Tuesday, December 20, 2011

129: The Self-Empowered Woman: Korea's Comfort Women

Dear Followers,

There has been a lot of media attention focused on North Korea the past few weeks because of the death and state funeral of dictator Kim Jong Il, and the new ruler, his son, Kim Jong Eun. But today's blog is about a situation in Seoul, South Korea that, unfortunately, is receiving far less attention.

The photo above is of several elderly women and a bronze statue (named The Peace Monument) that sits on a street in central Seoul. The life-size statue was paid for with donations from South Korean citizens, and is strategically placed so that its eyes are directed across the street to the Japanese Embassy. Every Wednesday since January 8, 1992, a group of elderly women wearing yellow vests (former "Comfort Women") gather in silence to protest the actions of the Imperial Japanese Military during the 20th century.

From 1910 until 1945 Korea was under Japan's colonial rule, and one of the unspeakable side effects of this occupation was that thousands (estimates vary - depending upon the historian - from 20,000 to 410,000) of women in these territories were forced into sexual service at military "comfort stations." Today, the Japanese military admits that the women were coerced into serving at these stations, which in reality were military brothels.

Scholars have discovered that three quarters of the comfort women died, and most of those who did survive were left infertile due to either STDs or sexual trauma. One former Japanese soldier, Yasuji Kaneko, recalled his days as a soldier with these words "The women cried out, but it didn't matter to us whether the women lived or died. we were the Emperor's soldiers. Whether in military brothels or in the villages, we raped without reluctance."

While Korean women may have comprised the bulk of the area's comfort women, many came from China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam and other Japanese-occupied territories. Even ten Dutch women were taken by force from prison camps in Java in 1944, and held in a Japanese comfort station. One of these Dutch women, Jan Ruff-O'Hearn, testified to a U.S. House of Representatives committee in 1990 about her experience as a war "sex slave."

The elderly Korean women who were forced to be comfort women during World War II want the Japanese government to pay reparation, rather than receive "hush money" from private donations. In addition to the fact that the interest level in World War II events is low, another problem is that time is running out for these quiet protesters. Twenty years ago, 234 Korean women were willing to set aside their shame and embarrassment to publicly protest the atrocities they and their peers suffered during the Japanese occupation. Today, only 63 protesters are available to gather in front of The Peace Monument each Wednesday.

Looking forward to your comments...

Saturday, December 17, 2011

128: The Self-Empowered Woman: Margaret Thatcher

Dear Followers,

Later this month, a new movie (The Iron Lady) that is already generating Oscar buzz and stars Meryl Streep in the role of Margaret Thatcher, will be released. Those of you who know me well, are already aware that I have both a personal and professional (i.e., emotional) connection to Mrs. Thatcher. The late Sir Gordon Reece, who was an intensely dear friend of mine, was instrumental in transforming her from a Conservative member of Parliament to the legend she later became. Margaret Hilda Roberts Thatcher is the first and only woman to have led a British political party, the first female Prime Minister in the English-speaking world, as well as the longest-serving British Prime Minister (of either sex) since British women were granted the right to vote (8: Turning No Into Yes).

Thatcher was born on October 13, 1925 in Grantham, in the East Midlands of England. Her father was a grocer who had two shops in Grantham, and was also a Methodist lay preacher (3: Belief in the Unbelievable). Their home life as a family that lived "above the shop" was full of reminders that hard work, education and discipline were the keys to success. Margaret and her sister were required to read two library books each week (and one of them had to be non-fiction). The family attended church twice each Sunday, and Margaret was an enthusiastic and admired member of the choir (9: Music).

Alfred Roberts (her father) also served as an alderman (a now discontinued form of local politician), and passed his love of public service to Margaret, his younger daughter, who as a little girl often went to political meetings with him (2: An Early Sense of Direction). Since there were no sons in the family, Alfred channeled all of his ambition into Margaret. At his urging she developed into a gifted student who became the first member of her family to attend college and - unlike her peers - managed to win a place at Oxford. As one admirer noted "Her father drove her to it. He may have been a Victorian patriarch, but he was no sexist" (4: Supportive Someone).

In 1949, at only 23, she was adopted as a Conservative Parliamentary candidate for the first time. Three years later, she married Denis Thatcher, who was ten years her senior and had been previously married; they soon had twins, Carol and Mark, and enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle in London. Even though her training was in science, she became a member of Parliament at age 33, which highlighted her natural tendency to be self-critical (10: The Critic Within). From her teeth to her weight to her clothes and even her voice, she worked hard (with Gordon's guidance) to be the best that she could be. Her staff and aides were often driven to the point of exhaustion by her perfectionist revisions and rehearsals whenever there was an important speech or event on the calendar.

Nicknamed "The Iron Lady" because of her fearless ability to take an unpopular stand (her decision to fight for a poll tax, go to war over the Falkland Islands, fight the unions and revamp the country's economy), she was often unpopular at home even though she was admired abroad (5: Life is Not a Popularity Contest). Lately, there have been a number of articles arguing that Mrs. Thatcher's decisiveness and economic realism is exactly what's needed in light of the global financial meltdown. After all, in nine tears she lowered the top rate of income tax from 98% to 40% and reduced "work days lost to strikes" from 29.5 million to 1.9 million. And these changes brought with them massive, controversial social upheaval.

Thatcher claimed that her leadership skills came from the lessons she learned as a child: "...an honest day's work for an honest day's pay; live within your means; put by a nest egg for a rainy day; pay your bills on time; support the police." She observed that "In politics, if you want anything said, ask a man. If you want anything done, ask a woman." Mrs. Thatcher reluctantly left office in November 1990, when she realized that her own party - after she had been at 10 Downing Street for eleven years - chose to support John Major rather than her. She was deeply hurt and felt betrayed when she learned that the locks to her personal office door had been immediately changed after the vote. She made no secret of the depth of her sense of loss (12: Hard Times).

These days, she is known as "Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven," and it is rumored that when the 86 year old former Prime Minister dies - because she achieved more than any other peace time Prime Minister of the 20th century - she will receive a state funeral. It is an honor usually reserved for monarchs.

Looking forward to your comments...

Saturday, November 19, 2011

127: The Self-Empowered Woman: Annie Edson Taylor

Dear Followers,

Today's post is about an amazing woman who was born in 1838, and 63 years later became the first person to survive a trip over Niagara Falls in a barrel.

Annie Edson Taylor was born in Auburn, New York and her father (who left behind enough money to support his widow and eight children) died when she was twelve years old (1: No Paternal Safety Net). As a teenager, she attended a four year course in order to become a school teacher, and graduated with honors (10: The Critic Within). During her training, when she was 17 years old, she met David Taylor, who became her husband. They had a baby boy, but he died within days of being born. When Annie was only 25 years old, she became a widow when her husband was killed in the Civil War (15: Forget About Prince Charming).

For a number of years she changed jobs and locales frequently. In addition to working as a music teacher (9: Music), she also worked as a dance instructor. During her 30s and 40s she lived in both Bay City and Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, San Antonio, Texas, and even Mexico City (14: Selective Disassociation), but eventually returned to New York.

In a bad financial state, she decided to try to be the first person to ever successfully ride over Niagara Falls in a barrel (11: Risk Addiction). She had the barrel custom made out of Oak and Iron, weighted with a 200-pound anvil, and padded with a mattress and a leather harness. It was four and a half feet high and three feet in diameter. She and her barrel were taken by rowboat to Grass Island, where she crawled inside with her "lucky" heart-shaped pillow (3: Belief in the Unbelievable). At 4:05 a.m. on the morning of her 63rd birthday, the barrel was set adrift, and passed over Horse Shoe Fall.

