“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
“To be or not to be is not a question of compromise. Either you be or you don’t be.”
These quotes and the women who said them — Eleanor Roosevelt and Golda Meir, respectively — have continued to inspire generations.
They are also at the heart of a tribute and presentation by author Ann Atkins and StandWithUs, the Israel advocacy nonprofit, at the Parkway Central Library on March 8, International Women’s Day.
“We’re doing this,” said Ferne Hassan, associate director of StandWithUs Philadelphia, “because Ann Atkins is an excellent storyteller, and stories are a wonderful way to transmit history — I don’t think we use them enough.”
Atkins “is going to tell a story about the work both Golda and Eleanor have done in the realm of human rights,” Hassan said. “And we hope that through those stories, they will inspire people to want to learn more about both of them, but especially Golda. Our reason for doing this was to try to encourage a wider population to know something about Golda and, by extension, about Israel and the Jewish people.”
Roosevelt and Meir were the subjects of Atkins’ two books, Eleanor Roosevelt ~ Unleashed and Golda Meir ~ True Grit, as part of her Flash History series. A third, which will be released in the fall, is about famed chemist and Nobel Prize winner Marie Curie.
Atkins, who lives in Paoli, was inspired by these women in particular because of the work they did for human rights and standing for justice.
“Each one of them challenged the status quo of the day, and they were willing to take the heat for it,” Atkins said. “All three of those women stood for justice, which is human rights.”
She was interested in doing this event with StandWithUs because their messages are similar. “Their mission is to promote human rights and peace through education,” she said, “so this is a perfect lineup with me because that’s really the message of my biographies.”
Atkins does talks and presentations two or three times a week at schools, libraries and other community centers about the amazing lives of these women. The messages they have taught her — and many others — are ones that still resonate today.
“Dare to speak up; don’t be intimidated,” Atkins said, citing a few examples of the lessons Roosevelt and Meir have taught her. “Just say and stand up for when you see anyone being oppressed or injustice or any kind of social wrong.”
The work Roosevelt did for the United Nations and Meir becoming the first — and, thus far, only — female prime minister of Israel are not stories that are as widely known as they could be.
“Most people don’t know stories of Eleanor or Golda or have a very limited perspective because history is so often written by men,” Atkins said. “This gives us a means for getting this story out, and not just for women — men need to know these stories, too.”
Before becoming an author, Atkins worked as a counselor for many years and would use historical examples for her clients to help them learn “how to overcome things, and how they, too, can move on with their lives.”
“You look at what Eleanor went through, or Golda — people are inspired by people,” she said. “We’re inspired by true life stories that encourage us to make those tough choices and hang in there. But it helps if you hear from somebody else or see it in somebody else’s life.”
Atkins, who is not Jewish, said Meir’s story was a chance to also explore Israel’s history without being overly political.
“You can’t talk about Golda without talking about the rebirth of Israel — people still don’t understand that,” she said. “I’m able to tell that story and help people understand it. And I have some amount of credibility with it because I’m not Jewish — this isn’t about being
Jewish; it’s about justice, and that resonates with people.”
The impetus for a book about Meir, in particular, came about after Atkins included a brief passage about the friendship between Meir and Roosevelt in her biography of the latter. When Meir came to New York, she and Roosevelt would meet for lunch, Atkins wrote.
“To write this short, powerful thing about Golda, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, here’s my next person! I want to bring out her story,’ ” Atkins recalled.
The women’s stories are also about hope — something everyone wants to have.
“We’re always looking for stories of hope for our own lives,” she said. “And when we look at Eleanor and Golda and we understand from history what they went through, and if both of these women — them still believing in the beauty of the human spirit — if they can still keep that hope, then so can I.”
She hopes these stories will give the audience a chance to act on their own to stand up for justice. “Ignorance is not bliss,” she said. “It’s dangerous.”
Even with everything going on today, when it is easy to become cynical, she said these women have taught her not to do that. And she hopes she can do the same for others.
“The only reason history is important is how can we use this to improve our lives,” Atkins said, “and that’s ultimately my goal as a presenter and a writer: that this information becomes pragmatic and is used.”
Hassan hopes that Atkins’ presentation will inspire others to learn more about these women and use their stories in their own lives.
“Whenever you do an educational program, you hope that you’ve sparked some interest in them so they will go and read up about whatever the subject matter is,” she said.
“I think what we’re looking forward to is increasing the awareness of these two women — and for us, in particular, Golda’s work in the world. We hope it will stimulate interest in learning more.”
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