An insight on the lives of some lesser known figures across 5 continents, 5 powerful women.
Liberia for Africa, India for Asia, Indonesia for Oceania, Russia for Europe, and Venezuela for America.
Eva Peron, Mary Wollestonecraft and Simone de Beauvoir or Michelle Obama, Emma Watson and Greta Thundberg … These are names that we can more or less easily come up with when we think about powerful women who had/have an impact.
There are many names of great women that are less known. Some countries are forgotten when we speak about women empowerment, yet they have beautiful examples of activists, who do not only address women’s rights, but also economy, environment and peace.
We may not agree with some of the ideas that these women represent. We could criticize Ellen Johnson Sirleaf for political reasons, or the controversy surrounding her reelection.
We could criticize Vandana Shiva for being too extreme in her fight, completely rejecting GMOs, being unscientific.
We could once again reject Dewi Sartika as a feminist figure because her schools were destined to teach how to be a good wife.
We could strongly disagree with the violence Argelia Laya used in the guerillas, or with her political ideas.
Despite all of this, it is undeniable that these women had a voice, had an impact on our world. This article does not defend their opinions, it is merely showcasing the power a single voice can have.
Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (1938-present day)
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was the first woman to become a president in Africa. She received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 as a result of her work in her country promoting peace and women’s rights.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was born in Liberia in 1938. She studied in the US and graduated in 1971 from Harvard with a masters degree in Public Administration. She then served as assistant Minister of Finance under President Tolbert (1972-72) and as Minister of Finance under the dictator Samuel K Doe (1980-85).
Because of her beliefs, she was imprisoned twice and nearly executed under Doe’s regime. Ellen was then exiled for criticizing the military regime, and spent the 12 years away from Liberia, which had broken down into civil war, gaining importance in the world.
She became an influential economist for the World Bank, and other international financial institutions. From 1992 to 1997 she was the Director of the Regional Bureau for Africa of the United Nations Development Programme.
Ellen ran for president once more, after an initial defeat in 2003, in 2005 and was sworn in as president in 2006, becoming the first african woman president. Liberia was in a rough patch at the time, suffering from civil war and economic debt. Most of her work addressed these issues, healing ethnic tensions and erasing the debt.
She allowed Liberia to gain access to international markets again, and led the country to an annual GDP growth rate of 7%. She fought against corruption in her country and created the Anti-Corruption Commission in 2008.
Her reelection in 2011 was clouded with some accusations of manipulating the polls, boycott from the population as well as accusations of the international committee meddling by awarding her the nobel prize during that time.
Her second term also addressed corruption, but Ellen was accused of it herself. She stepped down in 2018. The same year she was awarded the Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership.
India, Vandana Shiva (1952- present day)
Vandana Shiva is an Indian environmental activist. She is one of the dominant figures in fights for small farmers and against GMOs.
Born in Dehradun, near the Himalayas, Shiva was a farmer’s daughter. She earned a Doctorate in quantum physics and then worked for the Indian Institute of Science and the Indian Institute of Management.
She tried preventing indiscriminate deforestation and the construction of large dams (which emit a lot of methane and break the natural flow of rivers). However, Shiva is best known for criticizing Asia’s Green Revolution, an international effort that began in the 1960s to increase food production in less-developed countries.
It relied on genetic modification of crops, fertilizers, pest control and irrigation. It led to a substantial economic growth and solved a major food crisis. However, according to Shiva, the Green Revolution, led to pollution, a loss of indigenous seed diversity, and the troubling dependence of poor farmers on costly chemicals.
In 1991, she started Navdanya (“Nine seeds” in Hindi). he project fought against crop homogenization (a loss of diversity can make crops much more fragile to an unknown problem and also favors corporations who own the crops’ seeds, as they are often fertile, to ensure control over the market and farmers) . They established more than 40 seed banks, which ensure the conservation of genetic diversity.
Shiva publicly speaks up against global corporations’ exploitation of poorer countries’ biological wealth: decrease of genetic diversity in crops, privatization of water resources… She founded Bija Vidyapeeth, a school and organic farm offering training in sustainable living and agriculture, in 2001.
Indonesia, Dewi Sartika (1884-1947)
Dewi Sartika is a hero in Indonesia for her activism towards women’s education. She defended that the way for Indonesian women to become independent from their husbands was through education.
