When Iranian American author Angella Nazarian was growing up in pre-revolutionary Iran, she didn’t have many female role models outside of her immediate family. “I came from a very traditional culture which was very patriarchal. [At age 11] when I first moved from Iran to the U.S., it was the time of revolution, and I didn’t see my parents for 5 years,” she says.
After building a successful family life and career in the U.S., Nazarian, who is also a professor in psychology and speaker on women’s issues, decided to go on a writerly mission of self discovery. “I thought, how exciting would it be if I immersed myself in researching the lives of the most extraordinary women not only to find out for myself, but to share with everyone else,” says Nazarian. “This is part of what writers do. Whatever they are seeking to find out for themselves, they write books about.”
The result is her new book Pioneers of the Possible, which profiles 20 women, both living and not, who have fundamentally changed the field in which they work and, in the process, the world in which we all live. The list includes known names like writer and philosopher Simone DeBeauvoir, Kenyan environmentalist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Mathaai, South African politician and activist Helen Suzman as well as lesser known women such as female bullfighter Torera Conchita Cintron and Cambodian human rights campaigner Somaly Mam.
Nazarian explained that the most fascinating part of researching her book was realizing that her twenty subjects—who she said became her “invisible friends” after getting to know each of them so well—had striking commonalities despite markedly diverse backgrounds, life stories, and challenges.
“Women today tend to look at self improvement books thinking about how we can be better people, how we can improve ourselves, but when you read the lives of these women, you can absolutely see they were not perfect in any way shape or form,” Nazarian said. “What they were all similar in is that they knew themselves so well. They actually tailored a life around their strengths and filled their lives with vibrancy and things that mattered to them.”
One example of this is Brazilian rainforest campaigner Marina Silva, who has been called the “Al Gore of Brazil.” Nazarian said she was particularly inspired by Silva who, at the age of 16 was still illiterate yet managed to go on to run for the presidency of Brazil and be instrumental in passing legislation to preserve the Amazon rainforest.
When it comes to the perennial question of “can woman have it all?“—a debate that was reignited recently in an Atlantic magazine piece authored by former U.S. State Department Director of Policy Planning Anne Marie Slaughter—Nazarian thinks it’s a matter of defining what you mean. For Nazarian, who is also a mother, having it all means having a little bit of everything.
“If you had asked the women in my book, they’d probably all say they did have it all!” she said. “One was never married, one was bisexual, Estee Lauder had a vibrant family life but her husband was the one at home looking after kids while she was doing all the marketing. Her vision of a family was different from a stay at home mom.”
Nazarian agrees with the main argument of Slaughter’s Atlantic piece—that having a high-powered career and enriching family life simultaneously is largely unattainable, and not even ideal for most women.
“We need more conversation about how we can have a career track as women where you can have plateaus and then go back into the workplace. I don’t think it has to be an upward journey all the way through,” she said. “Statistics show that a greater number of women are going into entrepreneurship fields. This makes perfect sense—as an entrepreneur you have a much better chance of what we call ‘having it all’ rather than being in a corporation.”
After completing the research for her book, Nazarian says it is her firm belief that there is nothing a woman—particularly one who surrounds herself with a “fearless tribe” of supporters—can’t accomplish.
“Some of the biggest movements to revitalize economies in third world countries address female micro-finance and that’s because women have an amazing resourcefulness that rejuvenates their communities,” Nazarian said. “We’re the untapped resource. We’re not eye candy.”
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