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...