Tuesday, March 30, 2010

54:The Self-Empowered Woman: Dame Muriel Spark

Dear Followers,

Today I'd like to write about a working class girl from Edinburgh (born Muriel Sarah Camberg in 1918) who became a best selling author (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie), lived in Italy, bought a race horse from the Queen of England, and became Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1993.

Her father was a Jewish engineer, her mother was an English music teacher, and as a child she loved literature and read Scott, Swinburne ad Browning. At the age of 14 she won first prize in a poetry competition (2: An Early Sense of Direction).

In 1937 she married Sidney Oswald Spark and moved with him to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Soon after they had a son, and she learned that her husband was a violent manic depressive (15: Forget About Prince Charming). Spark moved back to the U.K. in 1944 (14: Selective Disassociation), but her husband and son stayed in Africa for several more years.

She kept her married name, eventually sent her son to be raised by her parents in Scotland, and began writing seriously after the end of WWII. In 1947 she became the editor of Poetry Review, but was fired after two years. By 1954, money was scarce and she was at a low point both physically (she was taking diet pills instead of eating meals) and emotionally (12: Hard Times). Her conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1957, which had an impact on every aspect of Spark's life, was supported by Graham Greene.

For years Spark was considered an anarchist, feminists often disliked her work, as did many of the respected critics who felt her work was too "light." Spark's estrangement from her son (who had converted to the Jewish faith) was simply one more example of iconoclasm (5: Life Is Not a Popularity Contest).

The author of 22 novels and 21 other books (short stories, poetry, biography and autobiography, etc.), Spark died in 2006 ( she was 88) in Florence, Italy. Should you wish to learn more about this amazing, complicated woman I recommend Martin Stannard's new book Muriel Spark: The Biography.

Looking forward to your comments...

Monday, March 22, 2010

53: The Self-Empowered Woman: Rebecca Samaria Lolosoli

Dear Followers:

I love the fact that amazing women can be found everywhere on the globe, and I want to introduce you to a woman in Eastern Africa who embodies strength and bravery.

Twelve years ago Rebecca Lolosoli and several other women created a village in the Samburu district of Kenya that is a women-run "Violence-Against-Women-Free Zone." The village is called "Umoja," which means unity in Swahili, and was built on an unwanted plot of dry grasslands.

Samburu women and children have no rights - they cannot go to school, own livestock or land, or choose a husband. If a wife is murdered by her husband it is not considered a crime because he paid a dowry for her and therefore owns her.

Lolosoli was outraged by how many women were raped and beaten, and wanted to find a way to improve the livelihoods of women who had been disowned by their families. Today the village women sell artifacts and bead work to tourists and have built a school for children, even though local warriors have threatened them.

Lolosoli has campaigned to stop female genital mutilation and educate girls about HIV/AIDS. She had to drop out of her nursing training program six months before graduation because she had no more money for school fees. In her quest to help educate and protect females, she has been beaten, received death threats, and seen her village threatened by local men who felt that Samburu women should not own land. In a patriarchal society, even the local politicians can't believe that the village has its own money and a website!

Lolosoli, the matriarch of the village insists that men are forbidden to live Umoga, but "...may visit as long as they behave and abide by the women's rules." To learn about this pioneer who has taken a stand against domestic violence, child marriage, poverty and discrimination click Umoja Charity

Looking forward to your comments...

Friday, March 19, 2010

52:The Self-Empowered Woman: Sister Rose Ann Fleming

Dear Followers,

I have been doing a lot of talks lately about The Self-Empowered Woman, and am intrigued by the fact that audience members are almost always interested in Mother Teresa's story. So today (since it is March Madness) I thought I'd share the story of another nun who has accomplished a great deal and done so without a lot of fanfare.

Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio may not hold a handful of NCAA Championships, but they do lead other college basketball teams in one very important arena. Ever since Sister Rose Ann Fleming became the academic advisor for Xavier Athletics back in 1985, every single men's basketball player who has played as a senior has graduated. This is a major improvement in light of the fact that 19% of the 65 teams competing in March Madness have graduation rates lower than 40%.

Sister Rose Ann Fleming, 77, has lived on campus since 1983 when she was a teacher at prestigious Xavier (a Jesuit university). She believes that if students have the mental ability to become Division 1 Athletes, then they obviously have the ability to do well in school. Freshman athletes at Xavier must attend ten hours of supervised study hall each week (two hours per night) and she has the cell phone numbers of athletes, which she doesn't hesitate to use if she feels an academic problem is on the horizon.

