By Neha Kirpal
The Book of Gutsy Women (Simon & Schuster, 2019) by American power duo, former First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and her daughter Chelsea Clinton, is a stirring collection of 105 essays about inspiring women spanning a diverse range of professions and walks of life—educationists, environmentalists, elected leaders, athletes, activists and storytellers.
With a very interesting style of storytelling that is almost addictive, the stories about all these powerful women’s lives are sprinkled with the authors’ personal anecdotes. Hillary and Chelsea define these ‘gutsy women’ as leaders with the courage to stand up to the status quo, ask hard questions and get the job done. “Because if history shows one thing, it’s that the world has always needed gutsy women—and we know it always will,” they write.
Both mother and daughter are themselves an inspirational duo to reckon with. While Hillary is the first woman in US history to become the presidential nominee of a major political party, Chelsea is a champion for girls and women through her advocacy, writing and work at the Clinton Foundation. They set the tone in the book’s introduction: “Ensuring the rights, opportunities and full participation of all women and girls remains a big piece of the unfinished business of the twenty-first century.”
Hillary begins by talking about some of her first fictional role models—the cartoon strip character, Brenda Starr, “the flaming red-haired beautifully dressed reporter” who had far-flung global adventures.
She adds that free-spirited Jo was her favourite character from Louisa May Alcott’s classic Little Women. As a young girl, she was also inspired by Nancy Drew, the 16-year-old high-school detective who solved mysteries, and Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz.
Other early influences of hers were stories from ancient times about strong and fearless women leaders, such as Athena, Artemis, Nefertiti, Cleopatra and Hatshepsut and others such as Joan of Arc. When she started studying at Wellesley College in the fall of 1965, the women’s movement had started in full swing.
It got her to read much feminist literature, such as The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan (1963) and Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949). She carried on the interest in later years too, by reading books such as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) and Roxane Gay’s Hunger (2017).
Hillary writes, “Heroes are everywhere. It’s up to each of us to seek them out, tell their stories, and celebrate the women who inspire us every day—and then, even more important, to take their example to heart by finding our own unique way to make our mark on the world.”
One of the examples they give is of world-class sisters Venus and Serena Williams who have helped redefine tennis. Despite having dealt with sexism, racism and body shaming over the years, the duo has “a particular talent for shutting out the noise and nonsense and focusing on what really matters—whether it’s smashing records, winning titles, or advocating for people who will never have the kind of platform they do.”
There is a lovely quote by Venus Williams in the book, “Some people say that I have an attitude. Maybe I do. But I think that you have to. You have to believe in yourself when no one else does. That makes you a winner right there.”
Among young brigade of change-makers covered in the book are the likes of Malala Yousafzai, a pioneer of education in Pakistan and the world, and earth defender Greta Thunberg.
Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, puts it appropriately, “Young girls need to see role models in whatever careers they may choose, just so they can picture themselves doing those jobs someday. You can’t be what you can’t see.” Some of the interesting facts I learnt while reading the book are that more than 60 women have been to space so far; Sunita Williams ran the first marathon in space; and Peggy Whitson is the first woman who has spent the most time in space: 665 days.
The book is filled with such stories of brave, resilient women from around the world—Maria von Trapp, the nun who is famous for being the inspiration behind The Sound of Music; Anne Frank who became known after the world read a compelling diary about her experiences of the horrors of the Holocaust; Florence Nightingale, the woman who helped invent modern nursing; Marie Curie for her pioneering research in radioactivity; and the phenomenal poet Maya Angelou, remembered most for her signature piece Phenomenal Woman: Four Poems Celebrating Women.
In one of the chapters, Hillary writes about how important it is for all of us to pause and consider what we want to leave for the generations who come after us—“how we’ll honour the past, imagine the future, and give gifts to those who will live out their lives long after we’ve gone.”
Apart from applauding women achievers who have broken barriers in their respective fields, the book also celebrates women who embraced uncommon career choices in the early 20th century. There is a whole chapter dedicated to four trailblazing ballerinas—Anna Pavlova, Isadora Duncan, Maria Tallchief and Virginia Johnson. Then, there is Margaret Bourke-White, the first female war correspondent.
The book also highlights some relatively unknown and unsung heroines who have achieved greatness through their determination, grit and self-belief. Some of them are Maria Montessori, the founder of the Montessori system of education, Joan Ganz Cooney, the creator of Sesame Street, and Grace Hopper, known as the Mother of Computing.
There is also a chapter on Junko Tabei, the first woman to reach the Mount Everest summit and complete the seven summits. Then there is the courageous Manal al-Sharif, who helped lift the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia; as a result of her efforts, the law was enforced only as late as 2018.
Chelsea also writes about Somalia-based obstetrician-gynecologist Dr Hawa Abdi, saying that her courage proves that “hope is so much more than a word—it is untold lives saved, babies born safely, children educated, and a different, more peaceful future beginning to be realized.”
Among the Indian women featured in the book is Ela Bhatt, described as “the 20th century’s most effective political and labour organizer,” who founded the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) in 1971. Hillary met her on her first trip to India in 1995.
Also featured is Sophia Duleep Singh who was the daughter of the last maharaja of the Sikh Empire on the Indian subcontinent and the goddaughter of Queen Victoria. Sophia went on to become a leader in the women’s suffrage movement in the UK. Then, there is US-based Reshma Saujani whose programme, Girls Who Code, runs summer and after-school programmes that have been developed by open-source curriculum and guides.
The book is also filled with some truly stimulating quotes by all of these amazing women. Betty Ford, an influential first lady in the last half of the 20th century, rightly says, “Being ladylike does not require silence.” Eleanor Roosevelt advises, “Do what you feel in your heart to be right—for you’ll be criticized anyway. You’ll be damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.”
And of course, there is this well known quote by Hillary herself that probably lends the book its title, “Here’s to gutsy women. May we know them, may we be them, may we raise them. And may we thank and celebrate them.”
Syndicated to CNBCTV18