Why outstanding women of achievement can inspire us all

"If we are strong and have faith in life and its richness of surprises and hold the rudder steadily in our hands, I am sure we will sail into quiet and pleasant waters for our old age" - Freya Stark"If we are strong and have faith in life and its richness of surprises and hold the rudder steadily in our hands, I am sure we will sail into quiet and pleasant waters for our old age" - Freya Stark (Source: Prasanth Chandran)

In mid-January, I had the honour of receiving an invitation from Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge to report on the ‘Women of Achievement’ lecture series organised in celebration of the College’s 50th anniversary. Once or twice a week, students, members of faculty, and guests all gathered in the Wood-Legh Room of Strathaird House – a beautifully renovated Victorian villa – to hear that evening’s lecture, each of which was prefaced by an introduction by College President Janet Todd. Dressed in traditional scholarly robes, President Todd commended the achievements of each of the speakers, all of whom have worked painstakingly over the course of their careers to become celebrated experts in their respective fields.

The six speakers represented different disciplines and came from markedly diverse backgrounds, but they shared something invaluable – a sense of confidence and charisma that can only arise from knowing that you, as an individual, are truly free. Each was funny, engaging, compassionate, proactive, and, most importantly, each had her own voice. Regardless of the challenges they may have encountered along the way, each of these women emerged victorious and free of complexes (at least free of evident or profoundly debilitating ones), having succeeded in cultivating the resilience and self-esteem necessary to persevere and to achieve her goals.

It seems to me that one of the most significant factors that enabled them to do so is the fact that they are the product of a society that values women and their contributions and is committed to improving their plight, no matter how slowly. The “Women of Achievement” lecture series was a fitting testament to just how much women are able to achieve in nourishing environments, but also a necessary reminder of how much there remains to be done, especially in societies that may not put as much weight on gender equality as ours does. In light of International Women’s Day on March 8th, I would like to share some of the observations and conclusions that I made during this enlightening journey.

Society and Education

Our voices – that is the voices of most women in high-income, democratic countries – are not stifled. We are able to recognise gender inequality and are provided with a plethora of resources to make the fight for women’s rights, not only in our professions, but in communities worldwide, both plausible and highly efficient. Despite the shortcomings that we may observe, such as the gender gap in the sciences, unequal pay, or an imperfect system of maternity leave, we are lucky to live in a society that values fundamental human rights, rights that we should recognise and not take for granted, rights that are sadly neglected in many parts of the world. One of these rights, and one of the most powerful mechanisms we have for rectifying the consequences of gender inequality, is education.

Education is a weapon. Its potency is recognised and inspires fear in the minds of those who choose to oppress. Baroness Helena Kennedy of the Shaws – one of Britain’s top barristers and human rights experts, BBC broadcaster and Principal of Mansfield College, Oxford – has spoken with Iraqi women who say that, though life under Saddam Hussein was unpleasant, at the very least they enjoyed access to education. In the 1970s, Hussein’s secular Ba’athist government launched the ‘National Campaign for the Eradication of Illiteracy’ and the ‘Compulsory Free Education in Iraq’ programme. By 1985, 87% of Iraqi women were literate. Now, educated women are perceived as threats and have become targets for execution in ISIS-controlled areas. In a January press briefing, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani stated: “Educated, professional women, particularly women who have run as candidates in elections for public office, seem to be particularly at risk. In just the first two weeks of this year, reports indicate that three female lawyers were executed.”

All over the world, there exist profoundly underprivileged communities that prioritise investing the little revenue that they have in the empowerment and education of women. CEO of Fairtrade International, Harriet Lamb, who is said to have “awakened the fair trade consciousness in the populace as a whole”, spoke of some remote villages whose farmers use their fair trade premiums to fund secondary and university studies for women. In these communities, education for women is placed above education for men, because women, as caretakers, are more inclined to subsequently educate their children and, statistically, can expect higher returns than men from secondary education (18% versus 14%), according to a World Bank working paper. Similarly, another paper argues that investing in female education can ultimately increase the GDP of developing countries by 1.2 percent in a single year.

In societies in which higher education is not free, including the United States and the United Kingdom, the traditional trajectory involves taking out student loans. Loans, however, can be a source of anxiety, so some young women are sadly forced to pay for their educations through other means. All over the United Kingdom, female students are turning to the sex trade, working as escorts, lap dancers, strippers, and even prostitutes, to avoid debt. There is anecdotal evidence to suggest that such practices occur even at Cambridge.

