Over the weekend my mother sent me an email. “Do you know that Tuesday, March 8 is International Women’s Day?”
I did not.
Afraid that International Women’s Day was just an excuse to sell Hallmark cards, I did a little research. I was pleased to discover that every year since 1911 women have gathered globally on this date to celebrate the economic, political, and social accomplishments of their sisters. In some countries, such as China, Russia, Vietnam, and Bulgaria, International Women’s Day is a national holiday.
“I’m having a party,” wrote my mother. “I’m asking all my guests to think of three women they would choose to be if they couldn’t be their own wonderful selves.”
Intrigued, I sent her my answers, and then forwarded her question to all the women I know and respect. Even though it was a Saturday morning, within moments emails began to flood my inbox.
“Mother Theresa,” wrote Sarah, a friend from my college years. “Particularly if I didn’t have to make vows to the church.” She continued, “I admire her for her selflessness, commitment to the poor, and that she lived a life of decidedly unglamorous service.”
My mother’s friend Ardyth, who was born with confidence running through her veins, was adamant that she “would not like to be any other woman for more than one day,” but for that day, she would be “Wilma Rudolph on September 7, 1960, when she became the first American woman to win three gold medals in the Olympics in previously all-male track events. That day was HERS.” How sweet those victories must have tasted to Rudolph who had polio as a kid, and was not welcomed in the pediatric ward of the all-white hospital.
Several other respondents picked African-American women who pulled themselves up from challenging circumstances. Paige chose Maya Angelou, author of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and four other autobiographies. Despite Angelou’s difficult upbringing, she “doesn’t belabor negativity,” wrote Paige. “She always uses it as a jumping off spot to where she’s going and how it can be beneficial.”
Corrie Kate wrote that she found Oprah pretty amazing. “She has really lived the width of her life, and has pushed the boundaries.” Corrie draws on the wonderful Diane Ackerman quote that says, “I don’t want to get to the end of my life and find I have lived just the length of it. I want to have lived the width of it as well.”
Some respondents, looking to live the width of their lives, selected women who mirror their own journey. Mary D. picked the writer Anne Lamott because she can identify with her on so many levels, and loves her “authentic unself-conscious tone.” Mary wrote, “I would like to be her because she says things like: ‘Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don’t give up.’ Through her writing I discovered that I’m okay.” Mary is more than okay. She, like Lamott, is warm, thoughtful, funny, and smart.
Gertrude Caroline Ederle, the first woman to swim across the English Channel, was my mother’s choice. “I have never learned to swim,” she wrote, “and have missed out on many wonderful water sports because of my fear.” My mother may be afraid to put her face in the water, but she is completely fearless in all other areas of her life. She frequently travels alone throughout the United States and Europe, and six years ago at the age of 60, decided to learn a foreign language with the determination and training schedule that would rival any long distance swimmer.
Paige, who is a marvelous life coach (www.evolvelifecoach.com), created a set of criteria to aid in her selection. She was looking for a woman who was “centered,” “living life on purpose,” and “could get to the heart of it,” so, of course, she picked Glinda, the Good Witch of the North. Paige wrote, “She showed up when she wanted to. Wasn’t afraid. Reminded people who they truly were, and then disappeared.” Kind of like a good life coach. “Plus, the wand and magic thing would be awesome,” she added.
Other participants were interested in stepping into the shoes of powerful women who didn’t wield magic wands, such as Elizabeth I, highly educated and controversial for her times; Golda Meir, the first women prime minister of Israel who led her country through several pivotal episodes in history; former Ambassador to the United Nations and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright who was forced to flee her homeland of Czechoslovakia not once, but twice; and Eleanor Roosevelt, who decided at 14 years of age after being labeled “ugly” in a world that worships beauty that she would not let her looks deter her from living a life of purpose.
“Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton are on my respect list for getting us where we are today!” writes Mary N., a cyclist married to the co-owner of the local bike shop. According to the current issue of Cycle California magazine, both Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, leaders of the suffrage movement, were also ardent supporters of women’s cycling. “Let me tell you what I think of bicycling,” said Anthony. “I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride on a wheel. It gives women a feeling of freedom and reliance.”
