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Remembering diverse women who altered the course of history

By Aymen Sherwani, March 29 2022—

Women — despite being sidelined in mainstream patriarchal history — can always be seen at the forefront of the causes they represent. 

Through their writing, feminine prowess, political command and fists, women have always played a crucial role within war, academic discourse and the fight against oppression. 

Their narratives are an important addition to historical discourses aside from the male lens which — according to feminist writer Urvashi Butalia — objectifies women as “symbols of national and family honor” rather than as genuine people with thoughts and motivations.  

We are so much more than that. If you’re feeling down about whether you’ll ever be able to make your mark within this god-awful, patriarchal world, here are the stories of three unforgettable women to convince you otherwise. 

Bisexual model, spy, patron of the arts and archaelogist extraordinaire — Toto Koopman:

Born to Indonesian and Dutch parents, Toto Koopman endured the societal struggles of being a mixed-race woman for most of her life. Despite this, her mark on the 20th century is indubitable. Koopman was one of the first models featured on Vogue and worked under Coco Chanel until the outbreak of World War II. During her relationship with a soldier in the anti-Mussolini Italian Resistance, she engaged in espionage in both Italy and Germany — also aiding refugees from escaping fascist detention camps — but was captured by the Nazis and sent to the Ravensbrück concentration camp. 

After surviving the war, she would meet her lifelong partner — Erica Brausen — and the two women would open up the Hanover Gallery in London, displaying the works of Francis Bacon and similar contemporaries. Later, Koopman would become an archaeologist and patron to the Institute of Archaeology in London, spending the rest of her life on the island Panarea with Brausen as a fulfilled woman. 

Investigative journalist and founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) — Ida B. Wells: 

Suffragettes hated Ida B. Wells — one of the most prominent Black female journalists and activists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, who later helped in founding the NAACP. Her open critique of the suffrage movement in their refusal to address lynching led her to be ostracized by prominent feminists of the time, but went on to found the National Association of Colored Women’s Club — in an attempt to tackle civil rights issues alongside suffrage.

Wells’ life was not an easy one — she was thrown off a first-class train, despite having purchased a ticket and later lost her lawsuit against the train car company that attempted to move her to coach due to her race. When she began to focus more of her activism on white mob violence and lynchings, she was driven out of town due to threats on her life by angry white locals. 

Despite this, Wells owned two newspapers — The Memphis Free Speech and Headlight and Free Speech — and used her platform to critique the condition of segregated schools in the city. In 2020 she was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Special Citations and Awards “for her outstanding and courageous reporting on the horrific and vicious violence against African Americans during the era of lynching,” with a $50,000 fund created in her legacy.

Courtesan turned anti-colonial revolutionary — Begum Hazrat Mahal of Awadh: 

Born into an impoverished Shia Muslim family, Begum Hazrat Mahal was sold as a child by her parents to become a courtesan — a prostitute — and was eventually sold again to the royal harem in Awadh, becoming a royal concubine and later the wife of King Wajid Ali Shah. When her husband died during the British annexation of Awadh, Hazrat Mahal took up arms and was one of the most prominent — yet unremembered — Muslim women that lead the first Indian War of Independence. 

Her work included making open proclamations against British colonists and the demolition of mosques and temples to make way for churches and paved roads. Managing to rebel against the British forces controlling her territory, Hazrat Mahal wrote letters of instruction for the revolutionaries fighting against the Empire and was reported to have joined the fight herself — sitting atop a war elephant.

Her army seized control of Lucknow and proclaimed her as the queen regent, but ultimately was defeated by the colonial regime. While she ultimately had to flee to Nepal to live out the remainder of her life in exile from the British Raj, Hazrat Mahal was the only Indian leader that never surrendered to the British and sent shockwaves that grew into a stronger anti-colonial revolt in the decades that followed.

This article is a part of our Voices section.


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