One notorious case of a female student seeking unconventional means of funding her education is that of Miriam Weeks, better known by her stage name – Belle Knox. Knox is an American pornographic actress who joined the industry in 2013 with the hopes of earning for her tuition at North Carolina’s Duke University, where the estimated cost of attendance in the 2014-2015 academic year exceeds US$63,000. In a March 2014 interview with Playboy Magazine, Knox stated: “The fact that the only viable options to pay for college are to take out gigantic student loans, to not go to college at all or to join the sex industry really says something. We need to recognise that there is a gap between what middle-class and upper-middle-class families can pay and what they’re asked to pay.”

We all understand the importance of education, and some are willing to go to great lengths to secure one. Education is essential both for a sense of conscientiousness among citizens and for economic development on a national scale. For this very reason, all governments need to introduce programmes that make education more accessible and financially feasible for capable candidates: it is a sad indictment of our priorities that some women are otherwise forced to enter the sex industry. Some governments have already made significant strides in this direction. In Denmark, for instance, education is free, and the government pays each of its students a generous monthly stipend of about $900 under the Statens Uddannelsesstøtte scheme. The government of Chile, recognising the benefits of investing in tertiary education, launched the BECAS Chile Programme, an international scholarship programme that uses “the interest earned on a $6 billion fund maintained abroad and sourced with revenues generated by copper exports” to allow talented Chilean citizens to pursue postgraduate studies at the world’s leading universities, including Cambridge.

Sex, Prostitution and Pornography

In a March 2014 appearance on American talk show The View, adult film star Knox argued that participation in the industry has offered her a sense of freedom in a society in which women are often “robbed of their sexual autonomy” and “subjected to sexual violence”. Critics, however, have called the accuracy of such claims of empowerment into question. In her book Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, American journalist, activist and feminist Gloria Steinem makes a clear distinction between erotica and pornography, arguing: “Blatant or subtle, there is no equal power or mutuality [in pornography]. In fact, much of the tension and drama comes from the clear idea that one person is dominating another.”

Sadly, in many families across the world, open conversations about sex continue to be seen as shameful or inappropriate. In some communities, abstinence education is unrealistically prioritised over sex education. As a result, adolescents often end up gaining their first exposure to sex through pornography and, therefore, cultivate a very particular understanding of what sexual relationships ought to look like. Lady Kennedy argues that pornography, especially that which presents women as sexually subservient or as victims of sexual abuse, is a serious setback in the fight for gender equality, because it introduces unreasonable expectations for female behaviour, expectations that some male partners come to see as non-negotiable.

In general, sex is an issue of immense significance in the gender equality debate, because it continues to define behavioural expectations for men and women. Over the course of her career, Lady Kennedy came to understand why it was “so easy” for lawyers defending male perpetrators in rape and domestic violence cases to win. “All you had to do was undermine the credibility of the women in the eyes of the jury; in subtle ways, but ones that play into expectations for the behaviour of women,” she explained. Those women who conformed to societal expectations were able to ‘juice’ the system and benefit from it, while those women who departed from the traditional route suffered. The conclusion, said Lady Kennedy, is that men are able to attain impunity when it seems that women have not measured up to appropriate standards of womanhood, an implication that ‘unruly’ women “do not deserve the protection of the law”.

Some of the most gruesome and repugnant violations of women’s rights worldwide come in the form of rape or human trafficking. Unfortunately, many countries lack reliable legal systems that would make it possible for victims to bring perpetrators to court, as is the case for the Somali women who were raped by African Union peacekeeping forces.

According to a National Crime Records Bureau report on the incidence of crime against women in 2013, 94.4% of rapes in India are committed by perpetrators known to the victim, usually their husbands. Friday’s CNN report ‘Marital rape: Why is it legal in India?’ provides that domestic sexual abuse is not considered an act of rape in India, and is, therefore, not illegal, namely due to a clause in the country’s criminal code that reads: “Sexual intercourse or sexual acts by a man with his own wife, the wife not being under fifteen years of age, is not rape.” The report, suggesting that patriarchal attitudes play an important role in expectations for consent, mentioned a study from the International Center for Research on Women that, though working with a limited sample of Indian men that cannot be called representative of the entire population, found that “75% of those questioned expected their partners to agree to sex”. According to a Children’s Movement for Civic Awareness (CMCA) survey, of the 10,542 secondary school and university students surveyed in 11 state capitals across India, 39% of girls and 43% of boys believe that “women have no choice but to accept a certain degree of violence”. This evening, the BBC is releasing an interview Leslee Udwin conducted with Mukesh Singh, one of the six men involved in the brutal rape of a 23-year-old woman on an off-duty bus in Delhi in December 2012, during which “Singh showed no remorse and kept expressing bewilderment that such a fuss was being made about this rape” when all six men were participating. “A decent girl won’t roam around at nine o’clock at night. A girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy,” he says.