She was born in Bandung in 1884. During her early childhood she was sent to school; however, her education was interrupted when her father was exiled by the colonial government. Receiving an education was very rare at the time for natives, especially if they were women.
Because of the way society was wired at the time, her mother was unable to maintain the family without the father, so her Dewi was sent to live with her uncle. Over there, she lived as a servant, had to take care of household chores, live in the servants’ headquarters and was unable to learn Dutch (Indonesia was a Dutch colony) although her cousins could.
She sometimes took it out on other girls who depended on her to read the love letters they received. She would change the content of the letter and create drama to her greatest amusement. However her jokes also made her realize how powerless one is without education.
This led her to ask permission to the regent of Dandung in 1904 to build a school for women. Although skeptical, he grants her his protection. In 1904 the first School for Wives was created.
There would be more later on. The women were taught household skills, Dutch and religion from teachers who were experts in that domain (nursing would be taught by a nurse from the hospital for example).
Although it may not seem like a huge step to teach women how to be a good wife in a school, the mere fact that they were allowed and educated, enabled to read and given the power to think was a huge step. Education at that time was reserved for the elites and dutch.
She was very passionate about women becoming more independent and also spoke out against polygamy and wage gap between men and women.
In 1966, she was honoured with the title of national hero, after her death in 1947.
Russia, Anna Filosofova (1837-1912)
Anna Filosofova was a pioneer feminist, activist, philanthropist and one of the founders and leaders of the first organized Russian women’s movement, which was focused on education.
Born in 1837 in a wealthy family in Russia, she received education at home like most noble young women. She married at 18 with a powerful official in the Ministry of War and Defence, and they had six children.
Anna was a philanthropist, providing food and medicine to those in need. At that time, she met Maria Trubnikova, who along with Nadezhda Stasova formed a “Triumvirate” and discussed social issues, including women’s rights. They founded a society to help the poor and Anna believed that the best way to do so was through education.
The trio managed to collect four hundred signatures on a petition asking permission to the Tsar Alexander II to open Higher Education Courses for Women in 1868. As a consequence, the minister of education allowed women to attend public lectures by university professors.
In 1876, Anna got permission to open the first Russian women’s university. In 1892 she joined the “Saint Petersburg Committee for the Promotion of Literacy”. She joined many groups defending the cause of women. Women’s rights to education progressively improved, and in 1905 university courses were open to women.
In the 1900s as she gained political importance and congress, she was, however, faced with opposition from conservatives. Eventually, Anna managed to turn the situation to her advantage by sending a deputy to court because of an insulting letter he had sent.
She died in Saint Petersburg in 1912 at the age of 74.
More information:About Anna Filosofova
Venezuela, Argelia Laya (1926-1997)
Argelia Laya was one of the most important Afro-Venezuelans feminists. She was a communist who actively engaged in politics.
She was born in 1926 in a coca hacienda. Her family taught her from a young age to fight for her rights both as a woman and as a black person.
Her father died as a consequence of fighting Juan Vincente Gomez’s dictatorship. Her siblings and her were raised by their mother. She was passionate about education and graduated as a teacher in 1945. In 1948, she became pregnant outside of marriage.
As a consequence, the government condemned her for for being “immoral”. They moved her to a smaller school as punishment. This later impacted the topics she decided to fight when it came to women’s rights.
She involved herself in the communist guerillas in the 1960s to protest against Betancourt’s (the Venezuelan president from 1959 to 1964) use of the power and was known as “la Comandante Jacinta”.
Her communist activism led her to meet Mao, Ho Chi Min and Fidel Castro. However, she became disillusioned with the macho culture of the revolutionaries.
In the 1970s, she joined the Movement towards Socialism where she fought against ecological disaster in Barlovento. Arms were no longer relevant to her political fights. Her main fights were against racism and sexism in congress.
She was a board member of a group called the Venezuelan Association for Alternative Sexual Education and Defense of the Violated Woman. Her main fights promoted women’s education, right to abortion, and right equality.
Many of these inspiring women were faced with difficulties because of their gender, and none achieved what they did without putting up a fight. The diversity of opinions is what allows this world to improve.
After all, they all responded to a situation that had affected them negatively, they tried to make a difference and they did. We all have this power, this is why liberty of expression is important, this is why our engagement in politics or social causes is important.
Do not accept the injustices you see. Educate yourselves about them, and as Dewi Sartika proved, you will already have more power: Power to ACT.