Female Role Models Whom I Will Miss

Female Role Models Whom I Will Miss

Every year the New York Times magazine publishes a special issue “The Lives They Lived” honoring the lives of prominent persons who died in the past year. This year’s list included a number of notable women, including Abigail van Buren (aka Dear Abby), Esther Williams, and  Maria Tallchief.  This inspired me to create my own list of female role models who died in 2013 and whose life and work influenced my own.

Dr. Joyce Brothers.  Before there was Dr. Ruth, there was Dr. Joyce Brothers dispensing frank advice to the lovesick over the airwaves. By the late 1950s, she had migrated to the new medium of television with “The Dr. Joyce Brothers Show,” and later “Ask Dr. Brothers,” “Consult Dr. Brothers” and “Living Easy With Dr. Joyce Brothers.” The New York Times obituary rightly observes that “Dr. Brothers arrived in the American consciousness (or, more precisely, the American unconscious) at a serendipitous time: the exact historical moment when cold war anxiety, a greater acceptance of talk therapy and the widespread ownership of television sets converged. Looking crisply capable yet eminently approachable in her pastel suits and pale blond pageboy, she offered gentle, nonthreatening advice on sex, relationships, family and all manner of decent behavior.”


I remember her as a fixture of the talk show circuit and some of my favorite TV shows like “Hollywood Squares” and “The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour” (I was too young to watch “The Tonight Show.”) Much of her advice about sex and what she called “liberated marriage” went over my head at the time, but just seeing a woman with “Dr.” in front of her name on television was inspiring.

Virginia E. Johnson

Virginia E. Johnson. In collaboration with gynecologist William H. Masters, Johnson paved the way for Dr. Ruth by making “the frank discussion of sex in postwar America possible if not downright acceptable.” Their book Human Sexual Response created a sensation when it was released in 1966. Unlike their predecessor Alfred Kinsey, Masters and Johnson not only cataloged sexual behavior but also developed new treatments for various sexual disorders such as impotence, premature ejaculation, and failure to achieve orgasm. Their work created the modern field of sex therapy, which took a physical rather than psychoanalytic approach to sexual problems.  Masters and Johnson are the subjects of the new Showtime series “Masters of Sex.”  I don’t subscribe to Showtime so have only seen clips on the show’s website.  I have pre-ordered the DVD – hopefully it will be released before my course on the history of gender and sexuality starts in the spring!

Bonnie Franklin. (Wikimedia)

Bonnie Franklin.  I just loved her show “One Day at a Time.” Premiering in 1976, it was one of the first to depict a divorced mother raising her teenaged daughters on her own.  The Times obituary describes her character Ann Romano as role model to the “divorce generation,” who was presented as “the happily single mother a figure of middle-class heartland normalcy, not an exotic creature of the coastal upper classes.” The show also “pushed the boundaries of frank female discourse. When an 18-year-old Barbara (Valerie Bertinelli) openly contemplates losing her virginity — at one point she tiptoes into the living room clutching a newly obtained box of contraceptives — Ann tells her, ‘From my gut, I want to say to you, ‘Barbara, don’t do it,’ but then I say, ‘It’s idiotic to bring up a child saying sex before marriage is dirty, and sex after marriage is beautiful.’ ”

For me, Ann Romano was a model of modern womanhood, who “left her husband to start anew, reclaimed her maiden name, held feminist views and seemed to have little need for men outside the occasional love affair.” I also thought Ann Romano and her daughters were wicked cool, and I tried unsuccessfully to replicate Bonnie’s pert Dorothy Hamill flip.


Jean Stapleton.  An acclaimed actress, she was best known as the submissive doormat of a housewife Edith Bunker on “All in the Family,” (her most assertive act was to tell Archie to “stifle”). She later went on to play Eleanor Roosevelt in a television movie about the First Lady’s life after the White House. Stapleton was also a prominent feminist activist who headed the Women’s Research and Education Institution.  I remember one episode of “All the in Family” where Edith is furtively reading The Feminine Mystique.  Thinking it must be a dirty book of some sort, I checked it out of my local public library.  No naughty bits, but I learned a lot about feminism! So even as Edith, Stapleton performed subversive feminist acts.

Carolyn Cassidy
Carolyn Cassidy

Carolyn Cassady.I could never get into On the Road or other Beat novels, but I loved reading Carolyn Cassady’s autobiographies Heart Beat: My Life With Jack and Neal (1976),  and Off the Road: My Years With Cassady, Kerouac and Ginsberg.  Although she was considered the “grande dame of the Beat Generation,” she lived in an era when creative women weren’t taken seriously -even the otherwise non-conformist Beats were sexist pigs. Cassady later got her revenge by telling an interviewer from the literary magazine Notes from the Underground, “As far as I’m concerned, the Beat Generation was something made up by the media and Allen Ginsberg.”

