In a world full of drugged out actresses and anorexic runway models, young women are understandably looking beyond pop culture for alternative role models. That’s a great start, but the problem is these girls are turning to women like Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe– who are valued primarily for their looks. Hepburn and Monroe may promote a less destructive portrayal of beauty, but pushing them as role models still sends the message that a woman’s worth is in her appearance. Young girls need role models who are more than just a pretty face; they need role models that prove women have the same capabilities as men and who promote education and hard work, not makeup and pouty lips. So without further ado I present to you, in no particular order, 5 women who are worth looking up to.
1. Dian Fossey
Dian Fossey was courageous and possessed the instinctive urge to fiercely defend what was right, regardless of the consequences. Fossey did extensive work with endangered gorillas; indeed, she lived among them for years, disproving the violent myths taught to us by movies like King Kong. She was a warrior on a mission to defend the innocent. Once, she kidnapped the child of a poacher and held it hostage until they released a previously captured gorilla (does that sound drastic to you? Keep in mind, that the poachers kidnapped the gorilla first, and unlike them, Fossey had no intention of cutting off her captive’s hands to use as ashtrays). When the poachers sent Fossey a message by killing her favorite gorilla, Digit, and leaving his beheaded body outside her home, she knew she was going to die. The US government would not protect her and silently supported the poachers who planned to kill her. But Fossey believed that the right thing to do was to continue her work and continue protecting the gorillas. She was eventually murdered by poachers. She was buried beside her beloved Digit.
What girls can learn from her: To find a passion that inspires the courage to do whatever it takes. Am I suggesting that young girls should aspire to break the law and die for their work? Not necessarily. But I am suggesting that young girls put down the Seventeen magazine and find the thing they care about, and then dedicate themselves to it completely. That’s what turns young girls into fulfilled women.
2. Gloria Steinem
It seems natural that teenage girls should look up to Gloria Steinem; after all, it’s their future and freedom for which she’s spent her life fighting. A journalist, author, activist and media spokesperson, Steinem is a woman of many talents, all of which she fiercely employs in the name of women’s rights. In 1963, she went under cover as Playboy Bunny and wrote an article revealing the wretched way that the women in the Playboy mansion were treated. She’s written other significant pieces, including the deliciously snarky “If Men Could Menstruate,” co-founded women’s magazines and led political movements.
What girls can learn from her: Basically, how to kick some serious ass. Steinem is a role model in courage. The woman has some serious guts, and in a world pop culture is encouraging women to be simpering weaklings, that’s the kind of idol young girls desperately need.
3. Jean Kilbourne
Jean Kilbourne is best known for her film series Killing Us Softly, which exposes the objectification and violence towards women in advertisements. Her work started when she noticed a troubling ad in a magazine, clipped it out and hung it on her fridge. Soon more ads joined the first. Once she had an entire collage, Kilbourne put together her first version of Killing Us Softly. Her films have been shown nationwide, and she continues to wage the war she started against sexist advertising, but now she’s not alone.
What girls can learn from her: In a word: initiative. It’s easy to see what’s wrong with the world, but it isn’t as easy to be the one to find a way to change it. Kilbourne saw a problem and decided to do something about it, and initially she did it all by herself. Initiative and drive are very important traits for women to have, and young girls can learn them by looking to Kilbourne.
4. Toni Morrison
As a professor, mother, activist and Pulitzer Prize winning author, Toni Morrison has a full resume. She’s best known for her works Beloved and The Bluest Eye. Most of Morrison’s work has to do with the plights and accomplishments of black women and, though her ideals match up with feminism, she has said in interviews that she does not like to label her works as feminist, in fear of scaring readers off. She’s been quoted saying “it’s off-putting to some readers, who may feel that I’m involved in writing some kind of feminist tract. I don’t subscribe to patriarchy, and I don’t think it should be substituted with matriarchy. I think it’s a question of equitable access, and opening doors to all sorts of things.” Morrison’s message is one of complete equality between the races and between the sexes.
What girls can learn from her: Hard work. Morrison had high aspirations, which she never would have achieved without the willingness to push herself. It’s often said that women can’t “have it all,” but Morrison is proof that they can. She was a prolific author, devoted mother and successful professor. Girls should look to Morrison and see that they don’t have to choose between motherhood and impacting the world.
5. Amelia Earhart
It’s common knowledge that Amelia Earhart disappeared mysteriously during her attempt to fly around the globe, in what would have been the longest route ever taken to accomplish said feat. What is lesser known is that Earhart was an early advocate for the Equal Rights Amendment and a member of the National Woman’s Party– both facts which should really come as no surprise. Aviation was a man’s profession–indeed, it was a man’s world– but Earhart didn’t care. She was only the 16th woman to get a pilot’s license, and she broke a number of records, including highest altitude breached by a female pilot. Earhart was a role model in her day, serving on a counsel for women and actively supporting the ERA. When she married, she did not allow her marriage to hold her back from her passions; she continued to fly and reach higher and higher. (Also, fun fact for my fellow Central Oregonians: Amelia Earhart’s husband started our very own Bend Bulletin).
What girls can learn from her: Nothing belongs only to men. There isn’t a profession in the world that a woman couldn’t do, and even if it’s currently male dominated, an interested woman shouldn’t let that hinder her. There always has to be a first. In comparison to what Earhart did and accomplished, becoming a female engineer or mechanic doesn’t seem so impossible, does it?
Each of the women listed have accomplished something great and shown valuable traits, such as integrity, courage and drive. Some of these women happen to be extremely beautiful. But they were not content to define their worth by their appearance, and the girls of today should be either. So I encourage you to enjoy your music and old movies and appreciate Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn for what they were. But at the end of the day, understand that a woman’s worth is not tied to her beauty, and when you want to appreciate women who have accomplished something, look beyond the movie stars, who were just acting.