She wakes at 4am to pray and meditate for one hour before going on the computer as part of her work for Volunteer Lawyers for the Poor. Daily mass is at 8am and then she goes to her office where two advisers and two volunteers help her monitor the 271 athletes who participate in Xavier's 17 sports. Her own exercise routine includes an elliptical trainer, weights and swimming. Sister Rose Ann cares about her athletes, her school, and her own academic achievements; she has a law degree, Maters degrees in English, Theology and Business Administration, as well as a doctorate in Education Administration.

A recent photo in the New York Times showed her wearing gray Nike sweats, white tennis shoes, and a heavy gold cross hanging on a chain the represents her order (the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur). In 1991, the then-Xavier basketball coach named her the teams most valuable player, and in 2000 she became a member of Xavier's Athletic Hall of Fame.

One five foot four, white-haired woman has changed the face of NCAA players by "meticulously shepherding athletes towards college degrees." Little Sister Rose Ann Fleming has become Xavier's secret weapon.

Looking forward to your comments...

Sunday, March 7, 2010

51: The Self-Empowered Woman - Nujood Ali

Dear Followers,

Today's post is about a story that seems hard to believe, but is (unfortunately) true. In 2008, the parents of a nine year old little girl in Yemen - Nujood Ali - married off their daughter to a deliveryman in his 30s. Her mother wasn't happy, but didn't protest because "In our country it's the men who give the orders, and the women who follow them."

Nujood's father asked the deliveryman (now his son-in-law) not to touch . Nujood until one year after she began menstruating. But as soon as they were married she was forced to quit going to school; Nujood was raped, beaten, and abused by both her husband and mother-in-law.

On April 2, 2008 (two months after her wedding), Nujood escaped, jumped into a taxi and went to the courthouse in search of a judge. When she finally was able to speak to a judge she declared "I want a divorce!"

Nujood is not the only little girl forced into abusive marriages. In Saudi Arabia, an eight year girl was married to a 50 year old man, but Nujood's celebrity is helping to bring those types of abusive situations to the world's attention.

Nicholas Kristof recently wrote in the New York Times that "It's no coincidence that Yemen is ranked dead last in the World Economic Forum's global gender gap index...countries that marginalize women often end up unstable...those countries usually have very high birth rates, and that means a youth bulge in the population. One of the factors that most correlates to social conflict is the proportion of young men ages 15 to 24...those countries also tend to practice polygamy and have higher death rates for girls. That means fewer marriageable women - and more frustrated bachelors to be recruited by extremists."

Nujood is now attending private school full time and hopes to become a lawyer. Kristof argues (based on the stability/educated women ratios found in Pakistan vs. Bangladesh) that educating girls like Nujood reduces terrorism and extremism more effectively than financial military assistance.

Crown Publishing has just released "I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced," which is on sale for $19.00.

Looking forward to your comments...

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

50: The Self-Empowered Woman - Women's History Month

Dear Followers,

Sorry for the gap in blogs, but the Olympics captured my attention more than they should have. Anyway, I'm back on track and ready to share more stories.

Next week I'll be speaking at the West Palm Beach Library as part of their Women's History Month program (March 16th, 4 to 5pm, Clematis Room), so I thought that this would be the perfect opportunity to explore how Women's History Month came into being.

In 1911, in Europe, International Women's Day was celebrated on March 8th. At that time suffrage (the right of women to vote) was gathering momentum and a number of books were published about women's contribution to history.

But with the Great Depression (which took place on both sides of the Atlantic) and the military activity of World War II, the subject of women's rights fell out of fashion. But during the next two decades the boredom and isolation that middle-class housewives felt after setting aside their own goals became known as "the problem that has no name."

Betty Friedan's book The Feminine Mystique and Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex helped raise awareness of women's issues. By the 1970s, many colleges introduced women's studies into their program and historians began acknowledging the roles of Native Americans, Black Americans and women as part of our country's historical development.

In 1978, a Women's History Week celebration, which was chosen to coincide with the original International Women's Day, began in California. In 1981, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution establishing National Women's History Week, and six years later Congress stretched the week into a month. Since 1987, every U.S. president has issued a proclamation of Women's History Month.

The purpose of Women's History Month is to take one month of the year to remember the contributions of notable and ordinary women by expanding the knowledge of women's history. It is hoped that one day history will neither be taught nor learned without acknowledging the role of women.

Looking forward to your comments...