Mary Anning

Followers of the iconic TV show  F.R.I.E.N.D.S might remember laughing every time Ross’ profession as a paleontologist is mentioned. Indeed the picture that comes to mind is either of an intrepid Indiana Jones like figure who goes on expeditions or a professor covered in mud and dirt. However, as early as the 1800s, Mary Anning was creating ripples in the world of geologists by discovering a series of fossils that would form the basis of our present-day knowledge of dinosaurs.

Born in a poor family in Lyme Regis, Britain, part of the Blue Lias geological region that abounded in fossils from the Jurassic period, the Anning family collected and sold fossils to supplement their income from carpentry, which was often a pittance. The family was never given their due until Lt. Col Thomas Birch stepped in on their behalf to hold an auction of fossils.

Over the course of her life, Mary discovered the skeletons of the ichthyosaur, plesiosaur, pterosaur, even though she did not actively participate in the scientific community. She was also responsible for the discovery that coprolites, or Bezoar stones, that are used as trace fossils to analyze behaviour of the species, are fossilized faeces.

As a woman, and a working class woman at that, Mary was almost never given her due, and she was unable to become a part of the Geological Society of London. Her expertise in finding and assessing genuine fossils, however, won her respect among professors working in this field. Several celebrated fossil experts visited her to learn from her practical experience. After her death at the age of 47, Charles Dickens wrote of her,

“The carpenter’s daughter has won a name for herself, and has deserved to win it.”

Watch this animated documentary about the life and work of Mary Anning-

Nellie Bly

Born Elizabeth Jane Cochran but better known by her pseudonym, Nellie Bly was a firebrand journalist, industrialist, inventor and activist, making waves in American journalism in the early 1900s. Her career began when she wrote a vehement critique of a particularly sexist article published in her local newspaper that called the “working woman” a “monstrosity”.

“I have never written a word that did not come from my heart. I never shall. “

Nellie Bly, The Evening-Journal; January 8, 1922

Turning a typically male-dominated profession on its head, Nellie’s most famous journalistic achievement was her expose of mental asylums in the nation, a feat she achieved at age 23 by getting admitted into an asylum on pretence of insanity. Her report, Ten Days in a Mad-house brought to light the terrible conditions within mental institutions that were likely to drive even sane people mad. It caused a sensation, and helped to bring about several reforms in the public mental health system. Nellie was a journalist who took on investigative journalism head on and lived up to her reputation each time. She further created a stir with her ‘Around the World in 72 Days’ expedition. Reminiscent of the Jules Verne novel, her journey was completed in 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes and 14 seconds, beating  Phileas Fogg’s fictional record.

After getting married to an industrialist, Bly retired from journalism, only to make a name for herself as one of the prominent female inventors and industrialists of the time- she had several patents in her name for iron manufactures. She returned to journalism during World War I, also covering the Women’s Suffrage Movement. She died unexpectedly at the age of 57 of pneumonia.

“Energy rightly applied and directed will accomplish anything.”

Nellie Bly’s Motto

Watch this short documentary on Nellie Bly’s life-

Laxmi Narayan Tripathi

While India may have legally recognized the third gender in April 2014, a majority of the country’s transgender population is still widely discriminated against, be it in terms of being insulted on public transport or rejection in job interviews. India’s first transgender college principal, Dr. Manabi Bandyopadhyay, despite being competent and qualified for the job was forced to resign in 2016 after less than two years in office owing to non-cooperation of the staff and a section of students. This was a case that only came into the spotlight owing to the individual’s privileged status- there are numerous transgender individuals whose everyday struggles for existence never make it to the papers.

Amidst the bleakness of this scenario, Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, a transgender rights activist and trained Bharatnatyam dancer who identifies as a woman, is an inspiration. Born male into an orthodox Brahmin family, Laxmi faced ostracism and abuse at a very young age, despite having a relatively supportive family. She was the first transgender individual to represent Asia-Pacific at the United Nations in 2008 where she spoke about the condition of sexual minorities.  She also represented her community and India at the World Aids Conference, Toronto.

