We want our daughters to dream big and to feel they can conquer any challenge or blaze any new trail ahead, and while imagining anything is possible can get you so far, seeing role models who have done it before can make all the difference.
Recent research has found that female students are more likely to enrol in certain “male-dominated” classes like economics following role model intervention, while the presence of female politicians can boost aspirations for young women (according to a 2012 study at MIT). Countless other studies have confirmed that women are more likely to pursue careers in STEM if there are female role models to help inspire them.
There are so many role models across a range of industries to introduce our daughters to, past and present, who helped pave the way for space travel (mathematician Katherine Johnson) or campaigned for female education in the face of life-threatening danger (Malala Yousafzai). You can introduce your daughters to these inspiring and remarkable women through books, talk and play.
Here are 11 amazing role models who persevered, fought so the next generation didn’t have to and made their voices heard. They come from all backgrounds and walks of life but have at least one thing in common: they don’t take no for an answer
The American Olympic bronze medalist in fencing hasn’t just won accolades for being an incredible athlete; she’s also changing the perception of women in hijab (after being the first Muslim-American to compete wearing one) and has become a prominent voice for religious tolerance in the USA. She is also an author and founder of modest fashion label Louella. “I always tell young people, and girls in particular, to believe in their own journey and not allow anyone else to dictate it for them. Once you know what your goals are, don’t wait for anyone’s permission. Totally commit to what you are looking to do and believe in its possibility,” she told guests at Illinois State University’s first Muslim Cultural Dinner in April 2019.
Vivienne Westwood has been at the centre of British fashion for much of the past five decades. Her punk aesthetic and history-inspired fashions have redefined the way we dress. Westwood is a committed activist, and has been outspoken about everything from climate change to #MeToo. Most radically, perhaps, for someone in the fashion biz, she has begged consumers to buy less and choose well. Little girls can read all about her – she’s the star of the latest release of a Little People, Big Dreams, picture book.
This literary feminist famously wrote “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Woolf continues to inspire generations of writers after her, including feminist Simone de Beauvoir. Her activism on behalf of women and her own writings and struggles open up a dialogue on mental health, too.
Yara Shahidi may not yet be 20, but she’s already an accomplished actress (catch her on the hilarious Black-ish), Harvard undergrad (her letter of recommendation was written by none other than Michelle Obama) and youth activist: her platform, Eighteen x 18, is all about encouraging young people to get out and vote. “We vote for not only ourselves, but for all sons and daughters, and every layer and intersection of identity. We vote for each other,” is the platform’s motto. Yara will have no problem inspiring the next generation as a role model from the earliest days: she’s been made into a “shero” Barbie doll.
Space pioneer Katherine Johnson – aka the NASA “human computer” – is a mathematician, physicist and scientist who was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her accomplishments. Her calculations helped to make early US spaceflight possible, including the course of Apollo 11, the first spaceship to reach the moon. Even more impressively, she achieved all of this while facing down racism and sexism. “Take all the courses in your curriculum. Do the research. Ask questions. Find someone doing what you are interested in! Be curious!” she advises.
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Considered the “grandmother of British feminism,” Wollstonecraft wrote The Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792, where she argued that women aren’t inferior to men. Her feminist writing still resonates as much today as it did over 200 years ago: “Taught from infancy that beauty is woman’s sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison.”
The youngest Nobel Prize laureate, Malala Yousafzai is a prominent activist who is fighting for girls to get an education and learn to read, in her native Pakistan and elsewhere. At 15, she was shot in the head by a member of the Taliban for speaking out about girls’ rights to an education, and established the Malala Fund charity to pave the way for girls around the world to overcome any obstacles that interfere with their learning. When she’s not campaigning for others, she’s busy educating herself, studying Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford.
People may think of Natalie as a fashion entrepreneur but she is also a tech guru who revolutionised ecommerce and the luxury shopping experience. After founding Net-a-Porter and The Outnet and joining Farfetch as a non-executive co-chairman, Massenet launched Imaginary, a VC fund dedicated to entrepreneurs looking to disrupt the retail and technology space. “My personal ambition remains the same – to be creative, to be modern, to stay one step ahead, to enjoy life. Positivity is like a muscle: keep exercising it, and it becomes a habit. Always go into meetings or negotiations with a positive attitude.”
The co-founder of Entrepreneur First and Code First: Girls, Bentinck has helped launch companies like Bloomsbury AI, a natural language processing start-up acquired by Facebook. What’s revolutionary about EF is that it isn’t about the big idea, it’s about the talent behind it: EF invests in people, who don’t need to have a fully formed business plan. Bentinck and her co-founder, Matt Clifford, are all about empowering the next generation with Code First: Girls, and have helped over 10,000 girls learn to code for free with the aim of encouraging diversity in STEM and fields like software development.
A trailblazing Iraqi-born British architect who changed architecture – and by virtue of that, the way the world looks – stood up to critics and made a name for herself by building what couldn’t be built. Always at the forefront of innovation and experimentation, she changed the field of architecture for the women who came after, combating misogyny along the way. “I suppose I must be part of the establishment now. I’ve always been independent and, because I’m ‘flamboyant’, I’ve always been seen as difficult. As a woman in architecture, you’re always an outsider. It’s OK, I like being on the edge,” she’s said.
One of the most inspiring women in history, Helen Keller was blind and deaf as the result of a childhood illness – but that didn’t stop her from leading an extraordinary life. She was the first deaf-blind person to earn a BA degree, and became a famous speaker and author who worked tirelessly to dispel any notion that living with disability meant being unable to lead a full, inspiring life.