By 4:40 a.m. the barrel was captured, and much to every one's surprise "Mrs. Taylor was alive and conscious" (13: More Than Meets the Eye).

A portion of the barrel had to be sawed off for her to emerge, but she walked along the shore to a boat that took her to Maid of the Mist Dock where she was taken by carriage into the City of Niagara Falls. Three doctors examined her and found a three-inch cut behind her right ear to be her only injury.

Annie earned money speaking about her experience, but she never became financially stable. What little money she did earn from her lectures was (along with the barrel) stolen by her manager. She used her savings to pay for detectives to track him down; he and the barrel were eventually discovered in Chicago.

Annie's last years were spent posing for photographs with tourists at her Niagara Falls Souvenir stand. She died destitute (12: Hard Times) in Lockport, New York at the Lockport Home and Infirmary. Currently, a play about her (called "Queen of the Mist") is being staged at the Gym at Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village, NYC.

Looking forward to your comments...

Saturday, November 12, 2011

126: The Self-Empowered Woman: Dao Ngoc Phung

Dear Followers, First of all, a great big THANK YOU to everyone who helped me celebrate my birthday. Lucky, lucky me to have so many kind, thoughtful and (amazingly) generous friends. Each of you made getting older more fun than I could ever have imagined!

Today I'd like to introduce you to an amazing 14 year old Vietnamese girl named Dao Ngoc Phung, pictured above with her younger brother and sister. My hero, Nicholas Kristof, wrote about her in his New York Times column as a way of illustrating the difference between the Vietnamese culture and ours. I won't be highlighting The Self-Empowered Woman traits that this young girl has, but I'll bet that you'll be impressed by the time you've finished reading this blog.

Phung is only 4'11" tall and weighs 97 pounds. Her passion is school, and in order to continue her education and meet her family obligations, she sets her alarm clock (six days a week) for 3 a.m. On Sundays, she sleeps until 5 a.m. Last year, her mother died of cancer and the family was left with $1,500 worth of debts. That's why her father has had to take jobs in the cities even though the family lives in a remote area of the Mekong Delta. So from Monday through Friday, Phung - who is in the ninth grade - lives like a single mother.

Each morning she wakes her siblings (Tien, who is nine and Huong, who is twelve), prepares breakfast, and they bicycle to school. For her it's a 90 minute ride each way, but she makes sure to arrive 20 minutes early so she won't be late for her classes. After school all three kids go fishing for their dinner, and then there is homework or chores. Everyday Phung helps her brother and sister with their homework first, and then she does her own. She rarely gets to bed before 11 p.m., and wakes up four hours later.

Phung wants to attend college and become an accountant, and while she is too poor right now for that to seem feasible, her astonishing work ethic just might make it possible. She recently asked her father to pay for extra tutoring, but he cannot afford the annual $40 fee.

Kristof feels that the 2,500 year old legacy of Confucius (which includes respect for teachers, scholarship, and the belief that "education can change destinies") works in her favor. In that part of the world, education is generally a top priority.

Phung's father never misses a parent-teacher conference even though he has to take off work to attend. He told Kristof "If I don't work, I lose a little bit of money. But if my kids miss out on school, they lose their life hopes. I want to know how they're doing in school. I tell my children that we don't own land that I can leave them when they grow up. So the only thing I can give them is an education."

If you would like to help this remarkable girl, a fund has been established in her name by an aid group called Room to Read.

Looking forward to your comments...

Sunday, November 6, 2011

125: The Self-Empowered Woman: Dorothy Rodham

Dear Followers:

Many of you might think that this blog would focus on Hillary Clinton, who is wearing gray in the above photo, because she was First Lady for eight years, a former US Senator, Presidential candidate, and our current Secretary of State. But, instead, I'd like to pay tribute to her mother, Dorothy Emma Howell Rodham, who died on November 1st at the age of 92.

Dorothy Rodham had a childhood that has been described as "Dickensian." She was born in Chicago in 1919 and her sister, Isabelle, was born in 1924: Dorothy's father (Edwin Howell) was a fireman and her mother (Della) was a neglectful parent. The couple had an unhappy, often violent marriage, and in 1927 Dorothy's father filed for divorce. Della did not show up in court, but her sister (Frances Czeslawski) appeared and testified against her. Edwin was granted custody of his daughters, but was either unwilling or unable to care for them.

When Dorothy was only eight years old, she was put in charge of her three-year old sister for their four-day train trip (on their own) from Chicago to Alhambra, California (1: No Paternal Safety Net). Unfortunately, her paternal grandparents were ill-prepared to take care of two young girls. Her grandmother (whom she remembered as a strict woman who wore black dresses, punished the girls severely for small mistakes, and wouldn't let them have visitors or attend parties) was once so angry at Dorothy for going trick-or-treating on Halloween that she ordered the girl to stay in her room for one full year - except for attending school. Fortunately, when the grandmother's sister learned about the punishment, Dorothy's "restriction" was lifted after four months.

At age 14, Dorothy moved out of her grandparents' home (14: Selective Disassociation) and accepted a job as a housekeeper, cook and nanny for a family that gave her room, board, and $3.00 a week. They encouraged the young teenager to read and go to school, so Dorothy enrolled at Alhambra High School where she joined both the Spanish and the Scholarship clubs.

In High School her speech and drama teacher (Miss Drake) and her English teacher (Miss Zellhoefer) let Dorothy know that they really believed in her. She paid tribute to them both in a book marking the school's centennial in 1998 (4: Supportive Someone). But after graduating in 1937, she made the brave decision to return to Chicago - where she hoped to enroll at Northwestern University - because her mother had told her that her new stepfather would help her pay for college (11: Risk Addiction).

Unfortunately, Della only wanted her daughter to be nearby in order to work as her housekeeper, so Dorothy found work as a secretary at a textile company and in 1942 married a travelling salesman named Hugh Ellsworth Rodham.

They moved to the suburbs and had three children (Hillary, Hugh and Tony), and even though Dorothy never had a career of her own she encouraged her daughter (as well as both her boys) to get a good education and engage in meaningful work. In spite of a miserable childhood, she managed to make the most of life as a mid-century American housewife. Hillary once paid this tribute to Dorothy: "I'm still amazed at how my mother emerged from her lonely early life as such an affectionate and levelheaded woman" (8: Turning No into Yes).

After her death, President Obama said "Ms. Rodham was a remarkable person. Anybody who knows her history knows what a strong, determined and gifted person she was. For her to have been able to live the life that she did, and to see her daughter succeed at the pinnacle of public service in this country [was] I'm sure, deeply satisfying to her."

Looking forward to your comments...

Saturday, October 29, 2011

124: The Self-Empowered Woman: Royal news

Dear Followers,

Those of you who know me are well aware of what an Anglophile I am. Who else would give up a cushy L.A. Times job to move 6,000 miles away to spend five years working as a journalist in London? And my framed invitation (plus menu card) to have dinner with Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip on the Royal Yacht Britannia is among my most-treasured life souvenirs.

So, naturally, I felt it was worth special notice to share the news that leaders of Commonwealth countries decided at their summit meeting on Friday (in Perth, Australia) to change Royal Succession Laws. This represents a major paradigm shift for gender issues. The Commonwealth decision means that first-born daughters of future British monarchs now have an equal right to the throne. Previously, a younger male heir would inherit the crown rather than his older female sibling. What this means is that if the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (pictured above) have a daughter as their first-born child, she would be the next monarch before any younger brothers. This new ruling would also allow any future rulers to marry a Roman Catholic.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said that "Attitudes have changed fundamentally over the centuries. The idea that the younger son should become monarch instead of an elder daughter, simply because he is a man, or that a future monarch can marry someone of any faith except a Catholic, this way of thinking is at odds with the modern countries that we have become."

