Radical Women-An Historical Perspective

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“Women have to find a script, a narrative to live by, because all other scripts are likely to depict them in roles that fit the conventional stereotypes.” Mamphela Ramphele

Last month in these pages I wrote about my personal journey as a woman and a feminist moving through a world that has failed to accomplish the gender equity I dreamt of as a child. I reflected on the bitter reality that no matter how strongly one believes in the ideal of radical equality, we all live immersed in social and cultural structures that can work against our best interests in favor of patriarchy, racist ideologies, and socio­economic inequality. As much as I work for justice in my personal life and have found hope in contemporary movements, I have also found inspiration and continued hope for a more equitable future in my professional life as a feminist historian. Throughout my career, I have been fascinated with women who defied the expectations of their time and cultural milieu, and who through their work made a difference in their own lives and their broader society.

The power of learning about radical women in history came right to my doorstep last week, when one of my favorite grown-­up friends sent my twelve­-year-old daughter the perfect gift in celebration of Women’s History Month: Kate Schatz’s Rad American Women A-­Z. Schatz writes in her introduction to the book that she hopes the brief stories of the 25 “rad”-­ical women artists and activists, rock stars and scientists included serve to inspire readers to learn about United States history and seek to make a difference through their own lives as well. My daughter has embraced the book, taking great pleasure in learning about a diverse group of people she’d never heard of before, including the dancer Isadora Duncan, the journalist Nellie Bly, and the Native American activist Wilma Mankiller. In my daughter’s words, “women just aren’t recognized enough and you don’t see many books that are about all these cool women in history . . . [The book includes] all different kinds of women from all different kinds of backgrounds, which is an amazing thing.” Amazing indeed.

To continue the spirit of Women’s History Month and to find inspiration, I invite you to read about a few radical women I admire who have worked for women’s rights and human rights around the world in the last century:

C is for Claudia Paz y Paz:

The human rights lawyer Paz y Paz (b. 1967) grew up during the 36 -year Guatemalan Civil War (1960­-1996), and has dedicated her career to winning justice for women and marginalized peoples. During her tenure as Guatemala’s first woman attorney general, from 2010 to 2014, she actively pursued prosecutions against the perpetrators of atrocities including genocide and mass rapes, who had evaded justice since the end of the war. The verdict she won against former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt was the first of its kind in Guatemala’s national courts. No longer safe in Guatemala, Paz y Paz continues her work on behalf of human rights from Spain and the United States.

K is for Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya:

The Indian anti­-colonial, socialist, and women’s right activist Chattopadhyaya’s (1903­1988) life is a testament to what women of her generation in India sacrificed for the cause of liberation. Widowed at age 12, she went on to remarry outside her caste, and later divorced her unfaithful husband, despite strong cultural taboos against divorce and Mahatma Gandhi’s disapproval. She continued to break boundaries throughout her life to become a leader in the movement for Indian independence and an outspoken advocate for women’s economic and political rights. Amongst her many causes, she lobbied for the Age of Consent Bill and the Child Marriage Restraint Bill in the late 1920s. Throughout her life she worked to expand the women’s movement in India to include recognition of the role socio­economics play in limiting women’s freedoms and relegating them to a lower status.

L is for Li Xiaojiang:

Now a leading academic in the women’s studies movement in China, Li (b. 1951) received only eight years of formal education before being sent to a work camp during the Cultural Revolution. But her determination to be an academic later led her to graduate school, where she dedicated herself (against the advice of male advisors and classmates) to deconstructing the discrepancy between the dominant Marxist rhetoric on the equality between men and women and what she observed in academics and in women’s lives. She went on to write the first scholarly women’s studies paper in China, organized the first Women’s Association, and established the first Women’s Studies Center in the 1980s. Li continues to work for true transformation in women’s lives by educating Chinese women to self­-recognition, subjective awareness, and collective consciousness.

M is for Mamphele Ramphele:

The South African physician, politician, and academic Ramphele (b. 1947) came to feminist consciousness later in her political life. A founding member of the 1970s’ Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) led by Steve Biko, Ramphele only later realized that women’s rights were not a part of that movement’s political landscape, where, in order to be fully accepted, women had to either conform to traditional behavior, or, as in the case of Ramphele, become “honorary men.” But by the late 1980s, after working in migrant labor hostels, she began to focus on the role of gender. She came to believe that real transformation in South Africa would not happen without attention to gender, and true freedom would only come when women had equal access to political organizations and participation in society.

S is for Shirin Ebadi:

The Iranian lawyer and writer Ebadi (b. 1947) trained as a lawyer in the 1960s, and in 1975 became the first woman appointed president of the Tehran city court. After women were forced to resign their judgeships following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Ebadi dedicated her life to writing on the subject of human rights and to defending political prisoners, women’s rights activists, and others who challenged the Iranian authorities. In 2003, she became the first Iranian and the first Muslim woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, in recognition of her decades of activism for human rights and particularly the rights of women, children, and refugees. Though in exile in London since 2009 due to increased persecution of opponents of the Iranian government, Ebadi continues to work on behalf of human rights in Iran.

X is for ??: Who would you add to the list?

Kate Schatz dedicated the letter “X” in Rad American Women to all “the women we haven’t learned about yet, and the women whose stories we will never read.” She continues, “X is for all we don’t know about the past, but X is also for the future.” I believe the space of X is infinite, creating room not only for us to learn about prominent activists, but also to recognize what work we can do individually on a day-to-day basis to bring about change. From these histories, we can learn important lessons about both the sacrifices and the rewards that come from brave speech and brave action on any scale that will move us toward greater equality.

Julie Laut lives in a drafty old house in Urbana with her husband, two kids, and two dogs. After earning her PhD this spring, she will be embarking on her third career since leaving college two decades ago.

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