Why these five? Because they did more than inspire me as a young woman than anyone else ever has. They taught me to demand respect in the workplace, gave me permission to want both a family and a career, and reminded me that life is as much about following the rules as it is breaking them. As a girl who came of age during the ’80s and ’90s, I don’t know where I’d be without them.
J.C. Wiatt: the original “tiger lady.” Wiatt could have been (and should have been!) the first female managing partner at a major NYC-based advertising firm but was instead forced out when a baby entered the picture. Turning lemons into lemonade, or rather apples into applesauce, she relocated to the country to raise her adopted daughter, eventually launching her own gourmet baby food label and sticking it to the men at her firm who left her high and dry. Business success aside, J.C. Wiatt is forever my hero for prioritizing family when it mattered most.
Kathleen Kelly: Kathleen Kelly represents everything I wish to be myself: principled, kind, and smart. She was forced to close her beloved Manhattan-based children’s bookstore, The Shop Around the Corner, in the late ’90s when a big box bookstore moved across the street, yet later made a name for herself in the publishing world as an accomplished author of children’s literature in her own right. For staying true to herself and children’s literature during uncertain times, I salute her.
Tess McGill: This Staten Island native is probably one of the most successful secretaries in the history of business! Applying her street smarts and creativity to see her idea through for one of the largest media mergers ever, McGill went on to climb the corporate ladder without losing sight of where she came from. She proved that it is possible to win the rat race without becoming a rat.
Vivian Ward: This former street girl managed to turn her life around and become a role model to runaways and high-risk girls everywhere. After a chance encounter and whirlwind romance with a successful businessman, Ward eventually returned to school, earned her GED, and is believed to living happily ever with her prince in the Los Angeles area.
Joan Wilder: This well-known author of women’s literature enjoyed as much adventure off the page as on, especially when she traveled to Columbia, South America to rescue her kidnapped sister. Finding herself lost, left to navigate the jungle countryside with a feckless soldier-of-fortune, Wilder won the release of her sister, took down a pair of illegal treasure hunters, and unearthed a hidden gem of great mineralogical significance.
What? These woman sound familiar to you? That’s because they are all fictional characters from my favorite movies of the ‘80s and ‘90s.
No, I don’t mean to be cheeky. I mean to propose that having fictional counterparts to celebrate are as important to the collective female psyche as the real-life versions—the Rosa Parks, Mother Teresas, Marie Curies, and Margaret Thatchers of the world. And though I have chosen film to make my point, I could have as easily chosen literature: Jane Eyre, Jo March, Pippi Longstocking; television (Miss Piggy, Punky Brewster, Clair Huxtable); opera (Carmen, Madame Butterfly); or stage (Juliet, Maria von Trapp).
So on International Women’s Day this and every year, let us thank all the authors, screenwriters, producers, directors, actresses, opera singers and publishers for inviting strong and enduring female characters to the page, stage and most importantly, to our hearts.
- J.C. Wiatt: Baby Boom (1987)
- Kathleen Kelly: You’ve Got Mail (1998)
- Tess McGill: Working Girl (1988)
- Vivian Ward: Pretty Woman (1990)
- Joan Wilder: Romancing the Stone (1984)
(revised from original post in March, 2013)