Laxmi has served on the boards of several LGBT rights organisations and in 2007, she started her own organisation called Astitva. She has been associated with the Hijra community and actively campaigned for the inclusion of the third gender along with journalist and LGBT activist, Ashok Row Kavi. She has been featured in a documentary on LGBT Indians titled ‘Project Bolo’. Despite criticism from her fellow transgenders on account of being “elitist” and failing to bring about any real reform, it is undeniable that Laxmi Tripathi is a figure that stands out for being unabashedly herself. As she says in her autobiography “Me Hijra, Me Laxmi”-

“Every morning I wake up, look in the mirror and say that I love myself. If every woman would love herself as much as I love myself, this society would cease to be patriarchal,”- Laxmi Narayan Tripathi

Optimistic perhaps, but food for thought, don’t you think?

Watch Laxmi at TEDx Mumbai-

Nandini Sundar

Nandini Sundar, professor and chairperson, Department of Sociology, Delhi School of Economic made the headlines in 2016 after being named as accused (without any tangible proof) in the murder case of a Chattisgarh tribal. Best known for her work on the intersectionality of tribal movements with mainstream society, Professor Sundar was only guilty of something that is increasingly being frowned upon in the present day political environment- daring to express an opinion contrary to that of the administration. Earlier, she and some others had filed a PIL citing state-sponsored human rights violations in Chattisgarh.

“My story dances with abandon to the sound of the Madia dhol under a full moon night, where my friends and I raise a toast of mahua to hope and future.”

Nandini Sundar, The Burning Forest

Studying at Oxford University and the University of Columbia, Professor Sundar received the Infosys Prize for Social Sciences in 2010. As a social anthropologist she delves into the complexity of identities that characterizes individuals in India, with regard to caste, tribe, state and the nation as a whole. Her research focuses on the underlying conflicts within such identities in context of violence and morality, and has influenced scholars not merely in India but also in Europe and America.

She has held visiting positions at Punjab, Yale, Michigan, Cambridge and Chandigarh universities. She was awarded the M. N. Srinivas Memorial Prize of the Indian Sociological Society in 2002-03, the L. M. Singhvi Visiting Fellowship at Cambridge in 2003 and the Hughes Visiting Fellowship at Michigan in 2005. Her publications include Subalterns and Sovereigns: An Anthropological History of Bastar and Branching Out: Joint Forest Management in India. Her diverse research interests include access to resources, citizenship, war and counterinsurgency, indigenous identity and politics, the sociology of law and inequality, and issues related to the environment, tribal rights and discrimination and exclusion in South Asia, to name a few.

A central theme of her writings is the life of the tribals in Central India specifically in Bastar, Chattisgarh. Unafraid to tackle controversial issues, one of her latest books, ‘The Burning Forest’ looks at Maoist conflict in Bastar. She points out how there has been little scholarly discourse that has been formally documented when it comes to such issues.

“The biggest problem is that the state does not make the distinction between legitimate research and political activity, and does not appreciate the value of social science research.”- Nandini Sundar

Professor Sundar was awarded the Ester Boserup Prize in 2016.

Watch an interview conducted by CNN News 18 with Nandini Sundar where she talks about how the Adivasi populace in Bastar is caught in the crossfire-

*Biographical details sourced from

http://www.infosys-science-foundation.com/prize/laureates/2010/nandini-sundar.asp

http://cgsas.tors.ku.dk/news/ester-boserup-prize-2016/

Odetta

“You’re walking down life’s road, society’s foot is on your throat, every which way you turn you can’t get from under that foot. And you reach a fork in the road and you can either lie down and die or insist upon your life … those people who made up the songs were the ones who insisted upon life.” -Odetta

Born in 1930, African-American Odetta, also known as Odetta Holmes, was a singer, actress,songwriter, guitarist and much more. Earning the moniker “Queen of American Folk Music” from Martin Luther King Jr., her music has been called “the soundtrack of the civil rights movement”.

With a college degree in music, she initially performed as a chorus singer, with theatre and folk groups and in clubs. She released her first solo album ‘Odetta sings Ballads and Blues’ in 1956. Her folk songs album released in the 1960s went on to be a phenomenal success. She also delivered duets with other famous singers such as Harry Belafonte. Her most stirring performance has been unanimously acknowledged as her rendition of “O, Freedom” at the civil rights movement’s 1963 March on Washington. She was vocal against racism, having first experienced it at the young age of seven on a train to California. Her music influenced many personalities of that period, including Bob Dylan and Rosa Parks (the latter is recognized as the “mother of the modern civil rights movement” in America).