Prostitution is also widespread in India. Divided into lanes, Kamathipura, Mumbai’s red light district, is composed of brothels, each of which can have up to 20,000 young women. Over a period of five years, each girl generates an average income of £50,000. Sometimes, eight to ten girls can be working at the same premises simultaneously. HIV runs rampant. It is believed that half of the female population is infected, though some estimates are as high as 75%. Some women refuse to provide services unless their clients agree to use a condom; others are beaten into submission and forced to have unprotected sex.

These women are not here by choice. Photojournalist Hazel Thompson, who spent over 12 years clandestinely collecting hundreds of interviews and gathering photographic evidence of the violence and devastation endured by young women working as prostitutes in Kamathipura, said that an overwhelming majority of the victims had been trafficked. Some are deceived by acquaintances and driven to Mumbai by false promises of domestic employment; others are openly sold by family members. Once they arrive, the young girls are raped. “Rape them to break them,” is the local motto, Ms. Thompson said. Bound by debt, the girls are held in cages, sometimes for years, until they grow older and are forced into sexual slavery. Those already released onto the streets are watched incessantly. There is nowhere to run and no one to trust. The local administration is plagued by corruption: some brothels are owned by politicians; police receive bribes and turn a blind eye to the atrocities. The “flesh trade” is all about money and it is in the administration’s interest to maintain it.

There are a great number of myths and misunderstandings about sex trafficking, said Ms. Thompson, who has partaken in undercover investigations in six countries in recent years. “Everyone thinks that trafficking is cross-border. What I am really seeing [much of] now is domestic trafficking.” Domestic trafficking is not exclusive to countries like India, whose society is marked by immense economic stratification. (In 2014, the country was ranked 6th in the world in terms of number of billionaires, though 30.7% of its children were undernourished.)

According to Ms. Thompson’s recent investigations, domestic trafficking occurs even in economically-prosperous countries such as the United Kingdom, the United States, and Sweden. It is essential that countries introduce stricter methods by which to police trafficking within national borders.

In the 21st century, sex continues to be used as a weapon that can compromise a woman’s integrity, honour and self-esteem. It is devastating that women who fall victim to sexual harassment or abuse are often accused of having brought this violence upon themselves.

All people, regardless of gender, should be assessed as individuals. Lady Kennedy provided some evidence that men seem more inclined to change the patriarchal structures that oppress women when asked to see the female experience specifically through the eyes of a woman they love. Other than being lovers or wives, women can also be daughters, sisters, mothers, and friends. So, for instance, if a man is told of the danger that female genital mutilation can pose specifically for his daughter, he will be less inclined to allow this practice to be performed on women in general.

There can be no success in battling these issues unless we, as a worldwide community, cultivate a mindset of respect and mutual appreciation in children to begin with. Mothers, fathers, and caretakers all have a responsibility to raise sons to respect both women and themselves; to tell sons that both men and women are worthy of love; to help sons develop a high sense of self-esteem in order to prevent them from asserting themselves at the expense of their partners in the future; and to give sons good male role models who do not see women as ‘objects’ to be used and reused. Girls, too, should be raised to feel that they are deserving of love and should not accept partnerships that are abusive or suffocating.

The Guerrilla Girls installation at the V&A's recent Disobedient Objects exhibition. The group is devoted to fighting sexism in the art world

The Guerrilla Girls installation at the V&A’s recent Disobedient Objects exhibition. The group is devoted to fighting sexism in the art world (Source: Flickr: ijclark)

Cultural Specificities

Politicians across cultures value and encourage community, but it is within communities that the ghastliest of traditions arise, said Lady Kennedy. In some societies, women can be disowned by their parents or even killed for marrying outside of their religion; in other, communities, women can be beaten for appearing outside without a male escort.

The most unfortunate aspect of this issue, however, is the fact that there is resistance to legal reform in many parts of the world. “Even when laws are introduced, they are ignored,” explained Lady Kennedy. In Ethiopia, for instance, there are laws against child marriage and female genital mutilation, but these practices are still encouraged in society. In India, as evidenced by a recent BBC report, dowries have been illegal since 1961, but still remain culturally significant and often take place in the form of a “gift”. According to the CMCA survey mentioned earlier, 36% of girls and 44% of boys surveyed admitted that the dowry is practiced in their communities and should be “accepted”.

