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The Women We Need

Heroines aren’t just for little girls. They’re for everyone trying to make sense of this complicated thing called life.

As a child, I spent hours in the glossy cardstock pages of paper-doll books, punching out shapely figures and frilly bonnets. It was like how some girls play with Barbies, I guess, except that my dolls tended to accessorize with books instead of dream cars. I created whole worlds with my dolls: They had families, adventures, and emotionally rich storylines that tended to follow whatever I had learned in history class that week. They took on the characteristics of women I idolized and helped me feel a close kinship with heroines who were, in actuality, complete strangers. It was play, but it was also more than play. It was meaningful for who I was and who I am.

I hadn’t thought about these paper dolls in a long time until I received a new book in the mail: Awesome Women Who Changed History: Paper Dolls — a descriptive title, albeit one lacking in nuance. It has the same glossy pages and thick, crinkle-proof paper that always manages to crease just left of where it’s supposed to fold. The figures push out of the paper along precut lines just as I remembered, and the same small paper stands hold them perfectly upright once freed. They stand with a posture I used to practice by balancing books on my head, trying to float across my bedroom like Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady.

The first page I flipped to featured Marie Curie. I used to watch a movie on VHS about this remarkable woman as a girl. It wasn’t made for children, but my father bought it because he tried his best to surround his daughters with positive female role models. Marie Curie was the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in physics: She won it in 1903 alongside her husband Pierre Curie and research partner Henri Becquerel for their studies in radioactivity. Then she became the first female professor of general physics at the University of Paris before winning the Nobel Prize again, this time in chemistry. At the time, she was the first person to have ever won the Nobel Prize twice, and today she is still one of only four people who have ever done so.

Marie Curie has stayed in my mind over the 12 years and three presidents that have come and gone since I first pushed that cassette into the VHS player. I did not hold on to her because of any award she won and certainly not because I learned about her in school (her work was never taught in any of my classes). Instead, I remembered her for her profound curiosity. She had an insatiable desire to make sense of things that no one could understand, and she changed the world by trying to understand them anyway.

A few pages later I came across artist Frida Kahlo, whose ability to turn her physical and mental health struggles into creative energy is a constant source of inspiration for me as I try to make sense of my own mind, a part of myself with which I am frequently at odds. Soon after her appears scientist and activist Jane Goodall, a woman whose passion and tenacity have impacted my life directly, as I’ve been lucky enough to work alongside her in person: After finishing high school, I served in the Jane Goodall Institute’s Roots & Shoots Youth Leadership Council. During my yearlong position as a fellow, I traveled around the world speaking to students and educators about the importance of thinking globally and acting locally. Some of my stops coincided with Jane’s, and in greenrooms and at book signing tables I experienced her legendary drive firsthand. When I question whether I have what it takes to keep pushing toward my goals, I remind myself that she’s 82 and still hasn’t stopped.

I don’t know what 10-year-old me would think of the 24-year-old I am today, but I couldn’t have predicted that I’d be living at home, struggling to write a book, struggling more to convince others of the value of the book I’m struggling to write, and wondering (like I tell myself that all people do), Where do I go from here? More recently, the questioned has expanded. Now it’s: Where do we go from here?

One of the world’s most intelligent and powerful women, and surely one of the most qualified, was, for a beautiful moment, poised to ascend to what is arguably the most powerful leadership position in the world. And then she wasn’t. It’s not that Hillary Clinton’s tale has become a tragedy, but what happened was surely not the happy ending that the millions of women of all ages who have idolized (and continue to idolize) her were hoping for. Sometimes I worry that her loss will overshadow how monumental her run itself was. We need women like Hillary now more than ever, and I hope her campaign will pave the way for, rather than discourage, them.

Clinton’s page in Awesome Women Who Changed History is simple. She doesn’t have a chimpanzee on her shoulder like Jane Goodall, or Frida Kahlo’s palette and paintbrush. Whereas Marie Curie has a beaker and two Nobel medals, Clinton’s accessory options are sunglasses and a simple pin that reads, “Hillary Clinton 2016.” Her paper-doll rendering is an emotional reminder of November 9, but I hope that feeling of loss will not distract too much from the true power of the page. Accessories or not, election win or not, she is still, after all, a woman taking up space. Or maybe “taking up space” sounds dismissive; “claiming space” is a more accurate description. Feet firmly planted and hands gently clasped, she owns her paper-doll pedestal just as she owned every stage from which she pursued the presidency — including the one from which she gave her concession speech.

I don’t play with dolls anymore, and I don’t want to punch out the figures without a way of putting them back into their neat little homes. There’s a sense of order to their security in the pages that is comforting, especially when so much these days is uncertain. But I do still find myself gently running my hands over the pages of each of the women I admire. Maya Angelou comes with her very own lectern, and Susan B. Anthony is armed for the picket line. I know the facts of these women’s work and the arcs of their lives, but to see so many of them all together, each given the space they’ve had to fight for — and which some are still fighting for — reminds me how important it is to know about them in the first place.

And yet the book only offers a selection of the women we should know. There are still so many women whose history-making work and incredible lives are only now receiving the attention they deserve. The pioneering women of color crucial to NASA’s success, whose stories are only now being heard in the public sphere through the film Hidden Figures, are just one example. Maya Lin, the iconic Asian-American designer who, at only 21, designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, is one of uncountable others.

The particular gravity of the political era we’re now entering may be novel for young people in America (including me), but it’s nothing new in the context of history. Hate, bigotry, racism, and misogyny have reigned for far longer than equality has been on the scene. And yet, somehow, hope always ends up on top. We keep pushing forward; progress is made in science, culture, politics, academia, and the arts, and powerful women have been, far more often than they’re given credit for, crucial to making that happen.

Recently I’ve had trouble remembering this, and I definitely lost sight of my female role models after Election Day. But now is exactly when I need them most. A woman may have lost a race, but female heroes will continue to guide me. Whether I’m aiming for Jane Goodall’s tenacity, Frida Kahlo’s creativity, Marie Curie’s curiosity, or Hillary Clinton’s leadership and strength, I’ve realized that heroines and role models aren’t just for little girls. They’re for everyone trying to make sense of this complicated thing called life.

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