In 1999 she was awarded the National Medal of Arts and the year 2005 saw her honoured with the Living Legend Award by the Library of Congress. She performed almost up to the day of her death at 77 years of age. Besides bringing about an inspirational mainstreaming of folk music, Odetta’s compositions transcended the boundaries of an art form to  fulfill a much higher purpose. Listen to one of her songs, originally a prison work song, that made it to the TIMES All time 100-

Deepa Vasudevan

“Those who have come out for the sake of visibility and activism have often faced a lot of harassment and experienced difficulty in finding work and housing afterwards. There is a huge amount of moral policing of women in our sexually hypocritical society. Public spaces are still unsafe for women-loving-women in Kerala. Safety comes in private spaces.”- Deepa Vasudevan

In a ‘democracy’ where a law such as Section 377 exists, criminalising homosexuality as “unnatural” and the fear of societal ostracism compels people of queer orientation to conceal their sexuality, Deepa Vasudevan, a Malayali Canadian immigrant, is trying her best to create a safe space for lesbian/bisexual women and transgender individuals in Kerala, a state relatively more conservative in this respect, despite high levels of literacy.

Her organisation, Sahayathrika, is named for a Malayalam word roughly translating to “Women undertaking a journey together”. The organization mainly works on counselling, community-organizing and survival of women from gender and sexual minorities, as well as raising awareness on LGBT issues. Deepa founded Sahayathrika when she realised that there was practically no support system for LGBT individuals and this perhaps was one of the major reasons behind a high suicide rate for lesbians in Kerala. With its first project inititated in 2002, it became an independent registered organisation in 2008.

“Many LGBT people tend to migrate to other cities. And people living in Kochi tend to be more private”- Deepa Vasudevan

A study by the Centre for Development Studies, Trivandrum has also highlighted that most development initiatives by the government excluded sexual minorities, including the pioneering Kudumbasree programme. Through its activities, Sahayathrika seeks to bring to the fore the marginalisation and harassment of the queer community in Kerala often leading to migration to other,more tolerant states.

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The kind of dialogue that Deepa Vasudevan’s Sahayathrika, Queerala and other organisations are trying to raise in society is a very important lesson to the sizeable proportion of the country’s population that still judges and attacks people on the basis of their sexual orientation.

Read more about the experiences of India’s LGBT community here-

http://www.thealternative.in/lifestyle/love-search-purple-rainbow/

http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-features/tp-metroplus/a-prayer-for-understanding/article6243192.ece

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

You know the story that we sell to young girls where the prince gets on his knee and whips out a ring, and then you start crying in gratitude? I think it’s ridiculous.

– Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Growing up in Nigeria in the early 1980s in an Igbo family, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is an author who is unhesitating in calling herself a feminist. She calls herself “a happy African feminist who does not hate men, who wears lipgloss, and who wears high heels for herself and not for men.” Her characters are a mix of thinking, rational individuals with desires, ambition, with both vulnerability and strength. A recipient of the MacArthur Genius Grant, she was awarded the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for her book ‘Purple Hibiscus’ in 2005. Her second novel, ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ was awarded the Orange Prize for fiction in 2007 and subsequently adapted into a film as well.

I have chosen to no longer be apologetic for my femaleness and for my femininity. And I want to be respected in all of my femaleness, because I deserve to be. – Adichie at ‘We should all be feminists’, TEDxEuston 2012, 1 December 2012.

Adichie has delivered TED as well as TEDx talks on the themes of feminism as well as the under-representation of cultural differences and diversity. She is one of the young writers who through her work has been instrumental in bridging the disconnect between Africa and the world, highlighting the complexities within the African populace and society. Harper Collins brought out a written volume based on her TEDx talk ‘We should all be feminists‘. She was listed among the 100 most influential people in the world by TIME magazine in 2015.

“The educated ones leave, the ones with the potential to right the wrongs. They leave the weak behind. The tyrants continue to reign because the weak cannot resist. Do you not see that it is a cycle? Who will break that cycle?”
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Purple Hibiscus

Read about her upbringing and works at-

http://www.cerep.ulg.ac.be/adichie/cnaintro.html

http://chimamanda.com/books/americanah/