Truth or dare or both

This mother-daughter effort at collating the stories of spirited women who defied odds needs to be read by all, gender notwithstanding, despite its earnestness, says Lalitha Subramanian

The Book of Gutsy Women by Hillary Clinton and Chelsea Clinton

It is in the book’s epilogue that Hillary and Chelsea define gutsy women, as: ‘Leaders with the courage to stand up to the status quo, ask hard questions, and get the job done.’ Well, they have chosen over 100 women to fit this description. But obviously there are many more. All of them though, primarily, dared.

In the foreword, Virginia Woolf’s famous line is recalled: ‘I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.’ Yes, it’s true, that since the beginning of time, both men and women have performed. But women went unrecognised, mostly. Now, things are changing.

The book is obviously a labour of love from a mother-daughter pair who have, so to say, grown up together, read together, learnt from real people and been inspired. And it is obvious that the lessons started early, with Hillary’s homebound mother, Dorothy Rodham, a lady who touched her grandchild’s life too. So the pace is set with a rather self-congratulatory shout-out to all those anonymous mothers and grandmothers.

Sectioned conveniently under various titles – Early Inspirations, Education Pioneers, Earth Defenders, Explorers and Inventors, Healers, Athletes, Advocates and Activists, Storytellers, Elected Leaders, Groundbreakers, Women’s Rights Champions – the book presents a veritable star-cast of known and unknown names through older and more recent history. Not unexpectedly, there is a slight preponderance of American influences. But the authors do utilise the introductory essay to talk about many non-American icons of repute. Thus it is that current day political star, New Zealand’s premier Jacinda Arden, gets a spirited mention. However there is not a word about Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir or Margaret Thatcher. Understandable though, considering that space had to be created for quite a few lesser known names.

Pleasant and delightful surprises pop in the mini biographies. For instance, Hollywood ‘s European actress Hedy Lamarr was also an inventor whose work laid the foundation for modern conveniences like Wi-Fi, GPS and the cellular phone. Now that’s something.

Another unique story is that of Mary Temple Grandin, the mildly autistic consultant to the American livestock industry, an advocate of humane practices in the handling of animals destined for slaughter. Interestingly, it was Mary’s autism that paved the way for her communication skill with animals. 

Hillary writes about Ellen De Generes, how she coped with childhood poverty and her parents’ divorce – and even as a teenager, learned to help her mother through a painful time – by making her laugh. Thus was a humanitarian comedienne born.

Chelsea writes about Kimberly Bryant, the African American who started the Black Girls Code organisation. Chelsea also includes in the same chapter, an account about the efforts of Reshma Saujani, the Ugandan Indian-American lady who has brought so many young girls into the world of coding and the creative world of apps, thus changing the very face of the male-dominated coding space. Saujani is well known for her program, Girls Who Code. She is also a perfect example of the motto, Persistence Pays. Here is someone who never gave up but cracked her fourth attempt to get into Yale Law School.

These are just a few glimpses into the lives of women who struggled, pursued intangible goals and won. Some are talked about all the time – Anne Frank, Florence Nightingale, Rosa Parks, Coretta Scott King. Their stories are known, but worth repeating.

Lesser known tales – like those of the first female fighters against the AIDS scourge of the 1980s – people like Mathilde Krim and Dr.Gao Yaojie, deserve to be understood and appreciated.

The youngest braveheart in the book is the 16-year-old Swedish schoolgirl climate activist, Greta Thunberg – a spot well deserved. One of the lessons learnt from these stories is – ignore the negatives, especially when they are not under your control. Use your own creativity to overcome something extremely disheartening, like say, racism.

The book’s cover features a group of women who remained anonymous for decades. They are civilian firefighters from Pearl Harbour shipyard, 1941. Illustrated with black and white photographs, this informative and anecdotal book about gutsy women needs to be read by all, beyond gender.

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