The other day I came across a blog called Some Kind of 50. To be more precise, I came across the most recent post in this blog, entitled ‘50 Women Who Have Inspired me’. I was instantly intrigued by the challenge of trying to identify 50 – count ‘em, 50 – women who have inspired me. This isn’t women who you admire or women who you find inspiring in general, but women who have actually inspired you personally. Inspired you to try something new, or reach out to others, or take up a new cause, or pursue the path you hadn’t been sure you’d be able to succeed at. Women who in some way or other have encouraged you to be a better, different, and/or stronger version of who you might otherwise have been.
This challenge isn’t quite as hard for me as for those of you who are younger, because I’ve had so many years to encounter women who might inspire me. But this challenge is difficult for all of us for a simple reason that becomes obvious as soon as you start thinking about it: until very recently, women weren’t allowed to play any public roles in, well, anything, or, if they did, there was usually a man who was given credit for it. Therefore, many lists of influential women are composed primarily of film and music celebrities, not because women aren’t capable of succeeding in every imaginable walk of life and leadership role, but because they have been kept from doing so for centuries.
So, this challenge really made me think. I’ve had a lot of men who have inspired me and mentored me, especially in the male-dominated world of computer science that I spent my life in. But what women have inspired me through my life and why? Fifty was way too many for me, but I have settled on a list of 20 (well, really 22 but I made two pairs so as to have a list that was divisible by 10!). There are many, many women I admire. Women like Gabby Gifford and Malala Yousafzai and Michelle Obama. Women like my daughters-in-law and other young female friends and former female students who do such an awesome job of balancing their own careers with raising busy families and having solid marriages. Women like my female friends who have started and successfully run their own IT companies, and my friends who get up and get to the gym or the community kitchen while I’m still deciding if it’s really time to get up. However, that admiration hasn’t translated into inspiring me to try something new or do what I already do with more confidence. This list is about women who have inspired me personally.
My list is as eclectic as everyone’s would probably be, maybe even more so. Your list depends on your own personal history and your particular interests. Think about what women would be on your list. Try it, it’s fun! Here’s mine.
- Marie Curie. This was the first woman aside from my mother who truly inspired me. I read a library book about Marie Curie when I was about 10, and decided then and there that I could be a scientist just like her. It turned out that wasn’t entirely accurate (!), but her story is just as inspiring – and romantic – to me now as it was over 60 years ago. Marie Curie worked side by side in her lab in Paris with the man who became her husband, and subsequently also worked with her daughter, discovering radium and many other pioneering discoveries in radioactivity. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize (in 1903 with her husband Pierre and another physicist), the first person and only woman to win twice, and the only person to win a Nobel Prize in two different sciences (for chemistry in 1911).
- Clare Currie. My mom, Clare Currie, inspired me to be the best I could be from a very early age. I think her expectations for me exceeded my own sense of what I needed to accomplish; some of her encouragement might well have been more about her expectations and dreams for herself. Regardless, there is no doubt about her impact and her inspiration. She’s gone in body but that spirit and that voice are never far away.
- Helen Keller. Helen Keller is another person whose life story I savoured thanks to another library book when I was about 10. The reality of a young deaf-blind girl living in complete sound and visual isolation until Anne Sullivan joined the family as her tutor when she was 6 remains remarkably compelling. The lack of any stimulation during a child’s most formative years must have seemed an impossible obstacle to overcome. But overcome it she did, with Anne Sullivan’s inspired and inspiring help. Helen Keller went on to lead a life devoted to helping others, which is astounding in itself. Her story of courage and determination has stayed with me, and doubtless countless others.
- Anne Frank. Another story of a young girl’s astounding courage. Her Diary was read by every girl I knew when I was young; her experience was so very recent and very real at the time. A lesson in courage in unimaginable adversity.
- Rosa Parks. I was 9 when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white woman on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama when asked to by the bus driver because the “colored section” that African-Americans were restricted to was full. Those were the early days of the civil rights movement and it took years of activism and riots to bring about desegregation, which is still only done reluctantly in many quarters. This act of defiance may not seem like much today, but it was huge. Rosa Park’s courageous actions in the face of longstanding expectation of racial subservience made an extraordinary public statement, which many credit with having started the freedom movement.
