Herstory: Mary Ellen Mark – Through the Lens of a Talented Photographer

American photographer Mary Ellen Mark’s successful career in the world of advertising photography, portraiture and photojournalism was one to be admired and emulated. She has exhibited in both museums and galleries around the world, was the recipient of numerous awards and fellows, and is proof that photography knows no gender.


Image courtesy of imgkid.com

Born in Philadelphia on March 20, 1940, Mary Ellen Mark ventured into photography using a Box Brownie camera at nine years old. Mary Ellen obtained her BFA degree in art history and painting in 1962 from the University of Pennsylvania. Two years later, she would receive her Master’s Degree in photojournalism in the same university under the Annenberg School for Communication. A year later, she began her travels to Turkey, Germany, Greece, England, Spain and Italy to photograph, thanks to a Fulbright Scholarship.

Capturing Poignant Images of the 60s and 70s

Mary Ellen Mark was also well known for her moving pictures of countless socio-political issues and demonstrations in the late sixties and early seventies. A move to New York (which would also serve as her home until the time of her death) in 1967 saw her documenting images of demonstrations in relation to the women’s liberation movement, the Vietnam War opposition, transvestite culture and more. She gravitated towards the raw and troubled side of photojournalism – far from mainstream society and well into significant social issues.


Mary Ellen Mark, 1975 – Image courtesy of flickriver.com

Through her photography, she shone the spotlight on issues such as prostitution, homelessness, drug addiction, mental illness and loneliness, among others. Her aim in focusing on such subjects was to show their way of living to those who were in the best position to reach out or at the very least acknowledge that they exist.


This prostitute is a transvestite; Falkland Road, Bombay, India – 1978 – Image courtesy of http://www.maryellenmark.com/

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Ward 81, Oregon State Hospital, Salem, Oregon, 1976 – Image courtesy of http://www.maryellenmark.com/

From Photos to Film

Some of her work was also translated into film; her “Street Kids” project eventually turned into the movie Streetwise. In the seventies and onwards, she dabbled into unit photography. She was involved in more than a hundred known films such as Alice’s Restaurant (1969), Catch-22 (1970), Carnal Knowledge (1971), Apocalypse Now (1979), to name a few. In the early nineties, Mary Ellen Mark also became an associate producer, still photographer and a writer for the film American Heart, which starred Edward Furlong and Jeff Bridges and was directed by Martin Bell, her husband.

mem poverty

In a settlement camp near New Delhi, one of the daughters of Waris (monkey trainers) plays with the animals that provide the family’s living and exist almost as members of the family. (1981) – Image courtesy of http://www.maryellenmark.com/


“Rat” and Mike with a gun, Seattle, Washington, 1983 – Image courtesy of http://www.theguardian.com/


The Damm (homeless) family in their car, Los Angeles, California, 1987 – Image courtesy of http://www.theguardian.com/

Mary Ellen Mark also went on to publish a total of 17 photography books, contribute to popular publications such as Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, Life and The New Yorker, and even became a guest juror for entries submitted to The Center for Fine Art Photography.

It was a very busy and full life filled with active involvement in the world of photography, film and the media for someone like Mary Ellen Mark. Her powerful and moving photographs serve as an example of brilliant photography that not only captures beautiful subjects but also brings to the forefront issues that continue to plague our society today. On May 25, 2015, she passed away due to myelodysplastic syndrome at the age of 75 in her hometown of Manhattan.


Image courtesy of imgbuddy.com

For more of her renowned works, please visit https://www.pinterest.com/source/maryellenmark.com/


Herstory: Arundhati Roy, a True Literary Activist

Many literary enthusiasts will have encountered Arundhati Roy, and her Man Booker Prize-winning The God of Small Things. But there is more to Roy than just her writing – she is also an actress, and activist, an intellectual, a political commentator, and a powerful and vocal female role model across South Asia and the world.

Arundhati Roy was born to a tea plantation manager father and a women’s rights activist mother on November 24, 1961 in Meghalaya, India. Her parents separated in her toddlerhood and a few years after this separation, her mother opened a school in Kerala where she lived with her brother and maternal grandmother as well. Roy left Kerala as a teenager to live in a small hut and sold empty bottles for a living but eventually moved on to study architecture and graduated from the School of Planning and Architecture in Delhi.

