- The Guardian
- Issue #2042
Vandana Shiva. Photo: Oregon State University – flickr.com (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Can you identify these women? Over centuries of struggle many women have played a leading role, whether it be against slavery, racism, exploitation, sexism or colonialism. They have fought tirelessly in liberation movements, for suffrage, for women’s emancipation, for indigenous rights, for peace, against fascism and in the many other struggles of the people. The following are brief notes on a few of these women. See how many of them you can identify.
1. Born 1812, she was the daughter of Mangerner, Chief of the Recherche Bay people of Tasmania. By the time she was 17 she had experienced the violent death of her mother, stabbing by a party of sealers, the death of her intended partner who drowned while attempting to save her from abduction, and the abduction and subsequent death of her sister. In 1829 she became the partner of Woorraddy and with him accompanied George Robinson on his missions to the Aboriginal tribes between 1830-1834, serving as a guide and interpreter. She arrived at the Aboriginal settlement on Flinders Island (Wybalenna) in 1835. She had become disillusioned with Robinson and his mission, realising that the program to resettle Aboriginal people on the island would further erode the chances of living their preferred lifestyle. In 1839 she went to Port Phillip. She returned to the settlement at Wybelanna in 1842, without Robinson.
The man, who had promised race protection, had abandoned them. The Aborigines had no choice but to continue their unhappy exile on the island. In 1847, she and the remaining 45 people were moved to an abandoned settlement at Oyster Cove on the Tasmanian mainland. She died on May 8, 1876 at the age of 64. Although originally buried at the old Female Factory at Cascades, South Hobart, her skeleton was acquired by the Royal Society of Tasmania in 1878 contrary to her expressed wishes. After a lengthy legal battle with the trustees of the Tasmanian Museum, the Aboriginal community in Tasmania were able to have her bones cremated on April 30, 1976, the following day her ashes were scattered on the D’Entrecasteaux Channel as she had wanted, nearly 100 years after her death. She has become the symbol of the struggle and survival of Tasmanian Aboriginal people for both Aboriginal and white Tasmanians.
2. Born a slave in Maryland’s Dorchester County (USA) around 1820, she began work at the age of five or six as a house servant, and seven years later in the fields. In 1849, she made a daring escape and found her way to Philadelphia. She returned to Maryland on 19 occasions and helped around 300 slaves to escape to the North along the secret route that became known as the Underground Railroad. She became known as the “Moses of her people” for her personal bravery and ingenuity as a conductor on the Railroad.
She worked closely with John Brown in planning the raid on the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry. Ill-health prevented her from participating in the raid which cost John Brown and others their lives. She spoke at anti-slavery meetings and took up the struggle for women’s rights including the right to vote and participated in organisations for Black women such as the National Association of Colored Women and the National Federation of Afro-American Women.
In 1861, when the Civil War began, she served as a scout, spy and nurse with the Union forces in the Civil war. Died in 1911, her life was a testimony to the fierce resistance of African-American people to slavery. “Ma people mus’ go free,” was her constant refrain.
3. Born in a castle called Vroncourt (Haute-Marne, France) in 1830 to a maidservant, father possibly the owner or his son, she undertook teacher training and opened a private school. In 1856 moved to Paris and took up political activity. With friends created the Citizens’ Vigilance Committee of the 18th Arrrondissement (Le Comité de Vigilance des Citoyennes du XVIIIème arrondisement). When the Republic tried forcibly to disarm Parisians it led to the proclamation of the Paris Commune on March 28, 1871.
She became an ambulance nurse and soldier, belonging to the Montmartre 61st battalion. She surrendered to the authorities who had arrested and threatened to kill her mother. She was deported to New Caledonia in 1873 with other prisoners from the Commune. Following the general amnesty for Commune prisoners she returned to France in 1880, to a warm welcome by 10,000 people at the St Lazare station in Paris. There she continued her political activities, spending many years in and out of jail until her death in 1905.
4. Born July 5, 1837 in Saxony, Germany, a leading revolutionary figure in the German and international workers’ movement, in the struggle for women workers and for universal suffrage. At the second International Conference of Socialist Women in Copenhagen in 1910 she put the proposal that women around the world should focus on a particular day each year to press for their demands. The conference of over 100 women from 17 countries, representing unions, socialist parties, working women’s clubs and including the first three women elected to the Finnish parliament, unanimously approved the proposal. Her speech to the Congress of the International in Paris in 1889 on “The Liberation of Women,” sparked considerable interest.
She was on the National Executive of the Social Democratic Party and editor of its journal Die Gleichheit. Attended the International Women’s Peace Conference in 1915 making a powerful speech on war. She was a member of the Bookbinders Union in Stuttgart, and active in the Tailors and Seamstresses Union, becoming its provisional International Secretary in 1896, even though it was illegal for women to join a trade union in Germany.
Along with fellow revolutionaries Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Leibknecht joined the Spartacus League during World War I and became a founding member of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) in 1920; became a delegate to the Reichstag; and secretary of the International Women’s Secretariat and Executive member of the Communist International from 1921. She lived in socialist Russia from 1924 until her death in 1933.