- Eleanor Roosevelt. Eleanor Roosevelt was an idol of mine when I was young. A very wealthy woman in an influential family, she did things with her own voice rather than through her husband, President Roosevelt, at a time when that wasn’t the social norm. And everything she decided to take on, and take on with a strong sense of purpose, was to help those who needed help and to make the world a better place. She was the U.S. delegate to the UN after her husband’s death and worked tirelessly on human rights issues. One of the many quotes she is well known for is: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
- Irene Mayer. Mrs. Mayer was our neighbour across the street growing up, and mother of my childhood best friend. She showed by example how to make people of all ages (including kids) feel good about themselves, how to bring people together, and how to celebrate community. Her memory continues to inspire me.
- Flora Beckett. Flora Beckett was a good friend of mine, as well as to countless others. Flora was the first woman I knew personally who taught math at university; I couldn’t have been more impressed. She definitely inspired me, even though it used to embarrass her for me to say so. The most important gift Flora imparted on many of us before she left us far too soon was her belief in working at being happy. She believed that we have a choice: we can complain, often legitimately, and be unhappy, or do what we can to turn things around and be happy. Sometimes I have to remind myself of this!
- Alice Munro. One of my very favourite authors. Alice Munro writes about everyday towns, everyday people, and everyday concerns. And she does it in such a beautiful and accessible way. Her writing seems effortless. She speaks to me so well through her characters. I think about her style when I work at writing.
- Maria Klawe & Indira Samarasekera. These impressive women deserve their own numbers. I’m cheating in order to keep my list to 20. Maria Klawe and Indira Samarasekera have both had highly successful careers in technology and academia. Maria is a Canadian (now a dual US citizen as well) scientist who, with a PhD in mathematics (and then added a PhD in computer science), has had a distinguished career as a researcher, a university administrator (at the University of British Columbia (UBC) and Princeton, then culminating as the first female president of Harvey Mudd College in California). She has been a long-time passionate and effective advocate for encouraging more young women to study computer science. Indira is a Sri Lankan-Canadian who has a distinguished career as a research engineer and a university administrator. With a PhD in metallurgical engineering, she became only the second female engineering professor at UBC. After a very successful term as UBC’s VP Research, she became the first female president of the University of Alberta, serving from 2005-2015. Both of these women are lovely to talk to and make you believe that things really can get done, that change can happen. We need so many more role models like Maria and Indira.
- Jody Wilson-Raynauld & Jane Philpott. Everyone reading this who lives in Canada will know why these two women are here. Some of you might not agree with politicians – and high powered Cabinet Ministers at that – publicly criticizing their own Party, but few of us would deny that they acted with a level of integrity that very, very few people in politics have exhibited. They acted to their own detriment and also to the detriment of their Party (and for the most part mine), at least in the short term for sure, which is why not everyone will agree with what they did. But for most of us, the fact that these two women were willing to put their own future on the line in order to do what they thought was right – or maybe more to the point in order to not go along with what they thought was wrong – is a refreshing change, worthy of admiration. Their commitment to their sense of truth and integrity have inspired me at a personal level.
- Christine Lagarde. I can’t help it, I cannot be anything other than inspired by such a smart, take-charge, stylish woman. She definitely does not come across as a woman who is going to be “little woman”-ed by any alpha male. Watching her almost makes me think I should stop colouring my hair! 😉
- Barbara Kingsolver. Barbara Kingsolver’s novels are among the most impactful that I have ever read, with The Poisonwood Bible at the top of the list. So much history and social conscience woven into her stories, with such effective results. I’d love to be able to latch on to even a tiny bit of the magic and technique in her writing.
- Annie Proulx. Annie Proulx’ novels have a similar impact on me. Although she’s American, she spends a portion of her time in northern Newfoundland, and I admit that her novels that have a Newfoundland (Shipping News) or Maritime (Barkskins) setting are among my favourites. Her writing and her handling of the intriguing subject matter she chooses are brilliant. She’s another of my writing muses.
