Female role models are important because they’re inspiring – to so many people and for so many reasons.
When you think about the people who inspire you, you probably think first about what makes them inspiring, not what gender they are, how old they are or what they look like.
Just like their male counterparts, female role models – which by definition, regardless of gender, refer to those who are exemplary with behaviors worthy of being emulated – have shaped history and changed lives.
It is particularly important to celebrate and call attention to these female figures, especially in business, because their accepted presence as credible leaders is still in its infancy.
Look, for instance, at these first-time female leaders and the dates associated with their pivotal positions:
1933: Frances Perkins, first woman member of a presidential cabinet under Franklin D. Roosevelt
1964: Margaret Chase Smith, first woman nominated for president of the United States by a major political party
1972: Katharine Graham, first woman CEO of a Fortune 500 company
1981: Sandra Day O’Connor, first woman justice of the Supreme Court
1997: Madeleine Albright, first woman to serve as U.S. Secretary of State and becomes the highest-ranking woman in the United States government
2008: Hillary Clinton, first woman in U.S. history to win a presidential primary contest
Gender Game Changers
But, do you need endorsement to be a role model? Absolutely not. And the women who we so often think of as classic female role models did not set out to be granted permission or attain titles. Rather, they lived in the realm of possibilities and embraced their gender to achieve greatness.
Here are a few early pioneers in female history who shared these inspiring words to live by when setting out to be your best – in your personal and professional life.
- “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” – Eleanor Roosevelt. Known for her outspoken stance on social and racial issues, Eleanor was also the longest-serving First Lady of the United States and was one of the first delegates of the United Nations. Eleanor publically disagreed with her husband’s policies and taught women everywhere what it meant to have a voice and how to put it to good use.
- “Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t!” – Margaret Thatcher. As the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Baroness Thatcher described herself as a conviction politician, or one who campaigns based on his or her own fundamental values or ideas as opposed to adopting an existing viewpoint. She showed women what it meant to be a leader and lived by the principle that power must be earned, and that it can be earned regardless of gender.
- “A wise girl knows her limits, a smart girl knows that she has none.” – Marilyn Monroe. A controversial but undeniably popular female figure, Monroe broke gender barriers by promoting her sexuality, instead of condemning it. Her wildly famous insights and quotes evoke the idea that a woman can embrace all of the inherent qualities of her gender while still being successful – in fact, it can make her successful. Monroe’s views have a certain level of self-awareness that to-date have never before been articulated so masterfully.
In Summary: There’s a New World for Women
Who you idolize varies, and why you idolize them depends enormously on your own background, ethnicity, and yes, gender. But one thing is for certain, the faces of role models are changing.
Fifty years ago, chances are, you would have idolized Mary Church Terrell – who, for those who don’t know, was the daughter of a former slave and the first African-American woman to earn a college degree – or Eleanor Roosevelt or Clara Barton – the founder of the Red Cross and a pioneer in teaching. Now with the popularity of reality TV and one-hit YouTube wonders, it’s less clear who young women today should be modeling themselves after.
As Lyndsey Oliver put it in a recent article in The Guardian, “The trouble is, there are not enough senior female role models in business, and opportunities to meet and be inspired by them directly are few and far between. However, role models don’t have to be unattainable and they don’t have to be limited to famous figures or a limited number of female business leaders. We can open up a range of possibilities if we look to cultivate ‘real models.’”
Female role models in today’s world are out there – and they’re coming in an ever-diversifying form and in a variety of mediums. They’re teaching us that there are no boundaries and that the reach of the modern woman is truly limitless.