The discussion about changes in Royal Succession Laws was prompted by Prince William's marriage to Catherine Middleton earlier this year. Queen Elizabeth's opening statement at the summit did not directly address the Succession Laws, but she did say that women should play a greater role in society. There are 54 Commonwealth States, and twelve of the 20 countries have the highest rates of "child brides" are in the Commonwealth.

Looking forward to your comments...

Sunday, October 16, 2011

123: The Self-Empowered Woman: Tyra Banks

Dear Followers,

Today’s remarkable woman is beautiful, a multimillionaire, only 37 years old, and has become a household name in America. Most women know Tyra Banks as the TV host of America’s Next Top Model or of the past program The Tyra Banks Show, while most men remember her as the first African-American model to be chosen as a Cover Girl for Sports Illustrated Magazine.

Banks was born in Southern California in 1973, to a mother who worked as a medical photographer and a father who worked in the computer industry, but her parents divorced when she was only six years old (1: No Paternal Safety Net). Carolyn London-Johnson has always been exceptionally close to her daughter, and has been there with love, advice and guidance ever since she became a single mother, three decades ago. Banks openly acknowledges that her mother was a great example of an independent woman (4: Supportive Someone). Tyra Banks graduated from L.A.’s Immaculate Heart High School, and was accepted by both USC and UCLA, but decided—instead—to pursue a modeling career.

She began modeling in the eleventh grade (2: An Early Sense Of Direction), but was told by many agencies that she “wasn’t photogenic.” Fortunately, she had a good runway walk and scored a great victory when she was chosen for extensive work as soon as she landed in Paris. She broke the record by being booked for an unprecedented 25 shows as a newcomer, and modeled for (among others) Badgley Mischka, Chanel, Christian Dior, Dolce & Gabbana and Donna Karan (8: Turning No Into Yes.) Soon, however, as she began to mature she also began to gain weight, and (very upsetting for Tyra) her mother was told that Banks needed to slim down in order to get work.

Instead of trying to please the high-fashion agencies, they began to explore different job possibilities where her curves were not considered a liability (5: Life Is Not A Popularity Contest). To this day, Banks considers the day that she landed the contract to pose for Sports Illustrated as a professional turning point. After succeeding as a cover model for GQ and Victoria’s Secret catalog, Banks expanded into film and music work. She made a number of TV, music video (remember George Michaels' "Too Funky" with the supermodels?) and movie appearances (11: Risk Addiction), and started her own production company, Bankable Productions. The time had come where she knew that her future would have more to do with other forms of media, and less to do with modeling (14: Selective Disassociation).

In 2008, she won a daytime Emmy Award for The Tyra’s Bank Show, which ran from 2005 to 2010. America’s Next Top Model started in 2003 and remains popular today: Banks serves as the show’s hostess, judge and executive producer. In addition, she is credited with performing the theme song for the program (9: Music).

Tyra Banks openly admits that in grammar school she was a true “mean girl,” who taunted her classmates in the worst way. But when - at eleven years old - she grew three inches and lost 30 pounds in a single year the tables turned and she became the one being bullied. Ever since that experience she has tried to help girls and young women to make good choices and live wisely. In 1999, she established the TZONE program, which became a public charity (The Tyra Banks TZONE Foundation) in 2005 (7: Magnificent Obsession).

Banks, who is 37 years old, has never married and has no children. Today, the woman who was once told that a) she wasn’t photogenic enough to be successful and that b) she weighed too much to make it as a model is attending Harvard Business School’s Owner/President Management Program.

Looking forward to your comments…

Saturday, October 8, 2011

122: The Self-Empowered Woman: Nobel Prize Winners

Dear Followers,

Instead of focusing on one amazing woman, today's blog will introduce you to the three women who received - on Friday - this year's Nobel Peace Prize . Their selection highlights not only the "Arab Spring" movement, but the increased power and influence women are experiencing globally. President Obama said that the winners pictured above are "a reminder that when we empower women around the world everyone is better off, that countries and cultures that respect the contributions of women invariably end up being more successful than those that don't."

The woman on the left is 39 year old Leymah Gbowee, who was born in Liberia and experienced the horrors of the First Liberian Civil War in which Charles Taylor's army used child soldiers. A mother of six, she realized that "If any changes were to be made in society it had to be by the mothers." So she organized the Christian and Muslim women to pray for peace and holds non-violent demonstrations. By 2003, the women's movement brought an end to the Second Liberian Civil War and led to the election of the woman pictured on the far right, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first woman to become president of an African country. Gbowee is the central character in the 2008 documentary film "Pray the Devil Back to Hell" as well as the author of "Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War." Her group protested outside the presidential palace by sending politicians this statement of intent "In the past we were silent, but after being killed, raped, dehumanized, and infected with diseases, and watching our children and families destroyed, war has taught us that the future lies in saying NO to violence and YES to peace! We will not relent until peace prevails." She earned an Master of Arts in Conflict Transformation from Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. When told of her award she said "Three women receiving the Nobel Peace Prize is really overwhelming...It's finally a recognition that we can't ignore the other half of the world's population."

The second picture is of 32 year old Tawakkul Karman, who is a mother off three and has played a pivotal role in Yemen's political upheaval. To many, she is known as "Mother of the Revolution" and in 2005, she founded an advocacy group called Women Journalists Without Chains. Two years later, she began staging sit ins in front of Yemen's Parliament, and in January she took to the streets with several dozen protesters calling for Mister Saleh's resignation. She has been arrested, received death threats, been called a traitor, and criticized for the fact that three years ago she stopped wearing the full facial veil. She has been inspired to fight for marginalized groups by Ghandi, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King. She called her prize "A victory for the entire Yemeni Revolution" and she hopes that it would bring additional international support. The head of the Nobel Prize committee, Thorbjorn Jagland said that the committee "included the Arab Spring in this prize, but...if one fails to include the women in the new democracies, there will be no democracy."

The last photo is of Liberia's president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who at age 72 is the mother of four sons and has eight grandchildren. Although she has transformed her country, she is facing a difficult bid for re-election. About 250,000 people were killed during the country's civil wars back when Liberia - Africa's first independent republic - was called "a poster child for Africa's ills." Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf, who was the first woman elected as an African head of state, managed to bring peace to the country. She holds degrees from: the University of Colorado, Boulder; the University of Wisconsin, Madison and Harvard. She also served as assistant United Nations secretary-general, and as a vice-president at Citibank. When she was inaugurated as her country's president, both Condoleezza Rice and first lady Laura Bush attended. The Liberian election is scheduled for this Tuesday, and her opponent is a popular soccer star. While admirers refer to her as the "Iron Lady" her political opponents have used the phrase "Too Old To Hold." After learning of her award she said "We are now going into our ninth year of peace, and every Liberian has contributed to it. We particularly give this credit to Liberian women, who have consistently led the struggle for peace even under conditions of neglect."

Looking forward to your comments...

Friday, September 30, 2011

121: The Self-Empowered Woman: Wangari Maathai

Dear Followers,

Today I'd like to introduce you to an amazing woman who, sadly, died last week. Wangari Muta Maathai was best known as the force behind Kenya's Green Belt Movement, a program she developed to help women plant trees in order to conserve the environment and improve the quality of life.

