Sunday, February 13, 2011

97: The Self-Empowered Woman: Borodin and Protopopova

Dear Followers,

Today, instead of focusing on one woman's story, I'd like to introduce you to a man who had a positive effect on countless lives. Alexander Porfiryevich Borodin was born November 12 (Yay, Scorpio), 1833 in St. Petersburg, Russia. His mother was the mistress of a Georgian nobleman (Prince Luka Simonis dze Gedevanishvili) and had three illegitimate sons by him, one of whom was Alexander. At that time (and in that culture, "unacknowledged" offspring were given the surname of servants or employees of the nobleman, which is why Alexander's registered father was listed as Porfiry Borodin).

Today, music lovers think of Borodin as a composer (if you've ever heard the song "Stranger in Paradise," which won a posthumous Tony Award in 1954, the credit goes to Borodin). As a child he received a good education, including piano lessons, but his first love was chemistry. He attended the Medico-Surgical Academy (the later home of Ivan Pavlov) and earned a doctorate in medicine with honors in 1856.

When he was 23 years old, he was sent to work at a military hospital, but spent the next five years pursuing his passion for organic chemistry. While doing post-doctorate studies in Heidelberg, he met his future wife, an amateur pianist named Ekaterina Protopopova. Ekaterina was in Heidelberg being treated for tuberculosis, and when she became sicker and moved to Pisa for more treatments, he followed her. They decided to return to Russia and get married, but money problems made them postpone the wedding, Finally, in 1863, when he was 30 years old, they married. Ekaterina's health problems (asthma, etc.) made it difficult for her to tolerate St. Petersburg climate, so she spent long chunks of tine with her relatives in Moscow.

Borodin was a remarkable man for a number of reasons. He spoke French, German, English, Italian and Russian. And, even though he never attended a music conservatory, he played the piano, flute, violin and cello. Some experts in the field feel that he discovered the first link of cholesterol to heart disease 40 years before it was "officially" recognized.

But what I think makes Borodin a real star is that in addition to his work as a "Sunday composer," his interest in chemistry and his work as a doctor, he was a devoted husband who tenderly cared for his ailing wife. AND in addition to all that, he agreed with Ekaterina's belief that women deserved to have equal rights. Unlike most people of his time, he believed that woman deserved equal education, and he was convinced that females would make good doctors.

The life project he was most proud of was the establishment of the St. Petersburg Medical School for Women, which he founded and ran. The last 12 years of his life was spent making sure that women received the proper training to work as physicians side-by-side with their male counterparts

Sadly, Bordin died while dancing at the pre-lenten Maslenitsa festival with friends when he was only 54 years old. His heartbroken wife died five months later. The next time we visit a female MD, let's send a silent thank you to the Russian composer who convinced the world that woman had the skills, the smarts and the right to be physicians.

Looking forward to your comments...

Saturday, February 12, 2011

96: The Self-Empowered Woman: Pilgrim Women

Dear Followers,

Five years ago I was one of the millions of American women addicted to Sarah Ban Breathnach's wildly popular book Simple Abundance, which became a massive New York Times best-seller. A week ago, I decided to treat myself to Peace and Plenty, her new book about finding one's path to financial serenity. It was written, in part, to share the story of how she essentially lost her marriage, her money and her home, but learned to come to terms with what money. security and wealth really mean.

Midway through her book I stumbled upon her thoughts about the pilgrims, which reminded me of how much I'd enjoyed Gail Collins' look at Colonial life in her amazing book America's Women. And since all of us have had our share of economic challenges during the recession, I thought it might be worthwhile to remind ourselves what women who came to our shores 391 years ago were experiencing.

First of all, the 19 adult women (18 of whom were married) aboard the Mayflower had made the passage in the company of 83 other passengers. Their trip from England took ten weeks, and after they landed the men went off to explore while the women and children were left on board with a skeleton crew. During this time, one woman (22-year old Dorothy May Bradford) fell overboard to her death; some reports said she "slipped," but others said it was suicide.

A year later, only four women had survived. Here's how Sarah Ban Breathnach writes about these Pilgrim women: "Four very tired women who needed to take care of 50 men and children daily. With the men almost entirely focused on building houses and the village, the women had so many chores, they performed them in shifts. For aside from cleaning and cooking, there was plowing and planting, preserving and putting away, caring for the livestock, making soap and candles, tending the stock and creating herb medicinals...if they didn't drop dead with their hand to the plow or wither away away in a nighttime sweat from a succession of diseases contracted on the voyage, they took it as a sign that God meant for them to go on.

"...Sometimes in life, and today might be one of those days for you, all we can do is put one foot out of bed in the morning, and then in front of the other, literally...I figure if you wake up in the morning, you're meant to go on...All women are endowed with the same spiritual DNA as our Pilgrim mothers - a genetic code of resilience and strength, ingenuity and creativity, perseverance and determination."

Both these gifted authors deserve a standing ovation for reminding us of the Pilgrims who paved the way for us to enjoy the freedoms and opportunities that are the envy of less-fortunate women everywhere.

Looking forward to your comments...

Thursday, February 10, 2011

95: The Self-Empowered Woman: Barbara Smith Conrad

Dear Followers,

In 2009, mezzo soprano Barbara Smith Conrad was honored by the Texas legislature in the state Capitol. Hundreds of people stood and honored the woman who had once been at the center of a Texas Civil Rights controversy.

