In September 1973, Billie Jean King, the world’s number one tennis player, played ex-champ Bobby Riggs, who had boasted that — even at age 55 — he could beat any woman. King was reluctant at first to take on the challenge but, as people know from watching “Battle of the Sexes” or living through that era, she walloped Riggs in three straight sets in front of 90 million TV viewers. Apart from this well-televised victory, King was the first sportswoman to top annual earnings of $100,000. She broke down barriers in her push for equal prize money for women.
On a very different playing field, Janet Yellen became the first woman to serve as chairman of the Federal Reserve Board since it was founded 100 years ago. Unlike King, Yellen rarely inserts herself into the "gender wars,”* but has become an icon to many because of her intellect, even-keeled demeanor, fierceness and ability to get the job done. Even President Trump, who is replacing Yellen despite her successful tenure on the Board, said she is an “absolutely spectacular person.”
Women need strong women role models in their careers and in life. Both King and Yellen fit the bill; in their respective worlds and eras, they were up against men, performed at their best, stayed calm, overcame hurdles and won in more ways than one. The US Open Tennis venue is named after King, and books, movies and museum exhibits, like the current one at the NY Historical Society, highlight her accomplishments. Yellen, a powerful woman in a tough job, has capably shaped US economic policy for years, following the crushing recession of 2008, and the economic path she charted is likely to be followed by her successor.
There are many role models, male and female, and their influence can be strong and inspiring. Fortunately, we don’t lose them when they take leave of their “game” or the world's stage. Think of Eleanor Roosevelt, Sally Ride, Ann Richards, Winston Churchill and Derek Jeter to name just a few. As the new year starts, may you enter it with your own good and vibrant role models who speak to your soul and to an excellent vision of yourself. And make sure you also are a positive role model for those coming behind you.
Read, "A Feminist Hero, Not by Design" (The New York Times)
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I'm an executive coach who works with clients on leadership and transition challenges, including retiring with enthusiasm and ease.