Coretta Scott King: Unshakeable Faith

By Kingkongphoto & from Laurel Maryland, USA – Coretta Scott King © copyright 2010, CC BY-SA 2.0, Public Domain.

Like the Robesons, the Kings had a marriage based on love—for each other and for racial equality. After the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Coretta gained recognition in her own right as a pillar of the civil rights movement. A talented musician, Coretta was born in Alabama in 1927 and was educated at Antioch, where she got a degree in music and elementary education and was exposed to whites in a very different environment than the South, learning a great deal about techniques to foster interracial communication. In 1953, she married Martin Luther King, Jr. while they were both college students, and they pursued a life together, her music—she got a higher degree at the New England Conservatory of Music—and his theological degree. From a long line of ministers, Martin felt a call to become a pastor, a decision that found the young couple moving to Montgomery, Alabama, after their education. They had their first of four children in their first year at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and became deeply involved in the actions of the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King, Jr. led the bus boycott after Rosa Parks’ historic bus ride. As the footage shows, Coretta was right beside Martin at every protest, fighting for the rights of all African Americans. She also participated in fundraising for the movement by giving more than thirty concerts in Europe and the United States to raise money for Martin’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

The Kings traveled extensively in their work—to Ghana, to India, to Nigeria, and in 1964, to Norway to receive Dr. King’s Nobel Peace Prize. Four years later, the world watched in horror as Martin was gunned down in Memphis, Tennessee, during a garbage workers strike. Coretta didn’t shrink from the work at hand and led a protest in Memphis four days later with her children at her side. Her quiet dignity captured the nation; that year she was voted Woman of the Year and Most Admired Woman by college students.

From that fateful day, Coretta stepped forward and took up the mantle of leadership in the civil rights movement, which she shared with the young Jesse Jackson. Coretta amazed everyone with her stamina and heart as she made speech after speech and led march after march. She has received innumerable awards for her tireless efforts in her lifetime. She founded the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Change and has also led the attention of the nation into new directions, organizing antiwar protests, antinuclear and anti-apartheid lobbies, and employment for African Americans. More than 100 colleges have given her honorary doctorates. Coretta Scott King has never hesitated to give herself to the struggle for freedom and justice, viewing it as both “a privilege” and “a blessing.”

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

Harriet Tubman: Harriet the Spy (Not Kidding)

by H Seymour Squyer
By Photographer: Horatio Seymour Squyer, 1848 – 18 Dec 1905 – National Portrait Gallery, Public Domain.

In her day, Harriet was lovingly referred to as Moses, for leading her people home to freedom. An escaped slave herself, she pulled off feat after amazing feat and gave freedom to many who would otherwise have never known it. Harriet Tubman was a conductor on the Underground Railroad, perhaps the best that ever was. She is best known for this activity, but she was also a feminist, a nurse, and, for a time, a spy. Her keenest interest was social reform, both for her gender and her people.

Born around 1821 on a plantation in Maryland, Harriet struggled with grand mal seizures after a blow to the head as a child, but the damage from a severely fractured skull didn’t stop her from the most dangerous work she could have possibly undertaken: taking groups of slaves to freedom in the north. During her slow recovery from being hit in the head with a two-pound weight by an overseer, she began praying and contemplating the enslavement of blacks, resolving to do what she could, with faith in a higher power. She married John Tubman, a free man, in 1844, and lived in fear that she would be sold into the Deep South. When she heard rumors that she was about to be sold, she plotted her escape, begging John to come with her. He not only refused, but threatened to turn her in.

Harriet escaped to freedom by herself, but immediately plotted to return for her family members, using the Underground Railroad. She ultimately rescued all her family members except John; he had taken a new wife and remained behind. She led more than two hundred slaves to safety and freedom, encouraging her “passengers” with gospel songs sung in a deep, strong voice. She also developed a code to signal danger using biblical quotations and certain songs. Harriet Tubman always outfoxed the whites who questioned her about the groups of blacks traveling with her. She lived in constant threat of hanging, with a $40,000 price on her head, and many close calls. One of the most dramatic incidents shows Harriet’s resourcefulness and resolve when she bought tickets heading south to evade whites demanding to know what a group of blacks were doing traveling together. She always carried a gun to dissuade any frightened fugitives from turning tail. “You’ll be free or die,” she told them— and she never lost a passenger.

