Today is International Women’s Day, and this year’s theme is Make It Happen, which presumably means thinking about all the things you want to do and ensuring they get done. Something I struggle with from time to time, because I channel Kierkegaard a bit too strongly:
“Naturally, every person wants to be active in the world in accordance with his abilities, but this in turn implies that he wants to develop his abilities in a particular direction, namely in that which is best suited to his particular personality. But which direction is that? Here I am confronted with a great question mark. Here I stand like Hercules, but not at a crossroads. No, here there are a great many more roads, and it is thus all the more difficult to choose the right one. Perhaps it is precisely my life’s misfortune to be interested in far too many things, but not decisively in any one thing. My interests are not all subordinated under one heading, but are all coordinated.”
– Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography, Joakim Garff, p.16
Oh Søren, sometimes I think you’re the only one who understands me.
Anyway, where was I? Right. Women’s Day. Trust me to manage to bring Kierkegaard into it somewhere.
I thought I’d post a few of the women whom I’ve found inspirational throughout the years, for a whole host of different reasons. Some whose careers I still follow, others not so much, but all of whom have been instrumental in helping me see that I could do all sorts of different things.
Captain Kathryn Janeway. That’s right, Star Trek. Start as you mean to go on. (Prior warning: there will probably be a lot of Star Trek in this post.)
Janeway inspires me because she’s strong and in control. She finds things difficult sometimes but she powers on through. She cares about her team and she lets them know it, but they also know that at the end of the day, she’s the boss and she calls the shots. She has an analytical mind and loves science, but she doesn’t tear people down for holding beliefs that are different from her own. She understands the importance of people’s personal beliefs and development paths and tries not to step on their toes. Unless you mess with her. Then she’ll shoot. Pew-pew-pew! Seriously though, she’s amazing.
Alana Davidson. Not a fictional character but a teacher at my old school. A capable, intelligent, strong woman who takes no shit. While I was at school, she had a reputation for being a bit terrifying, but she has a heart of gold. She doesn’t do the whole mushy-cuddly thing, which is good because neither do I, but she’s the kind of person who will be there for you when you really need her, and who will do her absolute utmost to help you out. Even when you don’t know what you need.
When my family had no money, rather than doing what most people did and trying to help me out in ways I was too immature and proud to accept (giving me lunch money), Alana got me a job. She pushed me hard in class because she knew I was capable of it, and she encouraged me to do what I knew was best for myself, but unlike a lot of other people she didn’t just discount the views of those who were discouraging me from getting an education. She understood that life is a complex balance of a whole load of different things and she didn’t patronise me by pretending to know my life better than I did.
She also had this fantastically irritating habit of snapping “Scarlett! Head UP!” at me if I was walking along staring at the floor when she passed me in the corridor. At the time, I found it a bit annoying (to put it mildly), but gradually I realised that she was applying basic psychology – if you look like you’re going to face the day, you’re more likely to do it – and it actually worked. Even now, if I’m having a bad day and I notice myself starting to look less than cheerful when I’m walking down the street, I hear her voice in my head, and it helps.
Barbra Streisand. Do I need a reason? She’s beautiful and she has bucketloads of character. Plus an amazing voice, obviously. She could have easily given in to the demands of others, tried to make herself into something she wasn’t, and become a run-of-the-mill popular music artist, but instead she stayed true to herself and is now the official Queen of Music. Says me. You’re not allowed to argue.
From Streisand I learned that sometimes the best answer to people who pull you down for being yourself is to be even more yourself at them. It confuses them and eventually they either just give up or they end up loving you and feeling confused about it.
My ex-mother-in-law. She’s a very private person so I won’t mention her name or what she does, but she’s inspirational because she’s a strong, badass lady who does what she sets out to do. Plus, she cares a lot about the people who matter to her and about making the world a better place.
Deanna Troi. What’s that? Another Star Trek? But of course.
Troi was my first proper memory of Star Trek. I watched TNG before any of the other series; I’m not sure how old I was, but I was old enough to know that I wanted to have a job that had something to do with psychology when I was older. Seeing this effortlessly beautiful and totally badass space princess sitting on the bridge of the Enterprise was in no small way an influence on my career.
She also wasn’t afraid to show her softer, more vulnerable side. In fact I’d say she spent most of the time being nice to people and only became an angry badass when absolutely necessary. I like this about her. I like that she had a chocolate obsession and wasn’t sure what to do about her relationship with Commander Riker and hung out with Beverly doing yoga and giggling about things. I think there’s a lot to be said for allowing yourself to be a woman, even if you’re working in a man’s world. (Everyone who’s ever worked with me is now shaking their head in confusion at how far removed this is from how I do things.)
Sunitha Krishnan. She runs Prajwala, an Indian NGO that rescues people who have been trafficked into the sex industry, rehabilitates them and reintegrates them into society. I can’t possibly do her justice, so here’s a video of her speaking at TED:
Esma Redzepova, partly because she’s Romany. Representation really matters, you know. Seeing someone you personally relate to on a screen, or listening to their music or hearing them speak, gives a certain amount of confidence. Or at least that’s always been the case for me.
And I think this is kind of the point of Women’s Day, and Black History Month, and all the other times when we celebrate minority groups who aren’t always well-represented in mainstream culture. It’s really important to have people you can relate to in positions of influence. Otherwise, how do you know you can get there yourself?
As well as being an amazing singer and a great representation of Romany life, she’s also just a wonderful human being. During the 1970s and 1980s, she fostered 47 children. She is a cultural ambassador for Macedonia and holds a diplomatic passport. She works with a lot of different groups and this in itself does a huge amount to spread goodwill about the Romany people.
Also, she’s totally, unashamedly herself, and she wears giant colorful turbans and bright clothes. How could you possibly not love her?
Sarah Wood. The co-founder of Unruly, the company I used to work for, and a doer of many things. Sarah is an academic, a company director, a mother to three wonderful children, a writer, a manager, and probably about a hundred other things I’ve forgotten about. Her experience is wide-ranging; her life to date has been as broad as it has been long, and there’s no sign that she’ll be slowing down anytime soon.
As well as taking a chance on a slightly odd eighteen-year-old when she hired me, Sarah demonstrated that you could be personable and also be a leader, and that it’s OK to have a lot of interests and do a lot of things. She also proved time and time again that I could rely on her if things got tough in my personal life, but she expected excellent work at all times, something which made me greatly respect her and which I tried to carry on when I started managing my own teams.
B’Elanna Torres, because it’s about time for some more Star Trek.
I love B’Elanna because she’s not perfect. She’s a badass, but she’s also not always in control of herself. She gets angry, she finds things difficult, she sometimes makes really stupid decisions. But she’s great at her job and she rises to the rank of Chief Engineer on a starship that’s run by the very organisation she’d been fighting against.
B’Elanna showed me that imperfections aren’t all that bad. Which was a difficult lesson to learn, because I am traditionally quite the perfectionist. But Torres learns to take even the parts of herself she doesn’t like and turn them to her advantage.
Also, she’s half-Klingon, half-human, full badass, and is often the person I think about when I feel like giving up on something but know I might succeed if I just keep trying.
There are so many more amazing and inspirational women I could (and probably should) mention, but this post is long enough already so I’ll leave it there for now. I’ve been lucky to have been surrounded by such great female role models and to have watched Star Trek at a formative age, this being one of the few shows where women and men are openly shown to be equal.
What about you? Who are your top inspirational females?
P.S. Do I say ‘badass’ too much? I think I say ‘badass’ too much.