International Women’s Day: My Heroines

Today I was reading through my personal Facebook feed and found some men questioning the purpose of International Women’s Day. What, should we stop what we’re doing simply to revel in women’s beauty for an entire day? Um, excuse me?!

This is only one of many issues that irk me. Women are not here on this earth simply for their physical beauty. In fact, the world population would not be possible if it weren’t for women. Duh. Nonetheless, women continue to be treated as second-class citizens all over the world, regarded only for their sexual appeal (or productivity), physical appearance, and/or ability to cook and clean. Sure, in the first world, us women have many more rights than our sisters in places like the Middle East, Northern Africa, Asia, and Latin America (though the latter has made many strides over the last decade or so). Still, equality between the sexes has a terribly long way to go, as do gay rights and the elimination of racism. Maybe we will never attain absolute equality, but we should never give up trying.

I was born in the early eighties to a lower middle class family where both of my parents worked extremely hard to put food on the table and clothe their children. I am the youngest of three; both of my older siblings are males. Our family had an undeniable hierarchy, but, as a young female, it seemed that I was the only one who noticed it. Early on, I got tired of being told that “I was too messy for a girl,” “I wasn’t being ladylike,” “I shouldn’t burp or fart because I’m a female,” “I’d look a lot better if I wore make-up everyday, like my mom,” and even “Men are superior to women.” It drove me nuts. What the fuck does gender have to do with messiness, bodily functions, or even the idiotic notion of superiority? 

Perhaps not so ironically, I became the most outspoken of my siblings. I stood up for my beliefs, and continue to do so. I feel a personal obligation to voice the wrongs in society. It takes a lot of courage to point out the misogyny (or, at the very least, gender discrimination) in others, and sometimes people are so blind to it that all they can do is laugh. So, yes, I am absolutely a feminist, and completely support a day celebrating all that women are and have accomplished over the years.

I grew up with all the heroes in history being men. I didn’t think twice about 90% of the writers I read being men. I had been conditioned to think that it was okay for people to joke around that a boy “throws/cries/bitches like a girl.” In a male-dominated society, we all should take a moment to reflect on the women who have positively influenced our lives. It doesn’t matter if it was your mother, Joan of Arc, or your first grade teacher. We all deserve appreciation.

Now, I will share with you a few women who have made my world a different place. Some of these brilliant human beings have changed my creative path in life, urged to be a better individual, and challenged me to dig deeper for strength and perseverance. Without a doubt, they have all inspired me and provided me with an example of how to live an authentic, meaningful life.

Maya Angelou

mayaangelou

Photo via PBS News Hour

I first read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings when I was about 16. I was instantly hooked. This brilliant, African-American woman had been sent on a train, alone, at the tender age of four or five, to a place she knew nothing of. After sexual abuse, forced prostitution, and single motherhood, this woman has come to inspire millions of people with her resilience, never-ending wisdom, and hope for a better future. I took my mom to one of her presentations in San Jose a few years ago, and I couldn’t help but hold the tears back. The late Maya Angelou made my life look like Sesame Street, and I continue to gain inspiration from her to persevere, no matter what.

Bjork

Around the same time in my life, I came across the Icelandic creative genius, Bjork. I think it was through the old BMG CD program (Buy One, Get Ten Free!) that I discovered her album, “Debut.” I ordered it only because I thought the inlay’s artwork looked cool. Little did I know, she would change my life. I continued to buy any and all of her albums I could get my hands on, and told all of my friends about her. Not only was her accent mysterious and appealing, the topics she covered were so alien and so familiar at the same time. She embraced her own sensuality and experimented with various musical instruments and gadgets. Bjork promised a completely new side of her being when a new album came out. (She had also been the lead singer of the Sugarcubes years before, taking dumps on stage if the audience didn’t like her band’s music. How bad-ass is that?) After reading several of her biographies and watching her perform live a handful of times, I can honestly say this: If I had to be another person, I would be Bjork.

Joy Harjo

Joy Harjo

Joy Harjo- Photo via sanmiguelwritersconferenceblog.org

When I went to UCLA, I majored in American Literature and Culture, a subdivision of English. I vividly remember the first day walking into a particular Native American Literature class. The professor was sitting quietly at the desk, her head down, thick dark brown hair covering her face. Her arm was extended beside her notes, her skin scattered with a labyrinth of tattoos. She instantly had my attention.

