At Women’s Rights NY, we have awarded our Annual “Women of the Year” recognition to the following four exemplary feminists –
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the 24th and current President of Liberia won a decisive victory in the reelection of 2011. She has the distinction of being the first and currently the only elected female head of state in Africa.
She received the African Gender Award in 2011, and was the co-recipient of Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for her “non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.”
Ellen Sirleaf has in the past represented Organization of African Unity (OAU), the Pan-African anticolonial agency that supported, trained and provided weapons and military bases to colonized nations fighting for independence. It was thanks to OAU that South Africa during Apartheid was expelled from World Health Organization.
When Sirleaf was elected in 2005, she had promised to rule just one term, but she decided to contest again last year and continues to rule Liberia as its most illustrious of presidents. As the president, she has had enormous success in fronts of national debt relief. She has criticized international military interventions in Libya, and has led historical investigations into national civil conflicts in Liberia with an intent to identify the people associated with former warring factions.
However, not everything is rosy with Sirleaf’s growth and progress. She has been viewed as pro-western in many instances. Her opponents claim that the Nobel Prize was awarded to her a couple of months before the election so as to ensure her re-election. Her first foreign visit was meant to restore friendship with Côte d’Ivoire, a traditionally pro-capitalist member of the former OAU. Under pressure, she also agreed to withdraw her stance regarding Libya and joined the chorus in calling for Gaddafi’s head.
Notwithstanding controversies, being an African woman leader, she has been acknowledged by Newsweek magazine as one of the top ten best leaders of the world. Time magazine paid her tribute as one of the top ten female leaders.
Lidia Gueiler Tejada
Lidia Gueiler Tejada died on May 9, 2011. She was Bolivia’s first female president and only the second female president in the entire western hemisphere (if at all Argentina’s Isabel Pero’s widow-card is accounted for).
Unlike any other female political leader in the Americas, Lidia Gueiler was fiercely revolutionary in her politics. She joined the Nationalist Revolutionary Movement (MNR) in 1948, the most important political party in the 20th Century Bolivia.
Lidia Gueiler’s contributions to feminist causes in Latin America are unparalleled. Three years after she joined the Revolutionary Left Movement, she became the most formidable social rights activist in Latin America when she led 26 women on an eight-day hunger strike to win the release of their sons and husbands, who were being held as communist political prisoners.
After the MNR was toppled from power in 1964, Gueiler spent many years in exile. She was elected president of the lower legislature in Bolivia upon her return. After a series of military interventions and nationwide labor strikes, Gueiler was appointed president of Bolivia by the Bolivian congress in 1979.
A lifetime campaigner of women’s rights and progressive causes, she publicly supported the socialist leader Evo Morales in 2005 election.
Arundhati Roy turned 50 in 2011. But more than this incidental turn of event for her, there was a more conscious decision taken by the Booker Prize winning progressive writer. She declared herself to be “a Maoist sympathizer”. In an interview to The Guardian, she endorsed any means possible to bring about revolutionary changes.
Guerrillas use violence directed against the state forces and at times innocent civilians sustain injuries and deaths. When Roy was asked to clarify if she condemned such violence, she was forthright: “I don’t condemn it any more. If you’re an adivasi [tribal Indian] living in a forest village and 800 CRP [Central Reserve Police] come and surround your village and start burning it, what are you supposed to do? Are you supposed to go on hunger strike? Can the hungry go on a hunger strike? Non-violence is a piece of theatre. You need an audience. What can you do when you have no audience? People have the right to resist annihilation.”
Betty Ford died on July 8, 2011. She was more than a First Lady. Through her contributions to women’s rights movements, she set precedents as a First Lady unafraid of taking on politically sensitive issues.
Betty Ford raised awareness about breast cancer following her mastectomy in 1974. She also drew from her personal experiences to politicize issues when she raised awareness of addiction following her battle with alcoholism.
As a pioneering feminist of her time, she actively supported Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), equal pay, and women’s right to abortion. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter appointed Betty Ford to the National Commission on the Observance of International Women’s Year. She opened the National Women’s Conference in Houston, Texas where she helped create the National Plan of Action.
When in 1978, the deadline for ratification of the ERA was extended from 1979 to 1982 it resulted in a march of a hundred thousand people on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington. Several leading feminists including Bella Abzug, Elizabeth Chittick, Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem joined Betty Ford in registering protest.
(The List: Edited by Saswat Pattanayak)