Saturday, August 15, 2020

Finding Role Models in Difficult Times

100 years ago, women in America finally got the right to vote. Some states and territories, mostly out west, had given women the vote as far back as 1869 (Wyoming was the first); but it took until 1920 for all women to gain what was then called "suffrage." In commemoration of that achievement, my local newspaper, the Quincy (MA) Patriot-Ledger, was among the many to provide a list of groundbreaking women, many of whom are nationally famous.  But I was genuinely surprised when one of the editors let me know I would be including in a list of noteworthy women from the South Shore, the part of Massachusetts south of Boston (where I live). I've never thought of myself as noteworthy or historic, and yet, there I was on the list, celebrated not just for discovering the rock band Rush but for being a media historian, an author, and a trailblazer for women in radio.

But nothing happens by accident. While we'd all like to think of ourselves as totally self-sufficient and independent, the truth is we all get by with a little help from our friends. In fact, very few of us have managed to achieve much without having role models. In some cases, our role models are people we actually know; they may not be famous, but they were there to give us good advice when we needed it.  In other cases, our role models are people we never met, but we feel like we know them, because their stories have inspired us. Over the years, whenever I've felt discouraged, I've found that having the right role models has been very helpful. So, I'd like to introduce you to four of the women who have influenced my life.

First, as you might expect, there's my mother. Here is a photo of her taken in 1944. She had married my father in 1942 and not long after, he was sent overseas to fight in World War II. I've always thought my mother was very attractive, and I always admired how beautifully she spoke: she was self-taught, having grown up in an era when women weren't encouraged to go to college. She loved to read, and she followed current events closely.  When I was growing up, she and I would often discuss what was going on in the world; it made me feel very grown up to do that. She taught me the importance of getting a good education, and she also taught me the importance of caring about others, rather than just making everything about yourself.  We didn't always see eye to eye (she couldn't understand why I wanted to leave Boston to pursue a career in broadcasting, for example), but she was one of the most spiritual and kind people I ever met.        

Second, there's Eunice Randall. This is a photo of her from 1921, and as you can guess, I never met her. I wish I had. She was perhaps the first woman radio announcer in the East, and she grew up in an era when the idea of a woman having a career was considered shocking. I am told it even cost her relationships, as some of her relatives were opposed to women going to "the big city" to get a job.  But, as the saying goes, nevertheless, she persisted: despite any opposition she encountered, Eunice became a ham radio operator, an announcer, a news reporter, and a radio singer. She could also build and repair radio equipment. She was only about 22 when this photo was taken. And because she was completely written out of media history, despite all her achievements, I made a promise to tell her story and get her written back in. I kept that promise. In fact, she is one of the reasons I became a media historian. 

Third, there's Shirley Chisholm.  She was the first Black woman ever elected to congress. She ran for president in 1972, and I worked on her campaign (although I never had the opportunity to sit and talk with her, I did hear her speak--and she was a dynamic speaker).  Very few male reporters, and even fewer male politicians, took her seriously in that era; but even though she knew she wouldn't get the nomination, she never gave up and she never gave in. She was determined to be a voice for poor and working-class people, and the issues she spoke out about back then still resonate even today.

And finally, Rabbi Sally Priesand, the first female rabbi ever ordained by an American rabbinical seminary. I had the privilege of being in her congregation when I was living in New York in the mid-1970s, and she made quite an impression on me.  Frankly, I never understood why it was considered such a problem for women to want to be in the clergy, but I know that in some denominations, it's still forbidden even now. Back then, seeing her lead a congregation, and lead it so well, was very inspiring to me, at a time when gender roles were still being debated and what women could or could not do was still a topic of discussion. But she had known for a long time that she wanted to be a rabbi, and ultimately, she was able to attain that goal.

Throughout my life, I had people tell me I would never succeed, I couldn't possibly do X, I shouldn't even try to do Y. The women I admire most all share the common traits of being ethical and honorable; and they didn't let their surroundings, or their era, define who they were or what they could be. Some, like my mother, followed a more traditional path (but she never stopped trying to learn, and she never stopped trying to teach).  Others, like Rabbi Sally or Eunice Randall or Shirley Chisholm, carved out a path that few if any other women had walked. I'd be interested to know some of the women you admire, and why you admire them. As for me, I still can't believe there are people out there who think I'm inspirational too, but I'm told there are. And for that, I am very grateful.          


  1. Inspiring and insightful post. Thank you for this!

  2. It is indeed inspiring. We owe our mothers more than ourlives, we owe them showing us the kind of women we could become.