Her post-school life saw her holding a position with the Delhi-based National Institute of Urban Affairs. In the midst of her busy work life, she met Pradip Krishen, a filmmaker, who would soon become her husband. They briefly collaborated in some films (one of which, the award-winning, Massey Sahib) before Pradip ended up working various jobs after feeling disillusioned by the film world. This would cause a tension in their relationship, and the two eventually split up.

Arundhati Roy actress

Roy as the leading actress in the movie Massey Sahib (1985), image courtesy of http://www.nytimes.com/

Roy’s short-lived relationship with her ex-husband most likely sparked her step into the film industry. She wrote screenplays based on notable experiences in her life, and sometimes acted as well. Her skill was noticed by many, as evidenced by her winning the National Film Award for Best Screenplay in the year 1988.

In 1997 her novel The God of Small Things was published. It is semi-autobiographical, based on childhood experiences and the novel was the one work that allowed her to rise to fame on an international scale. Prizes and praises included The Booker Prize for Fiction (1997), a listing in the New York Times’ Notable Books of the Year (1997), sitting on the fourth position of the New York Times Bestsellers list (Independent Fiction category), stellar reviews in American and Canadian broadsheets, being noted by TIME magazine as one of the five best books of 1997, and more. It guaranteed her financial freedom also.

Of course, not everyone sung praises for Roy’s work. It was not received well in the United Kingdom, with literary judges and publications called her work atrocious. In India, The God of Small Things was vehemently criticized by many, especially Kerala’s Chief Minister at the time, Mr. E.K Nayanar, who accused it of being ‘anti-Communist venom’ and obscene.

Still, she continued with her written work, this time for films and television serials. She sought opportunities to contribute and collaborate on publications that she found to be within her line of work and interest.

After her best-selling novel, Roy spent a lot of time on her work with political activism. She became an anti-globalization spokesperson and a neo-imperialism critic. She spoke out a lot about her anti-American views, most especially about their foreign policy and in recent years about the war in Afghanistan, with a personal analysis of everything being rooted to American capitalism. She questioned and opposed Indian policies that were in favor of both industrialization and the use of nuclear weaponry, and wrote documents that support these causes and beliefs. She strongly criticized Israel in 2006 for the Lebanon War, calling the event an act of state terror and many more.

Arundhati Roy 2

Image courtesy of http://www.veethi.com/

In 2002, she donated the money she received from her Booker prize and other royalties so as to fund a project that would address the concerns of the 500,000 people affected by the controversial Narmada dam project. For this cause, she also appeared in a documentary. As a result, she was criticized by members of the Congress and leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party in Gujarat and was served a legal notice for contempt. Despite making an intelligent statement on her part, the court still ended up sentencing her to one day’s imprisonment as well as being fined Rs. 2500 for her “crime”.

In 2008, Roy announced her support for Kashmir’s independence from India, in light of the massive demonstrations in that same year that also advocated for the same cause. Unsurprisingly, she was criticized by the INC (Indian National Congress), the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), and other public and private political groups that called on her to withdraw her statement, which they deemed to be “irresponsible” and not at all aligned with historical facts and evidences.

For her tireless work in putting these and more issues to light, Roy won even more awards for her work in political and social activism. These include: The Cultural Freedom Award from the Lannan Foundation (2002), A Woman of Peace special recognition in the Global Exchange Human Rights Awards (2003), The Sydney Peace Prize (2004), The Sahitya Akademi Award for her essays that touched on contemporary issues (2006) – though she declined to accept it as a form of protest for the local government’s inkling towards US-influenced economic neo-liberalization and militarization – The Norman Mailer Prize for Distinguished Writing (2011), and was recently featured in the 2014 list of 100 most influential people in the world by Time 100.

Arundhati Roy 3

Image courtesy of http://www.hourdose.com/

With notable accolades and the ability to influence people to work for the greater good, Arundhati Roy is indeed a woman who selflessly uses her talents – writing and the gift of speech – to the hilt, despite threat of opposition, so that those who are truly in need of help or attention may receive it.


Other Resources about Arundhati Roy


Herstory: Constance Singam, Mother of Singapore’s Civil Society

Though her journey has been full of trepidation, Constance Singam has never allowed fear to stop her from correcting what she believes is wrong in her country. She is a true epitome of patriotism, freedom and bravery in today’s fast-paced and tangled world.

