One sunny morning, as I was driving down the highway headed to the mall, I listened to an interview, on CBC radio, with Chrystia Freeland, then Minister of International Trade in the Canadian government. She was explaining, clearly and in a way I could perfectly understand, the Canada-European Union Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) which had taken years to negotiate and which had finally and very recently been signed. And I thought, what a well spoken, impressive, confident young woman she seemed. Especially when the interviewer asked her about the possibility that the trade deal might only serve to enrich the already rich, the infamous 1% in our society… “Well, as you know that has long been an area of interest of mine,” she said. “In fact I wrote a book on it,” she chuckled. Not a brash or snide chuckle of bravado, more of a rueful chuckle, as if she were embarrassed that she’d been called upon to toot her own horn. And of course she knows perfectly well what she’s talking about in this area. She’s written two well respected books, the latest one called Plutocrats: Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else. My intention is not to go into the trade deal specifics here, or even to discuss politics. I just want to say that right then, at that moment, I kind of wished that I was fifteen again. Because, if I were fifteen again, then I could say that when I grow up I want to be just like Chrystia Freeland.
Chrystia Freeland at her swearing in as Foreign Affairs Minister at Rideau Hall
Freeland, left, at the swearing in ceremony last week at Rideau Hall. source

And I smiled to myself again today when I heard Chrystia Freeland, now Minister of Foreign Affairs, speak about the ongoing NAFTA negotiations. How lucky we are to have this woman as Canada’s top diplomat. I’m pleased that this smart, savvy, Harvard and Oxford educated, former high-flying journalist, author, grandchild of Ukrainian immigrants is, in many contexts, the face Canada presents to the world. What a fabulous role model she is for girls and young women in Canada. For young women anywhere, actually.

