Woman on Top

Who inspires you? Do you have a hero, whether fictional or real? If you could be anyone, living or dead, who would it be?

This week, I have to credit Netflix for forcing me to closely consider my own heroines. I don’t own a television and Netflix has saved me from the horror of reality TV, commercials and faux news.  Adventure, Romance, Drama, Sci-Fi and Fantasy all on demand, for just $15.99/month, and a thousand times more satisfying than my defunct online dating subscription.

Lately I’ve been drawn into various series—and this is where the confession part comes in this week—first, there was Charmed, then there was The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, then Legend of the Seeker (don’t knock it until you’ve watched at least 3 episodes), then Weeds, and while I wait for the sixth season, finally, the Tudors.  Watching the Tudors is like having passion bottled up in a bottle. You uncork the bottle for a little whiff (I’ve been pacing myself and rewarding myself with an episode after I get some task accomplished), and you’re hit with a heady onslaught of delicious goodness.

The series has been accused of taking more than a few liberties with history, but frankly, with the riveting acting by Jonathan Rhys Meyers as a seemingly bipolar Henry VIII, Peter O’Toole as Pope Paul III, Jeremy Northam as Sir Thomas More, and Maria Doyle Kennedy as Catherine of Aragon, I’m not sure how much exact historical accuracy matters.  I love the drama—the political intrigues, the backdrop of the Reformation, the sex, even the torture scenes—all of it keeps me on the edge.  The series is so good that I’m torn between going back to watch old episodes again and pressing forward.

I recently watched the episode where Anne Boleyn gets beheaded. The one thought that always stands out for me after watching each and every episode is the fact that women back in the day had it ROUGH.  In the Tudors, we are taken through the lives of Henry VIII’s six wives. They are, in order:

1. Catherine of Aragon;
2. Anne Boleyn
Jane Seymour;
Anne of Cleves;
Catherine Howard; and
6. Catherine Parr

Like I said, I’m only up to wife number two.  What is striking to me is that status didn’t matter—married, single, royal or “commoner”—anyway you slice it, being a woman back in the day sucked big time. But even though all women had it bad, single women always seemed to have it worse. Single women, across cultures, whether widowed, or never married in the first place, have been stoned, drowned, burned at the stake, sexually assaulted, forced into prostitution, or otherwise left destitute to lead lives of poverty. Which got me to thinking.

Could I name history’s most famous single women?

Women who bucked societal pressure and chose to remain single despite the obvious and very real aforementioned risks (drowning, burning, poverty) and still came out on top? Women who may have died single, but elected to go out on their own terms?

I could only come up with a few, but I decided that I wanted to come up with my own list and include women of the present day. I hope that you will help me add to this list as time goes on, but for now, I’ve compiled my short list of heroines.  To me, they represent the best of what single women can be.  Unlike the prevailing myths of nasty single women (think the “evil” old witch in Hansel and Gretel, the Wicked Witch of the West in the Wizard of Oz, and countless others), living life as a single woman is not a death sentence and should not be associated with violence, greed and soullessness. (Incidentally, I did try to come up with popular portrayals of nasty single men in fairytales and myths—the only one who sprang immediately to mind was Gargamel.)

By choosing not to marry, a single woman is not consigning herself to a lonely death surrounded by cats.

Read that again and believe it. Repeat it twenty times or as many times as necessary until it sticks. And never let those words ever cross your lips again. Don’t even think them.  Even negative thoughts have power.

I’m not knocking marriage. (I'll save that for a later post.)  I’m sure it’s a very worthy institution.  And maybe I’ll even head down that road myself one day.  Who knows?  All I’m saying is that choosing not to get married, whether a temporary position or a more permanent choice, is an option that is just as ok for the ladies as it is for men. Not exactly revolutionary I know, but it’s a message that doesn’t seem to come across as loudly and clearly in the media. I’m tired of seeing the statistics that conveniently get trotted out to tell single women that remaining unmarried and/or not having children increases your risks 100-fold of dying in poverty, getting cancer, or being struck by lightning.

It’s certainly A-Ok to be a single man past the age of 40.  Older "bachelors" get to date beautiful women half their age, romp around without a care in the world and live as they please (George ClooneyJack Nicholson, I’m looking at you).  We don’t judge them.  We think they’re cool.  At least some people do.  What do women of the same age get to be? Spinsters. Cougars.  Like chasing a man is the only possible endeavor of a woman past a certain age.  And women who choose not to have children? Don’t get me started.  Before I descend into full-blown rant, I’ll pull up.

I issued a challenge to myself.

Come up with a list of single (as in never married) women who challenge and inspire. Women who have looked tradition in the eye and then thumbed their noses. Women whose achievements were hard-won and arguably may not have risen to the top in the same way had they been married.  Here’s my list. I challenge you to create your own.