Constance Signam

Image courtesy of http://news.asiaone.com/

She is known regionally and globally as a brilliant author and a highly respected advocate for Singapore’s civil society. She has spent the last twenty-five years leading a variety of women’s organizations, co-founding various civil society groups, penning columns in national publications and co-editing several books. Through these acts, she has sought to bridge the widening gap between intellectual and ethical spheres as a way of solving the problems she continues to see in her country.

She was born in Singapore as Constance D’Cruz in 1936. Her father worked as a senior architectural draughtsman while her mother tended to their home as a homemaker. When she was just five years old, she left Singapore with her mother for Kerala, India, in order to get to know her grandparents. While the trip was intended to be a short one, it extended up to 1948 due to the occupation of Singapore and the Japanese invasion.

Singham’s foray into the world of activism began in 1978 when her journalist husband N.T.R. Singam died because of heart attack complications, stemming from a cardiologist’s bad judgment. She was 24 years old when she had married Singam, and was 42 at the time of his death. A single act on her part, which was to write a letter, A Rest in Hospital Became a Nightmare to The Straits Times regarding patient care standard in private hospitals, got the ball rolling in terms of changes in the treatment of the marginalized. From then on, she would write more than a hundred letters to the press about the issues that concerned her and civil society.


A writer, social activist, teacher, restaurateur and blogger – Image courtesy of https://s.yimg.com

The death of Constance’s husband also prompted her to engage in more liberating experiences, brought about by deeper questions of her personal identity, the future and the notion of loneliness. Her first step in attempting to answer such questions was to get a driver’s license, which was already a big deal for her given that it was something her husband did not approve of when he was still alive. Singam notes that the first day she drove alone was the most liberating experience of her life.

Encouraged and emboldened, with dreams of becoming a writer, her next decision was to go to Melbourne for her honors degree in Literature at the Monash University. Being 46 years old at that time did not prove to be a barrier to completing her first ever degree, which she did with flying colors. Her education also did not stop there, as she was able to complete her Master’s degree from Curtin University in Perth, Western Australia, at the age of 60. She also dabbled in the educational field by working as a part-time lecturer at the National Institute of Education, until she was 67.

Her educational pursuits also lead her to the Singapore women’s gender equality group, AWARE (Association of Women for Action and Research) and tackled issues like domestic violence against women and Indian students’ underperformance in schools. With her newfound passion for intellectual work, Singam worked actively for solutions to problems that dehumanize the marginalized sector of society.

Connie with SAA

Constance Singam, as one of the judges at Singapore Advocacy Awards – Image courtesy of http://bukitbrown.com/

Her personal experiences with being marginalized were also a reason why this kind of work was important to her. Upon her return to Singapore, she was advised to announce that she was Indian so she would not be attacked under the assumption that she was Eurasian. This was during the 50s, and the time of the Maria Hertogh riots. In her later years, the experience of being marginalized stemmed from her being a widow, an Indian and a woman.

Her work as a civil society activist brought about notable changes in the lives of many through political lobbying. The government responded by forming the SIDA (Singapore Indian Development Association) to address the community’s socio-economic and educational issues. Ten years of hard lobbying on domestic violence against women finally resulted in legal protection being given to victims.

Her provocative journal published in 2013, Where I Was: A Memoir from the Margins has been read by thousands and shows the other side of Singapore’s glowing and thriving face. She recounts her life and the accompanying experiences of being marginalized in many ways. It paints a glaring picture of societal challenges people like her face, due to political and cultural obstacles. Despite being autobiographical, it also successfully tells the tale of others through her personal accounts of important historical events.

She discovered that through her writing she was able to make society take notice of issues that are of concern to her, such as the marginalized place of women; being a “poor cousin” to Singaporeans because she was Indian; and the struggles and challenges that come with being poor in a first world country. She continued to wield this weapon many times, as well as to speak in public and private discourses in Singapore and abroad.

Constance Singam book launch

At her book launch at The Arts House on May 24, 2013 – Image courtesy of http://www.straitstimes.com/

Now in her late seventies, Constance Singam is busier than ever, performing multiple roles she probably did not dream of doing when she was in her twenties. She continues her work as a social activist, a teacher and a writer, and has become a restaurateur and an active blogger as well. Her presence on the Internet is a commendable effort to engage the global community and make them aware of the issues that civil society faces today.