Gerda Lerner. (NWHM)

Gerda Lerner. We women’s historians know her as one of the founding mothers of our field, who helped establish the first graduate program in women’s history in the United States. She made it possible for women of my generation to study women’s history without (too much) scorn from those in other more established fields. Her landmark books The Creation of Patriarchy and The Creation of Feminist Consciousness are required reading in many women’s history and women’s studies courses.

Cynthia Eagle Russett in her office at Yale. ©Michael Marsland/Yale University

Cynthia Eagle Russett. Since I specialize in the history of gender in science and medicine, her book Sexual Science: The Victorian Construction of Womanhood, was invaluable to my own work. She showed that the so-called “science” of sex differences became firmly established in reaction to the first wave of women’s rights activism in the mid-nineteenth century.  “The construction of womanhood by Victorian scientists grew out of and was responsive to the very human needs of a particular historical moment,” she wrote. “It needs to be seen for the masculine power play that it was, but it needs to be seen also as an intellectual monument, etched in fear, of the painful transition to the modern worldview.”

I was thrilled when it won the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians book prize in 1990.  She was also a very nice, supportive person. I envy the Yale students who had her as a mentor and wish I had gotten to know her better.

Readers will notice I haven’t included the Nobel prize-winning, feminist author Dorris Lessing on my personal list.  This isn’t out of neglect: it’s just because, regrettably, I haven’t read any of her work. Better put that on my new year’s resolution list!

Featured image caption: In Memoriam. (Flickr)

Heather Munro Prescott is Professor of History at Central Connecticut State University. She is the author of The Morning-After: A History of Emergency Contraception in the United States, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2011.

11 thoughts on “Female Role Models Whom I Will Miss

    • Author gravatar

      Good article to remind us of our 20th century foremothers.

    • Author gravatar

      Reblogged this on Knitting Clio and commented:
      Signal boost for my latest post at Nursing Clio

    • Author gravatar

      excellent list!

    • Author gravatar

      Thanks for a wonderful list. I grew up watching these wonderful women clear a path for others.

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      I haven’t, regrettably, heard of many of these women. I will definitely try to learn more about all of them!

    • Author gravatar

      So Actors, Women’s Rights activists and Sex authors!? How shallow! What about Scientists, Doctors, and Politicians?!! Women like you make should be ashamed! You’re the reason culture doesn’t venerate women who make DIFFERENCES in the world!

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      Susan — “You’re the reason culture doesn’t venerate women who make DIFFERENCES in the world!”

      Do you really think one historian, or any number of historians, are so influential?

      Heather wrote — “my own list of female role models who died in 2013 and whose life and work influenced my own”.

      Her own list. Her own work. If you are acquainted with her work, you will know that she is very familiar with the history of science, medicine and politics. I feel sure she could readily trot out dozens of predictable names.

      This is her list. If you want to contribute, perhaps you should provide a list of your own.


    • Author gravatar

      Oh, I love when other folks expect me to write what they want, for free, on my blog. 😛 This post is personal to HMP, and it doesn’t claim to be otherwise. We’re of the same generation, though, and it felt similar to the list I’d probably make.

      One additional thing about Jean Stapleton–she was active on twitter until about a year before she died. She answered questions, commented on events, and was generally lovely.

      If you want to read something short and disability-related by Doris Lessing, _The Fifth Child_ is quite disturbing, but well-written. I happened to read it last year, just before she died.

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      Well done and much appreciated.

    • Author gravatar

      I don’t go in for role models, heroes, and inspiration, but I might as well have a go.

      I think that the agricultural historian Joan Thirsk Is the only one of the recently deceased famous who had any direct influence on my life.

      I won’t forget the life’s work of Marian McPartland and Marcella Hazan in a hurry. A couple of writers should be mentioned, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and Elizabeth Jane Howard.

      I shall forbear from making remarks about the death of politicians, but we have also been challenged to name doctors and scientists. None of these have had any personal influence on me, but all have impressed me.

      Medicine and the sciences == Jane Cooke Wright; Candace Pert; Ruth Patrick; Brigitte Askonas; Rita Levi-Montalcini, Katharine Giles

      If she is not a mere troll, I feel sure that Susan will be able to give us an assessment of these.

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