Pioneering Women

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Wangari Maathai (article) was the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. She was also the first female scholar from East and Central Africa to take a doctorate (in biology), and the first female professor ever in her home country of Kenya. Maathai played an active part in the struggle for democracy in Kenya, and belonged to the opposition to Daniel arap Moi's regime. 

In 1977 she started a grass-roots movement aimed at countering the deforestation that was threatening the means of subsistence of the agricultural population. The campaign encouraged women to plant trees in their local environments and to think ecologically. The so-called Green Belt Movement spread to other African countries, and contributed to the planting of over thirty million trees. 

Maathai's mobilisation of African women was not limited in its vision to work for sustainable development; she saw tree-planting in a broader perspective which included democracy, women's rights, and international solidarity. In the words of the Nobel Committee: "She thinks globally and acts locally." 


Sirimavo Bandaranaike (article) 

When Sirimavo Bandaranaike was elected the prime minister of Sri Lanka in 1960—the first woman to hold a PM position in the world—it was so unusual to have a female head of government that newspapers were unsure how to address her. She was a member of one of the wealthiest families on the Indian Oceanisland country, then known as Ceylon, and married a politician who started his own party before becoming prime minister. After he was assassinated, she campaigned for her husband’s party and became the leader of it in May of 1960. She took power six years before Indira Gandhi became India’s first woman prime minister and nine years before Golda Meir was appointed PM of Israel. She made the country a republic, nationalized companies and church schools, and squashed a Marxist insurrection. She also gave birth to the future female president of the country Chandrika Kumaratunga. 


Elizabeth Garrett Anderson

When Garrett Anderson (1836-1917) was born, there were no female doctors in Britain. Inspired by American physician Elizabeth Blackwell, she trained as a nurse and applied for her MD, but was turned down by every university she approached. So she moved to France and qualified at the University of Paris instead. She set up in practice as a GP in London as the UK’s first female doctor, and in 1876 helped usher through parliament an act that formally permitted women to be medics. Emmeline Pankhurst often argued that if women could be trusted with lives, surely they could be trusted with the vote.


Helen Wong

Helen Wong (1961-present) is the first-ever woman to helm the 89-year old Oversea-Chinese Banking Corp. (OCBC), Singapore’s second-largest bank by market value. She was appointed group CEO in April, succeeding Samuel Tsien, who had held the post since 2012. Wong’s career has come full circle. She started in banking at OCBC in 1984 and became its first China desk manager in Hong Kong a year later, before joining other banks. In February 2020, Wong returned to OCBC as deputy president and head of global wholesale banking based in Singapore, after having spent 17 years at HSBC, where her last role was as chief executive of Greater China. Her China experience bodes well for OCBC, which has been expanding in the world’s second-biggest economy. With hubs in Singapore and Hong Kong, the bank has positioned itself to capture increased business flows between China and Southeast Asia, as Wong noted in the bank’s latest annual report published in April.


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