There’s a 39-year-old grandmother in Iraq who is waging her own war against ISIS. Her and her small militia capture ISIS soldiers. Her name is Wahida Mohamed Al-Jumaily. Yes, she scares me a little. But when I read her story, I was most impressed with her courage to buck cultural norms to preserve justice and protect those around her.
There are women around the world who are working together to change it for the better. I’d like to count myself among them. Here are a few female souls I’d like to emulate – though it’s not an exhaustive list:
I’ve spent a lot of time complaining about election outcomes, but here’s one I can’t complain about. The first person of Somali descent to be elected to this office, as well as the first Muslim, Ilhan Omar won a seat in the House of Representatives for Minnesota. A political analyst, mother of three and now elected official, Omar’s positive attitude and care for every person in her diverse community makes her someone the entire country can be proud of.
I’m showing my age a bit, but I was watching DeGeneres when she was looking for love on her sitcom, Ellen. In the fiction of the show, she was woman looking for a man, who was eventually able to be honest with herself and come out. Ellen was also living that story — though she knew she was gay before fictional Ellen was able to come to terms with it.
What bravery it took for her to come out when she did — and to include that in her television show. It was so risky, and I was scared for her at the time — would it kill her popularity or success in the industry? It didn’t. Her courage changed the world and created a more open and diverse view. I was crying right along with her when a teary-eyed Obama put a Presidential medal around her neck for her work in advancing LGBTQ rights in the U.S.
I first saw Elizabeth Warren before she was a politician, in the documentary Maxed Out (2009). I’d never heard anyone explain the crisis of debt so many Americans were facing with such clarity and compassion. I’ve been following her ever since. She’s not afraid to take on anyone who tries to manipulate the public, and her voice has proven strong in the last election cycle. She has a passion for the American people that I have seen in few politicians.
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Another badass to top this list is the first woman to be part of a pit crew in NASCAR history. She’s a front tire changer for Michael Waltrip Racing, an Olympic lifter, fitness coach and CrossFit competitor – among other things. I can’t even get from my house to the car in the time pit crews are expected to get their cars back on the track, a staggering 11.5 seconds, but she can make it happen.
The fantastic filmmakers once known as the Wachowski Brothers are a powerhouse in Hollywood. Creating The Matrix trilogy, among other films, they’ve had amazing success and a huge following. At different times, the two came out as transgender women. Lana and Lilly are great storytellers, and I’m so impressed with the support system these two have given each other during their transitions.
As a plus-sized lingerie model, Graham was criticized – or body-shamed – for her size. She lost weight and was subsequently criticized for that, too. In a world where women can’t seem to win in terms of body image, Graham has been outspoken about being comfortable in her body, regardless of its shape or size.
She’s too young to drive, but her ability to speak to women of all ages is amazing. She began as Disney star on the show Girl Meets World — a spinoff of Boy Meets World. A feminist who spreads messages of encouragement and inclusion, she recently spoke at a United Nation conference for women. She explained to this group how girls lose interest in STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Math — activities and why we need to change that. Yes — she should be a role model to our daughters, but she’s also role model to me.
The Pakistani filmmaker who won the best-short documentary Oscar this year has done an amazing thing — with her artful camera work, she’s created a story we all need to know before we can truly understand what’s going on around the world.
Her film on honor killings — when men in some cultures kill the women who they feel have shamed their families — is breathtaking, painful and unforgettable. The film, A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness (2016) is the remarkable story of an unsuccessful honor killing and the repercussions surviving it had on the victim.
"Emily Doe," Stanford Rape Survivor
In January of 2015, a Stanford swimmer raped an unconscious woman. He was sentenced to six months in jail because the ruling judge didn’t want to ruin his young life. It was a maddening time for all women, but "Emily Doe," the survivor of the attack penned an amazingly powerful letter about her own experience and a ruined young life.
She begins her letter saying: “You don’t know me, but you’ve been inside me, and that’s why we’re here today.” She could’ve screamed out from the pages of the letter, but instead, she was thoughtful and measured. She told us all the story, in graphic detail, of something that was stolen from her. The letter alone ignited a fire, and, hopefully changed some minds regarding how we treat women who’ve been sexually assaulted.
I’ve always been a fan of FLOTUS — smart, self-possessed and a good parent — Michelle Obama is an example for us all. However, it was during her campaign speech for Hillary Clinton that I thought, I want to be like her. Her famous words – when they go low, we go high – is something to carry with you regardless of the situation, and, perhaps, something to keep in mind during the possibly tumultuous times ahead.
My Own Goals for 2017
Honestly, 2017 won’t be the year I was expecting, but there are so many women changing the world, I think it’s going to be okay. From these women I see that the power to change is within the grasp of all of us — and it’s even more important that we grasp those changes now more than ever before.
These women represent a community who supports each other, protects each other and speaks out for each other. We have to have each other’s backs and that’s exactly what I’m planning to do as we head into a new year.
Top photo: Michelle Obama/Instagram
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Holly Whitman is a feminist writer and political journalist, originally from London but now based in Washington DC. Her work has been featured on Feministing, Fortune, Babble, Yahoo Finance and more. You can find her on Twitter at @hollykwhitman or at her blog, Only Slightly Biased.