I don’t need a special month to celebrate women. I don’t need a special hashtag or a sharable animation or a montage of badass influential women. I don’t need it to be Woman Crush Wednesday or anything like that. I don’t need an excuse to celebrate women who have influenced my life, because I do it all the time. I do it because it’s important to me to reflect on who I am and who made me this way. I do it because it’s important to acknowledge women for their contributions to society whenever. I’d do it every day if I could. I do it because I hope maybe it inspires someone else to think about a lady hero or two (or three) in their lives.
But because there’s an extra level of relevancy and there’s an excuse to do so, in honor of Women’s History Month, I present to you a list of six women who changed my life. They’re not all famous and they’re not all super old, but they are all amazing in their own ways. These six women are lady heroes, women I aspire to be like, women who have taught me in so many ways, left an indelible mark on my soul, and inspire me to be my best self:
Mary Tyler Moore set a baseline very early in my life for what lady heroes mean to me. I’ve written about this before: when I was little, I could stay up all night watching reruns of the Mary Tyler Moore show. Of course, so much of it went over my head at the time, but not all of it. A lot stuck.
I knew that Mary Tyler Moore helped to create the world of Mary Richards. She was partly responsible for a representation of a woman in the workplace (which was the first time I knew I wanted to be a journalist). Mary and her fictional counterpart instilled in me the values of hard work, but mostly, the values of friendship. Mary taught me the importance of having a ride or die BFF, even (or maybe especially) if she’s different than you. We have Abbi and Ilana today, but Mary and Rhoda were the OG best friend soulmates.
Later on, Mary taught me the importance of being brave, and that happiness is a choice. So many horrific things had happened to her in life and yet she never gave up or became bitter. She never threw pity parties. “Pain nourishes courage,” she said. “You can’t be brave if you’ve only had wonderful things happen to you.”
Jane Fonda is… incredible. Strong. Fierce. Opinionated. Passionate. Unwavering. The latter half of those qualities were my north star in middle school. I wanted to be just like Jane. I wanted to know what it felt like to have beliefs so strong that they wouldn’t be shaken, even if they weren’t always popular.
Twelve and thirteen were big years for me. That was a time where I started to figure out who I was, and, as I fell out of a clique, what I stood for. I went from being a cool girl in the cool clique to to the girl who would buy the New York Times at the coffeehouse during lunch, the girl with the Michael Moore book under her arm, ranting about how Iraq was Vietnam part 2, lecturing about how free speech was being infringed upon in schools — very serious and very uncool to fellow tweens.
But when everyone else sneered and told me I didn’t know what I was talking about, I refused to concede. I knew that, on a lot of things, I was right. That’s all because of Jane. She taught me to be brave and stand up for what I believe in. She also taught me that even the strongest of women deal with insecurity, which made me believe that I wasn’t so hopeless, after all. Looking back, I’m so thankful that I had such a rock solid lady hero to guide me through such a turbulent time. I probably would have drowned without her.
Tina Fey came into my life around the same time for the same reason. I thought I was very clever and sneaky, watching SNL in my bedroom while my parents slept, even if I fell asleep before it was over. After that first episode, though, no matter how heavy my eyelids, I forced myself to stay awake through Weekend Update.
I was drawn to Tina, her wit and her IDGAF attitude. I fell down an internet rabbit hole and quickly found out her writing swagger and fell even more in love. This was a woman I wanted to be: A leader. Someone comfortable with doing her own thing, even if it was weird. A boss bitch in a boys’ club.
When Mean Girls came out, I was so incredibly thankful. Everyone else looked at it like just a funny teen movie, but I saw more. I felt like the film had been made just for me, to show me that I would survive petty girl drama, that it was all so ridiculous and actually damaging. That laughter she gave me for several days after school for at least a year took the place of tears.
Mrs. Brock is a woman whom words do not do enough justice. They just don’t. I have never met a person whose heart is so big and so full of love and compassion. I have never met someone who just wants the best for everyone. She was a saint of a teacher who rarely got flustered, who never really raised her voice at us.
