women who changed the world

Every year, the United Nations chooses a slogan on which to focus its International Day of Older Persons campaign and this occasion is aimed at the efforts made by older women to contribute to improving their communities. As the UN campaign emphasizes, the covid pandemic has exacerbated the inequalities that existed at the base and has intensified the socioeconomic, environmental, climatic and health impacts on the lives of older people, but “especially older women, who constitute the majority of elderly people.

That is why this year we want to recognize the contributions of older women, promote the inclusion of their voices and know their needs and perspectives to create policies that meet local, national and global challenges. This is a task in which modern societies have come a long way, but which still remains to be done.

The visibility of older women who have made great contributions to the future of their environments is also part of this recognition. For too long, too, women have been in the shadow of their male peers in just about every discipline. And not because there were no great female references, there were. Now it’s time to recover the memory and put the names of those great women on the table.

starting at home

Elbira Zipitria is proof that you don’t have to go far from home to find women who made history. A pioneer in teaching in Basque, the native of Zumaia founded the first ikastola in Donostia during the Second Republic. With everything against her, during the Civil War she had to flee to Lapurdi, where she remained until the end of the conflict.

Despite returning to a Euskadi under the yoke of Francoism, in which Basque was actively persecuted, Zipitria dedicated himself to teaching the language from hiding since 1943. During the first years, he did so with very small groups of boys and girls , in private homes. But as the years progressed, she trained many young teachers, training them to teach in Basque.

Elbira Zipitria

Promoter of teaching in Basque

Pioneer who founded the first ikastola during the Second Republic and fought to preserve Basque under Franco

Against everything, he trained a multitude of teachers and trained them to teach in Basque until his retirement in 1971.

After years fighting against the Francoist legislation, which prohibited the opening of new ikastolas as they did not comply with the requirements of the Regime (which, among other things, made it necessary to teach the subject of Formation of the National Spirit), Zipitria fulfilled his last great professional goal at 64 years. On September 8, 1970, the pedagogue managed to found the Orixe ikastola, under the official name of Santa María Parish School.

A year later, Zipitria retired, but not before leaving a legacy that shows that women, regardless of age, have made indispensable contributions to their communities even in times of harsh repression, both for ideological reasons and because of the roles of gender.

In that sense, the contributions of women extend to all fields and all eras. Donna Strickland’s is a nice contrast to the Zipitria case. Her name may not sound familiar to many readers, but they will surely know about laser surgeries to treat ophthalmological disorders. Strickland is responsible for that technology to exist.

Thanks to her groundbreaking discoveries in laser technology, Strickland won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2018. She was the third woman to receive the award, and the first to do so in the 21st century. In addition to the relevance of her contributions in the field of optics, she also has many medical applications, such as the treatment of presbyopia. Fortunately, Strickland’s contributions are widely recognized internationally and her eye surgeries have already helped improve the vision of many people around the world.

donna strickland

Nobel Prize in Physics 2018

Researcher specialized in lasers, developed the technology that allows eye surgeries to be performed

She is the third woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics and the first to win the award in the 21st century.

revival stories

There are also cases in which women who, after experiencing absolutely traumatic experiences, have been able to put themselves back together and dedicate their lives to the search for justice. Kim Bok-Dong was a survivor. When she was 14 years old, Japanese authorities forced her mother, who could not read, to sign a document for Kim to go to work in a so-called factory during the World War II war effort.

The job was not that. Bok-Dong ended up being a “comfort woman”, sexual slaves of the Japanese army. Kim was able to return to her home at the end of the war in 1945. Upon her return, she broke her silence and dedicated her life to activism, demanding justice and reparation for the abuses suffered by thousands of Japanese women in the war. She never stopped working for women’s rights and in 1993 she even testified at the United Nations World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna. She passed away in 2019.

Kim Bok Dong

Women’s rights activist

She devoted her life to the fight for women’s rights after having been a sex slave during World War II.

He testified at the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights and never left activism until his death in 2019

Finally, there are the silenced cases, those in which there were great contributions and they were not recognized until much later. Sheila Minor was one of the first women to be a biological research technician at the famous Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC However, her name did not come to light until a few years ago.

In 2018, a photograph dating from 1971 from a conference on the biology of whales went viral on Twitter. There was only one woman in the group photo, who was also the only unidentified person in the image.

Sheila Minor

Research biologist

She was one of the first women to access a biological research technical position at the Smithsonian Institution.

His name was unknown for decades, until a Twitter thread made his case go viral in 2018

More than 11,000 people went out to search for the name of the mystery woman. In the end, the photographer who took the photo himself was able to remember Minor’s name, and confessed that she had thought she was an administrative assistant.

There is a pending debt with the visibility of the work of older women and this year is the time to settle it.

Photo that went viral on Twitter in 2018 and in which Sheila Minor was the only person whose name did not appear in the caption of the photo. NG


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women who changed the world