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...