Professor Joy Harjo had a soft, yet powerful way of communicating with the class. She told us of her musical background, her past shyness, and what her Muskogee Creek heritage meant to her. I enjoyed learning about her, listening to her intricate web of history, and reading her poetry when class was over. Harjo is a true warrior in my eyes.

When the day came that our first essays were returned, my opinion quickly changed: She gave me a B! This was ludicrous. How was it that I was getting As in all of my other classes with the same amount of effort? I approached her, and she explained that I needed to dig deeper, to work harder. She said that I wasn’t living up to my potential as a writer.

My ego was crushed. But after reviewing her comments several times, I knew she was right. I could do better. I remember sitting with her after class a week or so later, reading my revised essay to her out loud. She taught me to pay attention to how the written word sounded to the ear. Joy Harjo challenged me in a way I’d never been before- she openly criticized my work and did not just hand out a “You’re a Great Writer!” badge. Her advice forced me to put in more effort, revision, and concentration. Needless to say, this woman had a lasting impact on my writing.

Frida Kahlo

One of my favorite photographs of Frida Kahlo, by I. Cunningham, 1931

One of my favorite photographs of Frida Kahlo, by I. Cunningham, 1931

It was in high school that I discovered Frida Kahlo’s paintings, but it wasn’t until much later that I started to realize just how strong this woman truly had been. When I was living in San Francisco, I read Hayden Herrera’s Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo. I was overwhelmed by the amount of tragedy she endured. From the train accident to living in a cast, bed-ridden a good portion of her life, to dealing with her husband Diego Rivera’s infidelity and anger, not to mention her own infertility, her story was one of pain. And though it seemed that her life was filled with nothing but suffering, she still continued to paint obsessively, to write, to love, and to hope for better days. Even the act of her dressing up in traditional Tehuana dress everyday was an affirmation of her will to live, and to celebrate the beauty in her life.

Frida Kahlo has been, and continues to be, an exemplary figure of what it means to live. While she dealt with more hardship than most- physically and emotionally- she still flourished in various aspects of her life. She was not only a prolific painter, but also a political activist, a traveler, an intellectual, and a survivor. Everyone suffers; that’s common knowledge. What really matters is how a person responds to that challenge- you can either wallow in your pain and feel sorry for yourself, or fight through it, be grateful for what you have left, and move on. Frida Kahlo’s legacy inspired me to travel to Mexico, to study Latin American Art, and to not give up on myself as an artist. Most importantly, she taught me how to become a stronger woman, a guerrera.

Jane Goodall

Jane Goodall with Freud- Photo via disunplugged.com

Jane Goodall with Freud- Photo via disunplugged.com

Jane Goodall knew that she wanted to go to Africa since the time she was little, and she followed through with her dream. She moved from England, at the age of 26, to live in the jungles of Tanzania with chimpanzees and study their behavior. This was unheard of at the time, especially for a female. Yet, due to her determination and tenacity, Goodall became one of the most prominent primatologists ever. Among other things, she discovered chimpanzees’ use of tools and modes of communication, while demonstrating their similarity to humans.

Recently, I watched the documentary, “Jane’s Journey,” which chronicles Goodall’s life and immense contribution to animal and human welfare. I continue to be floored by this woman’s lifelong commitment to raising awareness, educating others, improving the world, and obtaining world peace. In addition to writing several books on chimpanzees and nature conservation, she founded the Jane Goodall Institute and Roots and Shoots, and is a UN Messenger of Peace. At the age of 79, she continues to travel the world working on her global projects. I hope to achieve 1/100th of what this woman has in my lifetime.

Those are just five women, out of many, who have inspired me to be more courageous, to chase my dreams, to never give up, and not to listen to others’ mindless scrutiny. I believe that International Women’s Day, as well as Women’s History Month, is very important for males and females alike. It gives us the chance to reflect on the large contribution women have made in this world- whether it be in the form of writing, art, music, science, politics, or human rights- and to make our knowledge of history a little less unbalanced. Yes, we women are beautiful, but we offer so much more than our physical appearance.

What do you think? Which women have inspired you the most? Is it important to have a day specifically reserved to celebrate women? Should we have an International Men’s Day? Please let me know your thoughts in the comments!

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