- Ursula Franklin. I first learned about Ursula Franklin from my undergraduate mentor at McGill in 1965. He was a crystallographer and she was a metals researcher at the Ontario Research Foundation in Toronto. My mentor spoke highly of her as a researcher; that’s all I needed to be inspired. She would have been 44 at the time, having worked at the research centre for many years after having survived the holocaust and left Germany. What I didn’t know until much later is that when things started to improve for women having a place in academe – or anywhere else – Ursula Franklin became a professor in engineering at the University of Toronto in 1967, and in 1984 became the first woman to receive U of T’s highest honour of University Professor. Aside from being a successful scientist, she mentored many, many female and male students over 4 decades. And, as a lifelong Quaker, she was an active and articulate advocate for world peace throughout her life. The inspiration I took from her just grew as I learned more about her in later years.
- Ada Lovelace. A huge hero of mine and an amazing story. Ada Lovelace was the daughter of Lord Byron, married to a Count (she was actually Ada King, Countess of Lovelace). But she was also a talented mathematician, back in the early 1800s, who worked with Charles Babbage on his famous Analytical Engine, considered to be the first prototype for a mechanical computing machine. Ada is the one who saw the possibilities of a computing machine beyond straightforward calculations; she developed algorithms for such a machine to carry out. She is thought of fondly as the world’s first programmer – and she was a woman!
- Grace Hopper. Another hero, who I had the pleasure and privilege of listening to at a presentation in Halifax in 1980 or so. She was a captivating presenter. A mathematician, computer scientist, and career naval reservist, Grace Hopper began her work in computing in 1944 when she worked on the Harvard Mark I. 1944! She is responsible for the development of one of the first programming languages I learned, the ever maligned COBOL. She was supposed to retire from the Navy at age 60 in 1966, but the Navy kept undoing her retirement, because they wanted her services. She eventually retired in 1985, at age 79, as the first woman of rank admiral.
- Sheila Watt-Cloutier. Sheila Watt-Cloutier is one the newest of my female heroes. While devouring all the books I could find about the Arctic, I “discovered” her when stumbling upon a book she wrote called The Right to be Cold. Sheila is a Canadian Inuit activist and recent International Chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council. The social and environmental challenges of the Inuit (Eskimo in Alaska) populations in the Arctic right around the world (Canada, Greenland, Alaska, and Russia) are enormous and need the strongest possible voices. She has filled those shoes admirably.
- Kathrine Switzer. How can any female runner not be inspired by the audacious and effective action of Kathrine Switzer in registering for the Boston Marathon in 1967 without the registration making it obvious that she was female. At least one male tried to remove her from the course as she ran, but she was protected by other males and finished the race in a respectable time. It was another 4 years before the organizers were sufficiently shamed into allowing female runners to enter. Can you imagine that women were considered – by males – to be too fragile to run distances that recently? Now at least as many females as males enter innumerable races every year. Even me! Thank you, Kathrine, on behalf of all of us.
- Angela Merkel. I would like to have included more female politicians, if only because the world so desperately needs more of them. But I’ll be honest, most of the ones I could think of were not women who have inspired me. Sorry, folks, I understand that it’s a tough gig. Angela Merkel, however, has always stood out in my eyes. A former chemist with a PhD in quantum chemistry, raised in communist East Germany in a family with a father who was a Lutheran pastor, she entered politics after the Iron Curtain fell in 1989. It was a whole new world – a united Germany – and she took on the leadership challenge with smarts, grit, vision, and the ability to compromise, over a long and volatile period of time. What she has accomplished for her country and for Europe is impressive beyond all measure. We should all be inspired by her and by her approach in such a tough, tough job.
I should also add my granddaughter, Clara Fritz Wells, who inspires me to (try to) be more creative than I otherwise would be. ❤
There you have it. I can imagine that nobody without an interest in science or computer science will share many of those on my list. What do you think? Of the blog post that inspired me to think about this, out of her 50 and my 20, we only had two in common! What about you? Who’s on your list?!
Image credits: Wikipedia