Content warning: mention of mental illness
Everyone has to start somewhere. This is a concept we often forget when we idolise inspirational female figures throughout history. All too often we see people as ‘role models’ because they are influential and highly successful, but what we tend to neglect is their journey towards this success.
Take Virginia Woolf: she is renowned as one of the most important writers of the 20th century as well as one of the pioneers of psychological exploration and the stream of consciousness narrative. In 1895, at the tender age of 13, she lost her mother and experienced her first mental breakdown. She began writing in 1905 and suffered further mental struggles following the death of her father. This extreme loss and debilitating mental illness did not prevent her from founding the Hogarth Press in 1917, which published many of her novels and critical essays.
Woolf became a leading figure of ‘inspiring feminism’ and radically re-shaped the views on female sexuality, equality, and education in society. Her mental struggles have since been explained with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder and as a writer, feminist and critical mind, Woolf is now commemorated with statues, societies, and buildings.
Natalie Portman, a successful actress, model, and activist is another example of a figure who worked tirelessly to achieve her elevated status as a person of influence. Her first role in Léon: The Professional was cast when she was just 13 years old.
This meant she rose to fame at an impressionable age (whilst she was still in high school), but this did not distract her from her education. From 1999 to 2003 she attended Harvard University and gained a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology – a tool she used in her later roles as it enriched her understanding of the human mind. Portman then went on to be nominated for Best Supporting Actress in 2004 for her role in ‘Closer’ and has been commended for her directorial ventures as well.
Animal rights, environmental activism and the political relationship between America and Israel are other matters which the influential actress has used her platform to support.
Oprah Winfrey was fired from her first job as a mainstream TV news anchor in Baltimore at 21 years old after being deemed ‘too emotionally charged’ and involved in the stories she was presenting.
This empathetic quality is now the reason for her fame as her intimate and confessional approach towards media communication is what makes her so inspiring to so many. Despite the loss of her dream job on mainstream television, this did not allow her to give up her pursuit to be heard by the many and she is now dubbed ‘The Queen of all Media.’
Dame Judi Dench is a further example of someone who didn’t find her fame until later in life, despite her previous theatrical achievements. In 1957 Dench made her debut with the Old Vic company and performed in several Shakespearean roles such as Ophelia in Hamlet.
However, her first film appearance was the role of M in the James Bond film Golden Eye in 1995 at the age of 61– a role which she played until 2015. This role lead to Dench being recognised in the film industry and she went on to win the Academy Award for her role as Queen Elizabeth I in 1998 and has also been nominated for her roles in Chocolat and Philomena.
These women are just a small selection of role models in contemporary society that did not simply fall into their influential positions. If we look into what many of societies most poignant and motivating figures were doing in their formative years, we begin to acknowledge and understand the work that is carried out both in their field of work and outside of it.
Whether it be mental illness, rejection, juggling education with other commitments, or finding your calling later in life, these factors did not mean that their success was unattainable.
We should try our best to avoid looking at these figures as effortless examples of perfection and success. If we acknowledge what inspiring figures were doing at our age, and compare this with their current status, their life can be a source of aspiration as well as inspiration.
Oprah Image: (aprodite-in-nyc via flickr)
Virginia Woolf Image: (Filippo Venturi Photography Blog via Wikimedia Commons)