Yesterday, the announcement of the new presidency was to be a big day for women. Things didn’t work out that way for a lot of reasons. This column is not here to discuss that; rather, I write it to talk about strong empowered women that do make a difference (since I want my blog to be about strong people men and women can look up to). I’ve chosen to leave out musicians because most people singing songs, especially pop songs, aren’t making a difference, though I will admit Lady Gaga does use her platform to speak on behalf of things she believes in. I’ve also chosen to leave out actresses since they, more often than not, are more about the role than reality, though voices like Emma Watson do stand out for their activism.
Some women do things that it’s hard to say much about. This doesn’t mean they’re bad, but they’re pigeon-holed as great for a relatively small thing. I think of Betsy Ross. What else did she do besides make a flag? Students would want to do speeches on her, but how much can you say? Can you make it 3 minutes? That’s tough for a young kid doing the auctioneer, so it often ends with replacing her with old standbys like Mother Theresa, who gave back to the sick and poor, no matter what Christopher Hitchens thinks of her.
I’ve decided to list 16 total people including the 4 above, who aren’t related or married to me, who stand out for things like intelligence, kindness, compassion, discipline, perseverance, and overcoming adversity. These are people who I would want my daughter to be like (if I had 1) in that they make a difference in the world. I have deliberately chosen to leave out royalty since that’s by birth and dress designer, no matter what a certain princess did for AIDS awareness. Yeah… I have to draw the line somewhere.
In the same way as the other people above, I will acknowledge the power of Oprah since she doesn’t put her name to junk. Ask James Frey about trying to get one over on O. It’s not happening. Oprah has put her name to things like Jenny McCarthy’s anti-vaccine campaign, which seemed well-meaning but came on the heels of Andrew Wakefield’s corrupt and unredeemable study. For all of the good she does, her feeling of support for alternative medicine feels scary to peer-reviewed and tested medicine, no matter whether it’s a chemical or natural. I’m not saying it’s all bad, but in learning about it via the words of Paul Offit, I feel that Oprah is a pill you either love or feel skeptical about. While not an Oprah guy myself, I will say that her positive promotions and other segments on things like Master Class are great. I’m willing to give her the benefit of the doubt, but I’m also not in there 100%.
So of the 11 I like best (I know I’m missing people or not elaborating on others like Marie Curie or Eleanor Roosevelt), they go a little like this:
1. Simone Biles. OK, she’s a 4foot9 and 104 pounds of solid muscle that can flip and contort like it’s nobody’s business since she put the effort into not only being great, but being the best in the world. She has an awesome smile, and she’s a gold medalist. Oh, and did I mention that when my wife and I saw the Olympic gymnasts in Philly on Friday, she had an arena full of little girls screaming at a pitch so high it would shatter glass? That’s not a bad thing. It’s so loud because they want to be like her so much. We spend a lot of time thinking about the best in male sports. Well, Simone could be the pound for pound best in any sport. Really.
2. Malala Yusafazi. Like Simone, she’s just 19, but she’s been on the educational empowerment scene for years. She also got her Nobel Peace Prize, so that’s something, and what’s more, she did get up after the Taliban tried to assassinate her and keep campaigning for women to kick butt in the classroom and community instead of just being baby factories out of religious obligation. Getting up from falling on a gym mat is one thing, but getting up from getting shot in the head is another level. She’s awesome.
3. JK Rowling. As a writer myself, any person who conveys his or her story is a role model. Anyone who gets up to keep trying after multiple rejections is a role model. Anyone who publishes a book is brave. Anyone who overcomes poverty and depression to create a series of beloved books and movies that become a theme park is a voice for empowerment and guidance. It’s great to see her using her voice to speak for others instead of just being a faceless author, too. JK is the voice of a generation.
4. Ruth Bader Ginsburg – As a Supreme Court Justice, she issues rulings on interpretations of the law in creating precedents for what Americans can and can’t do as based on historical legal decisions. That’s a big responsibility, but she’s done it well at the highest court for over 20 years. What little girl shouldn’t aspire to be that voice in the hallowed halls or political leadership?
5. Sally Ride – In things that girls can aspire to, especially since STEM careers aren’t just for boys, Sally Ride was the first woman in space. Who wouldn’t want to look back on the earth from outer space?
6. Rosa Parks – Another old standby, but refusing to give up a seat in the face of racism… now that’s bravery, especially when she’s half the size of those people seeking to arrest her. Sure, Claudette Colvin should have been her, but life has a way of making things happen.
7. Rachel Robinson – Jackie’s wife was there for him in life and death, through tragedy and triumph, as the voice of his legacy and the shield from hatred, she showed that her love was strong enough to make a difference. In a world where the conventions of marriage are questioned, it’s nice to see a person who chose to be a part of a partnership and to make her partner in all things in life her own personal hero while being a hero herself.
8. Mary – for Christians, especially Catholics, Jesus’ mom is kind of important. Sure, she’s not Jesus, but in the Bible she was chosen to be the mother of Jesus. Nevertheless, within many anti-Catholic voices there is the anger for what they perceive as Mary worship and giving her an improper place that belittles the work of Jesus since it raises her to his level. Not debating spirituality, but as we are all called in certain ways, to accept this way, for her, if Christianity is what you believe, is kind of a big deal. This isn’t to say that little girls will grow up to be major spiritual figures of this level, but they could grow up to be like a former teacher I had at Alvernia named Sister Jacinta, who was a Polish version of Simone Biles. Despite being thin and short, she would draw her perfect circles to express how God was real. She had survived the horrors of World War 2 in a Siberian Labor Camp to be a nun teaching philosophy. Now that’s something of a calling answered. What’s more, she once told me, “You’ve read a lot of books, but you’ve read all of the wrong books.” She was right, and she’s a true hero.
9. Florence Nightingale – changed nursing for the qualified, standards-driven better. Oh yeah, and she inspired the creation of the Red Cross. For many women, medicine and helping others is a calling (as it is for men, who can also call her a role model). It’s great to see someone use his or her professional leadership to make a difference in the world in those days, which still carries through to today.
10. My former boss Karen (Jacobson) – Karen was the beloved leader of the Communications / Humanities at RACC for the better part of a decade. She worked tirelessly for teachers and students. For many, that would be a great achievement, but Karen also worked hard to institute actual writing tests to correctly place students (instead of computer-based tests that allowed students to guess lucky). After that, multiple teachers would be able to discuss a student’s grammar and content to put that person in the right level. For people who don’t get it and think that’s judgmental, students only get so many chances at a class with financial aid. If students are in a level that’s over their heads, they can be out of aid with zero chance at progress. If they’re in a level that’s too low, it can take additional time to go through the motions. Karen got that and more. For this, I hope she’s happily enjoying her retirement. She earned it.
So the next time you’re perusing Hello Giggles to cry over the injustices of girls not being allowed to wear revealing prom dresses, think instead about what it means to be a stand-up kind of gal (or guy). We talk at length about how it’s what’s inside that counts. If that’s true, then let’s have a non-Kardashian hero. If sisters should stand up against jerk men, let’s not let Beyonce write an “I hate you, Jay-Z, you cheating bastard” CD while staying with him. If we want to be around good people, let’s not adore the Real Housewives of anywhere.
Instead, look for strength, and strength will become you, no matter what plumbing / gender you embody.