Last year, writer Kate Schatz and artist Miriam Klein Stahl teamed up to create the book Rad American Women A-Z, which combines short biographies of change-making women like Angela Davis and Dolores Huerta with beautiful papercut portaits. The book was a New York Times best-seller and now this month, the team is debuting a new collection: Rad Women Worldwide. The new book contains 40 one-to-two page biographies from women on every continent (including pioneering scientists on Anarctica!). It includes some women who are very well-known and others who have been mostly overlooked by history.
We got permission to share six stories and portraits from the new book. Read the biographies below and feel free to pre-order the new book from Bitch!
July 3, 1957 (Bromley, England) – April 25, 2011 (Sussex, England)
“I started with nothing but a few melodic lyrics and a lot of determination.”
In 1976, a British band called The Sex Pistols performed the first ever punk rock concert. This legendary show was loud and sweaty, and in the crowd was a young woman celebrating her 19th birthday. Her name was Marianne Elliot-Said, and she wanted to be a singer. She’d been writing song lyrics since she was 12. As she watched the man onstage sing wildly, she thought: I can do this too!
She placed an ad in a British music magazine, headed “YOUNG PUNX WHO WANT TO STICK IT TOGETHER!” Several musicians responded, and soon they’d started a punk band: X-Ray Spex. She chose the stage name “Poly Styrene” because it was “plastic and synthetic.” After just six rehearsals they played their first gig at the Roxy, a famous punk club in London. They were a hit. Overnight Marianne became Poly, and X-Ray Spex became a game-changing punk band.
Poly’s mom was Scottish-English, and her father had come to England from the African country of Somalia, speaking little English. When Poly was a child her mother moved them from the mostly white suburb of Bromley to the more racially diverse town of Brixton; she felt it would be a less judgmental place for Poly to grow up.
Poly was a creative, adventurous kid who loved to play dress-up. She traveled around England by herself at age 15, and on returning, opened a small clothing shop where she sold funky clothes and developed her distinctive fashion sense. She wore military hats, mismatched jewelry, and the brightest colors she could find. She chose baggy clothes because she didn’t want people to focus on her body shape.
The British punk scene was often angry and dreary—and dominated by white men. Poly was radically different: a mixed-race teenage girl with a huge smile that showed off her silver braces. She sneered the opening lines of her first hit song (“Some people say little girls should be seen and not heard!”) and went on to prove that idea very wrong. She sang about consumerism, sexism, and unfair beauty standards, and she used humor and sarcasm to get her point across. For Poly, punk rock was about “young people getting up and doing something, creating something.” It was a way for her to express her emotions and ideas.
X-Ray Spex became very popular, very fast. But the fame was overwhelming, and after a few years Poly grew tired of it all. She left the band, had a daughter, and focused on her spiritual practice. She kept making music throughout her life; her final album was released the day after she passed away from breast cancer at age 53. In the brief life of X-Ray Spex, they became one of the most popular punk bands ever. Poly has been an inspiration to singers like Kim Gordon, Kathleen Hanna, Beth Ditto, and many more.
Birutė Mary Galdikas
May 10, 1946 (Wiesbaden, Germany)
Almost every day, orangutans teach me something new.”
It began with Curious George. The woman who has devoted her life to the study of orangutans was once a young girl in Toronto, Canada, and the classic book about the little monkey was the first book she checked out of the library. Birutė Galdikas was fascinated by George and his companion, the Man with the Yellow Hat. She wanted to spend time with primates, just like him! She checked out more books about primates. The humanlike eyes of an orangutan caught her attention, and she knew she was born to work with these mysterious animals.
Birutė went on to study zoology and psychology, attending graduate school at UCLA, in California. In 1969, at 23, she learned that Dr. Louis Leakey, a famous anthropologist, was coming to speak at her school. Leakey had chosen two young female scientists to go into the wild to study primates, the closest living relatives of humans: Dian Fossey worked with gorillas, and Jane Goodall studied chimpanzees. Birutė wanted to be the third primate researcher. After his lecture, she boldly approached Dr. Leakey; he agreed to interview her and immediately saw her deep commitment. He needed someone to study orangutans, because scientists knew almost nothing about them. So Birutė and her husband headed off for one of the world’s most remote places.
Orangutans live only on the Southeast Asian islands of Borneo and Sumatra.
When Birutė arrived, these areas were very wild and sparsely populated. Many people doubted that Birutė would even be able to see an orangutan, because they’re such solitary creatures. She set up Camp Leakey, a tiny outpost in a remote rain forest. There were no phones, roads, or mail, but there was plenty of danger, including leeches, poisonous insects, and poachers.
The orangutans did appear. Birutė embarked on a long process of slowly gaining their trust. She recorded every single movement and sound the orangutans made, and four years after her arrival she published a cover article in National Geographic, revealing her groundbreaking research. Camp Leakey is now the top orangutan research and rehabilitation center in the world, and Birutė has worked there for 44 years.
