(Female) Role Models

On International Women’s Day we celebrate women everywhere. We celebrate strong women, of every type and social status. We celebrate female role models.

I’d like to take a moment to consider female role models. We attach female to the beginning, as if to say that role models is not a general enough term. When we refer to Kobe Bryant, Martin Luther King Jr., or any other male role model, we refer to them simply as “role models.” It’s as if the generic term is reserved only for men. But using the generic term implies even if the role model is male, he can serve as a role model for females as well. The term “female role model,” however, seems to not only reserve the position for women but also serve as a source of inspiration only for women.

And I think that’s where we get lost a bit. When we disregard role models that stem from half of our society (women), we leave the other half of our society (men) with only half the role models. If women can look to role models and female role models for inspiration, men are being denied inspiration from the latter, if just because of the label given to them.

Still, I believe for women it’s important to have female role models. Part of their being role models is that they’ve accomplished what they have because or despite their being women. This was something I may have only come to realize recently, but my mother knew to begin to instill in me back when I was bat mitzvah.

You see, for my bat mitzvah, I learned the five megillot with my mother. Among those texts is the notable Scroll of Esther, a story whose heroine’s courage is appreciated by Jewish men and women alike. Still, my mother encouraged me to learn further about the strong women that have impacted Jewish history.

She introduced me to the figure of Dona Gracia.

Dona Gracia was born into a family of conversos in 1510 in Portugal and similarly married into a wealthy converso Spanish family. When her husband passed away, she inherited half of his fortune and used it to build a banking empire that she would later use to help other conversos escaping persecution. She also held high diplomatic relations, at one point trying to influence a boycott on a major port city that had killed a number of conversos.

Dona Gracia was a brilliant businesswoman but also very connected to her Judaism. She hid her Jewish identity as she wandered, escaping the Inquisition, from Portugal to Antwerp to Italy. In Ferrara she openly declared her Judaism and from then on lived as an open Jew. Even when she once again moved, finally settling in Istanbul.

She’s important to me, as I believe she should be to others, because of her courage in the face of the Inquisition, because of her keen business sense and because of her commitment to her people. She may be a female role model because she held the power she did and had the impact she had despite her being a woman in a patrilineal society. But her title of female role model doesn’t have to make her a significant figure only to women. After all, men can also appreciate accomplishments achieved “despite” certain factors.

More so, her inspiration can be seen universally through her story. For one, despite her origin, her story is the Jewish story. She may be Sephardi, but Jews everywhere know what facing adversity as a Jew is like. Second, she was a savvy businesswoman. A savvy businesswoman who used her wealth to save others escaping persecution. She looked out for her people.

So, I can understand considering her a female role model, but I want to make sure she isn’t relegated only to women. I think International Women’s Day is an opportunity for women and men to recognize women for being women but also for their impact, potential or achieved, on all parts of society.

The strength and impact of female role models is limitless. It can reach beyond the borders of ethnicity, place of origin, and, yes, gender. Dona Gracia taught me this.

~ Dalya

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