“What difference does it make if the thing you are scared of is real or not?” said Toni Morrison, black poet and novelist. Morrison’s works from The Bluest Eye to Song of Solomon and Beloved highlight the struggles, fears and hopes of her community. Having experienced racial discrimination throughout her life, Morrison learnt to channelise her thoughts into powerful words.
Along with Morrison, the world lost two Indian women, Sushma Swaraj and Rajalakshmi Parthasarathy at the same time. If Morrison’s weapon of choice was the written word, Sushma Swaraj transformed the world of Indian politics with her oratory skills. In one significant meeting on national women’s policies, she proposed that men be encouraged to study home science in college while women take up physical education— a bold step as one of the few women in power aiming to break gender stereotypes.
If Swaraj used public speaking to maximize her impact, Rajalakshmi Parthasarathy of Chennai focussed on sharpening young minds. Parthasarathy’s dream of inculcating Indian values along with a rigorous academic curriculum led to her founding Padma Seshadri Bala Bhavan. Early in her career, she faced resistance on being a woman principal of a boy’s school. A strong proponent of women’s emancipation, Parthasarathy lamented that “[TV] serials do more harm to women than anybody else in the world — the way they portray women as violent, wicked or people who encourage bigamy and other immoral approaches is appalling.”
While Morrison, Parthasarathy and Swaraj have inspired many, their distinctive life journeys mean they faced very different challenges. Morrison’s challenges stemmed largely from her struggles as a black woman while both Parthasarathy and Swaraj struggled with issues that women in developing patriarchal societies face. Be it race or other social constructs, women across the world continue to face similar challenges to that of these three women.
At the same time, with movements such as Me Too gaining traction, women’s voices have never been stronger than before. While we eulogize these three women and reflect on the lessons their lives offer, we also need to learn from living women who are tomorrow’s leaders. Whether it is Nadia Murad, the Yazidi human rights activist from Iraq who won the Nobel Peace Prize, or 16-year-old Greta Thunberg from Sweden exhorting governments to take action on climate change, young women around the world are already picking up the mantle of Morrison, Parthasarathy and Swaraj.