Born in a small village in Nyeri, Kenya, Wangari Maathai accomplished a lot of “firsts” – first woman in east and central Africa to receive a doctoral degree, first Kenyan woman to become chair of a university department, and, in 2004, the first African woman and first environmentalist to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. However, Maathai is most well known for founding Kenya’s Green Belt Movement in 1977. Through her work with various civic organizations, including the National Council of Women in Kenya (NCWK), she had come to the conclusion that the root of most of Kenya’s problems were due to environmental neglect. The main platform of the Green Belt Movement was forest renewal, and Maathai spearheaded a campaign of tree-planting across the country. Maathai made a special effort to involve women in the movement by encouraging them to plant tree nurseries, paying them a small stipend for each seedling. Eventually, the movement partnered with the Norwegian Forestry Society, who helped fund the movement’s expansion. By 1986, the movement had expanded throughout Africa, leading to the creation of the Pan-African Green Belt Network. Other African countries used the organization as a model for creating their own programs to combat a wide range of issues, including hunger, water shortages and deforestation. In the late 80s, the Kenyan government under President Daniel arap Moi came down against Maathai and the Green Belt Movement for their pro-democracy position, and resorted to electoral fraud to keep the movement from gaining more power. In 1989, she led protests against the upcoming construction of a huge civic and commercial building complex in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park. The government refused to respond and construction was to be completed as planned, but the joke turned out to be on them – the worldwide media coverage of Maathai’s campaign caused foreign investors to cancel the project in 1990. Maathai continued to fight for the environment, democracy and women’s rights throughout the next few decades, despite brutal treatment by the Kenyan government and several arrests. It soon became harder and harder for them to contain her, due to her international popularity. In 2002, she was elected to Parliament; the following year, she founded the Mazingira Green Party and was appointed Assistant Minister for the Environment and Natural Resources. She passed away in 2011 due to ovarian cancer, but the Green Belt Movement is still very much alive and continues to be one of the most successful environmental movements in history.
Works by Wangari Maathai:
Unbowed: A Memoir
The Greenbelt Movement: Sharing the Approach and the Experience
The Canopy of Hope: My Life Campaigning for Africa, Women, and the Environment
Indira Gandhi was the first female prime minister of India. She was the only child of Jawaharlal Nehru, who was a prominent figure in the independence movement and would become India’s first independent prime minister in 1947. Upon Nehru’s death, he was succeeded by Lal Bahadur Shastri, and Gandhi was appointed Minister of Information and Broadcasting. When Shastri died suddenly, she ran for office and won the election of 1966. She soon proved herself to be powerful speaker and clever politician, and the hostility towards her as a woman in politics caused her to develop nerves of steel (during one speech, a protester threw a rock which broke her nose; without pausing, she lifted her sari to hide her bleeding nose and continued the speech). She ordered the first development of nuclear weapons in India, and also headed what came to be known as the Green Revolution, a program to boost agricultural productivity and food security and combat the widespread malnutrition. She also reformed the country’s banking system, widening people’s access to banking facilities and providing banking service for the rural poor. After she won again in 1971, in 1974 the High Court of Allahabad declared her victory void on grounds of electoral malpractice and called for her resignation. Gandhi responded by declaring a state of emergency in order to restore order, during which a lot of members of the opposition were arrested. She lost the election in 1977, and the leader of the opposing Janata Party ordered the arrest of Gandhi and her son Sanjay, automatically expelling her from Parliament. Her arrest and trial gained sympathy from much of the public. The Janata Party dissolved in 1979, and Gandhi ran for election in 1980 and won by a landslide. In June of 1984, she implemented Operation Blue Star, a forceful raid carried out by Indian troops of the Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar, with the purpose of finding and arresting rumored Sikh separatists. Later that year, she was shot and killed while walking in her garden by two Sikh members of her personal guard. Though many of her actions during her time in office remain controversial, she is still remembered as “a tigress among one hundred monkeys.”