5. Born February 17, 1848 near Mudgee, NSW, she was a newspaper proprietor, journalist, poet and feminist. In 1887 she edited the Republican with her more famous son, printing it on an old press set up in her cottage. The Republican called for all Australians to unite under “the flag of a Federated Australia, the Great Republic of the Southern Seas.” From 1888-1905 she was the moving force behind Dawn: a journal for Australian Women. Through the pages of Dawn she took up women’s causes, in particular the fight for female suffrage in NSW, and linked the question of universal suffrage to federation.
She came up against the Typographical Union as she had employed female printers, and the union refused membership to females. It attempted to force her to dismiss her printers, which she refused to do. On the formation of the Womanhood Suffrage League of New South Wales in 1891, was elected to its Council. Its meetings were held at the Dawn office. She was also a member of the Women’s Progressive Association and campaigned for women to be appointed to public office.
6. Born in 1871, in Zamosch, Poland, a leading revolutionary of her time who worked closely with Karl Liebknecht in the left wing of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) of Germany taking a strong socialist, anti-militarist, and internationalist position. Played an important role in the formation of the Spartacus League when the First World War began in 1914 and the SPD supported it. Was also involved in the formation of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD).
Took a strong stand against the revisionism of Bernstein, wrote a number of publications on Marxist theory, including The Political Mass Strike, Theory and Practice, The National Question, The Accumulation of Capital, The Crisis of Social Democracy (The Junius Pampahlet), The Russian Revolution. In 1919 was taken in for questioning with other leaders of the KPD and murdered by the same circles of militarist Freikorps (Volunteer Corps) that later openly supported the fascist National Socialists’ seizure of power.
7. Born December 1883 in Levuka, Fiji, her family moved to Tasmania. She worked as a governess in South Gippsland and in far west NSW, and then as a journalist in Australia, London, Paris and North America. She won a number of literary prizes for her writings, a number of them drawing heavily on her experiences as a governess and on a cattle station. She made her permanent home in Greenmount on the Darling Ranges outside Perth (WA) and was one of the founders of the Communist Party in Western Australia. She worked relentlessly for the Communist Party, the peace movement (against conscription and war) and the Writers’ League which she and Jean Devanny set up in 1935.
She was awarded the World Peace Council medal in 1959. Supported the struggles of the working class and was acutely aware of the suffering experienced by the victims of poverty and that it was a product of capitalism. She remained a strong supporter of the Soviet Union. Her writings include Wild Oats of Han (semi-autobiographical), Windlestraws, and the goldfields trilogy – The Roaring Nineties, Golden Miles, and Winged Seeds. She died in 1969.
8. Born April 18, 1889 at Ranchi, Bihar, India, began her formal education with a governess and then school in England and later the University of Sydney, graduating in 1911. She was president on and off of the United Associations (of Women) between 1930 and 1950 The UA became a branch of the NSW branch of the Australian Federation of Women Voters (AFWV). Believed in a woman’s right to economic independence, including the right for married women to an income, the right to paid employment regardless of marital status, a right to compete alongside men in the labour market, equal pay and just remuneration for skills. She lobbied for child endowment and access for women to family planning and was involved in setting up the first contraceptive clinic in Sydney (1933). She played an important role in the struggle to eventually persuade trade unions and the ACTU to endorse the concept of equal pay in 1942 and assisted women running for Parliament as well as running unsuccessfully herself for the ALP.
During World War II, was involved in organising the “Sheepskins for Russia” Appeal and other aid for Russia when it was invaded by fascist Germany. She convened the Australian Women’s Conference for Victory in War and Victory in Peace which approved the Australian Women’s Charter (1943). At the UN Conference on International Organisation (1945) she secured the insertion of the word “sex” in the clause “without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion,” where it occurs in the Charter of the United Nations. Worked hard in promoting a better understanding of the Soviet Union and became president of the Australian Russian Society in 1946, was president of the NSW Peace Council, a member of the executive of the World Peace Council, and even had a hand in the drafting of the amendments to the Constitution which were carried in the 1967 referendum to give the Commonwealth the power to make laws specifically to benefit Aboriginal people and for Aboriginal Australians to be counted in the census. She died in July 1970.
9. Born in 1927 in Sa éc province, Vietnam, grand-daughter of the patriot Phan Chu Trinh, she studied French at Lycée Sisowath and worked as a teacher during the French colonisation of Vietnam. Became member of the Communist Party in 1948. From 1945 to 1951, she took part in various movements against the French colonists. Was arrested and jailed between 1951 and 1953 in Chí Hoà jail (Saigon) by the French colonial authority in Vietnam.
During the Vietnam War, she became a member of the Central Committee for the National Front for the Liberation of Vietnam and the Vice-Chairperson of the South Vietnam Women’s Liberation Association. In 1969 she was appointed foreign minister of the Provisional Revolutionary Government of the Republic of South Vietnam and played a major role in the signing of Paris Peace Accords, an agreement ending the war after the defeat of the US and restoring peace in Vietnam. It entered into force 17 January 1973. After the Vietnam War, became Minister of Education of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. She was elected Vice-President of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam in 1992.