Harriet also started connecting with abolitionists in the North, developing a strong admiration for John Brown (she conspired with him in his raid at Harper’s Ferry) and Susan B. Anthony. During the Civil War, she nursed black soldiers, worked as a spy for the Union, and even led a raid that freed 750 slaves. After the war, she lived in Auburn, New York, in a house that had been a way station for the Underground Railroad, teaching blacks how to cope with newfound freedom; gathering food, clothing, and money for poor blacks; and founding a home for elderly and indigent blacks. Harriet’s last years were spent in abject poverty despite all she had given to others, but she died at the age of ninety-three having accomplished the task she set herself as a girl. She was the great emancipator, offering her people hope, freedom, and new beginnings. Reformer and writer Thomas Wentworth Higginson named her “the greatest heroine of the age.”

“When I found I had crossed that line, I looked to my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything.”

— Harriet Tubman
This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

Martina Navratilova: Always Herself

By Angela George, CC BY-SA 3.0, Public Domain.

One of the all-time tennis greats, Martina Navratilova was a Czechoslovakian native who defected to the United States so she could manage her own career, rather than having the Czech government tell her what to do and where to go. During the eighties, she was the top-ranked women’s tennis player in the world with a career record of seventy-five straight wins. She approached her career and training as serious business, a pure athlete in the truest sense. One of the first openly gay celebrities, Martina has been linked amorously with Rita Mae Brown, who penned a novel about their affair and was sued in a “galimony” suit by another lover, Judy Nelson, who went on to share a bed with Rita. Opines Martina, “I never thought there was anything strange about being gay.”

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel: Fashion Shero

By Time / Getty – Hal Vaughan. Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War. Random House (2011), p. 20., PD-US, Public Domain. 

Considered by many to be the mother of modern fashion, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel was the first fashion designer to create clothes that matched emerging attitudes of women for greater freedom and independence. Born in France around 1883, Coco’s first step toward a life in the fashion industry was a job at a hatmaker’s shop in Deauville, France, where she worked until 1912. At thirty-one years old, she struck out on her own, opening her very own shop featuring streamlined and unfussy wool jersey dresses. Strikingly new, her simple style caught on quickly. Chanel’s success with the dresses and the celebratory atmosphere following World War I encouraged her to really go to town with smartly cut suits, sophisticated short skirts, and bold, chunky jewelry designed at her very own couture house in Paris!

In 1922, she created Chanel #5, the perfume every woman wanted, named for her lucky number; to this day, it remains one of the all-time favorite perfumes. Chanel’s innovations are legendary—costume jewelry, evening scarves, short skirts, and the little black dress all came from the steel-trap mind of Coco Chanel. She retired in 1938, but got bored and staged a remarkably successful comeback in the mid-fifties.

Coco, the ultimate Frenchwoman, never married, but seemed to be utterly happy with her career as an independent businesswoman, in charge of her own time and her own life. She makes America’s Horatio Alger look shabby—the daughter of a vagabond street peddler, she was raised in orphanages and went on to found an empire, live a busy glamorous life, and leave behind a legacy that will last forever. The idol of practically everyone in the industry, Coco Chanel was the epitome of the modern woman. Yves St. Laurent once called her “The Godmother of us all,” and French surrealist Jean Cocteau remarked, “(Coco Chanel) has, by a kind of miracle, worked in fashion according to rules that would seem to have value for painters, musicians, poets.”

“There have been many Duchesses of Westminster, but there is only one Coco Chanel.”
— Coco Chanel on why she rejected a famous suitor
This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

Isadora Duncan: Dancing For Her Life

By Dover Street Studios. Distributed in the U.S. by Charles L. Ritzmann: Gobonobo – This file was derived from: Isadora Duncan portrait.jpg, Public Domain.