Indira Gandhi: An Intimate Biography by Pupul Jayakar
Indira: the life of Indira Nehru Gandhi by Katherine Frank
In 1961, Fannie Lou Hamer, without her knowledge or consent, was sterilized by a white doctor as part of an effort to reduce the number of poor African-Americans in Mississippi. This was just one of the facets of the institutionalized racism that Hamer and other civil rights activists faced down. In 1962, Rev. James Bevel gave a sermon in Ruleville, Mississippi that concluded by urging African-Americans to register to vote, even at the risk of beatings, harassment or lynching. Hamer was the first to volunteer. While on the bus on the way to register, Hamer led the group in hymns to lift their spirits. Soon after, she was recruited by Bob Moses, an organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and began doing activist work all over the South. In 1963, Hamer and other activists were on their way back from a literacy workshop in Charleston, South Carolina when they were arrested, jailed, and so savagely beaten that Hamer needed a month to recover afterwards. In 1964, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (“Freedom Democrats”), of which Hamer was Vice-Chair, attended the Democratic National Convention. President Lyndon B. Johnson, knowing that the Freedom Democrats’ success would lose him Southern support for reelection, tried his best to suppress press coverage of Hamer’s address to the Convention’s Credentials Committee, but many TV networks ran it unedited on late night shows, garnering public support for the Freedom Democrats. Johnson sent several Democratic operatives to negotiate with the Freedom Democrats, and as a result of the debate, the Democratic party adopted a clause which demanded equality of representation in state delegations. Hamer continued to campaign for civil rights causes and also spoke out against the Vietnam War.
For Freedom’s Sake: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer by Chana Kai Lee
Golda Meir was the “Iron Lady” years before Margaret Thatcher. Her earliest memory as a child in Kiev was of her father boarding up the doors and windows of their house for protection from anti-Semitic mobs. Her father moved to Milwaukee in 1905, and was able to raise enough money to bring the rest of the family the following year. When Meir was 14, she moved to Denver to live with her married sister. It was there that she gained knowledge of all the hot-button issues of the day, such as trade unions, women’s suffrage, and Zionism. She also met her husband there, Morris Meyerson, a sign painter and passionate socialist. In 1921, they both quit their jobs and moved to a kibbutz in Palestine. The kibbutz chose her as its representative to the Histadrut (the General Federation of Labor). In 1928, she was made secretary of the Working Women’s Council, which required her to return to the States. She returned with her two children, but not her husband (they had separated by this point). She continued to remain active in the Histadrut, working her way up to head of its Political Department. When talks of a new Jewish state began to come up, Meir, as acting head of the Political Department of the Jewish Agency, was the chief negotiator between the Palestinian Jews and the British authorities. She also traveled back to the United States and raised $50 million on behalf of the new state. Hers was one of the 24 signatures on the Israeli Declaration of Independence. She was made ambassador to the Soviet Union, then Minister of Labour, then Foreign Minister, and then, in 1969, the fourth Prime Minister of Israel. She resigned in 1974 due to the controversy surrounding the Yom Kippur War, but remained a beloved public figure to the Israeli people.
My Life by Golda Meir
Golda Meir: The Iron Lady of the Middle East by Elinor Burkett
If there were any such person who could be called Queen of the Suffragists, it would be Alice Paul. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, Paul became an active member of NAWSA (the National Women’s Suffrage Association). She focused on getting a…
Apparently the original post I did was terrible, so here it is again with corrections by someone who knows way more about this than me. Thank you, reblogger. :)
When the “East Side Joan of Arc” was just 16, she gave a speech entitled “What Socialism Will Do For Women” at the Harlem Socialist Club. This led to her expulsion from high school, which she seemed to find mildly annoying at best. A year later, she became a full-time organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), and spent the next few years organizing campaigns around the country among garment workers, silk weavers, textile workers, restaurant workers, and miners. As a founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in 1920, she was active in the campaign against the conviction of Sacco and Vanzetti (two Italian immigrants convicted of anarchy on flimsy evidence). She also spoke out for women’s rights, particularly birth control and suffrage. In 1961, she was made chairperson of the Communist Party of the United States and continued to campaign for Communist causes (a ballsy position to take in the early 60s). She died a few years later during a visit to the Soviet Union and was given a state funeral in the Red Square before her remains were flown back to Chicago.