10. Born 1936. Grew up within an independent Aboriginal community at Blackford near Kingston, in South Australia. First active in the Aboriginal Council of Women. Highly committed in the fight against racism and discrimination, in 1974 she was appointed the Executive Secretary of the Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement. Member of the Socialist Party of Australia (now Communist Party of Australia). During a visit to the Soviet Union, her hosts named an island in a Siberian river after the Aboriginal activist. Stood for Parliament in 1988 during a by-election in the seat of Port Adelaide – the first Aboriginal person to stand for Federal Parliament in South Australia. Later in 1990, she would play a key role as Head of the Aboriginal Issues Unit for the Royal Commission Inquiry into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. She was recognised by government in 1992 with the Australian Public Service Medal, and in 1993 with the Equal Opportunity Achievement Award. Died prematurely in 1993.
11. Born November 19, 1937 in Buenos Aires Argentina to Communist parents exiled from Hitler’s Germany. Family returned to German Democratic Republic in 1952. Studied at Humboldt University; accepted into Communist youth and Socialist Unity Party (communist party). Worked as translator and organiser for youth festivals. Met Ché Guevara 1960, travelled to Cuba in 1961 where she worked with Women’s Federation, Institute of Friendship with the People and Ministry of Education. Travelled to Bolivia in 1964 to set up urban network to support Ché’s guerilla force. Joined guerillas; killed in CIA-aided army ambush on August 31, 1967. Remains returned to Cuba October 13, 1998 where they were buried alongside those of her comrades.
12. Born January 26, 1944 in Birmingham, Alabama. Communist, author, Black activist (once associated with radical Black Power group Black Panthers), women’s rights activist, teacher, friend of Cuba. She joined the Communist Party in 1968. Her campaigning to free the Soledad (Prison) Brothers (a struggle that took on international proportions) in the late 1960s saw her framed for the death of a judge and having to flee underground. She became the subject of an intense manhunt and was listed on the FBI’s Top 10 Most Wanted Criminals list. Was caught in August 1970 but with a massive international and national movement gaining momentum was released 18 months later and cleared of all charges in 1972 by an all-white jury. She founded the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression.
Her books include an autobiography covering her early years, and Women, Race and Class, tracing the links between class and women’s oppression and racism drawing on historical material dating back to slavery. Today she is active against the US wars, opposes the death penalty, and is fighting for the abolition of the prison industrial complex. John Lennon and Yoko Ono released a song about her, and so did the Rolling Stones.
13. Born in Dehradun, India in 1952 and educated as a nuclear physicist, she is one of the South’s best-known environmentalists, writers, speakers and campaigners. She is known for her work on agriculture and food, intellectual property rights, biodiversity, biotechnology, bioethics, genetic engineering, eco-feminism, water privatisation, sustainable development, peace, human rights, and many other issues. “When I found global corporations wanted to patent seeds, crops or life forms, I started Navdanya to protect biodiversity, defend farmers’ rights, and promote organic farming.” Navdanya is the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology. Amongst her many awards, including some from the UN, is the Right Livelihood Award (also known as the Alternative Nobel Prize).
“Human beings need a social economy that exchanges things other than money and that produces for reasons other than profits,” she said, commenting on the “Green Revolution” that was supposed to bring Western technology to the aid of Third World farmers. But instead of wealth the new high-yielding seeds it brought poverty and environmental destruction and led to an economic monoculture. She works with Indian farmers to re-build seed banks in the hope of strengthening biodiversity and to pursue sustainable farming techniques without expensive inputs from the agro-chemical companies.
14. Born January 9, 1959 in Chimel, Guatemala. Of the indigenous Quiché-Maya ethnic group. Received Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 and Prince of Asturias Award in 1998. UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador and author of the autobiographical work, Crossing Borders. Family suffered terribly during genocidal civil war from 1960 to 1996. Since the end of the war, she has campaigned to have members of the Guatemalan political and military establishment tried in Spanish courts. She became involved in the Mexican pharmaceutical industry as president of the company Salud para Todos (“Health for All”) and “Farmacias Similares,” with the goal of offering low-cost generic medicines. She ran for president of Guatemala in 2007 and 2011, having founded the country’s first Indigenous political party Winaq.
1. Truganini (Trugernanner)
2. Hariett Tubman
3. Louise Michel
4. Clara Zetkin
5. Louisa Lawson
6. Rosa Luxemburg
7. Katharine Susannah Pritchard
8. Jessie Street
9. Nguyễn Thị Bình, nee Nguyễn Châu Sa
10. Ruby Hammond
11. Haydée Tamara Bunke Bider (revolutionary name — Tania)
12. Angela Davis
13. Vandana Shiva
14. Rigoberta Menchú Tum
First Published in the Guardian, 7 March, 2007ϑ