Born in 1940 in the village of Ihithe, Kenya, Maathai’s first years were spent when the country was still a British colony. Her family was Kikuyu, which is the largest ethnic group in Kenya, and when she was seven years old she, her mother, and two brothers lived in one place while her father worked on a white-owned farm in a different part of the country (1: No Paternal Safety Net). Maathai moved to Mathari and entered St. Cecilia’s intermediate Primary School, which was a Catholic boarding school (3: Belief In The Unbelievable). At that time she became fluent in English and took the Christian name of Mary Josephine.

When she completed her studies at St. Cecilia’s, she was ranked first in her class (10: The Critic Within) and was admitted to Kenya’s only Catholic High School for girls - Loreto High School Limuru. During the 1960s, her country was undergoing upheaval, including the Mau Mau uprising and the end of Colonialism, 300 Kenyan’s were chosen to study at American Universities. They were part of a program known as “The Kennedy Airlift” or “Airlift Africa.”; Barack Obama was one of the recipients of this scholarship program.
Maathai studied at Mt. St. Scholastica College (now Benedictine College) in Atchison Kansas, majored in Biology, minored in Chemistry and German, and graduated in 1964. The Africa-American Institute provided a Scholarship for her to enroll at the University of Pittsburgh for her Masters Degree in Biological Sciences, which she received in 1966.

Told that she had been appointed as a research assistant at University College of Nairobi, she returned to Kenya only to learn that the position had been given to someone else. Her belief was that this was due to both tribal and gender bias. She found work at the School of Veterinary Medicine at University College of Nairobi under a German professor (Reinhold Hofmann), who encouraged her to peruse her doctorate; she studied at both University of Munich and The University of Giessen (4: Supportive Someone).

In 1969, she returned to Nairobi to work as an assistant lecturer and continue her doctorate studies. That year she married Mwangi Mathai, who had also studied in America. In 1971 she became the first East African woman to receive a PhD, and by 1977 she was named Associate Professor in Veterinary Anatomy at the University of Nairobi. During this time, she campaigned for equal rights for female staff members at the university, and joined the National Council of Women of Kenya. She began to see that the root of most of Kenya’s problems was environmental degradation, and it became her life's work (7 Magnificent Obsession).

She encouraged the women of Kenya to plant tree nurseries and search nearby forests for seeds to grow trees native to the area. In return, she paid the women a small stipend for each seedling that could later be planted elsewhere. In 1979, after ten years of marriage, she and her husband divorced (15: Forget about Prince Charming), and her activism on behalf of women and the environment led her to be the recipient of a campaign of hurtful name calling. Maathai (and everyone else) was told that she was: too strong-minded for a woman, cruel, ignorant, a mad woman, and a threat to the order and security of the country (5: Life is not a Popularity Contest).

Her divorce was costly, and there was no way she could afford to support their three children on her University salary alone. So she let them stay with their father for the next six years while she accepted a job in Zambia that required extensive travel. By 1992, her advocacy for the environment and her pro-Democracy activism made her a target for assassination (11: Risk Addiction). As a result, she barricaded herself in her home for three days before the police entered and arrested her. She was arrested again in 2001 in an attempt to save public land from deforestation.

In 2004, Maathai became the first African woman (and first environmentalist) to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Thanks to her determination and bravery, more than 30 million - WOW - trees (and women) are standing proud. Sadly, Maathai died at age 71, but her cause continues; for more information contact: www.greenbeltmovement.org

Looking forward to your comments . . .

Thursday, September 15, 2011

120: The Self-Empowered Woman: Kathryn Stockett

Dear Followers,

I'm willing to bet that most of you have either read the book (which was published in 2009) or seen the movie that today's amazing woman wrote. Kathryn Stockett's novel The Help has sold over five million+ copies, been on the New York Times Best Seller list over 100 weeks, and been published in more than 35 countries.

When Stockett was only six years old, her parents divorced (1: No Paternal Safety Net). Much of her childhood was spent with her paternal grandparents in Jackson, Mississippi. The result of her mother''s absence and her father's business travels was that - in retrospect - she felt that her grandmother's maid (Demetrie) was the adult with whom she forged the strongest connection. In her words, "I didn't always know where my mother was, I didn't know where my father was, but I always knew where Demetrie was. I would go to my grandparents' six days a week. Demetrie was always there."

In 1974, Stockett attended Mothers' Morning Out Preschool and began a lifelong friendship with Tate Taylor. By the time they were in Junior High, Taylor knew he wanted to be a filmmaker, and Stockett wanted to be a writer (2: An Early Sense of Direction). As anyone who has heard Stockett lecture can attest, she is not the pious or sanctimonious type. Her grandmother's family, however, worked as Missionaries in Shanghai (3: Belief in the Unbelievable).

The fact that The Help was rejected 60 times has practically become literary legend. Her childhood friend, Taylor, - who directed the movie version - was among the first to read the unpublished manuscript, and he was the one who urged her to continue even though she received five dozen rejections. As she remembers those days, "We were both experiencing doors being shut in our faces, one after the other." (4: Supportive Someone).

Both Stockett and her novel initially received a lot of criticism. Plenty of people in Jackson, Mississippi resented the fact that she focused a spotlight on the town's segregation. And, at first, readers wondered how (and if) a white woman of this era could capture the feelings of Black domestic workers from 50 years ago (5: Life is Not a Popularity Contest). In spite of all the negative feedback her novel initially received, The Help (which took a decade to write) became a runaway success.

Obviously, writing is a passion for Stockett, who is now hard at work on her second novel about a family from the 1930s, coping with The Depression. She even told an interviewer that she was so worried about finishing The Help that she "couldn't have another baby because I was afraid I wouldn't be able to write - to finish the book." She freely admits that she doesn't consider herself a "great" writer, but "I'm just stuck being a f****** writer my whole life. If I'm not writing I'm miserable." (7: Magnificent Obsession).

Hearing "NO" for so long, according to Stockett, helped her get "used to not taking no." She told Katie Couric that she felt she should send thank-you notes to the people who turned down her book because "Every rejection made me go back and try to make the story better." (8: Turning No Into Yes).

Not surprisingly, Stockett pushes herself to the limit. "If you tell me I can't do something, chances are I'm just going to try harder to do it. Sometimes it can be very, very annoying." She revised the book every time it was rejected (10: The Critic Within).

The Help began when Stockett was working on a different project during a month-long leave from her job in magazine publishing. On 9/11, when the planes hit the twin towers, she was in her apartment and a power surge wiped everything off her hard disk, and left her with no mobile or landline phone reception. As she recalled, "I felt so homesick, I've never been so homesick in my life, and on September 12, I started writing a story in the voice of Demetrie, to comfort myself...When I first started, I was just doing it to hear Demtrie's voice again. Her voice was so natural to me." (12: Hard Times).

Stockett doesn't reveal much in interviews about her love life, but records indicate that she has a daughter, Lila, and Stockett and husband, Keith Rogers, amicably divorced after eleven years together (15: Forget About Prince Charming).

Demetrie began working for Stockett's grandmother in 1955 and stayed for 32 years.

Looking forward to your comments...

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

119: The Self-Empowered Woman: Betty Skelton

Dear Followers,

Last month, one of America's truly amazing women died at age 85. Betty Skelton, who was admired for her good looks and her flair for fashion, was often referred to as "the First Lady of Firsts." Her passion was speed, and she set 17 aviation and race car records in an era when they were considered to be "male only" activities (7: Magnificent Obsession). Nearly 35 years after her retirement, she held more combined hallmarks than anyone in history.