Top 10 Single Women Who Inspire…

10           Susan B. Anthony
(1820-1906) Pioneering civil rights leader who fought tirelessly for equal rights for women.  She never married, but when a leading publicist told her he thought she would make a wonderful mother, she used the opportunity to comment on the unfairness of inheritance laws as they related to child custody: “I thank you, sir, for what I take to be the highest compliment, but sweeter even than to have had the joy of caring for children of my own has it been to me to help bring about a better state of things for mothers generally, so that their unborn little ones could not be willed away from them.” She died 14 years before the passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which gave women the right to vote.


9              Rachel Carson
(1907-1964) American Marine biologist and best-selling author usually credited with helping to bring attention to conservation issues and advancing the environmental movement globally.  Out of the grassroots movement inspired by one of her books, the Environmental Protection Agency was born, and she is also remembered specifically for her participation in the campaign to ban the use of DDT in the United States. She never married.


8              Maureen Dowd
(1952-Present) Pulitzer Prize winning, best-selling author and New York Times columnist who is brave enough to shout down Rush Limbaugh and other misogynistic men in politics who talk out of one side of their mouths about family values then disgust us with their affairs and hypocrisy while others sit meekly by and let them.  Any woman who has the hutzpah to write a book entitled “Are Men Necessary?” in today’s politically correct world is a hero in my book.


7              Oprah Winfrey
(1954-Present) American television host, producer and philanthropist known world-wide just as “Oprah.” According to Forbes, as of September 2009, she is worth over $2.3 billion and is the richest self-made woman in America.  I’m not sure this one needs any further comment. She has never married, but has a long-term partner, Stedman Graham. But Stedman didn’t make Oprah. Oprah made Oprah. Love her or hate her, she’s still got more money than you do and is living life on her terms.


6              Florence Nightingale
(1820-1910) Famous English nurse, writer and statistician who bucked societal rules regarding the role of women of high social standing.  Choosing not to become a wife and mother, she instead educated herself in the art and science of nursing in spite of opposition from her family.  She received several proposals but chose not to marry. After refusing one offer of marriage, she confided, “I have a moral, an active nature which requires satisfaction and that I would not find in his life. I could be satisfied to spend a life with him in combining our different powers to some great object. I could not satisfy this nature by spending a life with him in making society and arranging domestic things.



5              Joan of Arc
(1412-1431) A national heroine in France. At age 17, believing herself to be divinely and personally graced by God, she shunned traditional gender roles and actually suited up in military garb and led French troops to victory in the famous Battle of Orléans during the Hundred Years’ War. Two years later she was captured by the English, convicted of heresy and burned at the stake. She was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church as a saint in 1920.


4              Sojourner Truth
(1797-1893) Born into slavery in New York as Isabella or “Belle” Baumfree, later self-identified as “Sojourner Truth.”  Sold with sheep at age 9 for $100, but later escaped.  Suffered many hardships but several victories as well, and eventually became a famous abolitionist and women’s rights activist.

3 Mother Teresa

(1910-1997) A Catholic nun of Albanian descent, Mother Teresa served the poor, the sick, orphans and outcasts for over 45 years in Calcutta, India, and in other parts of the world as well.  She won a Nobel Peace Prize for her humanitarian efforts and is known throughout the world as a symbol of compassion and grace.  When Mother Teresa received the prize, she was asked, "What can we do to promote world peace?" She answered “Go home and love your family.”

2              Elizabeth I
(1533-1603) Also known as the “Virgin Queen,” Queen Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Bolelyn was beheaded by her father, Henry VIII. Although she had several suitors, she never married.  I think I can guess why.  Talk about trust issues.  During the “Elizabethan” era, William Shakespeare and other prominent playwrights experienced their heyday.  Elizabeth was the last and longest-reigning monarch in the English Tudor dynasty, ruling for 45 years. During her reign, England became a substantial power in Europe, defeating Spain’s Armada and spreading English influence around the world through exploration. Repeatedly asked by Parliament to marry in order to produce an heir, she steadfastly refused saying, “If I follow the inclination of my nature, it is this: beggar-woman and single, far rather than queen and married.”

1              Jane Austen
(1775-1817) Much beloved English novelist who wrote Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, Emma, Persuasion and Mansfield Park, among other notable works. Her writing is known for its humorous, but biting social and moral commentary.  She wrote extensively of romance and love but never married herself. Ironic. A favorite quote: “Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance.” She is without a doubt, my hero of heroes. I love her.


Honorable Mentions
Actor: Greta Garbo, Diane Keaton
Asked if there's a reason she never married, Keaton puts the blame on herself.  “The problem was maybe I wasn't right. I wasn't really prepared to be a reasonable person.
Artist: Mary Cassat
Author: Louisa May Alcott, Emily Dickinson
Historical: Helen Keller, Rosalind Franklin

Who did I miss? Who would you add to the list? Send me your suggestions and I’ll keep adding names. In the meantime, look to Lady Liberty and keep those torches raised.


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