8 powerful women that need more appreciation

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Today is the last day of Women’s History Month. Celebrated primarily in three countries, it highlights the contributions & accomplishments of women to events in history & modern day society. So today, I’d like to feature 8 powerful women who have left a huge impact on society and who should be appreciated.

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1. Hazel Scott– 1920-1981

Hazel Scott was a prodigy, a powerhouse, and a trailblazer. She was born in Trinidad in 1920 to a scholar father and a pianist mother. When she was just three years old, Hazel began to play songs on the piano by ear, and her mother devoted her free time to cultivating her daughter’s natural talents.

After her parents divorced in 1924, Hazel, her mother, and grandmother relocated to New York City in the middle of the Harlem Renaissance. When she was eight, Hazel auditioned for the prestigious Juilliard School of Music despite being too young to officially attend the school. However, she shocked one teacher so profoundly with her talent that he agreed to teach her privately on a full scholarship. Once she made it to high school, Hazel began hosting her own radio show on WOR, playing gigs at night, and performing on Broadway in “Sing Out the News.” Hazel became famous for her signature style of  “swinging the classics” and garnered famous fans such as Billie Holiday. A TIME Magazine article wrote, “But where others murder the classics, Hazel Scott merely commits arson. Strange notes creep in, the melody is tortured with hints of boogie-woogie, until finally, happily, Hazel Scott surrenders to her worse nature and beats the keyboard into a rack of bones.”

Hazel quickly proved to be unafraid to challenge the status quo despite her young age. In fact, she was one of the first black performers to refuse to play before segregated audiences, saying, “Why would anyone come to hear me, a Negro, and refuse to sit beside someone just like me?” By the time she was cast in Hollywood productions, she had garnered enough fame to demand the same pay as white performers and she turned down the subservient roles that were often offered to black actors. In 1949, Scott sued the owners of a Washington restaurant when a waitress there refused to serve her because she was black. Her ultimate victory paved the way for other similar lawsuits and the Public Accommodations Act in 1953.  In 1950, Hazel became the first black person to have her own national television show: a short, three-times-a-week musical showcase of her instrumental and vocal talents.

However, her association with a club called Cafe Society (a suspected communist hangout) and her civil rights efforts made her the target of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Hazel fiercely denied being a communist to the committee but the government’s suspicions were enough to kill The Hazel Scott Show. Nat King Cole soon debuted on TV with a variety show, and he is widely (and wrongly) remembered as the first black person to have a national television show. Hazel eventually moved overseas to Paris and continued to play music for the rest of her life. She died in 1981 from pancreatic cancer, but her legacy as one of the pioneering black women of the entertainment industry endures.

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2.Hawa Abdi- 1947- Somalia

Today, the UN calls Somalia “one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world.” That hasn’t fazed Hawa Abdi. She was born in Mogadishu in southern Somalia in 1947. When she was 17, she won a scholarship to study gynaecology in Kiev, and she thrived despite being the only woman among 91 Somali students. According to Abdi, she wanted to be a doctor ever since she was 12 and witnessed her mother die in childbirth. In her words, “I used to think and dream that one day I, myself, could save lives so no other mother would die helpless.” Abdi herself became a mother after graduating and returning to Somalia, where, in addition to having two daughters and a son, she became one of the country’s first OB/Gyns.

In 1983, Abdi opened her own one-room women’s clinic on her family’s land and began helping refugee women give birth. Today, the clinic has grown to a full hospital with 400 beds, three operating theaters, six doctors, 43 nurses, and its own 800-student school. Abdi is one of the surgeons, and because of Somalia’s civil war, she often finds herself performing c-sections and removing bullets in the same day. Miraculously, the medical treatment Abdi’s clinic provides is free. It’s for this reason that 90,000 refugees have gathered on the 1,300 acres around her clinic. However, Abdi has very strict rules for those that live nearby. In fact, she created her own jail for men that beat their wives. According to Kati Marton, a board member of Human Rights Watch, Somalia is “the most dangerous country. Dr. Abdi is just about the only one doing anything.“

