Previously featured on Elephant Journal.
Growing up as little girls in America, we are fortunate to have no shortage of empowered women to whom we can look up as role models. From the early childhood years we learn about Susan B. Anthony and her contributions to the women’s suffrage moment, and as we mature we delve into the progressive politics of Eleanor Roosevelt, a woman ahead of her time, who made tireless contributions to workers’ rights, women’s rights and human rights as a whole. More recently we can look to Oprah Winfrey, with whom I grew up, having been at the impressionable age of 11 when the Oprah Winfrey Show first launched. Throughout my adolescence and into my womanhood, I watched in awe as Oprah changed and inspired the world for the better. Pretty incredible for a poor, black girl from rural Mississippi. For me, Oprah encapsulates the essence of female empowerment.
Now why am I singling out women as the shining examples of empowerment? Of course there are thousands of examples of empowered men who have made significant impacts on our society, but as we live in a society where women still earn on average 20% less than men, and men still dominate the executive offices, I think it is more important than ever that young girls have positive, powerful and capable female role models. As I think of Oprah and the other empowered female leaders of our time, it occurs to me that I don’t need to look any further than my own circle to find powerful examples of female empowerment… starting with my own mother. Here, I would like to introduce you to some of the incredible women in my life, who have inspired and continue to inspire me, everyday:
Meet Marilyn (a.k.a. Mom). Mom was born into a generation where most women did not have a college education and many did not have careers. Of course, never one to sit idly by, Mom was way ahead of her time. By the age of 35, Mom had earned a Master’s degree while raising three children under the age of five, she had a solid career in education and had lived in two countries and five different states. Later on, motivated to further her career, while raising three teenagers and working a full-time job, she proceeded to earn her Ph.D., and added three more states to her list of homes. She has now been a distinguished professor at three different colleges, has published three books, has lived in eight different states and has traveled to 20 countries. Mom taught me everyday, simply through her own actions, that women in our society can accomplish anything they want. Of course it’s no surprise that Mom was as empowered as she was, having come from a long line of empowered women. Her mother, my Grandma Monks, although from a generation when women rarely drove, was tenacious enough to get her first driver’s license at the age of 62, and even more amazingly to earn herself a Bachelor’s degree at the sprightly age of 72. As if that weren’t enough, that same year she decided she also needed to hike to the summit of a 3,165 ft. Mt. Monadnock. And what of her mother? My Great Grandmother Beckford was the most feisty of the bunch. As a widow, she raised two kids during the depression, she ran for a legislative office in 1940 (only 20 years after being granted the right to vote!) and she refused to take social security until age 80 when she stopped working. Who does that?? With influences like those, it would be hard to imagine any other possible outcome than for both my mother and myself to have ended up as empowered women. When asked what she would do if she had all the money in the world, Mom answers, “I would build a home in Maine, make sure my kids all had homes, travel to Greece and also I would support an incubator for people who developed unique plans for helping disadvantaged or troubled teenagers.”
Meet Julie. Julie and I met almost 15 years ago as colleagues planning educational tours abroad for students. An adventurer from the start, by the age of 15 Julie and a friend had decided to send themselves to Europe for the summer, where they spent a month in Spain, followed by a second month in France. This was just the beginning of her adventurous life. Over the following two years she spent a total of six weeks in both Guadeloupe and Ecuador on study programs, and by the age of 22 she had spent two separate years living in two separate parts of France. Was that enough? No way. A Francophile practically from the minute she left the womb, Julie went on to obtain a Master’s degree in French studies at NYU, taking her to live in France a third time. Throughout all of this incredible journey, she has managed to devote herself selflessly to several different volunteer organizations; among them completing an entire year of inner city volunteerism with City Year, and additionally with two organizations specifically focused on women’s economic inclusion and empowerment (a topic about which Julie is impassioned): Women for Women International and Women’s World Banking. All of this hard work and understanding of foreign cultures and economics has led Julie to a prestigious career working in international trade and investment with the French government. Julie is now responsible for creating and nurturing business ties between French and U.S. entities, companies, and governments. She has now traveled to 25 countries across five continents. When asked what she would do if she had unlimited wealth, her answer is “I would do what I am doing right now – only more of it – more money to causes I support, I would take care of my family financially, and I would travel more.”