Isadora nee Angela Duncan was born in San Francisco on a summer’s day in 1877. Brought up in the manner of fallen aristocracy by her poor mother, a music teacher, young Angela studied classical ballet, but soon discarded the rules in favor of her own freer, interpretive dance.

Her public debut of this new style of dance was a total flop in New York City and Chicago, so she scraped together some savings and headed for Europe on board a cattle boat.

In London, she studied the sculptures of pagan Greece and integrated the sense of movement from these classical remnants into her dance practice. A grande dame of the British stage, Mrs. Patrick Campbell, became the young American’s patron and set up private dance salons for Isadora at the homes of the most cultured creme de la creme. Soon, snooty Brits couldn’t get enough of the barefoot and beautiful young nymph, dancing her heart out in a dryad costume that left very little guesswork as to Duncan’s anatomy. Soon she was packing theaters and concert halls all over the continent. In 1905, she toured Russia as well.

Isadora Duncan was not only the dance diva of her day, but a woman who dared to flout social convention, bearing children out of wedlock (wedlock was a notion utterly repugnant to Duncan and her pack) to stage designer Gordon Craig and Paris Singer, of the sewing machine dynasty. But her life was not all roses—Duncan lost her two babies and their nurse when their car rolled into the Seine and all three drowned. Duncan tried to sublimate her grief with work, opening dance schools around Europe and touring South America, Germany, and France.

In 1920, she received an invitation to establish a school in the Soviet Union, where she fell in undying love with Sergey Aleksandrovish Yesenin, a respected poet half
her age. The two married, despite Duncan’s abhorrence of the institution, and were taken for Bolshevik spies as they traveled the globe. Upon being heckled mercilessly at a performance in Boston’s Symphony Hall, Isadora Duncan bid her homeland adieu forever: “Goodbye America, I shall never see you again!” She was as good as her word; the honeymooners scuttled back to Europe, where their relationship crashed against the rocks of Yesenin’s insanity. He committed suicide in 1925 and Duncan lived the remainder of her life on the French Riviera, where another auto accident ended her life. One of her dramatic Greek inspired scarves got tangled in the wheel of her car and she was strangled.

Though her life was sad and messy, Isadora Duncan’s real triumph was her art. She changed the dance world forever, freeing the form from Victorian constriction to allow more natural movement. Duncan believed in celebrating the sculptural beauty of the female body and that dance, at its zenith, was “divine expression.” Duncan is regarded by many to have been the chief pioneer of modern dance. She was a free spirit for whom “to dance is to live.”

“If my art is symbolic of any one thing, it is symbolic of the freedom of woman and her emancipation.”
— Isadora Duncan
This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

Lotfia ElNadi: Flying in the Face of Tradition

By Egypt Government

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

Lotfia ElNadi was the first Middle Eastern woman as well as the first African woman to become an aviator. And as if that is not enough, she was actually the first female pilot in the world. Born in 1907 to a middle class family in Cairo, Egypt, she was expected to complete primary school and then become a housewife. Her mother encouraged her to go to the American College, which had a modernized curriculum and taught languages. ElNadi saw an article about a newly opened local flying school, and decided to find a way to study flying there, despite her father’s belief that higher education was a waste of time for a daughter. She tried asking a journalist to help her, but when that didn’t work out, she daringly made a direct approach to the director of the EgyptAir airline to see if he would assist her. He recognized the PR potential for EgyptAir of an Egyptian female airplane pilot and agreed to help, and she started aviation school as the only woman in a class of men, telling her father that she was going to a study group to conceal her aviation ambitions. Since ElNadi had no money to pay the tuition, she worked in trade as the school’s secretary and telephone operator.

