Day 32: Nawal El Saadawi

Nawal El Saadawi is an Egyptian writer, activist, phsyician and psychiatrists. She has written extensively on the subject of women in Islam with particular atention on female genital mutilation in her society.

Nawal ElBorn in 1930 in a small village, her family was at once traditional and progressive. At age 6, she was “circumcised” (otherwise known as female genital mutilation, a non-medical practice that is illegal in many parts of the world), but her father also insisted that all his children be educated. Her father campaigned against the British occupation during the 1919 revolution which resulted in being exiled to a small town in the Nile Delta and being denied promotions in his Ministry of Education job. Through it all, he encoraged his daughter to study and speak her mind.

Saadawi graduated with an MD in 1955. Through her practice, she observed women’s physical and psychological problems and connected them with oppressive cultural, patriarchal, class and imperialistic oppression. In 1972, she published Al-Mar’a wa Al-Jins (Woman and Sex) confronting the various aggressions against women’s bodies. This book became a foundational text of second-wave feminism and led to her being dismissed from her position with the Ministry of Health and other public health positions. She was imprisoned in September 1981 after publishing a feminist magazine called Confrontation, but was released a month after Anwar Sadat’s assassination. She has written books and memoirs based on her own experiences as well as those of women she met in prison.

She was forced to fell Egypt in 1988 when threatened by Islamist and political persecution. Between then and 1996, she held positions at various universities in the US and France before returning to Egypt to continue her activism. She was among the protesters in Tahrir Square in 2011, and has called for the abolition of religious instruction in Egyptian schools.  She was a devout muslim, expresses the view that women are oppressed by the larger partriarchal religions, but also states that the root of the oppression of women lies in the post-modern capitalist system that is supported by religions.

For today, here are two quotes of very different sentiment from Saadawi: “Danger has been a part of my life ever since I picked up a pen and wrote. Nothing is more perilous than truth in a world that lies” and “Love has made me a different person. It has made the world a beautiful place”


Day 31: Dr. Hawa Abdi

Dr. Hawa Abdi is a human rights activist and physician in Somalia. She was born in Mogadishu in 1947. After her mother died when she was 12, she took on family chores as he eldest child. Her father was an educated professional. Abdi was able to continue her schooling, attending local elementary school and intermediate and secondary academies. In 1964 she received a scholarship from the Women’s Committee of the Soviet Union, allowing her to study at a Kiev institution. In 1972, a year after graduating, she began law studies at Somali National University.  The next year, she got married and in 1975 gave birth to her first child. She would practice medicine in the morning and work towards her law degree in her spare time, which she got in 1979.


Dr. Abdi, with daughters  Dr. Deqo Adan and Dr. Amina Adan

In 1983, Abdi opened the Rural Health Development Organisation (RHDO) on family-owned land. The one-room clinic offering free obstetrician services evolved into a 400-bed hospital. During the Somali civil war in the 1990’s, Abdi stayed in the region at the behest of her grandmother to continue to assist the vulnerable. She subsequently established a new clinic and school for the displaced and orphans. In 2005, rebels made attempts to shut down her clinic.  She stood her ground and the rebels left, with the help of pressure from local residents, the UN and other advocacy groups. In 2012, militants again stormed the clinic, temporarily shutting it down until their eventual departure.

In 2007, RHDO was renamed the Dr. Hawa Abdi Foundation (DHAF) which is now run by her and her two physician daughters. The DHAF compound includes a hospital, school and nutrition center that provides shelter and care to mostly women and children. Since its founding, it has served an estimated 2 million people, all free of charge. Several fishing and agricultural projects are also run on the compound to instill self-sufficiency.  Funding for this work comes from Somali ex-pats as well as the international donor community.  For her efforts on women’s rights and women’s health, she has received numerous recognitions including the Roosevelt Four Freedoms Award (2014), Hiraan Online’s Person of the Year (2007), and, along with her daughters, among the list of 2010 Glamour magazine’s “Women of the Year.” She was also nominated for the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize, and received BET’s Social Humanitarian Award.