Despite growing up in a patriarchal, South Indian household and society, she found in herself a stronger voice that spoke and achieved results for many. Yes, Constance Singam might have lost a husband and would have settled in a traditional married life. But with passion and with her radical ideals, she has become a role model and inspiration for thousands of individuals – most especially those who share in her experience of being marginalized in different ways.


To read more about Constance Singam, check her blog Living Life @ 70.


Other links about Constance Singram:




Herstory: Wangari Maathai, An Advocate of Democracy, Peace and the Environment

Political activist and environmentalist Wangari Maathai is an inspiring woman with an incredible dedication to all the worthy things: learning, family, her country and our planet.


Image courtesy of takingrootfilm.com

Maathai was born in Kenya on April 1, 1940 to a Kikuyu (ethnic group) family. She had an excellent Catholic education, finishing top of her class, and was selected to be part on an educational program in the US in 1960.

Maathai received her B.S. Biology with a Minor in Chemistry degree in 1964 and completed a Master’s by 1966. After graduation she landed a research assistant position to a Zoology professor back home, at the University College of Nairobi.


Young Maathi, image courtesy of http://www.telegraph.co.uk/

Maathai returned to Kenya only to find out that the position offered to her was given to another person, most likely due to tribal and gender bias. After two months of job searching she was offered another research assistant position at the University College of Nairobi’s Department of Veterinary Anatomy (School of Veterinary Medicine).

These were busy and productive times for Maathai: she met her future husband Mwangi Mathai, was involved in opening a general store where her sisters then worked, and she travelled to Germany to pursue a doctorate degree. Upon her return to Nairobi in 1969, she became an assistant lecturer at the University College of Nairobi, was married and became pregnant with their first child. Her husband ran for a Parliament seat but lost.

At this time, the founder of the program that allowed her to study abroad was assassinated and this event prompted President Kenyatta to end Kenya’s multi-party democracy. Her eldest son Waweru was born soon after this.

Maathai became the very first doctorate degree holder among Eastern African women in 1971 with a degree in veterinary anatomy, obtained from the University College of Nairobi. In the same year, her daughter Wanjira was also born. A third child, Muta, followed in 1974.

Apart from being a lecturer at the University, Maathai also actively campaigned for women to have equal benefits in the same school, with many of her demands seeing successful results after negotiations. She was also involved in many civic and sociopolitical organizations such as the Kenya Red Cross (serving as director in 1973), the Kenya Association of University Women (member), the Environment Liaison Center (eventually became the board chairman), and the National Council of Women of Kenya (member). Through her involvement in these associations, she came to see that much of Kenya’s problems were deeply rooted to environmental degradation.

With her husband finally winning a seat in Parliament in 1974, she was able to push for more environmental initiatives that resonated his stance of solving the unemployment problem. Through her work, she was even able to attend the first UN conference about human settlements in June 1976. At the conference, her proposal, the tree-planting “Green Belt Movement”, was born.


January 1983 – The Voluntary Fund for the UN Decade for Women assisted the Green Belt Movement, image courtesy of http://www.theguardian.com/

Maathai separated from her husband in 1977, and he filed a divorce in 1979, claiming that she was too strong-minded and he was not able to control her. Accusations were filed later on, with him calling her “cruel” and accused her of adultery. Unfortunately, the judge ruled in his favor. Maathai even spent a few days in jail after a remark she had made about the judge being incompetent. All this resulted in her adding an extra ‘a’ to her surname to differentiate from Mathai, who had demanded she stop using his. Financial problems also arose because of the divorce, and she was left with no choice but to have her children live with her ex-husband as she was unable to bring them with her due to the nature of her work.

More problems arose in the sphere of work and politics, with Maathai losing several elections for the chairman position of the National Council of Women of Kenya because of the meddling of Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi. By the time she was finally elected chairman, support was withdrawn from the NCWK until it became nearly bankrupt. Still, she served as chairman until her retirement in 1987. She also tried to run for Parliament but more problems resulted in her being disqualified. As she had to resign from her job to run, she found herself evicted and unable to live in the university housing because she no longer worked at the university.