Conrad, who was born Barbara Smith, entered the University of Texas in 1956, which was the first year that African American students were allowed to attend the school. The next year, Conrad (who is African American) was cast in an opera production at the University of Texas (Austin), and was slated to sing opposite a white, male student in a performance of Henry Purcell's "Dido and Aeneas." Outraged segregationists in the Texas legislature threatened to withhold state money from the University, and Conrad's role was subsequently filled by a white student.

Today, 73-year-old Conrad is the subject of a PBS "Independent Lens" documentary titled, "When I Rise," which details this personal and painful story of the racism faced by a talented young, American student five decades ago. When Conrad was selected to play Dido (the Queen of Carthage), many locals were outraged. One white man spat in her face, and she even received death threats (12. Hard Times).

Born in the all-black small town of Center Point, Texas, Conrad grew up with big dreams. She had been inspired by seeing Marian Anderson sing (2. An Early Sense of Direction), and by the importance of church among the members of her community (3. Belief in the Unbelievable).

When Conrad found herself dropped from her school's opera production, the resulting publicity opened doors beyond even her imagination. Harry Belafonte heard about the incident, offered to pay her tuition to any other school she chose, and then told Ms. Conrad, "...let's turn your experience into a triumph." He brought her to New York City and introduced her to powerful people in the performing world (4. Supportive Someone). And former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt sent a check for $5,000, and arranged for the National Urban League to support the young singer.

Conrad -- who admits "I was just that stubborn" -- chose to return to Austin, and graduated in 1959 before returning to New York and playing Bess in a production of "Porgy and Bess" by the Metropolitan Opera. Although she never became as successful as Kathleen Battle or Leontyne Price (who had also been forced to transcend racism), Conrad remained both popular and admired for her talent. She performed in Europe and South America and had contracts with both The Vienna State Opera and The Met. In 1995, she sang for Pope John Paul II in New Jersey (8. Turning No Into Yes).

Today, she lives in a large Upper West Side apartment and gives master classes to other performers. She is the vocal director as well as a founder of Manhattan's Wagner Theater Program.

Looking forward to your comments...

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

94: The Self-Empowered Woman: Eve Ensler/Congo

Dear Followers,

Last year, Good Housekeeping Magazine named Eve Ensler one of the "125 Women Who Changed Our World." Why? Because among other accomplishments (she is an activist, author, performer, philanthropist and playwright) she created THE VAGINA MONOLOGUES, which has been translated into 48 languages and performed in over 140 countries.

Today, Ensler's activist movement (V-Day), which supports anti-violence against women and girls, has joined with UNICEF and Panzi Foundation to establish the City of Joy. Based in Bukavu, Democratic Republic of Congo, it will support survivors of sexual violence and help them to heal both physically and emotionally. For many of these women, the center will be their first opportunity to receive an education.

Hundreds of thousands of women have been raped (often violently and sadistically with objects ranging from rifles to wood) by the armed militant groups who travel through Eastern Congo. Three years ago Ensler came up with the idea to create a safe place where women can learn life skills. Her hope is to create "an army of women."

In her words "...when you have enough women in power, they take over the government and they make different decisions. You'll see...they'll put an end to this rape problem fast." City of Joy is a new compound with classrooms where Congolese women (many of whom have been raped more than once) will learn self-defense, farming technology, leadership techniques and computer skills. Google is donating a computer center.

There will be about 200 "leadership recruits" each year, and most of them are illiterate. The center, which cost about $1 million, was partly built by the hands of many of the Congolese women who plan to live there. A former UNICEF official, who admitted that neither diplomacy, academia or the Congolese government had been able to adequately protect women, admitted that "Maybe this is the moment where women on the ground show they can turn this around."

If you would like to support City of Joy, here's the link

Looking forward to your comments...

Friday, February 4, 2011

93: The Self Empowered Woman: Wikipedia

Dear Followers,

Today's post, just like #82, is not about a particular woman, but is about an important issue that should be of interest to all of us. Thanks to New York Times contributor Noam Cohen, I learned that out of Wikipedia's hundreds of thousands of contributors only 13% are female.

The Wikipedia Foundation discovered this lopsided statistic thanks to a study by a joint center of the United Nations University and Maastricht University, The executive director of the Wikipedia Foundation, Sue Gardner, has set a goal to raise "the share of women contributors to 25% by 2015."

The gender disparity on Wikipedia shows up in the different way that topics are covered. For example, a topic that is of interest to boys (say, baseball cards) will have lengthy posts in numerous categories while a topic like friendship bracelets will only have four brief paragraphs.

"Sex and the City" has brief episode summaries while "The Sopranos" has detailed, lengthy articles about each episode. Jane Margolis, who co-wrote "Unlocking the Clubhouse" (a book about sexism in computer science) says that Wikipedia is merely a reflection of women's reluctance to assert their opinions, on- or off- line.

In the words of Catherine Ornenstein, the founder and director of a New York organization that monitors the gender breakdown of contributors to public forums (The OpEd Project) "When you are a minority voice, you begin to doubt your competencies."

She says that when it comes to members of Congress as well as contributors to the Op-Ed pages of the Washington Post or the New York Times, the 85/15 ratio persists.

Ms. Gardner is hoping to use "subtle persuasion and outreach through her foundation to welcome all newcomers to Wikipedia." Maybe today would be a good time for you to contribute information to Wikipedia about a person, place or thing that would be of interest to female readers. After all, 53% of adults who regularly use the Internet now look for information on Wikipedia.

Looking forward to your comments...