Maybe that’s because we all respected her too much. Maybe that’s because she actually respected us. She had this unique way of treating her students like we were real almost-adults — not children — and at the same time was sweet and gentle and maternal without being condescending.
This woman taught me so many things: dedication (from the number of times she would open up her classroom doors for help at 7 a.m. to the number of miles she runs in a week to the fact that we’re still friends seven years after I graduated high school), confidence, what it really means to be a mentor. The list goes on.
Whenever I realize that I’m sort of taking someone under my wing and feel wildly unqualified, I just think: “What would Mrs. Brock do? What would she say?” Whenever I’m running and I’m tired and I want to quit, I think: “if you were running with Mrs. Brock, you wouldn’t dare stop — and she wouldn’t let you if you tried.” Whenever I have doubts about any of my dreams, I remember how she insists: “You have to be your own advocate.” That sort of special mentorship and influence is something I hope I can emulate someday, though I’ll never be the same.
Mrs. Delellis-Johnson (Also affectionately known as DJ or Deej) is, simply put, brilliant. In 9th grade, I took a creative writing elective with upperclassmen that was taught by the notoriously tough, genius-level smart, and acerbic 10th grade English teacher. She did not give a shit about your feelings and would not hesitate to call you stupid to your face if it was warranted. I was terrified.
I was a bitch to my middle school English teachers. I was. They couldn’t understand why I couldn’t conform to the rigid five paragraph structure they set for everyone else, and I didn’t understand why they wanted me to. I routinely pissed them off announcing things like: “What you are teaching us is wrong. A five sentence minimum per paragraph rule is wrong. A paragraph is a complete thought; there’s no quota. A paragraph could be one word.” I was getting antsy. I was getting fed up. I was beginning to want to give up on writing.
But Deej was different. She actually liked my writing. Like… a lot. She submitted my first short story to a Scholastic contest and gushed that she thought it was smart and more mature and advanced than it should be for a 14 year old. I finally felt like I was doing something right.
She really was the first teacher who gave me confidence in my writing, who believed in me and understood my style. She never tried to pigeonhole me into regressive styles meant to teach weak writers — she challenged me to be even better. This continued over the next three years of high school, and she always went above and beyond. She edited and advised on pieces I wrote for a variety of places, from contests to college admissions essays to a bullshit screenplay treatment for a (still unfinished) screenplay I laughably submitted to Sundance when I was 17. She is one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, and I miss her and I cannot thank her enough for everything she’s done for me. If she hadn’t come into my life at that crucial time, I honestly don’t know if I would have continued to write.
When I graduated college and took a grownup job that wasn’t editorial, I stopped writing altogether. I was so burnt out from all the pieces I churned out between school and internships and so disheartened by all the editorial job openings I’d see that only paid $25K a year. (Fun fact: you can work an entry level position at one of the major magazine publishers in New York and qualify for food stamps!) I’ll never be a writer, I cried on more than one occasion. I will never be a writer. Those words felt like a death sentence.
I can’t really name the a-ha moment. I had been listening to a lot of Fleetwood Mac in my senior year, and at some point, it just occurred to me that the woman I admired so much has never given up. She has never let obstacles define her or hold her back from creating. She has never changed who she is to make someone else happy. She is probably the most authentic person I (don’t) know. And that’s what made me write again. She does things on her terms. She made me believe that, yes, I would be a writer, and I would do it my way. Stevie made me refocus my creative energy into writing about things I actually care about. Writing about what I care about reached other people who cared about the same things, which brought a few really wonderful, beautiful, special people into my life. It was a chain reaction of magic. And it’s all because of Stevie.
Who I am today, at this very moment, is really the product of these women and their influence. Maybe that’s going to change in the future, but right now, I’m pretty okay with it. So even if none of them ever have a chance in their lifetimes to read this, I’m throwing this out to the universe. Thank you. For everything. I mean it.