For today, take a moment to read about the critical moment in Abdi’s life that has led her to making this amazing impact in the world: “When I decided to become a doctor, I was very, very young, when my mother was pregnant with her seventh child, and she was feeling terrible pain, and I did not know how to help her. And my mother died in front of my eyes, without knowing why, which diagnosis. So I decided to be a doctor.” 

Day 27: Emma Goldman

It is hard, sometimes, to think of a person who plotted in assassination attempts in the list of peacemakers, but in a world where armed military are called “peacekeepers” and where people like Boenhoefer plotted the assassination of Hitler, people like these are reminders that this work of peace is complex and rife with ethical dilemmas. Emma Goldman elicits such conflict. She was born to a loveless, abusive Orthodox Jewish family (where she was routinely beaten by her father, with her mother’s only pleas being to tone down the abuses) in present-day Lithuania (at the time, part of the Russian Empire). Family poverty forced her to work, but her fierce independence and determination to educate herself freed her from her father’s domineering insistence on a life of domestic work. She resisted his attempts at an arranged marriage at age 15, declaring she would only marry for love. She was also raped at a young age, an event that forever soured her interactions with men. She was further informed by the political turmoil around her.

At age 16, she made her way to Rochester, New York to live with an older sister. She worked as a seamstress, and was soon joined by her parents fleeing antisemitism in St. Petersburg. After a failed marriage full of jealousy, suspicion and impotence, she left the family amid accusations of being a “loose woman”, took her sewing machine and went to NYC. She became more involved in the political turmoil in the US. She started connecting with radicals calling for worker rights, and found her voice as she recalled her own failed marriage, experiences of humiliation and oppression, work conditions in sewing factories, and the Haymarket affair and crime in Chicago. Some of the radicals with whom she connected maintained that violence was an effective use of change.

The Homestead Strike of 1892 involving Carnegie Steel Company, union-buster Henry Clay Frick, and Pinkerton guards that resulted in violent deaths in a gunfight caught her attention and energy. Goldman was involved in a failed plot to assassinate Frick and mobilize workers. She subsequently Emma_Goldman_seatedincited people to riot and take action during the 1893 economic crash. She was sentenced to a year in prison. During this time, influential reporter Nellie Bly referred to her as a “modern Joan of Arc.” She also took an interest in medicine while in prison, and went to Europe upon release to study midwifery and massage. Back in the US, she alternated between these professions and organizing, conducting the first cross-country tour by an anarchist speaker. She withdrew from public life after unproven accusations of implication in the McKinley assassination until 1906, when she started publication of “Mother Earth”, a place for idealists to express themselves in arts and letters. For the next decades, she continued to speak to packed audiences, agitating for anarchist causes. She joined forces with Margaret Sanger to advocate for contraception (for which she spent two weeks in a prison workhouse for violation the Comstock Law. She was also imprisoned for 2 years for opposing conscription during WWI. After release, in the heat of the Red Scare, she was deported (under guise of her husband’s citizenship being revoked). She spent the bulk of her remaining years in Europe and Canada, being a constant voice for labor rights, feminism, sexuality (she was an outspoken critic of prejudice against homosexuals), voting rights, free speech, prisoner rights and against militarism.

For today, reflect on these words from the woman some called “the most dangerous woman in America”: “The demand for equal rights in every vocation of life is just and fair; but, after all, the most vital right is the right to love and be loved.”

Day 24: Alice Paul

Alice Paul (1885-1977) was an American suffragist, feminist and women’s rights activist. She was the main leader and strategist of the 1910’s campaign for the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution that prohibits sex discrimination and the right to vote.  Alice was born in Mount Laurel, NJ to a Quaker family (and descendant of William Penn). Her mother was actively involved in the National American Woman Suffrage Association, which Alice would sometimes attend as a child. After graduating from Moorestown Friends School, Alice went to Swarthmore College (co-founded by her grandfather). After graduation, she spent a fellowship year at a settlement house in NYC. Here, she deepened her knowledge about the need to correct injustices in the US, as well as a sense of radicalism that the times called for drastic, not incremental changes.

