August 26 marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Albanian Gonxha Agnes Bojaxhiu, a diminutive woman whose grand stature became known to the world as Mother Teresa. Over a brief 100 years, this small person became a religious woman; received a “vocation within a vocation” in a “decisive mystical encounter with Christ,” as is recounted in Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light; founded the Missionaries of Charity, a thriving order of impoverished-by-choice nuns serving the “poorest of the poor”; and received a Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, among many other earthly awards. Honored for her work with the poor and her uncompromised devotion to Christ, she is equally remembered as a woman who memorably defended in word and deed the most innocent of innocents and the weakest of all downtrodden. She did so without flinching at the personal attacks and objections flung in her direction. She was, perhaps, too small to be smudged — but grand enough to be copied.
I wish to recall Mother Teresa as a woman — a female for other females to consider as they search (often wearily) for role models. Stuck between competing models of female success, many young women have suffered the want of good female role models, and older women grasp uncertainly for examples to offer their daughters, nieces, and friends.
This is due, in part, to the oversupply of unattractive, prevailing national models of female success. Consider Senator Barbara Boxer, now fighting for her political life in California. In June 2009, the media offered us this woman, slumped over her notes at a Congressional hearing of the Committee on Environment and Public Works, pretending to listen to the testimony of Brigadier General Michael Walsh. In one video, it appeared that the senator chomped on chewing gum. But the senator’s demeanor suddenly shifted when she abruptly interrupted this military witness, who had had the misfortune of stammering, “Uh, ma’am,” before responding to a question.
“Do me a favor,” Boxer quipped. “Could you say ‘Senator’ instead of ‘ma’am’? It’s just a thing. I worked so hard to get that title.” News of her persnickety behavior and rudeness toward someone who was, in fact, trying to express respect for her office provoked disbelief across the Internet and resulted in the cyber-nickname “Ma’am Boxer.”
Peggy Noonan, another prominent candidate for female role model, spent the 2008 election cycle and beyond launching oddly vicious attacks against Sarah Palin. Even after the governor lost her bid for national office and quit her state job, Noonan conceived no better sport than firing another round at a fellow female, now beaten and in full retreat. Noonan titled her final hit piece “Farewell to Harms” and replayed her newsy characterization of Palin: a “middle-class girl with ambition” who “didn’t read anything,” “a ponder-free zone” with “no proper sense of inadequacy.”
Noonan’s overwrought prose led one commentator to publish:
You’re Peggy Noonan and you’re jealous. But it’s not the normal kind of jealous. No, it’s the kind of jealous that hurts, that grabs your gut and twists, that has you howling with rage into your pillow in the middle of the night, screaming “It’s not fair” like a two-year-old denied another piece of cake. It is Sarah Palin jealous . . . and it is consuming you.
Could this image seriously be proffered to a young woman as a role model — someone young women could hope to grow up and “be like”?
If not Senator Boxer or Peggy Noonan, could women at least agree that the current Secretary of State offers a fine female role model for our young? There is no doubt that Secretary Clinton has devoted herself to forging a Middle East peace agreement that might last long enough for her to receive due credit. But her image among young women is, at best, tainted by her extraordinary look of outrage and distain — repeatedly broadcast during the summer of 2009 — when she thought a student during a question-and-answer session had asked for her husband’s opinion on an international issue rather than her own. Piqued, Clinton scolded and sneered:
You want me to tell you what my husband thinks? My husband is not secretary of state, I am. If you want my opinion, I will tell you my opinion. I am not going to be channeling my husband.
This performance provoked international news broadcasts questioning whether her “hissy fit” might not reflect on her diplomatic skills more generally.
For the sake of brevity (and the reader’s sanity), I leave out Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears, and the other celebrity drama queens whose main claims upon the hearts and minds of young women remain their beauty and wealth — for there is certainly no positive example in the lives these women actually lead.
Who remains? There are undoubtedly many good female role models within smaller community circles; but, for her 100th birthday, I’ve pinned Mother Teresa to my bulletin board as the best. Not because we should each follow her particular path on earth, but because she was, after all, a female warrior whose words are memorable not for their self-conscious foolishness but for something far beyond herself.
It is no coincidence that we remember Mother Teresa’s words and demeanor at the 1994 National Prayer Breakfast when she pleaded, “Please don’t destroy the child; we will take the child.” It is no coincidence that the stamp in her memory recalls her accepting the Nobel Peace Prize “in the name of the poor, the hungry, the sick and the lonely.” There are no memories of Mother Teresa demanding titles, attacking and belittling other women, or bristling and scolding a perceived slight. This, I tell the young women in my circles, is what we should aspire to: to be memorable in deed and service and hardly recalled in self. Take Mother Teresa for example.