Women of Substance (Part 1)

By Ayesha Khan

Published: Monday, April 01, 2013    

We are all familiar with men who changed the world, those who discovered, created, and uncovered. History goes on and on about them, and most of us are more than happy to accept the 'fact' that just about every technological innovation, literary masterpiece, scientific discovery and daunting battle was headed by a male.

Have you ever thought about this gender imbalance in our history?

Despite having the disadvantage of being subjected to life under a patriarchal society that has, until very recently, preferred women to care for home and hearth rather than venture outside and make a name for themselves, females have caught up with their brawnier counterparts. And don't forget the poisonous influence of popular culture, especially music videos and advertisements that clearly indicate that girls who are mindless plastic airheads are somehow more glamorous and special than girls who are individuals with a brain and will of their own.

Yet despite these setbacks, the fairer gender has given us scientists, writers and innovators who have, if not changed the course of history, made a huge impact on the collective conscience of society. Too bad we never hear about them.

One of the most famous women warriors has got to be Joan of Arc. After claiming to have received visions from God to free France from the British during the Hundred Years War in the 15th century, this former farm girl turned expert military commander went on to lead France's national army at the age of just 17. She freed several cities and areas from British occupation and her actions resulted in the coronation of Crown Prince Charles VII. Sadly, she was captured by her enemies at a later battle and burned at the stake.

Looking for heroines eastward, Razia Sultan has been the only woman to occupy the throne in Delhi. She refused to use the title Sultana as it meant 'wife of the Sultan.' A capable queen and efficient administrator, her father and predecessor to the throne, Iltutmish, preferred her to her brothers based on her abilities and named her his successor. She came to power in 1236 and during her reign spent most of her time fighting and defeating rebel factions in her kingdom that refused to pledge allegiance to a woman ruler.

While Joan of Arc may be an exception to the rule, a poor peasant who went on to lead battles, there has always been queens and empresses who have led their nations and armies to victory. Too bad most people nowadays think that catfights are the only kind of fighting that girls are capable of.

If you're interested in finding out about other notable heads of state, you might go on the Internet to look them up. Just remember to say thanks to Radia Perlman, the woman who created the networking technology that makes the modern Internet what it is. With a PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she has over 100 patents to her name and her moniker is 'Mother of the Internet.'

Marie Curie is an oft-heard name when it comes to famous women in science, but are you aware of what exactly it is that she's so renowned for? Madame Curie discovered two new elements, polonium and radium. She was the first female professor at Sorbonne University and the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize, which was awarded to her in 1903. She won a second Nobel in 1911. Not only did she pave the way for a brand new scientific field, the study of radioactivity and nuclear science, but she also supported fellow female scientists, often employing them in her laboratory. Her lab assistant, Marguerite Perey, went on to discover an element of her own, francium.

Finally, did you know that a team of six women created the world's first general-purpose digital computer, ENIAC? The United States Army had hired them during the Second World War and of course, this wasn't because the army was practicing gender-equality at the workplace, but because most of its men were fighting the war overseas.

So all you girls out there better stop undermining your potential and getting fooled into thinking that there's only so much you can do. Just look at all these amazing role models and what they did, despite some of them living in a world that was unfair and prejudiced at the time to their gender. And be sure to check back next month for more 'winning women.'

Ayesha Khan is a high school student with an eye for both the mundane and the oddities in life.
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