Behind every strong, smart woman, there’s an inspiring character who helped motivate her to be herself and be heard.
Curtis Sittenfeld: Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice
Possibly the all-time best compliment I’ve received was when two boys in high school told me I reminded them of Elizabeth Bennet. We were reading Pride and Prejudice, a task so delightful I couldn’t believe it was homework. I loved the book. Lizzy was funny, smart, stubborn, and down-to-earth. Did I possess those qualities? Maybe, if you overlooked my aura of awkwardness.
As I grew up, Lizzy Bennet’s influence on me was quite literal: In my late 30s, I wrote my own modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice, set in Cincinnati. Writing Eligible offered me the delicious experience of spending years sitting at my desk thinking about Pride and Prejudice (and it counted as work!). It also prompted me to analyze why the novel resonates so deeply. There are multiple reasons—the humor, the romance, the wise observations about class and gender, the deft character development and propulsive dialogue. But I suspect that readers adore Pride and Prejudice because of this above all: Lizzy gets Darcy! And their successful and swoony coupling sends a message about love that isn’t easy to find elsewhere: It’s OK—in fact, it’s critical—to be true to yourself, because if the man of your dreams is really the man of your dreams, he’ll love you for your mind.
There is, apparently, a lot you can get away with when that happens. After you traipse through muddy fields to see your sick sister, the man will find your disheveled appearance charming (chapter 7). When you mock him for judging women, he will be enchanted (chapter 8). When he proposes (finally! in chapter 34) and you tell him he’s “the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry,” he will respect you but also forgive you when you change your (magnificent) mind.
Do these “lessons” hold true in real life? I’d say...sort of. I think my husband loves me for my mind; whether he’s as charmed by my argumentative, headstrong nature depends on the situation. But I’m grateful that I’ve had Lizzy to look to as a role model of wit and authenticity. I’ve never been perfect, but I’ve always been me.
Curtis Sittenfeld is the author of five novels. Eligible (Random House) is a New York Times best seller.
Carolyn Miles: Mary Richards from The Mary Tyler Moore Show
When I graduated from college in 1983, my first job was with a big company in Chicago, selling trainloads of raw materials used to make glass. I was the first woman sales rep in my territory. I was breaking new ground, though I didn’t think about that—I just thought, “I want to make money and live on my own, like Mary Richards.”
I watched The Mary Tyler Moore Show as I entered my teens. My own mom was a homemaker for most of my childhood; she became a real estate agent when I was in high school. Back then there were very few single working women, and a TV show about one was radical. To see this alternative life was exciting. Mary throwing her hat in the air exemplified the freedom I wanted so much, and she showed me I could have it.
I had a great boss at that first job—my very own Lou Grant. He basically said, “It’s up to you. You can make it or not.” And in the back of my mind I had that line from the theme song: “You’re gonna make it after all.” Mary showed me you could challenge a boss, push him, question what he said, and have a discussion as equals in a way I welcome now that I’m a boss myself. She held her own, but in a way that was warm and often funny. Her humanity showed through. It taught me that I didn’t have to just be tough to survive as a woman in business; I could also be myself.
Now I manage 1,500 people at Save the Children. And the way Mary cared about her coworkers sticks with me. I’ve tried to create an environment where people are encouraged to speak their mind, and I bring humor into the workplace, knowing that part of Mary’s ability to connect with others was being quick to laugh (most importantly at herself). Some of the issues we deal with take an emotional toll. Humor builds resilience and a sense of teamwork so we can face challenges together.
Looking back, I realize I never saw Mary try to balance work and family. But at the age I met her, I only wanted to have a job and be independent, and she showed me the way. I have two adult sons and an adopted daughter who is almost 16, and her female role models are more varied, global, and accomplished than my teenage self could have ever dreamed. Mary Richards blazed a trail for me, and my children will blaze a trail for the next generation—hopefully with a dose of Mary’s determination, inclusiveness, and humor to guide them.
Carolyn Miles has worked for the international humanitarian organization Save The Children for 18 years, the last six as President and CEO.
Gabourey Sidibe: Celie from The Color Purple
I was born right after The Color Purple came out, so I feel like Celie and I are the same age. I was probably 6 when I first saw the movie. There were no real rules in my house about what we could watch. Then, in junior high, I read the book. There was nothing easy for Celie. She was struggling left and right, handed from one horrible man to another. And the whole time I was reading about her, I was dealing with depression. I didn’t realize it as depression at the time, but every time I felt really, really low, I would pick up The Color Purple and read about Celie’s pain and how her struggle made her who she was, and it made me feel better about my life. Because at least my daddy didn’t sell me off to this man, Mr., who wanted to marry my sister. At least I didn’t have to lie under Mr. I wasn’t raising some mean, ugly stepchildren like she was.
When I was 21 years old, I worked at a phone-sex call center as a “talker.” The pay was $7 an hour. It was degrading. I can’t tell you how many times I read The Color Purple between calls. I looked to Celie when I couldn’t afford therapy. People think I have a sunny disposition, but I’m not the most positive person. Celie did her best to stay positive. She believed God would care for her, even when she thought about dying. It’s awful, but I get it. I relate.
I used Celie’s story to remind myself that there was something to live for. I knew that one day I was going to crawl out from under my depression the way Celie got out from under Mr. And like Celie, I somehow got my fairy tale ending. I found success. I figured out how to not tether my happiness to some other person. My fairy tale ending is me and myself, living out loud as who I am, and I didn’t have that before. Every day I am older, I understand more about Celie. Insiders who read the book or see the play know that Celie’s a lesbian. She’s not obviously so in the film. I don’t connect in terms of my sexuality—I’m straight—but she reminds me to be who I am. Celie reminds me about freedom.