The three women that Dr. Leakey selected became known as “The Trimates,” and are now considered the founding mothers of primatology. Birute˙ is also an international environmental activist, working to raise awareness about the endangered orangutans. The forests of Borneo and Sumatra are being burned to make way for palm tree plantations for palm oil, and the orangutans are highly threatened. In 1986 Birute˙ established the Orangutan Foundation International. She is committed to saving these animals from extinction, stating, “I rack my brains every single day for how to help them more.”
Dame Katerina Te Heikōkō Mataira
November 13, 1932 – july 16, 2011 (Tokomaru bay, New Zealand)
“Ko taku reo taku ohooho, ko taku reo taku māpihi mauria.”
“My language is my awakening, my language is the window to my soul.”
It takes only a single generation to lose a language, so if one generation of children grows up without learning and speaking a language, it can be lost forever. Around 6,000 languages are spoken in the world, and linguists (people who study language) believe that within the next century, nearly half will become extinct. When a language disappears, not just words are lost: histories, lullabies, prayers, and jokes vanish too. Thanks to Dame Katerina Te Heikōkō Mataira and her devoted colleagues, we have not said haere ra (good-bye) to te reo Māori: the Māori language.
The Māori people have lived on the islands of New Zealand in the South Pacific Ocean for hundreds of years. The 19th century brought many new settlers to New Zealand, and by 1840 it was a British colony. One hundred years later, there were a million Pākehā, or non-Māori people, living there. At first, many settlers learned the Māori language so they could trade and negotiate. But eventually, the Pākehā became the dominant population, and English became the primary language. Māori children were discouraged from speaking their own language in school and in public. Speaking English became necessary for survival.
In 1971 a researcher’s report confirmed that only five percent of the Māori population spoke their mother tongue. The language was dying. Katerina Mataira decided it was time for the Māori people to take matters into their own hands. Katerina was born in Tokomaru Bay as part of the Ngāti Porou tribe. As a teacher and mother she knew education was the key to saving the Māori language and culture. She decided the Māori must set up their own learning institutions, and she dedicated her life to making that happen.
Katerina and her friend Ngoi Pewhairangi developed a system for teaching te reo Māori. They traveled the country recruiting native Māori speakers to become tutors. Soon a network of tutors were teaching the disappearing language to young people and adults. This became a nationwide movement, and Katerina helped found Māori-language immersion schools called Kura Kaupapa Māori. She became known as the mother of the “Kura Kaupapa Movement,” and hundreds of these schools are still thriving today. Māori was made an official language of New Zealand in 1987, and a 2013 census reported that 21 percent of native Māorinow speak it.
Katerina was also an award-winning children’s book writer and the only person to write novels in Māori. In 2011, she received one of New Zealand’s highest honors when she was knighted and made a Dame for her service to the Māori language. She died later that year, leaving behind eight children, more than 50 grandchildren and great-grandchildren, a great-great-grandchild, and an enormous legacy.
Aung San Suu Kyi
June 19, 1945 (Yangon, Burma)
“You should never let your fears prevent you from doing what you know is right.”
When Aung San Suu Kyi traveled to her home country of Burma in 1988, she expected to stay for a few weeks, then return to her husband and two sons in England. She didn’t intend to become the leader of her country, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, or an international symbol of the struggle for democracy.
Aung San Suu Kyi (“Aung San” from her father, “Suu” from her grandmother, and “Kyi” from her mother) was born and raised in Burma (also known as Myanmar). Her father, General Aung San, helped negotiate Burma’s independence from Britain. He was assassinated when Suu was only two, and he became a national hero. From an early age, Suu believed it was her destiny to someday finish the work her father started.
Suu left Burma as a teenager to study in India, the United States, and England, where she met her husband, Michael. They started a family in London, but Suu made one thing very clear: if there were ever a reason for her to go back to help her beloved country, she would do it.
In 1988, Suu went to Burma to care for her sick mother. The country was in chaos. Ever since Suu’s father’s death, Burma had been ruled by an oppressive military government. The ruling general had just stepped down, and students, workers, and even monks were taking to the streets to demand change. The police cracked down hard and hurt the protestors. Suu saw the need for leadership, and on August 26, 1988, she gave a speech to half a million people. People came from all over to listen to the hero’s daughter as she called for a democratic government. She told them, “I could not, as my father’s daughter, remain indifferent to all that was going on.”
Suu’s moment had come. She helped start a new political party, and she traveled the country holding pro-democracy rallies. In 1989, one year after her return, Suu was arrested and imprisoned in her own home. Armed guards were present day and night, and no visitors were allowed—including her own family. She remained there for the next 15 years, unable to see her sons or her husband—even when he was dying of cancer.
Suu spent these years meditating, studying Buddhism, sewing, exercising—and refusing to give up. When she was allowed to walk to the walls around her house, she would climb up to the top and give speeches to crowds of people, never ceasing in her call for peace and democracy.
Suu was finally released for good in 2010. In 2015 Burma held elections, and Suu’s party won almost 80 percent of Parliament seats. Suu herself won a parliamentary seat, ending almost 50 years of military rule. It will take time before change will happen throughout Burma, but there is hope that justice will prevail—thanks to the tireless efforts of Aung San Suu Kyi.