In September of 1933, she earned her pilot’s license after only 67 days of study; her achievement made headlines worldwide. At first her father was angry when he found out, but once he saw the positive press she was getting, he agreed to let her fly him on a trip over the pyramids. Three months later, ElNadi flew in the international race between Cairo and Alexandria at velocities averaging over 100 mph; she would have won if not for missing a mark but was disqualified on the technicality. However, she still received a prize of 200 Egyptian pounds and the congratulations of King Fuad for her stab at it. Feminist leader Huda Sha’arawi then raised funds to buy ElNadi a plane of her own. ElNadi served as secretary general for the Egyptian Aviation Club and flew for around five more years until her back was seriously hurt in an accident. For about 10 years after ElNadi achieved her aim of becoming a pilot, other Egyptian women followed suit; however, after that period, no others managed it until DinaCarole El Sawy became a pilot for EgyptAir decades later. In 1989, ElNadi was invited back to Cairo to participate in the 54th anniversary of civil aviation in Egypt and received the Order of Merit of the Egyptian Organization of Aerospace. In her 80s, she moved for a time to Toronto to live with a nephew and his family, but she returned at last to Cairo to live out her days. She never married and lived to be 95.

“When something is excessive, it turns to its opposite. The excessive pressure forced upon me made me love freedom.” 

— Lotfia ElNadi, from Take off from the Sand, a biographical documentary.



Asieh Amini is a renowned expatriate Iranian poet and journalist living in Norway. From her birth in 1973 until 1979, she lived a fairly privileged life, as her landed-gentry family was well-to-do and employed servants; but they lost much of their wealth during  the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Besides adapting to her family becoming no more than middle class, young Amini despised the fact that females now had to wear the mandatory black hijab covering. As a child, she thought the hijab was ugly and would cry when she was required to wear it like other girls. In 1993, Amini started journalism school at Tabataba’i University in Teheran. While still just a freshman, she started writing for the hardline daily Kayhan, then wrote for Iran, a larger newspaper. Iran started publishing a youth supplement and tapped Amini to be the cultural editor of the 28-page section; this was an unusually high position for a woman to have in Iran, and there was pushback from male staff who didn’t like her being in charge of men as a section editor – men older than she was, no less. She refused to give in and focused on working hard, up to 14 hours a day.
As the political winds shifted in Iran, censorship relaxed somewhat, and more young women started to work in the field of journalism. Amini worked at a paper that covered women’s affairs, though she opposed the concept of separating news by gender; then she became a freelancer, covering Kurdish demonstrations and a Shirazi earthquake. In 2006, she started investigating killings of young women after learning of the horrific execution of a 16-year-old girl. She worked to publish what she discovered, but lost a job at one newspaper and was turned down by various others. The editor-in-chief who fired her said it was impossible for their paper to publish the story, since she was fighting Sharia law and the Iranian judicial system. Finally a women’s journal agreed to publish an abridged version of the story. Amini soon learned of a 19-year-old young woman named Leyla with the mental age of an 8-year-old child who had been abused as well as prostituted by her mother since childhood and was sentenced to die by hanging. Amini wrote about and advocated for her, gaining international attention, which at last led to a new trial for Leyla and after that a safe place for Leyla to live and be cared for. In the course of what she then thought of as organizing for children’s rights, Amini learned about stonings, which were still going on in secret even though they had been officially illegal since 2002.
When she discovered that the most hardline judges in Iran were continuing to sentence women and others to death by stoning because they thought they answered to a higher authority than the law of the land, Amini cocreated the “Stop Stoning Forever” campaign in 2006. Her role was to amass evidence that stonings were still taking place. She worked ceaselessly with her group and managed to find 14 people who had been sentenced to be stoned; then they reached out for international support, even going so far as smuggling facts to Amnesty International, which put the information into the public eye, even back in Iran. In 2007 she was detained in prison for five days following a silent women’s rights sit-in at a courthouse; after that, it became clear that she was under surveillance. At last she fled with her daughter to Sweden in 2009 after a warning that several female prisoners had been interrogated about her and that she would likely soon be among the many “disappeared”. She moved to Norway and pursued her longtime interest in writing poetry, and she is presently working on a new documentary book while completing a Master’s degree in Equality and Diversity at NTNU.

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.