Alice_paulAfter getting an MA in sociology at Penn, she went to England to continue her studies. Here, she was repeatedly arrested while participating in suffragist demonstrations.  In 1909, she and another suffragist disguised themselves as cleaners at an event where the Lord Mayor was hosting a banquet for Prime Minister Asquith and other cabinet members. As Asquith stood to speak, Paul and the other suffragist threw their shoes and broke stained glass windows, shouting “Votes for women!” For this, Paul was sentenced to a month of hard labor. As with previous arrests, she went on a hunger strike but, unlike other incarcerations that ended early because of this, she was force-fed, resulting in great bodily harm. At the end of her sentence, she had to be carried out of the prison.

After this ordeal, Paul returned to the US and remained an active leader in the suffragist movement here. She organized a big presence and a strong voice for the cause by organizing a Woman Suffrage Procession the day before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration in 1913.  From this successful and attention-getting event, her focus turned to lobbying for a constitutional amendment to secure the right to vote for women. A tension started to grow with the National Woman’s Suffrage Association that was taking a state-by-state approach to voting rights. Disagreements let to a break and Paul formed the National Woman’s Party in 1916. Demonstrations and picketing continued, as did arrests – often for simply holding silent protest (during WWI) – and sometimes resulting in prison brutality. Despite these, Paul successfully kept pressure on Wilson who, in 1918, announced that women’s suffrage was urgently needed as a “war measure.” By 1919, both houses of congress passed the amendment that was ratified in 1920.

Paul continued to stay active in the women’s rights movement, successfully getting sex discrimination language included in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and in working towards the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, a work that started in 1923 and continues to this day. Along the way, Paul also earned a PhD in sociology and various law degrees.

In the spirit of her perseverance and dedication, consider these words: “Once you put your hand to the plow, you can’t put it down until you get to the end of the row.”

Day 21: Anna Elizabeth Dickinson

Anna Elizabeth Dickinson (1842-1932) was born to a Quaker family. Her parents were abolitionists, although her fathy died when she was 2. She attended Friends Select School in Philadelphia and Westtown School.  At age 14, she published a apassionate anti-slavery essay in William Lloyd Garrison-owned The Liberator, and at 18 addressed the PA Anti-Slavery Society.  She was becoming widely known as an eloquent and persuasive public speaker, one of the first females to be regularly on platforms speaking out against slavery. With Garrison’s support, she delivered a series of lectures sponsored by the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, talks that helped the abolitionist movement in MA prior to the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation.

dickin01In 1863, she was on the campaign trail in NY, PA, NH and CT supporting Radical Republicans in that year’s elections.  People left her events impressed by the power of her convictions, at times attacking Lincoln for being too moderate. Over 5000 people hailed her at Cooper Institute where she spoke on behalf of Republican candidates.  Then, in 1864, she became the first woman to give a political speech on the floor of the House of Representatives. Her speech went beyond abolition, and included strong opinions on the rights of blacks, Reconstruction and women’s rights.

After the Civil War, she remained a popular speaker for nearly a decade, earning praise from the likes of Mark Twain. She also published two books; a novel called “Which Answer” (1868) that featured an interracial marriage, and “A Ragged Register of People, Place and Opinions” (1879) about her experiences on the lecture circuit. As her speaking career waned, the turned to theater. In 1891, her sister, Susan Dickinson, arranged for her to be incarcerated at the Danville State Hospital for the Insane. As she successfully fought for her release and libel cased about being called insane, she antagonized and lost many friends and supporters. From 1895 to her death, she lived quietly in upstate NY in relative obscurity with George and Sallie Ackerly, who treated her as an honored guest.