Kasha Jacqueline Nagabasera
April 12, 1980 (Kampala, Uganda)
“I’m full of rage, but I won’t get a gun and fight. I’ll use my words to break down the system of oppression.”
It was a teacher who first suggested that Kasha Jacqueline Nagabasera was a lesbian. Young Kasha Jacqueline didn’t even know what “gay” or “lesbian” was: she was just being herself. She liked to wear boy’s clothes and write love letters to girls.
Wearing “boy’s clothes” doesn’t make a person gay, but in a culture with strict rules about what boys and girls should and shouldn’t wear, it did make Kasha Jacqueline stand out. And because homosexuality is illegal in Uganda, as it is in 38 other countries, this teacher informed the girl and her parents that she had to leave the school.
This discrimination continued for her entire childhood: she was beaten, bullied, and expelled from schools. These experiences made her into the fearless leader she is today. The “Mother of the Gay Rights Movement” in Uganda began speaking out against homophobia in college. At age 23, she founded Freedom and Roam Uganda (FARUG), one of Uganda’s main lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) organizations.
In 2009, the Ugandan government proposed a law making punishments for people suspected of being homosexual much worse; being gay was even punishable by death in some cases. Violent homophobic attacks on LGBTI Ugandans increased, and popular newspapers exposed people who were gay or suspected of being gay. When a paper published pictures of Kasha Jacqueline and her friends, taken without permission, they fought back by suing the newspaper— and won. It was a significant victory, but one of Kasha Jacqueline’s close friends, activist David Kato, was killed soon after.
Kasha Jacqueline knew that continuing her fight meant risking her own life, but she had to carry on. She kept working with FARUG, and founded Bombastic, an online LGBTI magazine that was downloaded more than two million times in one year. She has testified before the United Nations and appeared on TV and radio, and continues to challenge unjust laws in Ugandan courts. She’s been arrested, attacked, and harassed, and moves from house to house, living in secret with friends and supporters.
Kasha Jacqueline is one of the last prominent LGBTI activists living in Uganda; most others have fled the country or been killed. “If we give up now,” Kasha Jacqueline asks, “what will happen to the future?”
Kasha Jacqueline has received human rights awards, and in 2015, she was featured on the cover of Time magazine’s European edition. She traveled to New York City to be the grand marshal of the world’s biggest gay pride parade. She loved celebrating there, but she wants the same freedom to love in her own country. And she will not stop fighting for it.
Nicolasa: December 4, 1939 – December 24, 2013 (Alto Bio bio, Chile) Berta: 1930s (Alto Bio bio, Chile)
“The land is our mother, and she is alive. We will defend and fight for her until the end.”
Berta and Nicolasa Quintreman belong to the Mapuche people, Chile’s largest indigenous group. The Mapuche have lived in the foothills of Chile’s Andes Mountains for more than 500 years. The two sisters lived peacefully in their village until the construction of a massive dam threatened their entire existence. Faced with having to leave their sacred land, the elderly sisters resisted. Their quiet fight for dignity launched a new environmental movement.
During the 1980s a big corporation called Endesa wanted to build a 155-foot dam on the Bio Bio, a powerful river that is the ancestral home and economic heart of the Mapuche. Dams are massive structures that block rivers. Not every dam is harmful, but by blocking the flows of rivers, dams can destroy ecosystems. And when large areas of land are intentionally flooded, river-dwelling people are forced to move.
Endesa’s dam could be built only if Berta, Nicolasa, and 93 other families in their Mapuche village agreed to leave their land. Endesa promised them new homes, jobs, and money if they did. Some families agreed to the deal, but Nicolasa and Berta refused, even when Endesa offered them over $1 million. The elderly sisters quickly became leaders in the movement and worked to convince other families to stand their ground.
Their resistance was fierce but peaceful. They led marches and testified before congress. Dressed in their traditional colorful Mapuche clothing, Nicolasa and Berta confronted the leaders of Endesa directly. They cited Chilean laws intended to protect the land rights of indigenous people. The demonstrations gained worldwide attention, and the Chilean president and Endesa were embarrassed and angry. No one expected the Mapuche to resist like this—and it went on for over 10 years.
But Endesa continued to pressure them. Police raided the homes of the Quintreman sisters and their neighbors, throwing countless people in jail for defending their land. As the years went by, more families agreed to leave, and the Quintreman sisters felt alone in their struggle. They were growing older, and Nicolasa went blind. In the end, Nicolasa struck a deal with Endesa: she would sell her land in exchange for the release of those being held as political prisoners for their protests.
Although the Quintreman sisters’ resistance didn’t stop the dam, their efforts had a major impact. Chile’s congress strengthened the nation’s environmental protections, and the sisters inspired many other indigenous leaders and activists, who have successfully blocked 20 more environmentally damaging energy projects. These two elderly women from an isolated culture leave a legacy of dignity, showing us what it looks like to take a stand for your community and your planet.