Born in Pensacola, Florida, in 1926, she played with model airplanes instead of dolls. From her home's backyard, she could watch the comings and goings of planes from the Pensacola Naval Air Station. When she was only eight years old, she told her parents she wanted to fly, and that's when she began reading anything she could find about aviation (2: An Early Sense of Direction).

Her parents often drove her to the municipal airport, and she would ride with local pilots whenever they had a spare seat. A young Navy Ensign (4: Supportive Someone) began giving her family flying lessons, and when she was only twelve years old, Betty made her first solo flight. She soloed legally on her 16th birthday, and earned her private license; by 18 she had her commercial rating and became a flight instructor, teaching war vets on the GI Bill how to fly. She also earned her sea-plane and multi-engine ratings (10: The Critic Within). She had hoped to qualify for the WASPs, but it was disbanded before she reached the required age of 18 and a half.

She was employed by Eastern Airlines to work as a night clerk, which left her days open for flying. Unfortunately, in the 1940s, there were no commercial airline jobs for women, and the military would not let women be pilots. So Betty turned to professional aerobatics in 1946, and two years later won her first International Feminine Aerobatic Championship (8: Turning No Into Yes). She also won in 1949 and 1950, and she set numerous air speed and altitude records.

Later that year, she bought an experimental single-seat open-cockpit biplane, which was the smallest aerobatic airplane in existence at that time. In her words, " I didn't just sit in that little airplane, I wore it. If I sneezed, it sneezed with me." She painted her plane red and white, and named it "Little Stinker." While flying it, she became the first woman to perform an inverted ribbon cut flying ten feet off the ground (11: Risk Addiction).

By the 1950s, she had achieved the highest rankings in aerobatics, but there were still barriers against women pilots. When she met Bill France, the founder of NASCAR in 1953, he persuaded her to drive at Daytona Beach during Speed Week. Soon she became the auto industry's first female test driver and also earned a total of four Feminine World Land Speed Records, and set a Transcontinental Speed Record (13: More Than Meets the Eye).

Betty Skelton became very active in the auto industry, and set records driving across the South American Andes mountain ranges, as well as from New York to Los Angeles. She became the fastest woman on earth when she drove a jet car on Utah's Bonneville Salt Flats at 315 miles per hour.

In 1960, LOOK Magazine ran a cover story that featured her undergoing the same physical and psychological tests that the astronauts faced. The seven original Mercury Astronauts were so impressed with Betty Skelton's skills that they fondly referred to her as "Number 7 1/2."

Looking forward to your comments...

Saturday, September 3, 2011

118: The Self-Empowered Woman: Ntsiki Biyela

Dear Followers,

Today I'd like to introduce you to a true trail-blazing Empowered Woman. Ntsiki (pronounced n-SEE-kee) Biyela is South Africa's first-ever fully-fledged female African winemaker. And what makes her story even more amazing is that until her first year at university she neither knew what wine was, nor had she ever tasted it!

Now 33 years old, Ms. Biyela was born and raised in the rural village of Ulundi/Kwa Nondlovu in Zululand. Her mother worked as a maid in Durban, only saw her daughter once a year, and Ntsiki was raised by her grandmother (1: No Paternal Safety Net). During her childhood, life was primitive. The village had no electricity until 2004, and as a girl she had to walk seven miles to a forest to gather firewood. She fetched water each day from a river (12: Hard Times).

Ms. Biyela attended Mahlabathini High School, excelled in science, and hoped to become an engineer even though she had no money for college tuition. Her big break came when her uncle introduced her to winemaker Jabulani Ntshangase, who helped her apply for a scholarship (4: Supportive Someone). She was one of ten black students to apply for a South African Airlines scholarship to study winemaking at the University of Stellenbosch. To attend the winemaking course in college, she had to move 1,000 miles away from her home and her much-loved grandmother. Everything from the geography, to the language, to the subject of wine was unfamiliar to her (14: Selective Disassociation).

Her classes were mostly filled with white, male students who spoke Afrikaans, which she did not understand, but was the language of the area and of her instructors (5: Life is Not a Popularity Contest). Luckily, the Biology, Botany, Mathematics and Physics classes were also taught to forestry students in English, so she attended classes with them. For four years, however, the language barrier remained a problem. A black Zimbabwean student (who also did not speak Afrikaans) had already been trained in winemaking and became a great ally. A part-time job at Delheim, a large winery, also helped her learn more about Oenology.

After graduation, she was hired as a winemaker at a boutique winery in Stellenbosch (8:Turning No Into Yes). Even though she was inexperienced, her very first red blend (2004 Cape Cross) won a gold medal; it was the first gold metal won by a black winemaker in South Africa. In 2009, Biyela was named South African Woman Winemaker of the Year (13: More Than Meets the Eye).

Not surprisingly, Biyela demands a great deal of herself. In her words, "It is a lot of pressure. I feel I have a responsibility. I have people looking up to me, and I don't want to be responsible for their future not going right" (10: The Critic Within).

Looking forward to your comments...

Monday, August 22, 2011

117: The Self-Empowered Woman: Jennifer Lopez

Dear Followers,

Today’s remarkable, accomplished woman is someone most of us know from watching her work as a judge on American Idol, and enjoying her music and videos for years. But there is a lot more to Jennifer Lopez than meets the eye. In addition to being an actress, dancer, fashion designer, singer and television personality, she is one of the few big-time modern celebrities who has never had an embarrassing meltdown (at least not in the public eye). Unlike Britney, Mariah or Whitney, JLo has somehow managed to get stronger (both personally and professionally) with each passing year.

Born in the Bronx on July 24th, 1969, to parents who were Puerto Rican immigrants, she was raised as a Catholic and always attended Catholic schools (3: Belief in the Unbelievable). She began her television career as one of the “Fly Girls” on the Wayans' show In Living Color, the TV program where Jim Carrey also made his national television debut. From 1999 to the present day, Lopez has enjoyed a thriving musical career, and has sold (singles and albums) a combined total of 55 million records. Billboard Magazine has ranked her as the 27th artist of the 2000’s decade.

Her film career has been equally impressive. She has starred with Ben Affleck, George Clooney, Richard Gere and Matthew McConaughey (among others) in hits like The Wedding Planner, Shall We Dance? Monster-in-Law and The Back-up Plan. When Lopez filmed Out of Sight, she became the first Latina actress to earn over $ 1 million for a movie role.

JLo has had her share of criticism from people who feel that she acts like a diva. And she has had several disputes with exes, PETA, recording studios (SONY, Epic Records), and even with former employees (5: Life is Not a Popularly Contest). She recently told Vanity Fair Magazine that one good thing about being on American Idol is that people could see that she was a lot nicer than her reputation portrayed her to be.

Lopez has the ability to end affiliations, associations and relationships when she feels that she needs to. She told VF “I needed to get to where I could say ‘I know what I want, I know what I need, I can’t let you do this, I can’t let this happen, I can’t let that happen. Even when I feel bad about myself.’” In addition to her one-time split from manager Benny Medina, and other professional break-ups, there are lots of goodbyes in her personal life (14: Selected Disassociation).

JLo has had, not surprisingly, a challenging love life. Her roster of serious relationships includes Ojanai Noa, Sean Combs, Cris Judd, Ben Affleck and Marc Anthony (Birth name Marco Antonio Muñiz). She has been married
and divorced three times (15: Forget about Prince Charming). The one area of her personal life that does seem stress-free can be found in her role as a mother to twins Emma and Max. She employs no nannies, but family members (her mother, Guadalupe, and cousin, Tiana, and best friend from childhood, Arlene) help with child care duties. She has traveled with the twins when work made it necessary, and has promised herself to never be away from them for more than 24 hours (16: Intensive Motherhood). Last year People Magazine labeled Jennifer Lopez the Most Beautiful Woman in the World.