In May 2011, 750 militants surrounded Abdi’s hospital. When she came out to meet the armed men, they asked her, “Why are you running this hospital? You are old. And you are a woman!” Abdi was held under house arrest for five days, but she was released after hundreds of women camping near her hospital protested and forced the militants to back down. Looking back on the encounter, Abdi said, “I told the gunmen, ‘I’m not leaving my hospital.’ I told them, ‘If I die, I will die with my people and my dignity.’ I yelled at them, ‘You are young and you are a man, but what have you done for your society?’” For her unyielding charity and persistence, Abdi was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012 and when Glamour Magazine named her one of the Women of the Year in 2010, they described her as “equal parts Mother Teresa and Rambo.” Abdi remains hopeful despite bleak odds saying, “Women can build stability. We can make peace.” Today, her hospital is largely funded by contributions through The Dr. Hawa Abdi Foundation. http://www.dhaf.org/

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3.Vandana Shiva (b. 1952)

Vandana Shiva is an Indian scholar and environmental activist. She is an important representative of the alter-globalization movement, which promotes global solidarity and cooperation while rejecting the negative effects of economic globalization.

She has supported numerous grassroots movements in the fields of food and agriculture, promoting biodiversity and sustainable development. She is also a strong proponent of the Ecofeminist movement, arguing for a woman-focused system which engages the female population while also helping the planet.

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4.Yaa Asantewaa- 1840-1921- Ghana

Yaa Asantewaa was born in Ghana as the older child of two and had a relatively normal young life, cultivating crops and eventually marrying and having a daughter. Her brother became the chief of the Edweso tribe, which was part of the larger Ashanti (Asante) Confederacy, an incredibly influential and prosperous kingdom. At this time, the Ashanti were in major conflict with the British, fighting multiple wars against the great empirical protectorate. Over the course of these wars, the British burned the Ashanti capital state, implemented forced labor, levied heavy taxes, took over the state-owned gold mines, set up missionary schools that interfered in local affairs, and caused general destruction and mayhem (as colonial powers tended to do).

When Yaa Asantewaa’s brother died in 1894, her grandson, Kofi Tene, inherited the throne and became a close ally to the Asantehene, or leader of the entire Ashanti Confederacy, Prempeh I. However, in 1896, the British demanded the Ashanti hand over their Golden Stool in surrender. The Golden Stool of the Ashanti was a dynastic symbol with ties to the origin myth of the Ashanti people, and it was a sacred representation of their power and sovereignty. When Prempeh refused to turn over the Golden Stool, he and other chiefs like Yaa Asantewaa’s brother were forcibly arrested and deported to the Seychelles islands. Four years later, the British again demanded the Golden Stool, which infuriated Yaa Asantewaa, who was now regent in her brother’s absence.

The remaining members of the Ashanti government gathered that night in secret to decide if they should fight off the British once again or surrender. Several chiefs were in favor of surrendering because they thought the British were too powerful to take on again. However, Yaa Asantewaa refused to give up and gave a rallying speech in which she is noted as saying, “No white man could have dared to speak to a leader of the Ashanti in the way the Governor spoke to you this morning. Is it true that the bravery of the Ashanti is no more? I cannot believe it. It cannot be! I must say this, if you the men of Ashanti will not go forward, then we will. We the women will. I shall call upon my fellow women. We will fight the white men. We will fight till the last of us falls in the battlefields.“

After delivering this fiery declaration, Yaa Asantewaa (who was at the time, don’t forget, a 60-year-old badass grandmother) was named leader and Commander-In-Chief, a position formerly only held by men. The tactics she used in the coming war against the British were so fierce and revolutionary that the war is commonly known as the Yaa Asantewaa War. When many Ashanti men refused to join in the fight against the British, she had their wives withhold sex from them and march around their villages daily in a performance of victory rituals to show support. She also implemented stockades for the first time in Ashanti history to use as defense, ordered a siege of the British fort in Kumasi, and adopted a powerful strategy using drum beats to convey messages to the British: one beat meant “prepare to die”, three beats meant “cut the head off”, and four beats meant “the head is off.” She even appeared on the battlefield, which was taboo for women of the Ashanti, often wielding a gun.

Despite these incredible efforts, the British eventually won the war by importing soldiers from across their vast empire and Yaa Asantewaa lived out the rest of her life in exile. Still, Yaa Asantewaa is remembered and celebrated as the “epitome of African womanhood and resistance to European colonialism” and she goes down as one of the most important female political leaders in modern African history. A true warrior queen.

