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:

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...