I Want to Know Who Your Heroines Are

 “Everyone thought I was bold and fearless and even arrogant, but inside I was always quaking.”  — Katharine Hepburn

The first time I saw Katharine Hepburn, and knew who she was, was when I saw an interview with her on tv. I don’t remember how old I was, but I remember how amazing she was. She was witty. She was remarkably self-possessed. She had such confidence and grace. It was uncanny. I was impressed.

Of course, I made sure to watch all of her movies. It wasn’t out of the ordinary for me. I was raised on a steady diet of Abbott and Costello, Casablanca, National Velvet, and anything with singing and dancing. To this day, I cannot see a lamppost without swinging around it like Gene Kelly. At least I don’t have a horribly high fever while doing it.

Anyway, Hepburn left an impression. I admired her greatly. I still do. Because she did exactly what she wanted with her life, despite the difficulties inherent to her time. Plus, she unabashedly wore pants and mouthed off to Barbara Walters, who annoys me. Asking her what kind of a TREE she is? Really? *rolls eyes* So, it’s a win-win.

Hepburn, of course, had a fairly tumultuous personal life. It wasn’t quite to the level of the divine Ms. Taylor, but it wasn’t without difficulty. For one thing, Spencer Tracey (the love of her life) was married and Catholic, which ruled out divorce. He was also, by most accounts, a bit of a drunk. Not exactly the kind of person you hope your daughter will love, but love is a strange, unpredictable, and completely unruly creature. She stayed with him until the end of his life and did not attend his funeral out of respect for his wife and children.

Think about that. The man she loved and cared for had just died, but she had enough strength of will and respect for her dead lover to abstain from his funeral. I can’t imagine standing in her shoes and making that choice. Now, you can argue that the whole arrangement was silly, that she was basically living with a married man, but facts are the sun-blanched bones of things. They are not the whole, living picture.

I know a decent amount about Katharine Hepburn. Audrey, too. And even Elizabeth Taylor. I adore Ava Gardner and would’ve loved to have sat down with these women for a drink. These actresses weren’t just actresses. They were icons. They had style and grace. No one, to my knowledge, has a wardrobe malfunction or blacked out in a trashcan.

Cut to today. What passes for celebrity? Paris Hilton, whose acting talents are those of a shiny, wooden dummy? Or Kim Kardashian, who does what, exactly? Look pretty? Let’s not forget Lindsay Lohan, who once upon a time was amusing (I loved Mean Girls and The Parent Trap).

It’s a shame, really, that the media is saturated with people like that – people who might be nice, or whatever, but who seem to lack a certain level of substance. I grew up with the best of both worlds, really. I watched old musicals and movies. I was completely obsessed with My Fair Lady, although as a kid, I couldn’t quite figure out why Rex Harrison talk-sang.

Thankfully, I read a lot, too. I knew every librarian by name, and she (almost always a she) knew me by name, too. These days, I look at the news and realize that I still want to be a Hepburn, either Katharine or Audrey. Just throw in a little of Dorothy Parker and Mae West while you’re at it.

What famous women influenced you as a child? Who does now? (Sorry that this is girl-centric, today.)

“I believe in pink. I believe that laughing is the best calorie burner. I believe in kissing, kissing a lot. I believe in being strong when everything seems to be going wrong. I believe that happy girls are the prettiest girls. I believe that tomorrow is another day and I believe in miracles.” — Audrey Hepburn

“I think the main reason my marriages failed is that I always loved too well but never wisely.” — Ava Gardner

“The problem with people who have no vices is that generally you can be pretty sure they’re going to have some pretty annoying virtues.”
— Elizabeth Taylor

“I generally avoid temptation unless I can’t resist it.”
— Mae West

“Now I know the things I know, and I do the things I do; and if you do not like me so, to hell, my love, with you!”
— Dorothy Parker

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  1. August 24, 2011 at 9:18 am

    I love this post, and it comes at a great time. I need to focus on a little girl-centric inspiration today. Oddly, when I was in high school, Rosalind Franklin became an inspiration. I read voraciously about the discovery of the double helical structure of DNA (yeah, long story), and her role intrigued me. She was intelligent, she was witty, and she suffered through the sexism of science and academia. She was known to be impatient and often straight to the point, holding high standards for herself and others. With all her contributions, even after her death at the early age of 39, Watson published his book and denegrated her and her work. However, in spite of the fact that they stole her data to make their discovery, she didn’t appear to be bitter (probably due to her upbringing) and ackowledged that they discovered what she had not. She inspired me to try to make my own contributions in spite of the sexism that still persists today.