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5. Amanirenas- 60 BCE-10 BCE 

Amanirenas’ story begins in the Roman Empire, when Augustus took power from Marc Antony and Cleopatra. Soon after, Augustus annexed Egypt and pledged to continue a southward push for land, putting Amanirenas’ country directly in his path. As it was, Amanirenas was kandake, or queen mother, of the Nubian kingdom of Kush in modern day Sudan. Rather than wait around to be conquered, Amanirenas led Kush to conquer two major Roman cities, despite being blinded in one eye by a Roman soldier and losing her husband early on in battle. On one occasion, Amanirenas returned to Kush with a bronze statue of Emperor Augustus, which she buried under the entranceway of her palace so everyone would trample on her enemy.

Kush’s actions quickly caught the attention of Rome, which released the full force of its empirical might in retaliation. In what seemed like a certain defeat, Augustus reclaimed Rome’s cities from Kush, destroyed Kush’s capital city, and sold thousands of citizens into slavery. However, Amanirenas did not easily accept defeat. Instead, she repeatedly and swiftly counterattacked and soon became infamous for her gruesome war tactics, which included feeding captives to her pet lion. After five long years of war, Rome sensed that Kush wasn’t going to give up the fight, and they agreed to a permanent peace. Amanirenas had taken on one of the greatest empires to ever exist in human history and won.

Kush lasted for 400 more years before dying out. To this day, no one has been able to translate their hieroglyphics, so many details about Kush remain a mystery. However, Amanirenas may not remain forgotten much longer, as Universal has acquired the pitch for a movie entitled “Warrior Queen” based on her life story.

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6.Dolores Huerta- 1930

Although Dolores Huerta is often overshadowed by her co-activist, Cesar Chavez, the impact she has made on farming, labor, and immigrant communities is profound. Huerta was born in 1930 in New Mexico but moved to Stockton, California when she was three after her parents divorced. Stockton was largely a farming community, and it was here that Dolores experienced the racism towards Mexicans and Mexican Americans that is still common today. After graduating from college, Dolores became a teacher, but she was horrified by the poor living conditions of the children she taught, many of which were the children of farm workers. Determined to do something, Huerta co-founded the Stockton chapter of the Community Services Organization, an anti-segregation and anti-discrimination group. Around this time, she met Cesar Chavez, a fellow CSO official. Both grew frustrated that the CSO would not do more to help with farm workers, so they left the group to form the National Farm Workers Association, the group that would later become United Farm Workers.

In 1965, UFW organized a strike against the Coachella Valley grape growers, which launched the plight of farm labourers to the national stage. The farm workers often worked for as low as 70 cents an hour and without breaks, but they struggled to organize because they often spoke little English and many were not citizens. This challenge did not deter Dolores. After five long years, United Farm Workers made a historic agreement with 26 grape growers to improve the working conditions for farm workers. In 1975, Huerta worked to help pass the Agricultural Labor Relations Act, the first law to recognize the rights of farm workers to form unions and bargain collectively. In the 1980s, Huerta continued to push for improved immigration policy, but she nearly died after being beaten by San Francisco police at an anti-George H. W. Bush rally. The officers that beat her left her with six broken ribs and a ruptured spleen.

Dolores Huerta is now 87 years old, and continues her life of activism. Not only was she inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame and the recipient of the Eleanor Roosevelt Award, but her signature saying, “Si se puede,” inspired President Obama’s “Yes we can,” slogan. Obama later acknowledged Huerta as the source of his slogan when he awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012. Today, she is a true living civil rights icon, who set the standard for what organizing and collective voices can achieve. She best summed up her own relentless spirit when she said, “Every moment is an organizing opportunity, every person a potential activist, every minute a chance to change the word.”

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7. Lozen- 1840-1889

Lozen was a Chihenne Chiricahua Apache that was born around 1840, likely in the New Mexico Territory. From an early age, Lozen was less interested in the domestic sphere, the traditional avenue for Apache women, and more interested in the art of war. She quickly proved to be the most athletic of her peers, boy or girl, and became an expert at stealing horses. In fact, the name “Lozen” was an Apache war name given to those who stole horses during raids. As she grew up, she became a medicine woman and warrior, and although this was not unheard of for women of the Apache, it was rare. However, Lozen was not just any ordinary warrior. She was legendary for her supernatural ability to determine an enemy’s location by holding up her hands to the sun and praying. According to Lozen, her gifts came from the Apache deity Ussen, and because of this, she earned the nickname “the Apache Joan of Arc.”

