Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Book Review: The 100 Most Influential Women of All Time

In 2010, Encyclopedia Britannica published a gem of a book. It lists the 100 most influential women in history. Adopting that precise title, The 100 Most Influential  Women of All Time selects women who have one way or the other left a dent in this world. 

My curiosity got the best of me. The first thing I wanted to know is how precisely Encyclopedia Britannica defined influence. Surely there are scores of women who could have made the list, but what mattered is the criteria used to set the standard. 

The book's introduction defines influence as the ability to "flourish in the face of adversity". It takes a lot of persuasion to encourage change, especially in history when women did not enjoy the privileges and resources we enjoy now. A brief look at the names revealed women who lived through major wars, others ruled during these pivotal times and still others were involved in leading armies. One of these wars was personal, such as Cleopatra's struggle to lead her people after a coupe initiated by her own brother. Another war threatened the existence of a nation, such as Joan of Arc's challenge and later victory against the English during the Hundred Years' War. Both of these women were willing to pay a huge price for her own people. They each built armies to reinstate their dignities and peace to their countrymen. A noble gesture to sacrifice your own peace to preserve security. 

At this point, I begin to understand the book's premise. Influence is not merely about changing the world. It is more about the sacrifices one takes to steer the world toward a better direction. But scrolling further down the list, I spot Golda Meir's name. She played a large role in Israel's creation and was to later serve as prime minister. I was confused at this point. If the purpose of influence is to create a better world to live in, then how could a woman who encouraged the displacement of thousands of indigenous people make the list? Reading through her chapter, Golda Meir is lauded for her leadership of a kibbutz and a Women's Labour Council. She negotiated with the colonializing British at the time to release detainees who had violated the period's immigration policies. She went on to serve in the Israeli Knesset, influence infrastructure expansion, and encourage Jewish immigration to Israel, at the same time that Palestinians were being denied entry into their homeland or illegally deported. By now, influence has adopted a new level: persuasion that may come at the expense of others. No doubt Golda Meir's tireless efforts guaranteed a refuge for Jews worldwide, but it created a long-lasting conflict in the region and a humanitarian crisis for Palestinians. I came to believe that Golda Meir deserved a place on this prestigious list, since the power of persuasion is key in convincing the international community the merits of displacement and occupation. 

But the book is not only about war. It represents women who used their own misfortunes to expose a desperate need for advocacy, such as what Hellen Keller did for the blind, Rosa Parks for civil rights, and Ann Frank for genocides. Let's not forget the works of Eleanor Roosevelt and Mary Wollstonecraft for women. Then there is the still unknown but nevertheless still impactful, such as Iranian Noble winner Shirin Ebadi. Each one of these women was to challenge a societal taboo at a time when stereotypes trumped consideration and shame overshadowed justice. 

If this book set out to accomplish anything, it was to expose the importance of women's contributions across time and borders. And accomplish it did. 


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