Looking forward to your comments...

Friday, August 12, 2011

116: The Self-Empowered Woman: Power Dressing

Dear Followers,
As we all know, in today's world there are more and more women assuming positions of power. Recently, Robb Young's beautiful new book crossed my path and I couldn't wait to share it with Self-Empowered Woman fans. Power Dressing: First Ladies, Women Politicians & Fashion (Merrell, $29.95, 192 pp) gives us an inside look at how women in the public eye choose to present themselves.

For example, Former Prime Minister of Pakistan Benazir Bhutto frequently wore a "salwar kameez," which is a traditional tunic-and-trouser suit that (in various fabrics and colors) she wore for decades when she led the Pakistan Peoples Party. Thanks to her, it became the most suitable form of dress for political women. Sadly, on December 27, 2007, as she was in Rawalpindi preparing to run for Prime Minister for the third time, she was wearing a blue and white salwar kameez. After she prepared to leave, and touched up her makeup, a suicide bomber detonated himself next to her car, and she was dead.

Germany's Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has said that the Ossi syndrome (a bias against those who have roots in the former East Germany) has contributed to the criticism about her public appearance. Many have said that she looks and dresses in a manner that is "frumpy, stern and outdated." In her words"Half of the German press constantly feels the need to review my haircut and make antics about it." But many feel that her "style deficit" and "dull outfits" demonstrate "consistency and prudence, two qualities general prized in German politics."

Vaira Vike-Freiberga, the Former President of Latvia, was - in 1999 - a multilingual, scholarly emigre (she had left the country as a child when the Soviets occupied Latvia), who became a compromise candidate for president. After the election she relied on skirt suits in rich fabrics such as damask, jacquard and embroidered tweeds. In her words, " I considered it my duty, representing Latvia, to present myself in an attractive and correct way...All one has to do is to avoid looking silly, frilly, frumpy or slovenly."

The Former Finance Minister of Nigeria, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was often called "everyone's favorite aunt," and is a woman who always stands out in a crowd. Eminent economist and vice-president of the World Bank, she returned to Nigeria to clear up what had once been called "the most corrupt place on earth." When it came to style, she was primarily known for her bright "head ties"; her way of tying them became a national trademark.

Former Prime Minister of India, Indira Ghandi wore hand-loomed saris that made both a fashion and a political statement. For decades, her saris were made of khodi, which is a homespun fabric that had been an integral part on India's economic empowerment and opposition to British Colonial Rule. By law, the Indian flag must be made of khodi, a rustic fabric that Indira Ghandi transformed into an elegant and stately political style

Looking forward to your comments...

Saturday, July 30, 2011

115: The Self-Empowered Woman: Esmeralda Santiago

Dear Followers,

If you haven't already heard about the book "Conquistadora," you soon will. Critics have hailed it as the Puerto Rican "Gone With the Wind." And while the novel is full of twists and turns, the author's life story is truly the stuff of which Self-Empowered Women are made.

Esmeralda Santiago was born the oldest of eleven children in San Juan, Puerto Rico. When she was born, her mother was only 16, her father was 28, and already had a child with another woman. When she was thirteen years old, she, her six siblings, and her mother moved to New York in part to find a better life, and in part because - in her words - "Papi had chosen to send us away rather than marry her" (1: No Paternal Safety Net). Her mother was ultimately married and divorced three times.

Santiago entered school unable to understand, speak or write English. But with the help of library alphabet books, her language skills - in one year - improved to the point where her reading was at tenth grade level by the time she enrolled in the ninth grade. The fact that pronunciation was so difficult for her is what led her to writing. When others would laugh at her inability to make the "th" sound or to use the correct vowel form, she "hunched over notebooks, writing out my frustration, shame and rage. I lived in those pages, in English and Spanish, where the written word said what I couldn't utter." What a vindication that she would go on to write award-winning novels, memoirs, anthologies and screen plays (8: Turning No Into Yes).

The move to the U.S. was difficult for the young teenager who struggled to find a balance between the two cultures. When, after seven years, she returned to Puerto Rico for a visit, she was told that she was "no longer Puerto Rican because my Spanish was rusty, my gaze too direct, my personality too assertive..." (5: Life is Not a Popularity Contest).

Two years after arriving in New York, Santiago was accepted into the prestigious Performing Arts High School. After graduation she worked full time and spent eight years studying part time at community colleges until she was accepted as a transfer student - and given a full scholarship - at Harvard. She ultimately graduated Magna Cum Laude. (10: The Critic Within). Then, she earned her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College (13: More Than Meets the Eye).

In addition to her literary output, Ms.Santiago is an active volunteer for the following causes, which for obvious personal reasons, are close to her heart: public libraries, community-based programs for adolescents, shelters for battered women and their children, arts programs for young people, and organizations that support literature and the arts (7: Magnificent Obsession).

Her 2004 memoir "The Turkish Lover" covers the years from 1969 (when she was 21) until 1976 (when she graduated from Harvard). Much of the book focuses on her relationship with Ulvi Dogan, a Turkish filmmaker (15: Forget About Prince Charming). Since that time, she has married Frank Cantor, and they have created Cantomedia, a media and film production company.

As if her life doesn't seem amazing enough, two weeks before she was due to take her manuscript of Conquistadora to her publisher, Santiago suffered a severe stroke. The result was that she had to spend 18 months relearning how to read and write English; it took even longer to regain Spanish, which had been her first language (12: Hard Times).

I was humbled and deeply impressed by what this remarkable woman has achieved, and I hope you feel the same way.

Looking forward to your comments...

Saturday, July 23, 2011

114: The Self-Empowered Woman: Elizabeth Catlett

Dear Followers,

As most of you already know, The Self-Empowered Woman blog strives to be a virtual salon, where we have an on-going opportunity to meet a wide variety of accomplished, interesting women. I think today's blog will both inspire and amaze you.

Elizabeth Catlett is a 96 year old artist/sculptor whose works are currently on view in the Bronx Museum of Art. She has spent a lifetime - both as an artist and educator - using her talent to focus on issues of gender, race, and deprivation. Born in Washington, D.C. in 1915, both her parents (who were teachers in the D.C. school system) were the children of slaves. Catlett was raised by her mother and grandmother because her father died before she was born (1: No Paternal Safety Net).

The recipient of a full scholarship to Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, Catlett was turned away - in 1932 - when she arrived at the school and the faculty realized that she was "colored." Seventy-six years later, the same school (now named Carnegie Mellon University) awarded her an honorary doctorate for her lifetime's work as both a sculptor and printmaker (8: Turning No Into Yes).

After being rejected in Pittsburgh, Catlett returned home and attended Howard University where she graduated cum laude in 1935. For the next two years she worked as a high school teacher in North Carolina, but resigned because of the low salaries black teachers received.

She then entered the University of Iowa School of Art and Art History, where she studied sculpture for the first time. American landscape painter Grant Wood encouraged her (and his other students) to work with subjects that they knew best. For her, this meant Black people, especially Black women. Catlett has said that Wood was always "so kind," and always called her "Miss Catlett" (4: Supportive Someone). In 1940, she became the school's first student to receive an MFA in Sculpture.

She also studied ceramics at the Art Institute of Chicago, and lithography at the Art Students League in New York. Catlett then became a university teacher in New Orleans, and she also taught in Harlem. During this time, she was briefly married to Charles White (15: Forget About Prince Charming).

