A rich but provocative irony suffuses Angella M. Nazarian’s latest book, “Pioneers of the Possible: Celebrating Visionary Women of the World” (Assouline: $45).
Recent headlines across the world, in America no less than Israel and the Islamic world, confirm that women are hardly secure in their right to live their lives as they choose,
or even in their right to decide matters of marriage, health, reproduction and career. Indeed, the same point is powerfully made in an exhibit now on display at the Skirball Cultural Center titled “Women Hold Up Half the Sky,” which identifies gender equality as “the human rights issue of our time.”
Yet Nazarian is celebrating the fact that, for some women in some places, the opposite is also true. “Today, perhaps more than any other time in modern history, women feel empowered to follow their true callings,” she writes in “Pioneers of the Possible. “[N]o matter where we are headed, learning about the lives of pioneering women is an inspiring way to honor who we are and to encourage each other toward greater possibilities and deeper lives.”
To illustrate her point, she has selected 20 stirring success stories of women, some living and some deceased, who have made a difference in our world. The list includes writers, artists, politicians, performers, spiritual leaders, business moguls, architects, athletes and activists, each offered as a role model for women who want to make a difference. “Each one has her own special way of expressing her spirit — whether through painting, politics, environmentalism, architecture or esthetics,” explains Nazarian. “Every one imagined what did not yet exist — but might someday.”
Story continues after the jump.
“Pioneers of the Possible” can be approached as an exotic travelogue through space and time, a gallery of heroines, a challenge to engage in tikkun olam and sometimes all three at once. The first woman we meet, for example, is Mata Amritanandamayi, the “Hugging Saint” of India, a remarkable individual who has inspired tens of thousands to put their resources at the disposal of “the world’s neediest.”
Amma, as she is known — the word means “mother” — is said to have hugged 25 million people, one at a time, and Nazarian points out that she embodies “one of the most numinous and primal of relationships” — a mother’s love. But Nazarian provides another measure of the difference she has made in the world: “More than two million poor people are fed each year … more than forty thousand houses have been built for the homeless across India … nearly $46 million has been donated for tsunami relief.”
Other heroines in “Pioneers of the Possible” are notable precisely because they are women who broke through ancient and seemingly permanent barriers. The late Conchita Cintrón, “the world’s first celebrity matadora,” entered the bullring at the age of 13 — “[she] looks as if she were made of porcelain,” one amazed journalist wrote — and is credited with more than 750 kills in a groundbreaking career. “She shows us that we too can face fear head-on,” Nazarian writes, “dance with it, turn aside when it charges our way, and ultimately conquer it.”
Many of the women in Nazarian’s book are already legendary — Ella Fitzgerald, Simone de Beauvoir, Estée Lauder, Anaïs Nin and Golda Meir, among others — but she also introduces us to several less familiar, but not less inspiring, figures. Forugh Farrokhzad, for example, was famous in Iran as a lyric poet, which Nazarian calls the country’s “highest and most revered art,” but she will be an entirely new face and voice to most of Nazarian’s American readers. Farrokhzad died in an auto accident in 1967 at the age of 32, but she survives in the poetry she left behind: “You will search for me in my words,” she wrote in a poem addressed to her son, “and tell yourself: My mother,/that is who she was.”
Although “Pioneers of the Possible” shows us women of achievement in many fields, I don’t think it’s an accident that Nazarian seems especially intrigued by the lives and work of artists and writers. After all, that’s her own field of endeavor, and there’s an undeniable artfulness to her richly illustrated book. Perhaps she is speaking for herself, too, when she quotes Farrokhzad: “Art is the strongest love,” the poet once said. “It avails itself only to those who thoroughly surrender their whole existence to it.”