Most importantly, it is not always men who are ‘to blame’. Women themselves are often responsible for maintaining cultural practices and bringing new generations of women into the traditional mind-set, with acts of female genital mutilation or decorative keloid scarring being just two examples of this. In some communities, speaking out about cultural practices is considered an act of betrayal, so victims remain silent. Even in the West, where women are encouraged to be vocal about rape and domestic violence, whether physical or psychological, some are often too ashamed to seek justice.

Ethnically diverse, secular, or democratic societies are not exempt from the proliferation of harmful gender-based expectations for human behaviour. As Ceri Goddard, Director of Gender of the Young Foundation and pioneer in implementing strategic initiatives to tackle structural gender inequalities, explained, gender is a social construct that shapes our world and our experience of it. From their very childhoods, people are expected to embody character traits or form life preferences that are traditionally associated with their biological sex. A girl might not like dolls and prefer toy automobiles, though it is traditionally assumed that the latter is more “appropriate” for boys. Similarly, a small boy might begin to cry upon bruising his knee and immediately be told that crying is a sign of weakness or that men are expected to demonstrate bravery. A static presentation of gender can be restricting and prevent us from becoming open-minded and freethinking individuals.

Masculinised Systems

The fight for gender equality involves ensuring equality for all people, regardless of sex, an aspect that is often overlooked in the debate. It is essential that both women and men are given the opportunity to reach their full potential in nourishing, welcoming and accepting environments. Nevertheless, several of the “Women of Achievement” speakers noted that gender equality cannot be achieved unless systems of law and governance worldwide are “demasculinised”.

“Legal systems everywhere have come out of patriarchy,” said Lady Kennedy. There is often also an added element of religious tradition, which, though largely eliminated from popular discourse in most secular societies, still informs the nation’s law and affects the lives of women. This problem is not exclusively European.

The United Kingdom, believes Lady Kennedy, is in great need of more female judges in high courts so that those voices that were silent when the law was written could be better represented. It is difficult for women to get justice, she believes, because the law itself is “coded masculine all the way through” and does not always reflect the reality of women’s lives. Quoting American philosopher Ronald Dworkin, Lady Kennedy said that there is a difference between “treating people equally” and “treating them as equals”. The latter involves demonstrating equal respect and consideration, which cannot be achieved unless people are assessed as individuals.

Speaking at the launch of The Cambridge Globalist’s fourth print edition last Wednesday, Labour’s parliamentary candidate for Cambridge and King’s graduate Daniel Zeichner said that the “aggressive atmosphere, messy bickering, macho stuff that characterise politics do not appeal to female voters” and encouraged the creation of “a more feminised version of politics”. Zeichner suggested that female voters would be more receptive of politics if the issues addressed during election campaigns catered more to the everyday needs of women, including, he said, childcare, maternity leave, and education.


Increasing female participation in elections, however, is just the first step. Women should be encouraged to actually play an active role in the formation of policy, to become lawyers or politicians themselves, to become activists or campaigners. The patriarchal legal structure that Lady Kennedy described will remain as it is if woman do not actively demonstrate their commitment to effecting change.

The problems are plentiful, and rectifying them requires a colossal effort. However, if there is any conclusion to draw from the ‘Women of Achievement’ series, it is that women have the ability to make remarkable contributions to society if given the opportunity to do so. A woman can conquer any field if she sets her mind to it, whether she becomes a novelist like Sophie Hannah, whose recent book, The Monogram Murders, was the first novel featuring Agatha Christie’s celebrated sleuth Hercule Poirot written by an author other than the dame of crime fiction herself, or a professor of Clinical Neuropsychology like Dr. Barbara Sahakian, whose research on the early detection of neuropsychiatric disorders and on pharmacological treatments for cognitive enhancement has brought her international acclaim.

Recently, a friend of mine at Cambridge observed that the struggle for women’s rights can be divided into two movements: a fight for gender equality (to have equal pay, to reduce the gender gap in various professions, etc.) and a fight for fundamental human rights, such as the right to bodily integrity and autonomy and the right to an education. I repeat that we are fortunate enough to live in a society that respects our fundamental rights. For this reason, I am convinced that the future looks bright and that more and more women will be recognised for their tremendous contributions in the coming years. Nevertheless, we bear a strict moral responsibility to help, by any means we can, whether financial or logistical, those women who sadly live in communities that neglect the fundamental human rights that we are privileged to have.

  • J’aime Drayton

    “Nevertheless, we bear a strict moral responsibility to help, by any means we can, whether financial or logistical, those women who sadly live in communities that neglect the fundamental human rights that we are privileged to have.” It is most important to have women actively involved in various processes, especially when it’s political. Activism with access to change or create laws is a fundamental problem.