The Rebel Girl: An Autobiography, My First Life (1906-1926) by Elizabeth Gurley Flynn
Words on Fire: The Life and Writing of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn by Rosalyn Fraad Baxandall
Iron In Her Soul: Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and the American Left by Helen C. Camp
Clara Lemlich, a Ukrainian Jew, came to the United States when she was 17. When she arrived in New York, she found a job in the garment industry. She was not happy with the low pay, unsafe conditions and chauvinist mistreatment on the job, and was not shy about showing it. She soon became involved in ILGWU (the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union) and was elected to the executive board of the local chapter. Her shining moment came during the mass meeting held at Cooper Union in 1909 in support of the striking shirtwaist workers. The keynote speakers were leading figures of the labor movement, and the event was promising to be grand and inspiring. However, there was one slight snag – the speeches were all being given in English, which the predominantly Eastern European Jewish attendees did not speak very well. Finally, Clara Lemlich burst forth from the crowd, took the stage and gave a fiery speech of her own in Yiddish calling for a general strike. The crowd went wild. Over the next two days, about 20,000 shirtwaist workers walked out on their jobs, an event that would come to be known as the Uprising of the 20,000. Lemlich led the workers out, speaking out until she lost her voice. Later, she became involved in the suffrage movement and then in the protests of ridiculous urban food prices in the 1930s. In all of her activist work, she held her own as a strong, tough, sassy broad. No one could pull wool over the eyes of Clara Lemlich.
Common Sense and a Little Fire: Women and Working-Class Politics in the United States, 1900-1965 by Annalise Orleck
“We’re half the people; we should be half the Congress.”
In the general election of 1916, Jeannette Rankin became America’s first Congresswoman. A Republican from Montana, Rankin’s platform supported women’s suffrage, women’s health issues, prohibition, child-protection laws, and above all, pacifism. Voting against the US’s entry into World War I made her unpopular, and her term ended in 1919. However, in 1940, she successfully ran again. She stayed strongly anti-war, saying that the enemy was not abroad, but at home, taking the forms of poverty and disease. She was the sole dissenting vote on the US entering World War II, saying, “As a woman, I can’t go to war, and I refuse to send anybody else.” When her term ended in 1943, she did not go back to Congress, but stayed committed to peace and international cooperation. She came back onto the Government’s radar when she organized the Jeannette Rankin Brigade march in protest of the Vietnam War in 1968. She remained active in politics until her death at age 92.
First Lady in Congress: Jeannette Rankin by Hannah Josephson
Jeannette Rankin: America’s Conscience by Norma Smith
Mary McLeod Bethune’s parents both had been born slaves. Despite their poverty, it was Bethune’s dream to go to college so she could go to Africa as a missionary. Though she did get to college, she was denied the opportunity to go to Africa, so she became a teacher instead. She moved to Daytona Beach, Florida and started the Literary and Industrial Training Center for Negro Girls. Though the school started out on a very low budget (desks were made from old crates and the juice of wild berries was used for ink), the quality of the education was excellent and rivaled the standard set for white schools of the time. Aided by wealthy white benefactors, Bethune’s school grew to 351 students in 1920. Three years later, it merged with the Cookman Institute for Men and became the Bethune-Cookman School. Teaching was not Bethune’s only contribution to history – she was also president of the Florida chapter for the National Association of Colored Women and founder of the National Council of Negro Women. In the 30s, Bethune was appointed Director of the Division of Negro Affairs, a department of the National Youth Administration. She became good friends with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt (who admired Bethune so much that she requested that the segregation rules at the Southern Conference for Human Welfare be changed so they could sit next to each other) and used her access to the White House to form what would come to be known as the Black Cabinet. When she died in 1955, a columnist wrote that “she gave out faith and hope as if they were pills and she some sort of doctor.” Both her homes in Daytona Beach and Washington D.C. are designated historic sites.
Mary McLeod Bethune: Building a Better World, Essays and Selected Documents, ed. Audrey Thomas McCluskey and Elaine M. Smith