The later years showed her concentration on the Green Belt Movement, which partnered with international organizations. This resulted in good funding, and overall the Green Belt Movement was able to plant more than 30 million trees as well as provided nearly 30,000 women with decent livelihood. From there, she continued to do more active work in the sphere of environmental protection and women’s rights as her network grew to even greater international heights. Clashes with the government were many, with Maathai beaten and bloodied by government cohorts, an assassination list that included her name, and unjust jailing. She underwent a hunger strike after this, and further earned the ire of the President, who had forcibly removed her from the site (among others). The international community recognized Maathai and she received the Goldman Environmental prize (1991), and the Hunger Project’s Africa Prize for Leadership in London.

Kenya experienced a series of ethnic clashes in 1992, which prompted Maathai to even further push for democracy and peace in elections. With the government after her, she resorted to hiding from her detractors. She again continued to receive many awards citing the good she has done in the name of the environment and humanity. In the early 2000s, Maathai worked as a faculty member at Yale University, expanding on her Green Belt Movement project. Her return to Kenya in 2002 saw her winning a seat at Parliament under the National Rainbow Coalition. Because of her steadfast commitment and astounding work for the environment, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for contributing to “sustainable development, democracy, and peace”.

Her later life saw the following achievements: becoming the president of the Economic, Social and Cultural Council of Africa (2005), a goodwill ambassador for the protection of the Congo Basin Forest Ecosystem (2005), a flag bearer at the Winter Olympics (2006), an honorary doctorate from Connecticut College (2006), founder of the Nobel Women’s Initiative (2006), and being named as the first peace hero by PeaceByPeace.com (2009). She also served on the Association of European Parliaments with Africa’s Eminent Advisory Board until her death from ovarian cancer on September 25, 2011.


Maathi receives a trophy awarded to her by the Kenya national human rights commission for her contribution towards humanity, image courtesy of DEMOSH of flickr.com

For all her efforts in saving the environment as well as advocating for peace and democracy, Wangari Maathai is indeed deserving of the overwhelming amount of accolades and awards she has received throughout her time as well as posthumously. Her efforts will be felt by later generations who will hopefully continue her legacy in caring for the earth and working for harmony among people.







Herstory: Florence Nightingale, the Lady with the Lamp

The name Florence Nightingale summons up images of the devoted nurse who patiently and tirelessly made rounds to check on her wards late at night. But this ‘Lady With the Lamp” was not just a compassionate carer to the sick and wounded but also a pioneer of modern nursing and the sanitation practices that we know of and follow today.


Image courtesy of http://www.cnmr.org.uk/

Born in Italy in 1820 to a wealthy and extensively connected British family, Nightingale had a comfortable upbringing in England which included a good education. As a teenager she felt a deep calling to help those less fortunate and she found the social obligations of her affluent family very uncomfortable, preferring to be away from the attention of others. At the age of sixteen, she preferred to minister to the poor and the ill in their village. Her family was opposed to her decision to become a nurse, as the expectation of women in those times (and especially of her status) was to become a wife and a mother. Despite this opposition, Florence threw herself into her study of nursing as an art and a science, waving off the prospect of marriage, as she believed it would be an obstacle to her goal of becoming a nurse.

In 1850, Nightingale was visiting a pastor in Germany where she observed him treat the sick and the destitute in an institution. She wrote a paper about her findings on the institution, Kaiserswerth which became her first piece of published work. Her foundation for nursing care also came from this institution, where she spent four months developing her medical training.

A year later, she began to work at the Institute for the Care of Sick Gentlewomen in London. Her parents supported her financially during this time, ensuring she led a comfortable life and also allowing her to travel extensively and further her career.

It was during the Crimean War that Florence was able to give what was said to be her most significant contribution in the field of nursing and sanitation. On October 21, 1854, she and several others were deployed to the British camp in Crimea to tend to the wounded that were suffering in what could only be described as horrific conditions. Nightingale arrived in November of the same year and immediately noted the shortage of medical supplies, neglect for proper hygiene, poor nutrition, an alarming rate of infection spreading and a lack of food processing equipment. She noted all this in a letter to the The Times, and the government responded accordingly by erecting the prefabricated Renkioi Hospital

With this act, she was able to reduce the death rate of the wounded to 2% from a staggering 42%, along with personal improvements in hygiene and persistently calling for action from the Sanitary Commission. Ever so humble, she refused to take credit for her part in drastically improving the hospital and care conditions of the wounded. Her time at Crimea was also where she gained the moniker ‘The Lady With the Lamp’, often seen as the gentle angel who faithfully came to check on her wards late in the night.


