twelve children found that the soccer team became an extended, supportive family. When the Grannies were young girls playing on a soccer team simply wasn't an option, but today - thanks to Beka - these women have an acceptable athletic outlet (8: Turning No Into Yes).

Beka has won numerous awards including (five tines) the Black Management Forum Limpopo Woman of Excellence Award, the Limpopo Achievers Award, the Premier's Award and the Nkowakowa branch of the South African National Civic Organization honored her for her work to help the helpless.

Today, Beka's cancer is in remission, but she considers her work for the poor and Grannies Grannies to be her legacy.

Looking forward to your comments...

Sunday, June 13, 2010

66: The Self Empowered Woman: Pearl Buck

Dear Followers,

Today's remarkable woman, managed to combine the multiple careers of wife, mother, author and activist long before doing so was fashionable. Pearl Buck won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for her best-selling novel The Good Earth, and in 1938 she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for her "rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life in China and for her biographical masterpieces."

The daughter of Caroline and Absalom Sydenstricker, Buck was born on June 26, 1892 in Hillsboro, West Virginia, but moved with her parents to China so they could continue their work as Southern Presbyterian missionaries (3: Belief in the Unbelievable).

Her strict father was so committed to his work of converting the Chinese that she rarely saw him (1: No Paternal Safety Net). As a child, she learned to speak Chinese before English, and when she wrote "The Good Earth" she mentally composed it in Chinese first and then translated the story into English.

By 1911, she had left China to attend college at Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Virginia, from which she graduated Phi Beta Kappa (10: The Critic Within). In 1914, she returned to China and three years later married a missionary/farmer named John Lossing Buck. Soon after, she became unhappy in her marriage, gained a great deal of weight, and even described her gray-green eyes as "wild-beast eyes" (6: Life is Also Not a Beauty Contest).

The 1920s were difficult (12: Hard Times). Three years after they were married, the Bucks had a daughter (Carol) who was afflicted with Phenylketonuria, and the next year, Buck's mother died; soon her father moved in with the young couple and their ill daughter. When they returned to the U.S. for John's one-year sabbatical, Pearl Buck earned her Masters Degree from Cornell University before returning to China in 1925. In 1927, the "Nanking Incident" forced the family to seek asylum, and they were forced to move to Japan for a year. In 1934, they permanently left China.

Buck actually had two Magnificent Obsessions (7). One was her outrage at the cruel way women were treated in China. Wives could only speak if spoken to, and female babies (as in today's China) were considered far less "valuable" than males. Her second "cause" was the plight of "mixed race" babies born to Asian women wherever American soldiers were stationed in Asia. She became a critic of the "racial superiority" that she witnessed among the missionaries, and was brave enough to challenge racism and sex discrimination in both China and the U.S. (5: Life Is Not a Popularity Contest).

In 1935, she divorced her husband and married her publisher, Richard Walsh; after his death she chose an Arthur Murray dance instructor (Theodore Harris) to be her companion (15: Forget About Prince Charming).

Even though her children were critical of her, Buck appears to have been the Mia Farrow or Angelina Jolie of her era; her family included seven adopted children (16: Intensive Motherhood). In 1949, she established Welcome House, Inc. which was the first international, interracial adoption agency. She also established the Pearl S. Buck Foundation as well as Opportunity Center and Orphanages to "address poverty and discrimination faced by children in Asian countries."

Because of the way she portrayed Chinese peasant life, Buck was denounced as an "American cultural imperialist" during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. She was heartbroken when Madame Mao and Chinese government officials prevented her from accompanying President Nixon on his groundbreaking visit to China in 1972.

Pearl Buck, who wrote over 50 books, died in 1973 when she was 80 years old. She is buried in Green Hills Farm in Perkasie, Pennsylvania; she designed her tombstone, which is inscribed with the Chinese characters that represent the name Pearl Sydenstricker.

Looking forward to your comments...

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

65: The Self Empowered Woman: Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Dear Followers:

Can't believe that it's already June! Today I'd like to share the story of a remarkable 40 year old woman who has risked everything in order to work as an outspoken, prominent critic of Islam.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali was born on November 13th (my birthday) in 1969 in Mogadishu, Somalia. Her father was politically active and because of his opposition to the Siad Barre government he was imprisoned (1: Non Existent Paternal Safety Net).

Her father had studied abroad and was opposed to female genital cutting, but while he was in prison Hirsi Ali's religious grandmother (3: Belief In the Unbelievable) submitted the five year old little girl to what most people refer to as genital mutilation. But she explains it by saying "I have the stitch-up part. If should remain a virgin until your wedding night [your family is] going to apply the approach where you get sewed."

Ayaan's family moved from Somalia to Saudi Arabia, then Ethiopia, and then Nairobi, Kenya. During those years she received a Saudi-funded education, studied the Qur'an, and wore a Hijab with her school uniform. But after finishing secondary school, she enrolled in a secretarial course in Nairobi and became introduced to Western culture and values. And like other Self Empowered Women (Madeleine Albright, Sandra Day O'Connor and Sonia Sotomayor - among so many others)became a big fan of Nancy Drew mysteries.

In 1992, Ayaan's father instructed her that she would marry a distant cousin who she considered to be both a "bigot" and an "idiot." On a pre-wedding trip from Kenya to visit relatives in Germany, she bravely traveled to the Netherlands and requested political asylum (11: Risk Addiction).

Since that time she has worked tirelessly on behalf of battered females, especially Muslim girls and women. In 2002, she renounced Islam and became an atheist. After her book "The Son Factory" (which criticized Islam and Islamic culture) was published, she began to receive death threats. Today, wherever she travels she has armed escorts (5: Life Is Not a Popularity Contest).

Hirsi Ali's activism in the Netherlands has caught the attention of feminists around the world. Her 2007 memoir "Infidel" became a bestseller and last month her new book "Nomad: From Islam to America" showed signs of being equally successful.

Looking forward to your comments...