October 18th, 2009

Standing on their shoulders

Constance Singam takes a look at three women whose commitment to women’s causes has helped to reshape the world and transform women’s lives. It is women such as these, she says, who are the true feminist mentors.

I watched an episode of The Oprah Show some time ago when her guests were the feminist icons – the real feminist mentors – Gloria Steinem and Billie Jean King. Two very extraordinary women, among many others both ordinary and extraordinary, whose commitment to women’s causes transformed our lives. They are agents of change, dedicated to shaping a world that fits the needs of its people.

They started their ‘crusade’ against all forms of discrimination in the 1960s and they are still at it with amazing passion, energy and clarity of vision about the kind of world they would like to see.

Gloria Steinem, for those who have not heard of her, is one of the foremost feminist thinkers of the late twentieth century. As a journalist, she helped shape feminist dialogue and had an influence on the political landscape.


With other feminist leaders of the sixties and seventies, she co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus. She went on to co-found both NEW YORK magazine and MS. magazine. Among the books she has written are Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions (1983) and Revolution from Within (1992).

The Steinem I watched on “Oprah” was a stunning 75-year-old, as energetic as ever and still making waves. In 2005, for instance, she co-founded with Jane Fonda and Robin Morgan The Women’s Media Center, a non-profit progressive women’s media organisation. The Women’s Media Center makes women visible and powerful in the media, ensuring that women’s stories are told and women’s voices heard.

Billie Jean King is a tennis legend. She won 39 Grand Slam singles, doubles and mixed doubles tennis titles, including a record 20 titles at Wimbledon.

In 1973, she challenged Bobby Riggs to a match and defeated him. This was arguably one of the greatest moments in sports history. It was hailed as the Battle of the Sexes and is remembered for its contribution to the women’s movement. I watched it on TV, sitting on the edge of my seat, along with millions of others around the world, willing her to win.


Billie Jean King spoke out for women and their right to earn prize money comparable to men in tennis and other sports. Her constant lobbying helped to break many barriers. In 1968 when she first started in tennis championship matches, women were awarded only 37% of the prize money that men got. Today, thanks to Billie Jean King, tennis champions such as Venus Williams take home the same amount of prize money as male tennis players.

Oprah Winfrey herself, of course, is a feminist icon. She emerged from a humble background to become one of America’s most influential women.


Born to unwed teenage parents, Winfrey was raped by a cousin when she was nine years old and endured many other hardships. But, as she once said: “I knew there was a way out. I knew there was another kind of life because I had read about it. I knew there were other places, and there was another way of being.

My own life experience has taught me that there is indeed another way of being, and I am continuing to learn that way of being. My classroom was AWARE. All I knew, when I started on my feminist path, was that women were treated as second class citizens and had very little power over their lives. I would not be the woman I am today if not for my active participation in AWARE. What an exhilarating and empowering journey it has been!

The empowerment of women is a powerful tool for eliminating inequality and injustice. The empowered woman becomes an agent of change in the home, in the schools, at the work place.

During that episode of her show with Steinem and King, Winfrey at one point turned to her audience and said “You are the woman leader you have been waiting for.”

She’s right, you know. You are. Yes, you.

The writer, a social activist and writer, was president of AWARE for a total of six terms (1987-89, 1994-96, 2007-09) and president of the Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations (1990-92).

One Comment ...

  1. Amina

    I like the last line.