In 1945, while working on a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship Grant, Catlett was told that the grant would be renewed inf she left New York. Her goal was to complete a project about Black women , so in 1946 she moved to Mexico City where her social life included Diego Rivera, Francisco Zuniga and Frida Kahlo. During this time, she joined the Graphic Arts Workshop, and in 1948, she married the printmaker/painter Francisco Mora, with whom she had three sons (all of whom are involved in the arts). The political climate - in the post-McCarthy years - was hostile to Catlett's race, class and gender concerns, and in 1958, even the Mexican officials arrested Catlett and told her she was "unwelcome" in their country. That's when she decided to become a Mexican citizen. When the U.S. Government labeled her "an undesirable foreigner" and refused to let her into the country (5: Life is Not a Popularity Contest) to be with her sick mother, she and her husband brought her mother to Mexico to live with them.

Catlett always refused to accept restriction and discrimination. When she taught at Dillard University in New Orleans (1940 - 1942), African Americans were not allowed to enter City Park, where Delgado Museum was housed. A Picasso retrospective was being shown, and Catlett wanted her Art History students to see it even though they were not allowed on the grounds. A teacher at Sophie Newcomb College helped her to get the students into the museum on a Monday, when it was closed to the general public. Many of Catlett's students had never been in an art museum before, but she was willing to break all the rules on their behalf (11: Risk Addition).

Catlett has outlived both of her husbands and most of her colleagues, but continues - in her 90s to make "technically savvy and stunning" art (7: Magnificent Obsession). How amazing that this talented artist, the granddaughter of slaves, is today the grandmother of Naima Mora, who was the Cycle4 winner of America's Next Top Model.

Looking forward to your comments...

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

113: The Self-Empowered Woman: Emma E Edmonds

Dear Followers,

It's common knowledge that The Self-Empowered Woman blog tries to introduce readers to a wide variety of female achievers. And so far we've highlighted women from scores of countries, backgrounds and eras. But today's subject, Sarah Emma Evelyn Edmonds Seelye (aka Private Frank Thompson), is one of the most amazing women I've had the privilege to research. Over 400 women served in the Civil War as soldiers, but the story I'm about to share is by far the most amazing.

Sarah Emma Evelyn Edmonds was born in New Brunswick, Canada in December 1841. Her hot-tempered, abusive father resented the fact that she had not been a son, and treated her badly (1: No Paternal Safety Net). He wanted her to enter an arranged marriage with a man she didn't like, so she ran away from home at age 15 (14: Selective Disassociation).

For two years she lived on her own as a single woman, but decided that life would be easier if she disguised herself as a man, so she cut her hair, bought a man's suit, and took the name Franklin (Frank) Thompson. In her new identity, she sold Bibles in both Canada and (eventually) in Michigan.

Even though she was not an American, she was deeply affected by the growing tensions between the North and the South. While she was living in Flint, Michigan the first call for Union enlistment went out, and she tried to enlist. It took her four tries, but she finally got sworn in as a member of the Union Army (back then there was no medical examination, only questions). So on April 25, 1861, "Frank Thompson" became a male nurse in Company F, the Flint Union Greys of the Second Michigan Infantry Volunteers (8: Turning No into Yes).

Edmonds later wrote about her war-time experiences in the memoir (pictured above) "Nurse and Spy in the Union Army." As a soldier, her duties ranged from being a male nurse, burying the dead, regimental Postmaster, mail carrier and spy. Perhaps her most daring adventures centered when she was sent South to serve as a spy with General McClellan's campaign in Virginia. She was so determined to be accepted that she carefully studied every available piece of information on weapons, tactics, local geography and military personalities (10: The Critic Within).

In order to create a persona that would fool the Confederates, she decided to disguise herself as a black man, and used silver nitrate to darken her skin, as well as a minstrel wig to change her hair. She gave herself the name "Cuff," and worked in the kitchen where she learned valuable information about the morale of the troops, the size of the army, and the weapons that were available. She learned that the Confederate Army was using "Quaker Guns," which were merely logs that had been painted black to look like cannons from a distance. She escaped and returned to the Union Troops where she was able to give all this information to General McClellan in person (11: Risk Addition).

Two months later, when she was again ordered to infiltrate the Confederate Army she decided to be a fat, Irish peddler woman named Bridget O'Shea. This time she returned to the Union camp on a beautiful Confederate horse, but because she had been wounded in the arm she barely escaped the Rebel Troops that were chasing her.

In August, 1862, Emma returned to the South as a black mammy, with darkened skin and a bandanna to cover her hair. She worked as a laundress in the camp, and while cleaning an officer's coat important, official papers fell out of a pocket. Emma grabbed them, and took them back to General Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley.

All in all, Emma had eleven successful spy missions while serving in the Union Army. When she was transferred to serve with General Grant (before the battle of Vicksburg), her long hours in the military hospital took a toll and she became ill with Malaria. Rather than blow her cover as "Frank Thompson," she returned to female attire and entered a private hospital in Cairo, Illinois. After recovering, she traveled to Washington and worked as a female nurse until the end of the war because "Private Frank Thompson" had been listed as a deserter.

After the war, her memoirs became very popular, and she donated all of the profits to the U.S. Relief Fund. On July 5, 1884, a special Act of Congress her an Honorable Discharge from the Army, plus a bonus and a veterans pension of $12 a month. Helping the war effort truly was Edmonds' passion, and she wrote "I am naturally fond of adventure, a little ambitious, and a good deal romantic - but patriotism was the true secret of my success." (8: Magnificent Obsession).

Emma Edmonds died on September 5, 1898 at age 57, and is the only female member of the organization formed after the Civil War by Union Veterans - The Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). She was buried in Houston, Texas, with a limestone marker that says "Emma E. Seelye, Army Nurse."

Looking forward to your comments...

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

112: The Self-Empowered Woman: Senator Kristen Gillibrand

Dear Followers,

The two women pictured above represent a great political story for our time. The woman on the left is Kirsten E. Gillibrand, who was appointed to fill Hillary Clinton's New York Senate by then-governor David A. Paterson. And thanks to her deep-seated belief that more women need to participate in government (7: Magnificent Obsession), the woman on the right (Terri Sewell) ran for a House seat in Alabama, won the election, and became the first black woman ever elected to Congress from that state.

Gillibrand learned about politics from her grandmother, Polly Noonan, who was a high-level worker for the Albany Democratic Women's Club. Ms. Gillibrand (who was known as Tina Rutnik in her youth), would stuff envelopes, answer phones, hand out bumper stickers and fliers, and knock on voters' doors (2: An Early Sense of Direction). In her words, "What I admired so much about [my grandmother] was her passion. I thought 'Someday I may serve, someday I may be a part of this.'"

Many seasoned political pros were surprised that Gillibrand was re-elected to her Senate seat because conventional wisdom has always held that "women candidates - aside from the already famous - have trouble raising money" (13: More Than Meets the Eye). But Gillibrand, particularly with the help of EMILY's List, has easily raised millions for her campaigns.

Gillibrand's background is impressive. She attended the Emma Willard School as well as Dartmouth College, where she majored in Asian studies (she was a member of the Kappa Kappa Gamma Sorority). During her college summers she worked as an intern for former Senator Alfonse D'Amato, and she later interned at the United Nations Crime Prevention Branch in Vienna. Gillibrand spent a semester in China in 1986 (first in Beijing, and then in Taichung, Taiwan, and learned to read and write Chinese (she memorized over 2,000 characters) before she left for her semester abroad (10: The Critic Within). That unique language skill has proved popular with many of New York's Asian voters.

