Many women have helped to shape the world we live in. Some are well-known, and have had their stories told often. We have all heard about Marie Curie or Rosa Parks, but they were not alone. Many women have been working tirelessly to make the world a better place. Some women fought for civil rights, others for gender equality. Some emancipated themselves from traditional roles and opened the way for many more.
This year, we all watched the world evolve: countries closed their borders and the need for protection against the virus often highlighted the difference between societies and social classes. We do not know what the next months hold for us, but we can all hope the world will be a better place after 2020.
In search of models and inspiration, I wanted to write about six of the women that changed the world in recent history and received a Nobel Peace Prize. Did you know that out of 892 Nobel Prizes, only 48 are women? Many more could be added to the list of women that changed the world, and it should be remembered that none were alone. Peace is teamwork.
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Bertha Von Suttner (1843-1914)
Bertha Von Suttner was born in Prague in 1843. In 1879, she became the secretary of Alfred Nobel in Paris. In 1887, she discovered, and was influenced by, the International Arbitration and Peace Association, which defends the ideal of arbitration in place of armed conflicts.
A couple of years later, she published Die Waaffen Nieder (Lay down your arms), about a woman who suffered from the war. This novel had a big impact on society and started her peacebuilding work.
In 1891 Bertha Von Suttner created the Austrian Peace Society, and the German Peace Society a year later. In 1899 she was the only woman to attend the opening of the Hague Peace conference, as a Non-Governmental Organisation. There, helped by other women, she initiated meetings to lobby for official delegations to support a court aimed for arbitration. She reached her goals as the Hague established the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 1899.
In 1905, she won the Nobel Peace Prize. She was the first woman to receive the prize, and was also the one that convinced Alfred Nobel to create the price in the first place.
All her life, she believed that “Europe is one” and should unite to avoid conflicts. She died before the start of World War I, and never stopped writing about peace movement and arbitration over conflicts.
“One of the eternal truths is that happiness is created and developed in peace, and one of the eternal rights is the individual’s right to live.”
Jane Addams (1860-1935)
Jane Addams was born in Illinois in 1860. She traveled the world and discovered settlement houses in England. She decided to move to Chicago and start her own.
She founded Hull House in 1889, wanting to create a space dedicated to serving the poorer population of the city, mostly immigrants and industrial workers. Soon, the house became a living space for her and other women that were part of the movement. Hull House was a teaching place, an art gallery with an art program. The principles were simple: learning through example, cooperation and social egalitarian democracy. To answer the need of working women, the house created a kindergarten and a day-care.
She was also a writer, published essays and gave conferences but always refused job offers by universities. She believed her role was to teach to those who couldn’t afford a collegiate education.
She was a founding member of the national child labor committee and she joined the Woman’s Peace Party in 1915. She was chosen to be the president of the International Women’s Congress at the Hague and worked on a mission of ending war through dialogues with leaders. She was against the United States entering World War I and was widely criticized for being anti patriotic. In 1931 she was the first American woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
“The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.”
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Alva Myrdal (1902-1986)
Alva Myrdal was born in Upsalan, Sweden in 1902. If she is known outside of her country for her work on peace, she was also a leader on gender equality and family policies.
She was an active member of the social democrat party and was commissioned by her government to work on the international post-war aid and reconstruction.
She worked on improving women’s condition to increase birth rate. She believed that working women should have the choice to have a family and that every family should be protected.
In 1949, she was appointed head of the United Nations Organisation’s section that dealt with welfare policies, then made “chairwoman” of UNESCO’s social science section. She worked internationally on the disarmament movement, especially the United States and the USSR.
She then worked as the leader of the Swedish delegation during the disarmament conference in Geneva in 1962.
She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1982.
“Marriage, home life, and children, ought to be enjoyed by men and women together. Nobody – and least of all the child – is served by the present tendency to put these things all on one side as ‘Women’s world.”
Rigoberta Menchù Tum (1959 – )
Rigoberta Menchù was born in a small village in Guatemala in 1959. She is part of the indigenous population of the country, and part of the Quiche population.
She started working with her family on cotton and coffee fields when she was a kid. She witnessed the death of one of her brothers and was told that her life would be about work and pain. It motivated her to learn Spanish, the country’s official language, to be able to denounce the abuse her community was victim to.
In 1970, indigenous people were affected even more severely by oppression. In her village, farmers formed the Committee of the Peasant Union. The Union went on strike for better conditions for farm workers and she spent a year educating the indigenous communities in resistance to the power in place.
She then went into hiding in Mexico and told her story in a book that attracted international attention: Me llam Rigoberta Menchú y así me nació la conciencia (My Name is Rigoberta Menchú, and This is How My Awareness was Born). She spent the following years travelling the world, telling her story and her family story to denounce the abuse of indigenous communities taking place in Guatemala.
She received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 for her activism in human rights and ethno-cultural reconciliation.
“When you are convinced your cause is just, you fight for it.”
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Leymah Gbowee (1972 – )
Leymah Gbowee was born in Monrovia, Liberia in 1972. She fled to Ghana when she was a teenager to escape Charles Taylor’s regime, and decided to come back to Liberia in 1991 to take care of the child soldiers. She trained to be a social worker and trauma counselor.
She believes in women’s power to restore peace. She became a founding member and Liberia coordinator of the Women in Peacebuilding Network of the West Africa Network for Peacebuilding. She organized a coalition between Christian and Muslim women known as Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace. The women formed a human barricade while negotiations were happening between the power and warlords, until a peace agreement was reached.
Leymah Gbowee received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011. She launched the Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa the next year. The nonprofit organization provides educational and leadership opportunities for women.
“You can tell people of the need to struggle, but when the powerless start to see that they really can make a difference, nothing can quench the fire.”
Tawakkol Karman (1979 – )
Tawakkol Karman was born in Taiz, Yemen in 1979. She studied Political Sciences and worked as a journalist. She often highlighted struggles happening in Yemen and promoted women’s right to participate in building the peace in Yemen.
In 2005 she founded Women Journalists Without Chains, an organization that advocates freedom to journalists. The organization also helped to bring light on human rights abuses in Yemen.
In 2007, she started to organize protests in the capital to denounce corruption and injustices, and encouraged the protesters to take part in the Arab Spring in 2011.
That same year, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. She spoke about the Yemen revolution with the United Nations in New York and kept on working and writing toward democracy and human rights.
“I have always believed that resistance against repression and violence is possible without relying on similar repression and violence. I have always believed that human civilization is the fruit of the effort of both women and men.”
As I said before, many more women could and should be added to the list. Writing this article inspired me to do more. We can all be a positive change in this world, whether it is locally or worldwive. Ghandi said “Be the change you want to see in the world”. In 2020, I think that love and kindness is what we all need.