Incredible Women Who’ve Faced Incredible Odds
First we’ll take a trip back to the start of the 15th century, when Joan of Arc is born to a peasant family in Lorraine in northeastern France. We are all familiar with her story. It takes place during the 100 year war when England occupied much of Northern France, and we can imagine how much this must have impacted Joan, witnessing people in her own village fleeing their homes because of the threat of invasion.
Joan is never taught to read nor write, but like her mother, she grows to be very religious. From an early age, Joan claimed to have been blessed with the power of divine vision. The visions reveal to her Charles as the rightful king, who rescues France from English domination. She eventually leads an army given to her by Charles to Orléans, then under seige from the English. Joan and her army force the Anglo-Burgundians to retreat in an amazing feat. An uneducated peasant girl leading an army to victory was incredible, and her story spreads far and wide. Joan also saw that Charles was crowned King in Reims in 1429. But only a year later, Joan would be captured by the Anglo-Burgundians during an assault. She would eventually be jailed, tried, and burned at the stake. But despite her short life, history would have it that Joan of Arc would become the patron saint of France.
Let’s fast forward to the year 1938, past the French border, and enter Italy: Mussolini has come into power and has decreed that people with Jewish heritage could no longer work in medicine (and most other professions). This doesn’t stop one woman, Rita Levi-Montalcini, a neurologist, who sets up a secret laboratory in her own bedroom. Because she doesn’t have access to the proper surgical tools, Rita uses sharpened sewing needles.
Rita continues to work in medicine throughout the war studying nerve cells in her bedroom lab. After the war, Rita returns to working at a university and eventually takes a position at Washington University, where she meets Stanley Cohen. Together, they go on to win the Nobel Prize for the discovery of Nerve Growth Factor – a discovery that leads way to possible treatments for conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, infertility, and cancer.
Rewind to the late 1700s and we find ourselves on a different continent, where another group is facing persecution. Isabella Baumfree is born into slavery in the town of Swartekill, New York City. The young girl had as many as 12 brothers and sisters, with the whole family being owned by Charles Hardenbergh. They were able to live together then, but, following their owner’s death, they were separated, and wondering if they’d ever see each other again. Isabella was sold at an auction with a flock of sheep for $100. The injustice of being seen as nothing more than property to be bought and sold would have a traumatizing effect on the psyche of a nine year old girl. Her fate uncertain, what would her new master be like? A longing to be back in her mother’s arms would grip her, a feeling of despair that would no doubt forever be a driving force in her life.
She’d be sold and sold again before finding love with another slave who lived at a nearby farm. It seemed a bright light at the end of a dark tunnel. They’d have a child together, beautiful little Diana, only to be cruelly separated as well by their masters. After their union was forbade, Isabella’s master decided to arrange a marriage between her and an older slave just two years later. She’d have three more children and dream about escaping slavery, so that her life could be her own. One day, she did.
And when her young son was sold illegally to man in Alabama, she took her case to court. Amazingly, it was one of the first cases won by a black woman against a white man. She would go on to become a well known abolitionist and women’s rights activist. She would change her name and be known to the world and history as Sojourner Truth.
Now we find our way over a dirt road and hear the sound of an engine rumbling: Swat Valley, Pakistan. A bus drives past us filled with a group of young girls on their way to school. The bus is stopped by men with guns but we know not to be afraid. Fear has no place here. Just like it had no place in these other women’s lives or your own.
The scene changes and we are at the United Nations in New York City. We are in a room crowded with reporters and dignitaries. We nudge past them to get a better look at the podium where Malala Yousafzai is standing. She is giving a speech about what she believes in, and the whole world is listening to a girl thought unworthy to attend school because of her gender. She’s still attending school today and helping other girls to do the same. She has made it her life mission.
Southbank Centre / Flickr
We can learn a lot from these women, and the numerous others throughout history and today. They should not just inspire us but rouse us to follow our own dreams, and to remember to help others to realise their dreams as well. We’ll face incredible odds, some more so than others, but so did the ones who came before us. Let’s make them proud!
Who is your female inspiration? Let us know in the comments, or by tweeting @EatMoreCakeUK!