The Lady with the Lamp, image courtesy of http://www.britainfirst.org

Her experience in Crimea formed the foundation of her advocacy for sanitary living conditions for both war times and in peace. Upon returning to Britain, Nightingale focused her attention on hospital sanitary design and introducing better hygiene standards in working class homes.

In November 1855, her efforts were rewarded with the establishment of the Nightingale Fund, with the aim of training nurses to improve proper care and sanitation practices. This fund had many wealthy donors, and so she had enough money from the Fund to also open the Nightingale Training School in July 1860. Apart from training, she also tirelessly campaigned and raised funds for hospitals in need of better sanitation and nursing.

Her book Notes on Nursing (1859) is considered to be the classic foundation tome on nursing and was well-received by the public, even though it was simply the curriculum material used at the Nightingale School and many other nursing schools. Its significance was such that she was able to cover important topics that went beyond patient recovery and care for infection: it also touched on topics such as sanitation of the environment and the importance of cleanliness. Her school for nursing gave the public nurses and caregivers who were more than just able-bodied: they were knowledgeable in the fields of medicine and science, and could dispense proper care to patients. This set a standard in Ireland and England beginning in the 1860s and onwards.

Nightingale spent the rest of her life promoting and improving the nursing profession, with her work also being noticed in the United States during the time of the Civil War. She was requested by the American government to help organize field medicine and she became the inspiration of nurses there, and spurred volunteer work through the United States Sanitary Commission. She also personally trained Linda Richards, who is considered to be the first trained nurse in America, in the 1870s. Thanks to the tutelage of Nightingale, Richards was able to set up high quality programs for nursing schools in the United States and in Japan.

Her hard work and dedication resulted in the receipt of several prestigious awards: the Royal Red Cross (1883), the appointment of a Lady of Grace of the Order of St. John (1904), the first woman recipient of the Order of Merit award (1907), and the Honorary Freedom Award of London (1908). Today, her birthday is commemorated as International Chronic Fatigue Awareness (CFS) Day.

Florence Nightingale writing letters

Image courtesy of http://www.redcross.org.uk

In 1857, Nightingale began suffering from depression and was frequently bedridden due to brucellosis and spondylitis. Despite this, she was remarkably productive in her work on social reform and spent her bedridden years mapping out pioneering work in the study of hospital planning. Despite having very little written output in her last years (due to her blindness and deteriorating mental faculties), she nonetheless was able to provide improvements that were quickly applied by Britain and other nations.

Florence Nightingale peacefully died in her sleep at the age of 90 on August 13, 1910, leaving behind not only her legacy of a textbook on nursing and the establishment of key educational and training facilities for nurses but also hundreds of notes and unpublished works which are a testament to her tireless devotion to her advocacy and her unwavering compassion for those who most need it.

Useful Resources about Florence Nightingale:






Herstory: The Trung Sisters – Brave Heroines of Vietnamese History

Perhaps the most significant women in the history of Vietnam are the Trung sisters, who in 40 A.D. became responsible for steering the very first Vietnamese national uprising against Chinese conquerors who had been ruling Vietnam for more than 247 years. Their acts of bravery are so significant that if they had not done what they did then, Vietnam would not be enjoying the liberties it now does and would likely still be under Chinese rule.

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Trung sisters atop giant war elephants, image courtesy of http://saigoneer.com/

The two sisters were named Trung Trac, who was the elder and Trung Nhi, the younger. They were born (dates were unaccounted) in the province of Giao Chi, which is now known as Northern Vietnam. They came from a very prominent family, given that their father was General Lac of Me Linh province, and a powerful lord. Living in a military family meant that the Trung sisters were well trained in the martial arts. They spent a good amount of time studying the complicated art of warfare and honed their fighting skills.

The Trung sisters were fortunate enough to experience growing up years that allowed them freedom and certain liberties that were not given to women in the centuries that soon followed their time. These included the right to inherit property that belonged to their mother and they had the freedom to become traders, political leaders, judges and warriors, among others.

A neighboring official came to visit the Me Linh province and brought his son, Thi Sach with him and was introduced to Trung Trac. The two met, fell in love and were soon wed. Thi Sach – a man who was noted for his bravery and fearless disposition, seemed the fitting groom to a fearless and spirited woman such as Trung Trac. For the people in their village, their union symbolized hope as the couple both came from military families and displayed the kind of spirit needed to revolt against the ruling Chinese.

