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Happy Women’s History Month

I have little to add to the conversation on COVID-19, but I do have a long-standing thought about Women’s History Month, so I’ll share that instead.

Several years ago, the company I worked for asked some of us women leaders to write about inspiring women for a public blog post. They specifically asked for women in STEM fields. I replied that I thought Sally Ride was cool when I was in school, as the first American Woman in space. I added that when I thought back, my heroes were not in STEM at all.

My real answer, which they didn’t print, was that my two absolute heroes when I was young were Harriet Tubman and Pippi Longstocking. Now the casual observer may not find a lot in common between Harriet and Pippi. One, after all, was an escaped slave who risked her life helping others escape on the Underground Railroad. The other was a sassy little redheaded girl who sat backward on her horse.

Harriet Tubman

Despite a head injury that caused massive headaches and seizures, Harriet Tubman made 13 expeditions to free slaves, and then joined the Union Army during the Civil War. She led an armed raid that freed 700 slaves. Something we learned in school that has always stuck with me is that she occasionally had to get tough with the people she was helping escape if they panicked and put the group at risk—including threatening them at gunpoint. That’s some serious grit right there and I remember it being a really weird lesson to learn as a child, since all the other heroes we heard about were nice to a fault and bad things were glossed over. Because of that, Harriet Tubman always seemed more real to me than the presidents and other people our history books put on pedestals.

As for Pippi, I mean, she lived alone and she did whatever she wanted. She was strong enough to lift policemen by their lapels. Her friends were pretty wimpy, but Pippi was always kind to them and and ready to lead them on big adventures. My one quibble with Pippi was that she didn’t like math and insisted on calling multiplication “plutification”—that really pissed me off as a kid because I loved math. But she had a monkey and that more than made up for any failings.

To my two childhood heroes, I’ll add one I discovered as an adult. Beryl Markham was an early bush pilot in Kenya who is most famous for being the first person to fly West across the Atlantic Ocean. She also had one of the most remarkable childhoods I’ve read about. Beryl hunted with local children and had some harrowing adventures I’ll just mess up if I try to repeat here. Fortunately, she was an incredible writer and you should read her book, West With the Night.

What ties Pippi, Harriet, and Beryl together is that each one of them bucked convention. They weren’t afraid to get into scrapes or do the unexpected thing just because it was difficult. They were physically strong, mentally tough, and fiercely independent. That is what won my admiration and holds it to this day.

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