For today, reflect on what Mark Twain had to say about Dickinson in his autobiography: “She talks fast, uses no notes what ever, never hesitates for a word, always gets the right word in the right place, and has the most perfect confidence in herself. Indeed, her sentences are remarkably smoothly-woven and felicitous. Her vim, her energy, her determined look, her tremendous earnestness, would compel the respect and the attention of an audience, even if she spoke in Chinese — would convince a third of them, too, even though she used arguments that would not stand analysis.”

Day 19: St. Hildegard of Bingen

St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) was a German Benedictine abbess, writer, composer, philosopher, mystic and visionary. She is considered to be the founder of scientific natural history in Germany.  When she was a young girl (perhaps 8 years old) her parents offered her as an oblate to a Benedictine monastery where she was professed with an older woman who was also a visionary. From this they formed a community of women. Hildegard became the magistra of this community in 1136 after Jutta died. She was also asked to be a Prioress by Abbot Kuno of Disibodenberg, which would be under his authority. She wanted greater independence for herself and the order, so instead asked to be allowed to move the order – a move towards greater poverty.  She was declined her request, but went over Abbot Kuno’s head for approval with the Archbishop. Despite his approval, Abbot Kuno only relented after Hildegard suffered a paralyzing illness that she subsequently attributed to God’s unhappiness with His orders to move her nuns. The nuns thus moved to the St. Rupertsberg monastery in 1150; a second monastery was started in Eibingen in 1165.

HildegardofBingenHildegard’s lasting impact is in her writings about visionary theology, in her music, and in her scientific and medicinal writings that still influence holistic medicine. She also helped to advance the role of women in society. Her order expressed great reverence for the Virgin Mary and this was reflected in her music and, while she claimed that her compositions were in praise of God, assertions have been made between music and the female body in her musical compositions.  She stated “woman may be made from man, but no man can be made without a woman.”

Her music has regained attention and popularity over the last 40 years, including many recordings.

For today, here is a writing of St. Hildegard reminding us to care for the world:

Glance at the sun. See the moon and the stars.

Gaze at the beauty of earth’s greenings.

Now, think.

What delight God gives to humankind

with all these things. . . .

All nature is at the disposal of humankind.

We are to work with it. For

without we cannot survive.

As a bonus, here is a sampling of her compositions:

Day 11: Mary McLeod Bethune

Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955) was a leading educator and civil rights activist.  She was one of 17 children born to former slaves in Mayesville, SC. The family lived in poverty and everyone in the family worked, many toiling in cotton fields. Mary was the only child in the family to go to school. She would walk miles to a newly-opened missionary school and did her best to share what she was learning with her family. After completing her education at Scotia Seminary in Concord NC and Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, she returned to the south and started her career as a teacher in 1895. In 1898 she married fellow teacher Albertus Bethune, and had one son. Her marriage ended in 1907.

Mary.McLeod.BethuneBelieving that education provided the key to racial advancement, Bethune founded the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Negro Girls in Dayton FL in 1904. The school quickly grew from 5 to over 250 students in a few short years. Bethune served as school president and remained in leadership even after it merged with the Cookman Institute for Men in the mid-1920’s, becoming known as the Bethune-Cookman College. She stayed with the college until 1942.

In addition to her work in education, Bethune was a significant contributor to American society. She was president of the Florida chapter of the National Association of Colored Women for years, and in 1924 beat out fellow reformer Ida B. Wells as the organization’s national leader. President Coolidge invited her to participate in a conference on child welfare, and President Hoover appointed her to a committee on child health and had her serve on the Commission on


Home Building and Home Ownership. She was a special adviser to FDR on minority affairs and became the director of the Division of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration.  She became a trusted friend and adviser to both FDR and Eleanor.  She was an early member of the NAACP, whom she represented along with W.E.B. DuBois at the 1945 founding of the UN.  In the early 1950’s, President Truman appointed her to a committee on national defense and named her to serve as an official delegate to a presidential inauguration in Liberia.

In honor of her dedication to youth and education, we have these words: “We have a powerful potential in our youth, and we must have the courage to change old ideas and practices so that we may direct their power toward good ends.”