Monday, December 04, 2006

The Most Influential Woman in America

So I just finished reading The Atlantic Monthly’s list of the 100 Most Influential Americans.

I’m so depressed.

As expected, the top echelons of the list are dominated by the Founding Fathers. I’m not quibbling with their selection. I’m just sorry that while at this country’s outset, our government seemed to be teeming with brilliant individuals full of Big Ideas, that’s no longer the case. Where are today’s Thomas Jeffersons? If they exist at all, they are not to be found in the White House or the halls of Congress.

Also, as expected, few women made the cut. Only 10 in all. We are more than 50 percent of the population, but apparently wield a mere 10 percent of influence. Atlantic notes that marriage was very, very good for folks on the list—91 of the 100 were married at least once and two of them, Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, 50 times total. Yet of all those nameless wives, who doubtless enabled the greatness of their spouse, only Eleanor Roosevelt merited recognition on her own.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton (#30) leads the way for the women. (And every time I see her picture, I can’t help but wish she could have been prettier.) She’s followed by Susan B. Anthony, who’s now probably better known as a failed quarter, Rachel Carson (a poet and environmentalist), Harriet Beecher Stowe, Roosevelt, Margaret Sanger, Jane Addams, Betty Friedan, Margaret Mead, and Mary Baker Eddy (founder of Christian Science). That’s it. Pretty slim pickings.

Almost all of them fall under what I would term “social welfare.” Where’s the female counterpart to Bill Gates? Sam Walton? Louis and Clark? Women didn’t invent the nuclear bomb (shame on us) or the cotton gin or the mechanical reaper or a million other things. We were too busy doing the laundry. Women didn’t create the skyscraper. We were too busy cleaning house. Women didn’t discover DNA. We just pass it on.

Every time I see one of these lists, I wrack my brain for women to add. If you’re going to have Elvis (#66), why not Madonna, who has ushered in an entire culture of personal reinvention? If you’re going to have Walt Disney (#26) and credit his “unmatched influence over our childhood,” why not Ruth Handler, who created Barbie?

What women have been influential in my life? Let’s see. Martha Stewart springs to mind (and I believe was suggested by at least one of Atlantic’s panelists). I’m not kidding. If it weren’t for Martha, it would never occur to me to make my own Christmas cards. Love her or hate her, there’s not a woman in this country who hasn’t at some point tried to emulate her (with decidedly mixed results).

Then there’s Sr. Eucharista (not making that up), my high school English teacher, who was the first person to encourage me to try to publish my writing. And Elizabeth Dipple, a professor of mine in grad school, who we jokingly referred to as the missing Bronte sister but has seriously informed all of my reading choices of the past 10-15 years. (If it’s not British or post-colonial British, it’s crap.)

But it always comes back to my mom. God, I think nearly everything I do, I measure consciously or not as “like Mom” or “not like Mom.” I have a sneaking suspicion the same would hold true for a large number of the 100 Most Influential Americans.

So the next time someone creates one of these lists, I have an idea for the top spot. Just plain Mom. Because long after everyone’s forgotten why we were supposed to care about William Jennings Bryant (#36), we will all remember something—be it positive or negative—that we learned from out mothers.


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