At this time, the Vietnamese were under the rule of To Dinh, a Chinese governor who had made life harsh for everyone. Trung Trac’s husband Thi Sach was also known for being very vocal against the Chinese and had more than once made a stand against their harsh rule. His most significant one is a protest against unjust and increasing tax rates. It has been said that the final straw that spurred the Trung sisters to action was when To Dinh had had Thi Sach killed as a warning to all those who dared stand against the Chinese rulers. Instead of mourning her husband and quietly retreating to their home, his widow was instead moved to do something about the situation of their people. Brave Trung Trac had had enough, and sought to mobilize the people of Vietnam against the Chinese.

Along with her sister Trung Nhi, the two committed acts that were evidence of their bravery and ability to lead the people against the Chinese. These included slaying a people-eating tiger and later on using its skin to compose a proclamation that urged the people of Vietnam to follow their lead in the revolt against the Chinese.

Their acts of bravery inspired 80,000 people to form the Trung sisters’ army. From this number, thirty-six women (including their own mother) were handpicked to become generals. Many have mentioned that this particular piece of information about Vietnam’s history points to the society at that time being a matriarchal one.

Summoning knowledge and experience about the art of warfare from their growing up years, the Trung sisters guided these young, unskilled women through intensive training to become fearless generals that drove the unwanted Chinese conquerors out of Vietnamese territory in 40 A.D. Trung Nhi, in particular, was said to be the better warrior between the two, and led the army to liberate sixty-five fortresses. Trung Tac, on the other hand, was more ideal as a politician and leader – and this soon became a reality when the people ended up proclaiming her as their ruler, with Trung Nhi serving as her co-regent and top advisor.

Trung Trac was renamed “Trung Vuong” (She-king Trung) and established a royal court in the Me Linh area of the Hong River plain. With the good of the people in mind, one of her first mandates included abolishing the much-hated tribute taxes, which was an imposition of the Chinese. Trung Vuong also sought to rid the Vietnamese government of any leftover Chinese influence, making things simpler and more in keeping with their traditional Vietnamese values.

Life for the Trung sisters and for Vietnam did not settle down peacefully after their victory against the Chinese, and the next three years brought about frequent clashes with the government of China in Vietnam. Finally, the Vietnamese army was out-armed by the Chinese and was defeated in 43 A.D.

Legend says that instead of surrendering and accepting defeat, the Trung sisters chose to commit suicide, as is the Vietnamese tradition of keeping one’s honor. Stories circulate about how they came to pass, with some saying they chose to drown in the river and others – more legendary than factual in nature – say that they had disappeared off into the clouds.

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Procession honoring the Trung sisters, image courtesy of http://www.trumanlibrary.org/

Contemporary Vietnam has not forgotten the sacrifices made by the brave Trung sisters, with temples built in their honor scattered around the country, and their memory celebrated every year through a national holiday (Hai Ba Trung Day) in their honor.

The valor of the Trung sisters is a reminder to today’s society of what can be accomplished with passion, bravery and courage. These Vietnamese national heroines are indeed real symbols of resistance and independence and their uncommon story, as female war heroes, should not be forgotten.












Herstory: Ang Sang Suu Kyi, The Face of Nonviolent Revolution in Burma

Ang Sang Suu Kyi is one of the most important contemporary icons of democracy. She is an admirable and fearless woman who set aside everything to fight for the Burmese people’s freedom and human rights. She is an epitome of strength without the need for violence.

aung san suu kyi

Image courtesy of jpaingphoto.wordpress.com

Ang San Suu Kyi was born in Rangoon on June 19, 1945, one of three children. Aung San, her father, was the founder of the modern Burmese army and the man who sought to liberate Burma from the British Empire. He was assassinated by his enemies two years later.

In 1960, Ang Sang Suu Kyi went to India to live with her mother, graduating with a political degree in New Delhi. Her further education was obtained at Oxford, where she was awarded her BA in Philosophy, Politics and Economics in 1969. Soon after, she moved to New York and worked for three years at the UN, focusing on budget matters. In 1972, she married Dr. Michael Aris. They had two sons together, Alexander and Kim, and lived between the US, England and India during the 70s and 80s.


