Two icons of American womanhood passed away this week, and I miss them both. They were each highly respected and admired in their own field. They both made an impact on my life.
Elizabeth Taylor was already firmly established as a film star by the time I was born. When I was a child, she was at the top of her career. As a young adult, I admired her activism; she spoke out dramatically against the Iraq War and was a spokeswoman for AIDS research. But Elizabeth Taylor’s beauty was what captured the hearts of all Americans, including myself. Her violet eyes were legendary. Whenever she hit the news, as when she married and remarried handsome Richard Burton in her fifth and sixth weddings, I studied what she was wearing, how she had done her hair, and the shape of her eyebrows. I was appalled at her weight gains and losses. They reflected my own struggles with body image as I gained and lost weight over the course of eight pregnancies. Then, just as I was beginning my own encounter with aging, Elizabeth Taylor’s pictures started to show the ravages of time. Though still beautiful, she could not stay young forever.
In contrast, Geraldine Ferraro seemed to burst upon the scene in 1984, when she ran for vice-president — the first woman on a major party ticket. I was a young Mormon mommy, having had my first child that year. She wasn’t popular with most of my demographic. Most of us saw her as strident and brash. We secretly chuckled at Barbara Bush’s description of Ferraro: (she’s a word that rhymes with “rich”). But we couldn’t help admiring her for her intelligence, dignity and hard work; and the way she was blazing a new trail for American women. She inspired us as she continued a career in politics, journalism and business. In many ways she ended up being a perfect role model for Mormon women. Ferraro attended law school, married after completing her education, and mostly stayed at home to raise her children. While they were young she worked only part-time in her husband’s firm and did volunteer work. As an older woman she continued her career and ran for legislative office, breaking barriers of all kinds along the way.
As I reflected on my feelings for these marvelous women this week, I pondered the lack of a spiritual role model for women in America. Recently in our New Testament Sunday School studies we studied the verse in Luke 2:52 where Jesus grew “in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man.” We discussed his example in the intellectual arena, the physical, the spiritual and the social. It seems of all the role models we have among contemporary American women, there is a lack in the area of the spiritual. I am talking here about someone at the level of Elizabeth Taylor or Geraldine Ferraro; I’m looking for a Mother Teresa among American women. We are seeing steps in this direction as women become Episcopal bishops or Church of Christ apostles, but none yet have stepped up to capture our imagination and lead the way for us in the spiritual realm.
Spiritual role models for women are so important. Last night at the Young Women’s broadcast I watched the faces of my daughters as they listened to the talks of the General Young Women’s presidency. I hoped they would find inspiration and comfort from their words. I take heart at the way our local Young Women and Relief Society leaders shepherd the women of this area. And I salute Elizabeth Taylor and Geraldine Ferraro as they move to the next plane of existence. I pay my respects to their accomplishments and the inspiration they have been in my life. I wonder, as we acknowledge their roles in the general consciousness: will we yet see an American Deborah, a female Dalai Lama, someone who can show women in this diverse United States a pattern for female spirituality?