Early suffragettes would definitely rejoice at how far women have come in cycling as well as politics. Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, and Nancy Pelosi all wield a tremendous amount of political clout, and it is only a matter of time before a woman is elected President of the United States. My friend Barbara and I both share an admiration for the current First Lady. Barbara, who is Swiss, wrote, “(Michelle Obama) is beautiful, strong, and an inspiring woman…She gets to influence our country and even the world, and yet she is a mom at the same time.” Every time I see Michelle Obama, tall, proud, and gracious, I have a desire to dig a little deeper to find my best self.
Jill Kinmont Boothe had to dig very deep to find the strength to recreate her life after a ski accident left her a quadriplegic. Her story is told in the book and movie The Other Side of the Mountain. “Not that I want to be in her place,” wrote Corrie, “but she was an amazing athlete and a very determined lady. Then life dealt her a terrible blow, but she handled it with grace and dignity, and became a teacher so she could help kids, and to top it all off, she is a beautiful artist.”
Another woman who emerged from a life of tragedy was Mary Magdalene. Lyn wrote that she chose Mary Magdalene because of “her unwavering walk with Him despite the condemnation she received from others including the disciples.”
Curious, I ask my daughters what woman they would want to be. Emma, who is nine, said she would be Julia Child, and Clara, seven, choose Clara Barton. Although these were good answers, there was something familiar about their choices. I then remembered that these were the women they picked for a school activity where they dressed up as their favorite person in history.
It made me wonder if they even KNEW of other women in history to choose from. Who was inspiring them? Who were their heroines?
A few minutes later, Emma revised her answer. “I want to be the author who wrote the Harry Potter books instead,” she said. “Was that a woman?”
She is referring to J.K. Rowlings, and, unfortunately, the ambiguity of her gender was an intentional marketing ploy. Publishers were concerned that Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone might not sell well if boys knew it was written by a woman. Joanne Rowlings, a single mom who’d already had her manuscript rejected by 12 other publishing houses, agreed to become J.K. Rowlings. She has now sold 400 million copies of her books and is worth one billion dollars. I’m not necessarily criticizing Rowlings for writing under a gender-neutral name, but I wish my daughter would have known loud and clear that her favorite author was a woman.
Right then and there I decided that I would celebrate International Women’s Day by sharing with my daughters the stories and histories of important women. I want them to know the kindness and hard work of Jane Addams, the determination and focus of Billie Jean King, and the fearless expression of Margaret Bourke-White, Barbara Streisand, Louisa May Alcott, and the many other women artists, musicians, and writers who put their own name to their work.
But mostly, I want to tell them about the women who sent me their responses. I want to read to them Barbara’s comment that prefaced her email: “I need to tell you that I am actually in the process of becoming ‘who I might have been.’ Remember the quote you wrote for me two years ago: ‘It’s never too late to be who you might have been.’ [George Eliot]. Well, I’m going to start my mountain guiding certification process. So right now, I really just want to be myself.”
While Barbara Kingsolver, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Georgia O’Keefe inspire me, it is my mother and my friends who teach me how to be myself. It is their kindness, their strength, their patience, and their beautiful acts that afford me the space to stretch my wings wide.
Ardyth writes of her choices Wilma Rudolph and Katharine Hepburn, “They did it their way and on their terms. Not settling for mediocre is a message that most of us women rarely hear in such loud and clear language.”
Whether we are running a country or folding a load of laundry, we are women who make a difference. Our contributions large and small, our courage, our compassion, our tenacity, our creativity is to be acknowledged and celebrated, today and every day. As International Women’s Day reminds us, our lives have immeasurable width and possibility, and it is never too late to embrace all we might be. Each of us, regardless of age or station, must take on the responsibility to soar to the greatest heights we can in our own way, because there are a lot of little girls (and little boys) watching from the ground, just getting a feel for how far their own wings can fly.
It’s the fire in my eyes / And the flash of my teeth / The swing in my waist / And the joy in my feet. / I’m a woman / Phenomenally. / Phenomenal woman / That’s me.
–Maya Angelou from “Phenomenal Woman”