A few years ago I attended an event that asked women to identify a female who inspired them. I was most interested in the responses because I realized I didn’t have an answer to the question. I attended an all-girls school for six years, feel strongly about women’s equality, and I was ashamed I didn’t couldn’t answer the question in a meaningful way. There are of course women in history who I admire. But can I legitimately say Susan B. Anthony inspires me? Or is that the answer I give because she’s supposed to inspire me.
So I did what any studious person would do, and went to the library. Much to my chagrin there wasn’t the tome I expected to find titled Read this Book to Find Your Personal Female Inspiration. So I improvised and took out what I determined to be the mother of all feminist literature, The Feminine Mystique. It did not present to me what I was looking for, but it was a fascinating book that mostly holds up decades later.
Feeling forlorn, I gave up my random library quest. I wondered if the women who would truly inspire me didn’t merit a biography. Hadn’t there been women across history who struggled and persevered, but it went unnoticed because she didn’t have a high enough social status? When browsing the biography section I noticed many women were chronicled for their achievements because they were born into a family that could fund their ideas or adventures. This is of course a generalization, as are most statements about classes and genders.
I let my quest lie dormant for months until I attended an event that honored a female physician. I was struck by her bio—she was accomplished in her career, but so many awards had the word female in front. Why wasn’t she recognized for being a physician, and not a female physician? I told her of my plight to find a female role model, when her male colleague asked me why it had to be a female. Crickets. I hadn’t thought of that. I guess because I was embarrassed that I didn’t have a female inspiration, and I identified so strongly as a feminist. But then how could I complain that this accomplished physician was being singled out for her achievements because she was a woman? It felt hypocritical.
When I ask women if they identify any specific women as their inspiration, many respond with their mothers or grandmothers. Others struggle with the question as I do. It is such a personal question—who inspires you—that it can’t be forced. Unfortunately there isn’t a book to tell you who will touch your life, just as there isn’t a book that chronicles your career moves, or tells you how you will find love.
But if I did compile a book about people who inspire you—man or woman because inspiration isn’t gender-specific—who would be yours?