Sword, Gbowee, Goldman, Gillard: Women of Action!


July 16, 2015

By Michelle Hackett

Over the last two Bluestocking bookclub meetings we discussed four autobiographies of influential women from around the world: Julia Gillard (Australia), Kirsty Sword Gusmao (East Timor), Leymah Gbowee (Liberia), Emma Goldman (US, Russia). This gave us a wide variety of topics to discuss, including politics, independence, wars, capitalism, and, of course, gender issues. A common theme we found among these women was tenacity in the face of powerful resistance. Each of them was attempting to leave her mark on a (sometimes very) hostile environment.

Emma Goldman was an anarchist in the early 1900s: born in Lithuania, immigrated to the US, and eventually deported back to Russia. Her autobiography charts her life, her personal struggles, the progression of the anarchist movement in the US, and the Russia revolution.

Leymah Gbowee is an anti-war activist who, in the early 2000s, played a central role in building a women’s peace movement that helped bring an end to the Liberian civil war. She writes about the turmoil of continuous conflict in Liberia, and about the lengths to which people (leaders, neighbours, family) will and won’t go to to help each other in the face of fear and uncertainty.

Kirsty Sword Gusmao was involved with the East Timor independent movemement during the 1990s. Her autobiography details her relationship with ‘freedom fighter’ Xanana Gusmao, who eventually became East Timor’s President. Kirsty explores the recent history of East Timor’s independence struggle, and her own roles in the movement.

Julia Gillard was Australia’s Prime Minister from 2010 to 2013. She writes about her life in the context of the Labour Party’s trials and tribulations, with a large part of the book concentrating on her term as deputy and Prime Minister. She delves into the difficulties of negotiating a hung parliament and being the first female prime minister.

Reading autobiographies such as these helps us to imagine different worlds, different times and different selves. Emma Goldman’s life story shows how capitalism has not always been the only imaginable economic system, even in the US, with trade unionist, socialists, anarchists (among others) having considerable support throughout the country in the late 1800-early 1900s. Leymah Gbowee’s story demonstrates how instability from war can ravage communities, ripping apart neighbours and countries. It also shows how grassroots organising can slowly help provide avenues of resistance and solidarity. Kirsty Sword’s story emerses us in the brutal reality of world politics, where (far from the rosy “United Nations” view of the world) powerful nations can subjegate a country and people. It also demonstrates the ability of small-scale actors to use world norms to their advantage (with the pressure on Indonesia to allow elections in East Timor). Julia Gillard’s story allows us to see more clearly the underlying gender norms that still exist in Australia, and how easily these can translate into quite blatant sexism when threatened.

For each of these women there is a personal thread running through the books which details the constant conflict between personal life and the heavy responsibilities that come with public positions of power and/or influence. Reading these stories helps us to imagine different selves- requestioning our own priorities and how these change as we grow older. With only one life to live, it is a fascinating (and achievable!) activity to briefly feel like we have shared the lives of these remarkable women.


Leymah Gbowee, “Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer and Sex Changed a Nation at War”

Kirsty Sword Gusmao, “A Woman of Independence: A Story of Love and the Birth of a New Nation”

Julia Gillard, “My Story”

Emma Goldman, “Living My Life”



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