Aung San Su Kyi’s mother meets her grandson Alexander for the first time, Michael Aris at the back (1974). Image courtesy of http://www.theguardian.com/

Suu Kyi returned to Burma in 1988 in order to take care of her dying mother. The political situation in Burma at this time saw the resignation of the Burmese dictator U Ne Win. He left the country to be led by a military junta, but was still active in orchestrating violent acts against those who had continued to protest against him. At this time, Burma was renamed as the Union of Myanmar.

Suu Kyi in particular became very vocal against U Ne Win. In August 1988, she spoke in front of 500,000 people at a rally in front of the capital’s Shwedagon Pagoda, appealing for a much-needed democratic government. This had caught the junta’s attention and she was placed under house arrest in 1989. While she had the option to leave the country and be free, she insisted on staying and being part of the struggle. She was determined to see the junta free all political prisoners and return Burma to a civilian government.

Suu Kyi’s first house arrest ended in July 1995, and she remained busy for the next couple of years attending to the founding of the National League for Democracy (NLD) and working to become part of congress – still under military harrassment. In 1998, she set up the representative committee and declared it to be the legitimate ruling body of the country; two years later in September 2000 she was placed under house arrest by the junta for this action.

Her second house arrest ended in May 2002, but a year later she was again placed on house arrest after the NLD clashed with some pro-government demonstrators in a street bout. From then on, her sentence was renewed yearly and even with the international community coming to her assistance each time, she was still not released.

MYANMAR. Rangoon. 1995. Daw Aung San SUU KYI, nonviolent activist and winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize

Suu Kyi spent her time reading during her house arrest, image courtesy of http://heroinesofhistory.wikispaces.com/

In May 2009, Suu Kyi was due to be released but ended up being arrested again because of a violation of her house arrest terms when she allowed an intruder to stay two nights in her house.

The UN declared Suu Kyi’s detention to be illegal, based on Myanmar’s law, that same year. But despite this, Suu Kyi still went to trial and received a three year prison sentence, which was later reduced to eighteen months. Many had believed that such ruling was only made to keep her from running in the upcoming multiparty parliamentary elections.

To show their support for Suu Kyi, the NLD disbanded as a result of their refusal to re-register their party. Because of this, there was no opposition on the government parties that ran and won most of the legislative seats, subsequently receiving fraud charges soon after. Six days after this election, Suu Kyi was again released from her house arrest.

Myanmar democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi is freed

Suu Kyi’s first move as a free woman was to greet thousands of supporters and photographers who were gathered outside her house (November 2010), image courtesy of http://www.dailymail.co.uk/

During her two decade long stay in Burma, Suu Kyi had to endure the pain of separation from her family – her husband and her two sons. It was a difficult decision she had made to put her country first and family second. Even more tragic was not being present when her husband Michael was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1997 and died two years later. She rarely saw her sons during the period of her house arrests.

The NLD announced that they would re-register as a political party in November 2011, and two months later Suu Kyi formally registered to run for a parliament seat. After a long and exhausting campaign, they announced that Suu Kyi victoriously won a seat in April 2012. On May 2 of the same year, she took her oath as a member of parliament and assumed office.

aung san oath

(May 2, 2012) Ang San Suu Kyi taking her oath together with the elected members of the parliament, Image courtesy of www.asianews.it

Suu Kyi won several awards in recognition of her fight for peace and democracy. In 1990, she was the recipient of the Rafto prize and the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. In 1991, she was given the Nobel Prize for Peace, with her two sons accepting the award on her behalf. She used the 1.3 million dollar prize money to form a health and educational trust for the people of Myanmar.

The following two years she gained two more awards: the International Simon Bolivar Prize and the Jawaharlal Nehru Award, among other honors and accolades. She was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in December 2007 by the US House of Representatives, following an impressive 400-0 voting. In May of 2008, then president George Bush had signed this vote into law, thus making Suu Kyi the first person to ever receive such a prize even while imprisoned.

Aung San Suu Kyi visit to Berlin, Germany - 10 Apr 2014

Image courtesy of http://www.theguardian.com/

Now at the age of 69, Ang Sang Suu Kyi is still very much involved in Myammar politics as opposition leader in the present parliament. While there is still much to do in Myanmar’s journey towards full democracy, Ang Sang Suu Kyi has done more – and continues to do more than her part in a noble mission that benefits the people of Myanmar today and tomorrow.

Through it all, she has demonstrated power and the ability to make a radical change even in the most unfortunate circumstances – the mark of a truly inspiring woman.