observations and opinion
Each of us has women who have shaped, influenced or affected our lives most profoundly. On this International Women’s Day 2014, I reflected upon the women – none of whom I ever met – who come to mind as heroic to me. Each, in her own way, endured burdens to survive, achieved remarkable things and stand as examples to us. No, the fact that they’re on the same list doesn’t make them “equal” in my mind, anymore than in yours. They’re just women I admire.
The world’s direct memory of Eleanor Roosevelt dims, as the last generation to experience her departs the earth. Eleanor (“Babs” to her husband Franklin Delano Roosevelt) grew up a lonely, unloved girl, abandoned by her wealthy family to a boarding school where, miraculously, she met the great woman of her life, a teacher. There, Eleanor found her voice, became an idol to the other girls and commenced the most momentous and fruitful of lives available to an American woman in the early 20th Century. Always a loner and fond of company other than her husband’s cigar-smoking admirers, Eleanor built her own little cottage at Hyde Park – Val Kil – which became a refuge for her, a welcome place for artists, radicals and the unconventional. Her house alone is inspiring. Always somewhat sad, always brave, always determined, always aggravatingly persistent about what she believed to be right, Eleanor Roosevelt – as First Lady of the United States and very much in her own right – shaped the world.
Aside from introducing me to Eleanor Roosevelt in the beautiful “No Ordinary Life”, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s scholarship and artful writing have given American history back to a couple of generations now. Her richly wonderful “Team of Rivals” captures the raw, human and heroic Abraham Lincoln (and helped inspire the recent film “Lincoln.”) Her new biography of Teddy Roosevelt takes the same respectful, independent but unabashedly admiring look at its subject. Most endearing of all about Kearns Goodwin, to me, was her warm and lovely recollections of her childhood as a Brooklyn Dodgers fan, in Ken Burns’ epic “Baseball” documentary.
Alcott gave us Jo March, the strong-hearted heroine of “Little Women.” And the whole March family, enduring the travails and tragedies of life in the northern United States during and after the Civil War. This is a book which, if read with attention and affection, helps transform one’s understanding of 19th Century life – not just life for women, either. The central well-spring of the novel is love – love of the family, love within the family and a love of life. Men matter, but ultimately do not really decide the fates of any of the sisters we meet at Orchard House. Visits to Alcott’s real home in Concord Massachusetts have become something of a pilgrimage for us. Indeed, a return visit is now overdue for my daughter.
It is easy to choose Kate Hepburn as an admirable American woman. She practically defines the phrase. Almost every aspect of Hepburn’s life – her solitary path, her extraordinary craft, her independence of spirit and her relentless devotion to a man she adored but could never marry (Spencer Tracy) deserve respect. Katharine Hepburn stood up and represented women as intelligent, assertive and autonomous people at a time when American cinema generally treated them rather feebly. You will not be able to name a bad performance she ever gave. She was, to quote her immortal words in The Philadelphia Story, “yarr!”
She wrote “To Kill a Mockingbird.” She created the model man, Atticus Finch. And Scout. And Boo Radley. And Jeb. Harper Lee gave the world a perfect gem of a novel, a world in itself. There was nothing more she had to do, to shape our lives.
Happy International Women’s Day