  2. August 24, 2011 at 9:29 am

    Great post! I love the Audrey Hepburn quotes…may have to steal them. I don’t have any famous heroines. My hero is my mom, who loved my dad in sickness and in health… and courageously battled cancer when the odds were stacked against her.

  3. Jak
    August 24, 2011 at 3:55 pm

    My first heroine was Amelia Earhart. I wrote all my biographical reports on her as a child. Nowadays I don’t have many specific heroines, and a lot of them are fictional. Many of them I follow them online, and are commonly people who aren’t in the media but are doing things behind the scenes. My heroines often are women who go after what they want despite the odds.

    I wonder how many times I can cram the word “heroines” into a paragraph 🙂

  4. August 25, 2011 at 1:58 pm

    My early heroine was my grandmother, who always had a pie on the counter, a full pot of coffee, and tales to tell for anyone who dropped by for a visit. After that came a string of very interesting but obscure women who did what they wanted, regardless of their gender. One was a tiger trainer in the circus. She trained lions, too, but found them too docile for her tastes. The other was a woman who disguised herself as a man in order to fight in the Civil War. She was discovered when she broke her leg and a medic attended to her. There’s actually a memorial to her in one of the museums in D.C. – I visited in the late 80’s and they had recently re-instated her position and awards and put up the display.

    As far as actresses, Bette Davis and Lauren Bacall are first on my list. Bette fought the studio system and won, after a lengthy and at times, very dirty, fight. And Bacall – well – she’s just sooo cool, and yet so devoted to Bogart.

    Nowadays, I admire anyone, woman or man, who pursues their passion against all odds, and who holds their head up and smiles in this era of cyber-mudflinging.

    • Jak
      August 26, 2011 at 5:07 pm

      You might also be interested in Margaret Ann Bulkley, aka James Barry as well. She became a surgeon in the British Army and it wasn’t discovered she was a woman until after she died. They even believe she might have had a child in secret.

  5. Jessica
    August 29, 2011 at 1:36 pm

    I think it’s sad that there are no women of our own time mentioned here. The list we see is peppered with movie stars of a bygone era, and scientists and secret warriors from before we were born. And I place that squarely on the shoulders of the women we should look to as our heroines, but can’t. The people who admire Audrey Hepburn are a small minority compared to the people who rush in droves to their couches to watch Kim Kardashian and Snooki on TV. Are these supposed to be our heroes? What does that say about us?

    I know I’m digressing away from the topic, but it makes me sad to think that there may be no more Van Goghs, or Beethovens, or Amelia Earharts, or Audrey Hepburns. It makes me sad to think that class, and grace, and talent, and courage may be very much traits of an age that has passed. What mark will our generation leave on society? What will we leave for the history books? It makes me shudder to think that there will come a day when Music History textbooks have a chapter devoted to Britney Spears and Ke$ha.

    To return to the topic at hand… I agree with Gayle – I admire women who do what they want against the odds, and I admire people who are passionate about what they do. I think there are so many people who are miserable with their day to day lives, there is something about someone passionately pursuing their dream that I find admirable. That, and I admire people who create things. The current economic crisis has helped me to realize just how many people there are who are paid ridiculous amounts of money to do nothing. I admire every woman who has started a craft, or practiced a talent, and has learned to make something beautiful for the world. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “When you cease to make a contribution, you begin to die.”

    Eleanor Roosevelt has said so many of my very favorite quotes. (And if she didn’t, Teddy or FDR did!)

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