Maya Angelou, American author, performer and civil rights activist, famously asserted, “If you are always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be.”
Throughout history, countless examples exist of those who have defied normality and have discovered “how amazing” they can be. Renaissance artist and scientist Leonardo da Vinci, for instance, one of the most inventive and creative beings ever to exist, was not only considered eccentric but lived a lifestyle with other artists that was very much unconventional.
Around the same period, Galileo Galilei, often touted as ‘the father of modern science’, was persecuted by the Roman Inquisition and the Catholic Church for not conforming to the ‘normal’ view of the Earth being the orbital centre of all celestial bodies. Using scientific evidence, he supported his and other claims and although their model was rebuked at the time, after his death it gained support and the scientific world established it as fact. Without the courage and sacrifice of Galileo and others not aspiring to the ‘normal’ view of the world, the story of science in the past 500 years would have been significantly different.
In 1880’s Poland, another scientist, a young Marie Curie, was not permitted to attend higher education and instead sought out the clandestine ‘Flying University’ to pursue her passion. She completed her education with a doctorate and began years of industrious research, first independently and later with her husband, Pierre, and other scientists. In 1903, the couple was invited to the prestigious Royal Institution in London to discuss their work; Pierre delivered a speech to the distinguished audience but Marie was not permitted to speak because she was a woman.
It was also in that year that she was initially unrecognised for her contribution towards research into radiation along with her husband and another male scientist, with the nomination committee for the Nobel Prize for Physics listing the two men on the commendation and not Marie. It was only after the complaint from an advocate of women scientists that she was congratulated for her extraordinary services. She became famous for being the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize and, later, the first person to be awarded two. This created a legacy for other women to strive to push the boundaries of what is considered possible, in science but also in other fields.
The women’s suffrage movement, as it became known in its infancy in the late 19th Century, initially focused on changing societal attitudes in an attempt to secure the right of voting for women. The second and third waves of feminism, beginning in the 1960’s, were more inclusive of other aspects such as equal pay, greater involvement in the workplace and generally challenging accepted stereotypes and what is ‘normal’ for a woman.
Without the spirited efforts of these pioneering women, the majority of whom were ‘normal’ citizens, the significant political change that reformed the lives of women worldwide would not have occurred. Feminism allowed women the freedom of choice to participate to a greater extent in society and democracy, for each of them to discover “how amazing you can be”, as Angelou remarks.
The result of the feminist battle is that young women today unequivocally have the brightest futures ever to be bestowed upon them. Their futures are not reliant upon any one else but themselves and their destinies lie in their own hands; the endless choices available are unprecedented. The modern saying of ‘breaking the glass ceiling’ is achievable more than ever.
The lives of Maya Angelou, Marie Curie, Leonardo da Vinci and the pioneers of the feminist movement and countless other courageous examples throughout history demonstrate how an attitude of defying ‘what is normal’ leads to prosperity and success.
This legacy of nonconformity should inspire us today as we confront the issues of the twenty-first century, both in our everyday lives and in wider society.
We owe it to them that we continue their fight.