Because I think the world needs positive role models right now. In particular positive female role models. Leaders in our society who present to the world a smart, caring, compassionate face. Leaders whom we all can look up to, but most importantly leaders our young people can look up to, and hope to emulate. I mean that’s the really important part, don’t you think? And they’re out there, folks. It’s just that we haven’t been focusing on them lately.
Take Jody Wilson-Raybould, for example. She’s Canada’s Minister of Justice and Attorney General. And she’s aboriginal. A lawyer and former regional Chief of the British Columbia Assembly of First Nations. How’s that for a positive role model for Canadian girls, and most especially for Canadian girls of First Nations heritage? Pretty darned cool, I’d say.
And ironically, sitting beside Wilson-Raybould in the photo below is one of my own former role models. Kim Campbell. Oh, how I admired her back in the day. I remember when I first heard her on the radio when she was Minister of Justice back in the nineties, so cool and smart and measured in her responses to the interviewer. The first woman in parliament who I thought had it all goin’ on. I still think that actually. So what if she became Prime Minister in 1993 only because she won the Progressive Conservative party leadership when the hugely unpopular Brian Mulroney resigned a few months before an election? So what if she was only Prime Minister for a few months? I remember that she was pilloried in the press during the election campaign. In particular, I recall one evening becoming incensed on her behalf when a reporter commented on the unflattering (according to him) white pants she was wearing at a rally. So what that she lost the election when the Liberals won a landslide victory? According to one source I’ve read, one of the reasons she lost was that her “frank honesty,” in direct contrast to Mulroney’s “highly polished style,” got her into hot water. And the fact that she admitted to a reporter that it was unlikely that the deficit or unemployment would be much reduced “before the end of the century.” No matter that that’s exactly what happened. Mustn’t be honest during an election campaign, Kim. Sigh. I still think she’s fabulous.
Jody Wilson-Raybould and Kim Campbell at hearings held by the Committee on Justice and Human Rights
Jody Wilson-Raybould, Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada with former Prime Minister Kim Campbell, herself a former Minister of Justice.
So maybe we should pause here to think about what makes someone a good role model. Certainly all these women are smart, very well educated, and highly successful in their careers even before they entered the political ring. And as far as Kim Campbell goes, successful when she exited the political fray. They all wield or have wielded considerable power. But it’s how they wield this power and what they choose to do with it that matters most, I think. Being successful, or rich, or powerful alone doesn’t make someone a good role model. In fact, I’m not even sure that I know what makes a good role model. I guess we all have our own definitions. For me it’s always been someone who holds values and qualities to which I aspire. And who can wield power responsibly, sensibly, and with respect for others. As a young woman, I admired Kim Campbell’s calm confidence and her obvious intelligence. And her ability to survive in a field dominated by men. And later I admired how she remade her life, and her career, after her crushing political defeat.
I’m chuckling now. I can almost hear the internet trolls growling as I write this… what about when she did this, or said that, or spent this amount of taxpayers money on such and such? And I want to emulate Bugs Bunny, another one of my heroes, and say: “Aah, shaddup.” Let’s not split hairs. Stop talking partisan politics. And let’s all agree that whether or not we like or dislike the political views of any of these women, we have to admit that they are impressive.
But you know, you don’t have to be powerful, rich, or even that successful… in the sense that these women have been successful… to be good role model.
Many years ago when I was a young teacher and was desperately trying to finagle a transfer from my job at an adult high school to what I really wanted to be doing which was teaching adolescents, I remember my principal encouraging me to keep trying. He said that I would be “a good role model for teenagers.” I kind of laughed at that. Really, me? I know he probably meant that I was a lot younger than many of the high school teachers in our board at that time. Declining enrollment in our schools had slowed the hiring of young teachers to a trickle. I know he was thinking that I was lively, had a good sense of humour, loved sports, and reading, and such. But he didn’t know what I knew, that I was anything but a good role model.
I mean, hadn’t I flailed about for years before I settled into teaching? Hadn’t I tried numerous jobs, quit university, worked as a cosmetician, then returned to school to finish my degree, took a job I hated, then chucked it all and moved back home for a year, before I finally returned to Ottawa and settled down to the job I grew to love? Yes, I had. And who wants to emulate someone who has taken that convoluted pathway?
Well, turns out it was all that flailing which helped me relate to kids in high school. Kids who were facing that huge question: What to do with their lives? Especially kids who were struggling with the answer. Turns out that opening up to kids, and to parents, about my own struggles was a good thing. As one friend who has sons who were flailing said to me, “Oh, Sue. I look at you and it always makes me feel better about the boys. If you turned out so well, maybe they will too.” I never, never forgot that. I think that’s one of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me. Anyway, I guess my point here is that role models don’t have to be perfect. Or have taken the direct route to success. Sometimes the scenic route can be more inspiring or comforting to kids who are plotting their own course.
I’ve digressed a bit from my earlier discussion about positive role models for young women. I guess the whole point of this post is that we all need to try to be positive role models for girls and young women. And not to underestimate the power of our ability to make a difference in someone’s life. Whether we’re parents, teachers, politicians, sales clerks, or snow plow drivers.
I love the fact that the new snow plow operator who plows our road is a woman. Hubby says the “lady driver” is much better than the male drivers ever were. More considerate. We live at the end of a road, and after she turns the plow, as she passes by a second time, she makes a dip into our driveway to scoop out some of the pile she’s just deposited there. Thus saving Hubby a heck of a lot of shoveling. Then Hubby gives her a cheery wave from the window, and she always waves back. So… considerate and friendly.
Now, that’s behaviour we all should emulate.
              Women giving women a boost.  Gif by Brooklyn illustrator Libby Vanderploeg
As I was writing this post, on one of my trips into the kitchen for a cup of tea, I asked Hubby who his role models had been when he was growing up. What an interesting discussion we had. About who each of us had admired and why.

So now it’s your turn. Want to weigh in on the power of positive role models? Who were your role models when you were growing up?


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37 thoughts on “We All Need a Good Role Model”

  1. I am struggling this week watching my country inaugurate a man who is anything but a positive role model, so your post was a calming balm to my tender heart. Thank you.