Meet Kim. Kim and I also met at the same educational travel company where I met Julie (apparently an incubator for empowered women!). Another daring adventurer, by the age of 23, Kim had already lived in three separate foreign countries: The UK, France and the Netherlands. (Italy and India would be added to this list before the age of 30!) Having had the dream to work in the field of foreign affairs, Kim worked tirelessly to get herself accepted to Harvard and earned a Master’s degree in International Education. Ever the consummate achiever, Kim went on to be awarded the prestigious Presidential Management Fellowship in 2003, leading her to a highly successful career with the U.S. Department of State. Throughout her seven year tenure at the Department of State, Kim has excelled to achieve the highest GS grade level, for her performance on managing foreign assistance, and has spent a tour living in India. She currently has the very important responsibility of managing all of the United States Government’s foreign assistance used for security purposes, including our commitments to Pakistan, Egypt, Iraq, etc. Kim has traveled to a staggering 72 countries and her work has taken her, with two separate Secretaries of State, to every continent except for Antarctica. In addition to maintaining this high-powered career, Kim is now serving in the most important role of her lifetime, as the mother of a beautiful baby girl. With Kim as a role model of female empowerment, I have no doubt that her daughter will follow in her mother’s footsteps to achieve equally impressive accomplishments. When asked what she would do if she had unlimited wealth, Kim answers, “After providing a modest safety net for my daughter, I think I would pay it forward in as many situations as possible, help the neediest and those truly struggling, support key issues that are important to me such as animal welfare, abused and neglected children, education reform and the environment.”
Meet Kathleen. She is one of my favorite examples of total female empowerment, and not for any of the reasons I’ve mentioned above with my previous friends. In fact, Kathleen has had quite a different story from any of these ladies. You see, Kathleen gave birth to her first child at the tender age of 15. Even she herself finds that hard to believe as she reads it! She went on to have a total of three children, and unable to take the traditional path of college and career, she had to make great sacrifices for her children. Now a single Mom, and barely over the age of 30, her oldest child is soon to be entering college… and despite the hardships and obstacles she has faced, Kathleen has managed to work herself into a very successful career in banking, all the while raising three happy, healthy and well-mannered children. Having gained the perfect niche skill-set, Kathleen became integral to the FDIC during the plethora of bank loan and mortgage defaults that occurred after the 2008 recession. This unique and sought-after experience later led to Kathleen being hired by one of the largest and most prestigious banks in the state of Georgia. When I look at Kathleen’s life, I am completely in awe. Not only is she without a doubt, one of the smartest, most eloquent and well-spoken people I know, here is a woman who can take on the world. True. Female. Empowerment. When asked what she would do with all of the money in the world, Kathleen answers, “I would take care of my family, who has supported me all my life, and show my children the world through travel.”
Meet Steph. Last year I was traveling with a tour group to Brazil and Argentina. Among the members of the group was a lovely family from New Zealand, who were visiting their daughter, Steph, who was spending the year living in a remote village of Argentina. Having studied abroad in college myself, when I met Steph and saw her level of maturity, I was sure that she too must be a college student spending her junior year abroad. I was shocked to learn that she was only 16! Only 16 years old, and this brave young lady took herself to the other side of the world, where she knew not a soul, to spend an entire year away from her family and the comforts of home. When I think back to myself at age 16, I could barely fathom leaving the state, nevermind the country, for that length of time. This was a truly impressive young lady. When I look back at my other friends mentioned above, who took similar, life-changing actions in their teenage years, I am filled with excitement to think about what Steph’s incredible journey will have in store for both her, and for the world. Where will she go? What will she do? Anywhere and anything she wants. The world is her oyster. When asked what she would do with all of the money in the world, Steph answers, “I would follow my desire to go to college and study law, and to learn Italian and French. I would then like to travel further abroad, extending my horizons, giving support to those who are truly less fortunate. I would eventually like to do work involving international relations.”
This is just a small glimpse into the lives of the empowered goddesses that surround me, and it is just a reminder of that which women are capable, at all ages and under all circumstances. Who are the women in your life who have served as powerful and positive models of empowerment for YOU? Have you ever thought about how they have influenced your own life and about ways in which they might have shaped who you are today? Have you ever looked at your OWN life and realized how you might be more empowered than you ever realized?…. that in fact YOU might be serving as a model of empowerment for others? Write down your own story, as I have done with these “Wonder Women,” and you may just be surprised by what you find. Look around you and within you, and see the examples of strong, capable, empowered women, both young and old, who shape you and inspire you everyday. And if you have the chance to serve as a role model for a young girl, take it.