Gillibrand graduated from UCLA Law School in 1991, and during the Clinton Administration she served as special council to former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Andrew Cuomo.

She is married to Jonathan Gillibrand, a British national who works in finance. They have two young sons, Theodore and Henry, and Senator Gillibrand received a standing ovation on the floor of the House when - just as she had done for her first pregnancy - she worked until the day before she gave birth.

Gillibrand has begun a campaign called Off the Sidelines (www.offthesidelines.org) in an effort to get more women into politics. After the 2010 elections the number of women in Congress declined for the first time in 30 years, and she feels that more women in Congress would help make the government much more productive. "When women's voices are heard, the outcomes are better. That's what my Grandmother taught me."

Looking forward to your comments...

Sunday, July 3, 2011

111: The Self-Empowered Woman: Jill Scott

Dear Followers,

Many of us first fell in love with Jill Scott when we watched her performance as Precious Ramotswe in Anthony Minghella's HBO adaptation of Alexander McCall Smith's "The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency." The seven-part series, set in Botswana, was co-funded by the BBC and HBO. Scott played a wise, gentle (and very effective) detective,

Scott was raised by her mother and grandmother in North Philadelphia (1: No Paternal Safety Net), and has told interviewers that she had a happy childhood and was "very much a loved child." She was raised as a Jehovah's Witness (3: Belief in the Unbelievable).

Essence magazine referred to Scott as a true Renaissance Woman, and there's much more to Ms. Scott than just her TV and movie roles - you've probably seen her in "Law & Order: SVU," UPN's "Girlfriends," and movies including Showtime's "Cave Dwellers," and Tyler Perry's "Why Did I Get Married?"

Scott began her career as a "spoken word artist" before she broke in to the music industry. At a live poetry reading, Amir Thompson of The Roots invited her to join the band in the studio, and the result was co-writing credit for "You Got Me," when earned Scott her first Grammy Award. She also joined the touring company (along with Eric Benet and Will Smith) for the Broadway play"Rent." And in 2005, she won her second Grammy for "Crossed My Mind." The same year, St. Martin's Press published a volume of her poetry titled "The Moments, The Minutes, The Hours."

In 2001, Scott married her longtime boyfriend, Lyzel Williams, but the couple divorced after six years of marriage. And she had a son with her drummer, Lil' John Roberts, but they broke up when the baby was only three months old (15: Forget About Prince Charming).

Scott underwent a long legal battle with her first label after she signed a distribution deal with Warner Brothers Records (14: Selective Disassociation). Her voice has often been compared to Minnie Riperton's because she is comfortable in the sixth octave - on the song "Gimme" she hits a D6 with full vibrato, and on "Spring Summer Feeling" she hits a C7 in the background.

With $100,000 of her own money, Scott established the "Blues Babe Foundation," which helps young minority students pay for university expenses (13: More Than Meets the Eye).

In 2006, at the Essence Music Festival, Scott criticized the way black women were portrayed in rap music, and in April's edition of Essence magazine she wrote a controversial article about black men who marry Caucasian women (5: Life is Not a Popularity Contest). With her fourth studio album, "The Light of the Sun" Scott hit number one on the Billboard Album Chart for the first time. Jett, Scott's two year old son, is what she calls "my best gift...we're both super in love right now, just nuts about each other...he's pretty incredible" (16: Intensive Motherhood).

Looking forward to your comments...

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

110: The Self Empowered Woman: Saudi Arabia/Women Drivers

Dear Followers,

This photo is of women in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia hailing a taxicab, which is one of the primary ways that Saudi women get from point A to point B. The other way is to rely on private chauffeurs, which costs about $600 per month. Women in Saudi Arabia are denied the right to vote, cannot leave home without a male guardian, and are not allowed to drive. In fact, Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that bans women from driving motor vehicles.

Two local movements ("Women2Drive" and "Saudi Women for Driving") are trying to change the government's position on female driving. Several weeks ago a 32 year old female computer technician, Manal al-Sharif, posted a video of herself driving on YouTube. As a result, the authorities held her for ten days, and she was forced to sign a form promising to not speak in public and not drive in the future.

Other women in the Middle East have been taking part in anti-government demonstrations, for example in Yemen and Egypt. But in Saudi Arabia those who oppose women driving argue that 1) women should not be thrown into bad driving situations, 2) they should not be legally held responsible for driving accidents, 3) driving would lead to "the public mingling of the sexes," 4) give women "too many freedoms," and 5) put the 800,000 male drivers who now work out of a job.

Back in 1990, 47 women staged a similar pro-driving protest by driving in a convoy of 15 female-driven cars to Riyadh. Clerics called them "amoral," and the Royal family confiscated their passports. The women who worked for the government were fired, and most were ostracized by family and friends.

Saudi women are veiled, segregated, prevented from getting their own identity cards, and must get written permission from a male relative in order to travel abroad. Last week, Amnesty International called on the kingdom to stop treating women as second-class citizens and permit females to drive.

Looking forward to your comments...

Sunday, June 12, 2011

109: The Self-Empowered Woman: Barbara Pym

Dear Followers,


I've been asked so often about where I get ideas for The Self-Empowered Woman Blog. Often I read about high-achieving women in newspapers or magazines, and sometimes I'll learn about someone amazing on TV. Today's subject, however, came to me courtesy of my brother-in-law, David Yuratich, who was visiting from California. We were discussing "worthy" books and authors, and he told me about the amazing British writer, Barbara Pym (1913-1980).

Pym's mother, Irena, was the assistant organist at the Parish Church at Saint Oswald in Oswestry, Shropshire, England. Church life, vicars and curates became a part of Barbara's daily life. These Anglican characters surface in many of her books (3. Belief in the Unbelievable).

Pym started her first novel when she was only 16 years old (2. An Early Sense of Direction), and after her graduation from Oxford in 1934, she returned to her hometown determined to become a published author.

During World War II, Pym worked for the censorship office in Bristol and had her heart broken during a painful romance (15. Forget about Prince Charming). During the war years she joined the WRENS (Women's Royal Naval Service), and spent of that time in Naples. After the war she worked for the journal "Africa," and in 1949 her first book was accepted for publication.

For the next 12 years her books were published on a regular basis and readers embraced her stories of "unassuming people leading unremarkable lives." But in 1963, her publisher rejected her work because it was "out of step with the times." Devastated by this unexpected disappointment, she revised the book ("An Unsuitable Attachment") but 20 different publishers refused to publish it.

This grim period of her life was called "the wilderness" and she considered herself trapped in a literary limbo. In 1970, she wrote "I get moments of gloom and pessimism when it seems as if nobody could ever like my kind of writing again." She began a romance with an antique dealer who was 17 years her junior, and the book she wrote about that sort of love affair was also rejected by a variety of publishers (12. Hard Times).

Just as her professional life had begun to sour, her health also began to suffer in the 1970s. She endured breast cancer, a mastectomy, and a stroke. And in 1976, again, her latest novel was soundly rejected. In spite of over a decade of literary dead ends, Pym refused to accept defeat and kept writing (7. Magnificent Obsession).

Everything changed in 1977 when both Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil wrote in "The Times Literary Supplement" that Barbara Pym was "the most underrated novelist of the century." After 16 years of struggle, she was catapulted to fame and acclaim. Macmillan even reprinted all of her books, and in America E.P. Dutton began publishing all or her novels, as well (8. Turning No into Yes).

She was only able to enjoy her heightened popularity for two years before her cancer returned. She died in Oxford at the age of 66, but Pym's legacy is kept alive by "The Barbara Pym Society," which was founded in 1994.

Looking forward to your comments. . .