  2. Well your foreign minister is certainly more impressive than ours ! When I think of the women I admired in my youth most of them came to a sticky end or else it turns out their cool outward appearance hid a tangled ,sometimes tortured , private life ( we are talking the 'swinging' 60s here ) . I still have a lot of admiration for Joan Baez who seemed to keep her head & her principles despite her fame . I suppose Margaret Thatcher was a role model for some women but you don't want to hear my views on her ……
    Wendy in York

    1. I knew Joan Baez when I was a child. She was in her twenties then, already famous, and for a time she lived in the area where I grew up (Carmel in Northern California) and knew my parents. My memories of her are of a lovely, open-hearted young woman who always had a kind word and time to visit. And it has tickled me to see her continue to conduct herself in an admirable manner throughout her life, so I agree with you, Wendy, that she is worthy of being called a role model. –Catbird Farm

    2. She's lovely… I mean our Minister of Foreign Affairs… and Joan Baez too. I already know your views on Maggie Thatcher, Wendy…I remember my post on pussy-bow blouses. lol.

  3. Gosh… like Wendy in York, I grew up when there were not role models for women. Hopefully we will be seeing some changes in that over the next four years here in the U.S. as women work to rid our government of the Orange Monkey who is now in charge. This was a really great post! xo

    1. Absolutely, Wendy! Some monkeys, well, chimps I believe, share 98% of our DNA. Can't say the same for that two-legged primate presently dragging his knuckles towards Pennsylvania Avenue. He definitely can't lay claim to being 98% human, not even close. (Sorry, Sue, this will probably get the trolls into high dudgeon, so here's another peremptory "ah shaddup". 🙂 –Catbird Farm

  4. Sue, this is my favorite post of yours *ever*. How exemplary it is from start to finish. And so well-timed for us beleaguered US residents – I myself couldn't be more downhearted or withdrawn over the state of our states ( I can't even bring myself to call them "United" anymore, because they are not -they are as divided as if someone had built a wall right down the middle – oh wait . . . haha).

    Seriously, this lovely piece is an articulate reminder that there are fine public servants out there and that many of them are women and that they need our support more than ever during the current backslide away from all that is kind and decent and peace-loving and, well, human. Thank you for writing it. –Catbird Farm

    1. Thanks for the kind words. There ARE many people out there men as well as women who are working hard on our behalf. We too often only hear about the jerks… or about the mistakes some of the good ones make. When do we hard about something a public servant or politician has done that involves tons of long hours and benefits society?

  5. Sue, Mrs. Morehouse and Mrs. Mann, I still think of these two women at least once a week if not more. They inspired me to do better in class everyday!
    Your Friend,

    1. Of course! The two best teachers I ever had. And that's from the perspective of a fourteen year old AND from the perspective of an experienced teacher. They were awesome. Never let anyone tell you that a small rural school can't provide an excellent education to kids. These two ladies totally disprove that! Thanks for reminding me, Elizabeth.

  6. A serious dearth, when I was in my teens, I have to say. The ones I can think of who intrigued me somewhat were Miss Ellison, the "spinster-librarian," and then later, in my late teens, a few married librarians who seemed to get much closer to being able to integrate style and smarts and have both romantic relationship and career. Also my music teachers, whose marital status varied (one had left her marriage for a lesbian relationship; another's ended in divorce when her husband's mental health issues erupted). These last two women managed to have children as well and seemed to indicate that it might be possible to honour one's intelligence and bluestocking interests while still conforming enough (but not too much) to social mores.

    Wow! I've got to stop myself as you've triggered an avalanche of memories and thoughts here. I very much relate to your being able to offer your students a model of someone who'd taken a crooked path to arrive at where you wanted to be when you grew up. I similarly reassured my university students that someone could drop out spectacularly in second-year and make it back to complete a degree — in, oh say, 20 years or so! And learn and do other interesting and worthwhile things along the way.

    I'm going to have to ask my daughters who they might have seen as role models along the way. Such a good post, Sue. Thank you!

    1. Remember that scene in It's a Wonderful Life when Jimmy Stewart sees the future that might have been, and Donna Reed is a nervous, and obviously spinster librarian who is living an unfulfilled life? I always thought that cliché scene did an injustice to librarians everywhere. Love that term "bluestocking" … makes me think of Virginia Wolfe et al.
      I had forgotten that you also took a crooked path to your eventual chosen profession. I suspect that you did not fritter your time away like I did though… but were busy teaching piano and raising your family.

