January 1. Typically a time for New Year resolutions and fresh promises to self and others. This year – maybe because my family recently lost one of its matriarchs, and perhaps because we are lucky enough to be celebrating my mom’s 90th birthday this coming Sunday – I find myself not so interested in new resolutions. Instead, I am obsessed with the idea of savoring and celebrating the extraordinary legacies of women that came before me. Learning about the barriers they faced. Celebrating what they were able to make right. Picking up where they left off on the gendered journey to realize a more equitable and just world.
In 2021, we lost the prominent female figures recognized below. Many of us had personal losses, magnified by a pandemic that has yet to abate. May we take the time to remember the women we loved and admired – both famous and familiar. The famous are recognized publicly as pioneers who advanced women’s rights and representation, who brought themes of love, loss, developmental psychology, and mental health to the fore. The familiar among them made their work real.
1. Beverly Cleary (April 12, 1916 – March 25, 2021). Author. Cleary died just three weeks shy of her 105th birthday this past year. Her first book was published in 1950. More than 90 million copies of her children’s and young adult fiction were sold worldwide by the time of her death. Cleary’s most famous characters – Ramona Quimby and Beezus Quimby, Henry Huggins and his dog Ribsy – were realistic and relatable to her readers. Cleary wanted her readers to see themselves in the stories and was one of the first children’s authors to write with emotional realism. She entertained readers with her wry humor. She also told stories that modeled for readers challenges, courage, and what to expect from their lives. Her works are replete with themes of social and emotional learning, coping, and resilience.
2. bell hooks (September 25, 1952 – December 15, 2021). Author. Professor. Feminist. Social Activist. Born Gloria Jean Watkins, she was better known by her pen name, bell hooks (no upper case letters intentionally). A prolific writer, bell hooks is one of the most famous Black feminist writers and pioneers who focused on the intersectionality of race, capitalism, and gender, and how they produce and perpetuate systems of oppression. Her New York Times bestselling classic, All About Love, is one of her most acclaimed works. Provocative, personal, and political, bell hooks’ paradoxically complex and simple thesis is that divisions and suffering in our world are the product of a society bereft of love. She makes the case that by instilling love, which she defines as care, compassion, and unity, we can bring health and strength to our homes, schools, and workplaces. These ideas sit at the foundation of strategies to reduce mental health stigma, build social connections that promote mental health, and increase representation and diversity to enhance wellbeing across all segments of society.
3. Joan Didion (December 5, 1934 – December 23, 2021). Author. Didion’s career began in the 1950s when she won an essay contest sponsored by Vogue magazine. Didion wrote the first mainstream article to suggest that the Central Park Five had been wrongfully convicted. She was an astute observer of society, vividly capturing the counterculture of the 1960s and socio-political complexities of then current day events such as life in Miami for Cuban exiles. Awarded the National Medal of Arts, Didion is most famous for The Year of Magical Thinking, which she later adapted into a play that premiered on Broadway in 2007. This highly personal narrative captures Didion’s profound disorientation and emotional odyssey following her daughter falling into a coma and her husband’s sudden death in the same year. Didion takes the reader on her harrowing mental health journey of reckoning with trauma, loss, grief, and recovery.
4. Sabine Weiss (January 23, 1924 – December 28, 2021). Photographer. Born in Switzerland, Weiss became a naturalized French citizen in 1995. She was a female pioneer active in the French humanist photography movement. Like Cleary’s fiction, Weiss’ street photography focused on real-world subject matter. Her photography of children playing in devastated post-war Parisian neighborhoods and street vendors struggling to make a living are arresting. The idea that through art we can see our everyday lives and understand ourselves more deeply reflects the essential principle of insight in mental health. This idea was core to the philosophy of the humanist movement, and made real in Weiss’ work.
5. Betty White (January 17, 1922 – December 31, 2021). Actress, Comedian. Often referred to as the “First Lady of Television,” White was a trailblazer in the entertainment industry. The first woman to produce a sitcom in the US, White was a regular on multiple American game shows. She played Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and as the beloved Rose (my mom’s favorite) in The Golden Girls, she broke many stereotypes about aging. She was also an important animal rights activist. White earned a Guinness World Record in 2018 for working longer in television than anyone else in that medium. Her humor and her success in challenging ageist stereotypes both go in the ‘good for mental health’ category.
Madeleine Albright famously said, “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” The lives and works of Cleary, hooks, Didion, Weiss, and White shine a light on essential themes of gender, development, and mental health. As they have passed from this earth, they have passed the baton. May we find inspiration in their lives and acclaimed works – and in the private lives and acts of those women known personally to each of us. May we – all of us, regardless of gender – pick up where these women left off to create a healthier and more just world. For me, that is a world where mental health and wellbeing come first.