Lozen fought alongside her brother Victorio, the Chief of their tribe, as the US government attempted to seize their lands, and they were often forced to move from place to place for survival. Victorio called Lozen his “right hand, strong as a man, braver than most, and cunning in strategy. Lozen is a shield to her people.” For a time, the Chihenne Chiricahua Apache lived on the San Carlos Reservation, a place so horrible that it was known as “Hell’s Forty Acres.” However, in 1877 the tribe was forced to flee. When the Apache fled, Lozen often inspired terrified women and children to cross flooded rivers like the Rio Grande before she went to fight alongside the tribe’s warriors. According to one Apache boy who travelled with Lozen, “She could ride, shoot, and fight like a man, and I think she had more ability in planning military strategy than did Victorio.”

Over the course of the next three years, the Apache lost nearly half of their people due to battles with US and Mexican armies. Among the dead was Victorio, Lozen’s brother. At this time, Lozen joined up with famed Apache leader Geronimo to take a last stand for her people, and she fought with him until he surrendered in 1885. According to Geronimo, “We were reckless of our lives, because we felt every man’s hand was against us.” Like many captured Native Americans at the time, Lozen died from tuberculosis in 1889 after being imprisoned at a military arsenal in Alabama. She was buried in an unmarked grave nearby. Today, Lozen’s descendants live on the Mescalero Apache Reservation in New Mexico, which is comprised of approximately 3,000 people.

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8.Josephine Baker- 1906-1975

Many people know Josephine Baker as a famous dancer and performer, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Freda Josephine McDonald was born in early 20th century St. Louis, Missouri, and she spent her childhood in poverty. During her youth, Josephine bounced between jobs as a live-in servant, waitress, and street dancer while she slept in cardboard boxes in St. Louis’s slums. However, Josephine attracted crowds on the street with her dancing and she quickly headed to New York City to perform at the Plantation Club during the Harlem Renaissance. Josephine soon realized though that the United States “was only a country for white people. Not black. So I left. I had been suffocating in the United States… I felt liberated in Paris.” And so, at age 19, Baker sailed to Paris, where she became an instant star for her erotic dancing. Most people are familiar with Josephine from this era of her life, when she became famous for a costume that consisted of only a skirt made of fake bananas and for her pet cheetah who wore a diamond collar. Josephine quickly became the most successful dancer in Paris and Ernest Hemingway called her “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw.”

However, in 1939, France declared war on Germany for invading Poland and the world was thrust into war. Called to defend the country that had welcomed her with open arms, Josephine secretly joined the French Resistance and frequently used her sheet music to smuggle hidden messages written in invisible ink. The information Josephine carried was invaluable, often detailing airfields, harbor activity, and the locations of German troops around France. When the war was over, Josephine was awarded the Croix de Guerre (a first for an American woman) and the Medal of the Resistance. She continued to perform after the war, even returning to the United States, but this time pushed for clubs to allow integrated audiences. As the Civil Rights Movement erupted in the 1950s, Josephine wrote articles on segregation and traveled around the South to speak at various universities. Even when she began receiving threats from the Ku Klux Klan, she refused to be silent. She became so renowned for her activism that the NAACP named May 20, 1951 “Josephine Baker Day” and she spoke alongside Martin Luther King Jr. at the March on Washington as the only official female speaker.

Baker continued to perform until her death from a cerebral haemorrhage at age 68 in 1975. More than 20,000 people attended her funeral in Paris and she became the first American woman to receive a 21 gun salute from the French government and to be buried with French military honors. She has influenced everyone from Angelina Jolie to Beyonce (who dressed as Baker during a 2006 performance), and on the 110th anniversary of her birth, Vogue wrote that she “brilliantly manipulated the white male imagination” and “radically redefined notions of race and gender through style and performance in a way that continues to echo through fashion and music today.”

So there you have it. Eight amazing women whose stories we should all know {information gained via ForgottenWomenFriday on Tumblr). Did you know about any of these women or are there more women whose stories you think should be told? Then share in the comments below

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