  7. Hi Sue. Very much like your blog's mix of thoughtful and sartorial content. I like both Jody and Chrystia. In fact, I did some canvassing in Jody's riding in the last election. Never a fan of Kim. Too Maggie-lite for my tastes. Did like Sheila Copps though when she was an MP. A bit of a brawler, put boy did she fight back. I quite like Rachel Notley, though I'm not an NDP'er. Think Lisa Raiit is the best of the Conservative bunch. The problem, I think, for young girls, is that we've deified "showiness" –actresses/models/wives of sports stars/broadcast journalists– at the expense of substance. Would be interested in your thoughts on Chrystia's book. Have it on my list for 2017. Riley P.

    1. Thanks, Riley. Kim's politics weren't always to my liking either. But I did like her style. And by that I mean her confidence and demeanor… not her clothes.
      You're so right that we have deified "showiness" … I was going to mention that the size of one's shoe closet or the amount of cleavage one shows is not what makes a good role model… but I couldn't fit that comment into the post.
      I will have to read Chrystia's book. It certainly had good reviews.

  8. Oh Mrs. Burpee, I couldn't help but tumble back to your blog as soon as I saw the term "role model" being discussed!! I am so pleased to have grown up in a world where I have had so many amazing female role models in my life, specifically teachers who I knew personally, but also actresses, activists, etc.

    Just for the record, I think about all of you probably daily for being so wonderful! Ms. Walker for being such a wonderful teacher, and also pushing everyone to learn independently and expand their knowledge. I think about you all the time for "flailing" as you say, being interested in sciences and the arts and doing many a things before you settle down and find a meaningful career you love. (And also of course for being funny and quirky and ridiculously stylish). I think about Ms. Faraday for being radically intelligent and trying to inspire everyone to push boundaries. Wow did I ever have an amazing slew of female (and male) role model teachers in my high school career!! Thank God for all of you.

    I also just want to mention a few other females that have helped shape my life: Emma Watson (amazing inspiration), Gina Rodriquez, and Malala Yousafzai. And of course Michelle Obama, Ellen Degeneres, I could pretty much go on forever and ever listing females I love.

    On another note – for you and maybe some of your other readers – have you seen the film Hidden Figures yet????? Loved every single moment of it. Would highly highly recommend going to see it ❤️❤️❤️

    Sarah T 🙂

    1. Oh, little Sarah… you do make me laugh. I didn't know I was "ridiculously stylish." You did have an amazing "slew" of great teachers… Ms. Walker and Mrs. Faraday being two of the finest teachers I ever worked with. And darned fun to be friends with as well.
      Did you see when Ellen Degeneres received that award from Obama? That was so moving…because she was so moved herself.
      I will keep my eye out for that film. Thanks.

  9. Samantha Power. Too bad she was born in Ireland (stupid rule), or she'd be my choice for President. Queen Elizabeth (can you tell I've been watching The Crown?). As a Canadian living in the US, I've looked northward with more than the usual amount of homesick longing since the election of 2015 – so many bright, progressive, and capable females in positions of leadership.

    1. Leslie in Oregon

      LiaMac, I agree wholeheartedly with you about Samantha Power. She has been an excellent U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, and the international affairs community will miss her greatly. I look forward to what she will do next. Sue, my most influential female role model as I was a child and adolescent in the 1950s and 1960s was my mother, who always believed in me and encouraged me to be my independent best.

  10. I had friends growing up who had my utmost respect and they were my closest role models.

    Celebrity wise, I love those who are just really decent people more than being good at their profession.

    Justin Trudeau, Meryl Streep, Bill Gates and Hugh Jackman are four who come off the top of my head.

    1. I don't think I have any celebrity role models. When Hubby and I were talking, I remarked that my biggest role model when I was growing up was my big sister. I always wanted to be just like her.

  11. I love this! As someone who has meandered through several jobs, spent the last 20 years as a college lecturer and is thinking about retiring for a third whatever, I heartily agree that role models don't need to be perfect. If their values are true, that's what matters. Too often we get caught up in side issues (I have an acquaintance who dislikes Joan Baez because she "slept around" — forget all the good she has done). Young people especially need real people to look up to; otherwise things seem too difficult to try to emulate. Your new snow plow driver sounds as if she wants to be helping people — good for her!