The Color Purple is also a huge part of the world I live in with my friends. Every time we are about to leave each other, my friend Kia and I cross our hearts and pitty-pat with each other like Nettie and Celie. I think about Celie when I get my hair braided or if I’m working really hard. If it’s raining, I say, “It’s gon’ rain on yo’ head.” I can meet a black person for the first time and say anything from The Color Purple and they’ll get it immediately. It connects us.
I just bought a house. I’m putting up lots of book-cases—I want the crazy-librarian aesthetic. The first book I put on my shelf was The Color Purple. I feel like the characters in it are part of my family. Celie’s still with me. The Color Purple surrounds me constantly.
Gabourey Sidibe stars in Empire and is the author of a new memoir, This Is Just My Face: Try Not to Stare (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).
Roxane Gay: Laura Ingalls Wilder from Little House on the Prairie
After reading my work, people often tell me I am fearless and assume I have a lot of confidence. In truth, I’m just a writer. On the page, I am opinionated and more than willing to share my perspectives. I’ll even share my life and make myself vulnerable if the work demands it. I am firm in my convictions, and I take risks. But without words, I wouldn’t be that way.
Most of my childhood memories are of books, and the fondest of these involve Laura Ingalls Wilder and the eight original novels in the Little House on the Prairie series. As an adult with an abiding commitment to social justice, I recognize how problematic these books are, particularly in their unabashed racism toward indigenous people. But I also recognize how remarkable it was for books published in the 1930s and 1940s to focus on a young woman, and one who was smart, willful, and interesting.
I loved how adventurous Laura’s life seemed, even though her family traveled by wagon and a trip to town was something of an event. The winters were harsh. Sugaring maple and playing with corncob dolls was considered fun. None of this seemed to faze Laura much. She was a tomboy and had the prairie to explore and chores to do, and there was school and the kids she met there. She was independent and opinionated and a daddy’s girl. Pa loved to call Laura “half-pint,” which made me yearn, desperately, for a nickname.
As Laura got older, she had a clear sense of right and wrong. She wasn’t perfect, but she was willing to stand up to bullies. She was also willing, with time, to love and allow herself to be loved. The details about Laura’s courtship with Almanzo Wilder were so romantic to me because she made him earn her affection. She argued with Almanzo instead of capitulating.
Throughout my childhood I read and reread the Little House on the Prairie books, savoring every detail, every character from Pa to Mr. Edwards to Nellie Oleson. Mostly, though, I savored Laura. As a girl from the plains, the suburbs of Omaha, Nebraska, I very much wanted to be Laura. I wanted to believe my life could be interesting and full. And I was shy, so I wanted Laura’s pluck and moxie. Sometimes I would stare at myself in the mirror and do my best to channel Laura’s spirit before leaving the safety of home to face the world.
I wrote as much as I read. I wasn’t shy in the stories I wrote. I allowed myself to be wild, free. I never reined in my imagination. I wrote versions of myself that were far braver and more interesting than I could ever be. I wrote about girls I hoped Laura would like and respect and maybe even befriend. She was always there on my shoulder reminding me of what was possible with words. She’s there even now.
Grace Bonney: Harriet M. Welsch from Harriet the Spy
For as long as i can remember, I’ve liked to ask questions. Most of my childhood report cards included some mention of “talking too much,” but I remember one elementary school teacher telling me that it was always OK to talk, as long as I was asking a question and learning more.
But as I got older, the natural order of kid-dom kicked in, and I realized that being the girl who asked so many questions would also make me the girl people made fun of. So I learned to quiet down and blend in. I started spending lunch breaks in the library, in desperate need of a place where it was cool—or at least OK—to be curious. While the library didn’t turn out to be the hotbed of new friends I had hoped for, it introduced me to brave and inspiring characters who profoundly changed the way I saw myself in the world. Among them, one loomed largest: Harriet, of Harriet the Spy.
Harriet was a girl like me who loved to observe and ask questions. She was always asking someone something, connecting dots and finding ways to better understand the world around her. I will never forget the feeling of kinship I had reading Louise Fitzhugh’s description. Harriet was smart and a hard worker; she always had a notebook in her hand and wrote down the things she saw around her. She wanted to be a writer. It felt like Fitzhugh was in my head and understood how I saw the world. And most important, Harriet’s world included people who cared about her and supported her inquisitiveness. They encouraged her to write, to speak up, and to always learn more.
I checked out our school’s copy of Harriet the Spy over and over again for weeks, just to carry it with me and feel a little braver and less alone. Harriet was an adventurer, and she made me feel like I could be, too. And slowly I regained my confidence to speak up, ask questions, and not be afraid of my desire to know more. It didn’t always work out the way it did for Harriet (I was never promoted beyond photo caption editor at my school’s newspaper), but it reminded me that who I was, and what mattered to me, were important. It was a powerful example of a young girl using her voice and her skills (which weren’t things only adults had) to make a difference. I carry that sense of bravery Harriet gave me into the work I do today. I try every day to encourage people (of all ages) to find their sense of adventure and to never stop being curious about the world around them.
Grace Bonney is the founder of the blog Design*sponge and the author of In The Company of Women: Inspiration and Advice From Over 100 Makers, Artists, and Entrepreneurs (Artisan Books).