    1. You know, funny that you should mention that about perfect people making things seem too out of reach. I remember when I read Harper Lee's "new" book last year…and so many of her fans were afraid if it was not as great as To Kill a Mockingbird then their idea of her and her work would be sullied. But when I read Go Set a Watchman, I could see how imperfect it was, and also see the potential in it from which she eventually crafted Mockingbird. And it made me see how hard she must have struggled to make Mockingbird what it became. And that struggle should inspire all young writers that maybe they can struggle and achieve something great too.

  12. I wish I were more familiar with the women you've mentioned. I remember admiring Pat Schroeder (Congresswoman from Colorado) during my teens. Molly Ivins more recently. But most of the women I admired and wanted to emulate were women I knew personally. I think of Anna, who was originally from Sweden, and was a photographer. I was 12 when she spend a few hours photographing me and my sister. I remember she was one of the first adults who treated me like a person and not a child, and encouraged me to pursue my interests in writing and photography.

    1. I remember meeting friends of my older sister who were like that when I was young. They really wanted to know what I was interested in and what I thought. Funnily enough my first celebrity or well known role models weren't women… but men.

  13. I like these really great women as role models (and Canada seems to be a great country,too),as well as your story (what a lovely and emotional comment from Sarah T. :-),you have to be so proud,Sue!)
    Thinking about it,there were some awesome women in my life, even now … From my teachers,friends….anyone had some characteristic I admired a lot!
    We,girls ,in our former, socialistic system,were raised to become independent,to be equal,to study,work,strive and achieve the same or even better than boys.
    But,real role model in my life was my mother. She is warm and strong personality,devoted to her family.
    She got married at twenty,after my father's father died,quit university and started to work so my father could finish med school. After he became a doctor and started to work,she returned to the university,had me at 22,finished Economics university and worked as a professor in a high school for a couple of years. Finally,she settled down to the pioneering job in early years of computer information science here and became very succesful.

    1. That Sarah… she's a great kid! Except she's not a kid anymore but a young woman on her way to a successful career. Your mum sounds very inspiring, Dottoressa.

  14. I've always admired people who can speak truth to power. In my experience, women have been more likely than my male counterparts at work to take these risks and speak truth to power. I tend to be a "watcher" at first. When I observe someone who possesses this characteristic- I try to get to know them better. Each day I try to cultivate this quality in myself- the ability to speak up for what is right- not just what is convenient.

  15. Excellent post Sue. Good to know that Canada has some intelligent and inspiring woman politicians. Really interesting to read about them. Growing up my mum was definitely my role model, in every way. In the workplace, I remember one or two but in general I was often disappointed with peoples attitude. Especially a lack of interest in mentoring younger colleagues and supporting and enabling each other. Love "the woman giving woman a boost" illustration.
    I'm happy to see that my daughters experience of woman in her workplace is the complete opposite of my own! Although I'm not sure this is the norm.

    1. Taken me a while to reply to this one, Rosie. Sorry about that. I think that women are much better at supporting each other these days. I also remember working with older women when I was in my early twenties, before I started teaching…and it was…ah…not such a great experience. Perhaps they feared being eased out in favour of the younger women? But when I started teaching, I always found older teachers to be great at supporting younger ones, passing on material to help young-uns to survive their first few years etc. I know I certainly appreciated being taken under someone's wing when I was new to the job…and I always felt we should pay that forward.

  16. Lovely post. You Canadians seem to really have your stuff together…while here in the U.S. um, well, you know how it is 🙁

    I also think some of the older generations should look to our youth. I know the Millennials get a bad rap, called lazy and entitled, but I honestly think that generation may bring about a change in the world. (Gen X-er here) I look at how my children (18 and 11) view the world, and it is really an awesome outlook. They are both super accepting of people no matter the differences between them, they are concerned about the environment, and the 18-year-old is way more active and aware of politics than I was at here age (and even older). She very proudly walked in the Women's March here in Charlotte. I think this generation is more educated and aware than any of the previous generations.

    I would jump at the opportunity to take a well educated and articulate 22 year-old over the travesty that is ruling my country at the moment.

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