Arianna's late mother, Elli Stassinopoulos, is one of the most incredible women I've ever wished I met. There are world-famous women who break barriers to achievement, like Marie Curie and Amelia Earhart, and there are women who are less famous but just as admirable for demonstrating incredible courage and encouraging their daughters to achieve their dreams.
Stassinopoulos, whose family fled Russia during the 1917 Revolution, took on the Nazis during World War II. In her book, Unbinding the Heart, Arianna's sister, Agapi Stassinopoulos, recalls,
"My mother had joined the Greek Red Cross as a nurse when the Second World War broke out. ... In the remote cabin where they tended the wounded, they were also sheltering two Jewish girls in flight from the Nazis and their Greek collaborators. One night, my mother was sitting combing her hair ... when three German soldiers burst in with their guns and opened fire, shouting orders to give up the Jews they were hiding. The woman next to her was hit and fell to the ground. In an instant, without a thought for what might happen to her, my mother rose up and in fluent German said, "Put your guns down! You have no right to shoot -- we are Red Cross!" In the next instant, she saw the three Germans lower their guns."
What's more, Arianna added, she lied to save lives. "When the soldiers asked her if there were any Jews among them, she unhesitatingly replied, 'no.'" As Arianna recalls, "When she had told this story to my children once, I remember one of them asking, 'So, Yaya [Greek for grandmother] -- you lied?' [Her answer:] 'To save two lives? You bet I did' ... giving them an important lesson in ethics and courage."
Their father Constantine didn't lack for courage either. He edited a Resistance newspaper during the occupation, was caught by the Germans and sent to a concentration camp. He met Elli after being liberated from the camp and was regaining his strength in a sanatorium; she was also recovering from TB and they had an affair, which resulted in Arianna. Unfortunately his affairs continued after their marriage and it would ultimately lead to their separation, although they never divorced. He later ran a financial consulting firm.
My thinking is that the reason why there aren't more successful businesswomen is less influenced by sexism and more by the fact that too many women aren't encouraged by their mothers to be ambitious because their mother didn't encourage them. Elli Stassinopoulos wasn't just gutsy, but a self-taught intellectual. Despite barely finishing high school she taught herself five languages and devoured the writings of the great philosophers. She not only clearly thought the sky was the limit as far as her intellectual capabilities were concerned but that of the career aspirations of her daughters
Elli encouraged Arianna to apply to Cambridge University, where she ultimately became the first president of the Cambridge Union, a debating club, after she saw a picture of the university in a magazine. Others discouraged her: "Everyone else told me I was ridiculous." Elli also encouraged Agapi, a motivational speaker, to apply to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts -- and then found the money to pay for it by selling prized possessions. As Arianna put it, "From the heirloom carpet spirited out of the Caucasus to her last pair of gold earrings, she sold everything along the way to pay for our schooling."
Contrast these efforts with those of moms who define the success of their daughters as whether they find the right husband. Recently a mother wrote the advice column "Ask Amy" about whether it's okay to reject her daughter's potential med student husband because he never served in the Armed Forces, unlike her husband and sons. A relative of mine disowned her daughter for marrying a man 30 years older than her and another relative disowned her daughter because she married a black man -- and threatened to disown her other kids if they dared stay in touch with the daughter. Oh, and did you check out the latest "Dear Prudence" column, in which a college student asks what to do about her mother, who insists no man will ever marry her until she has plastic surgery? I can't imagine that Elli would ever ice out her daughters if they or their husbands didn't measure up to her perceived standards of acceptability.
As Arianna put it, "She gave us what I now know is the greatest gift a mother can give her child: her attention, her energy, her unconditional loving."
"Children learn early enough that the world 'out there' certainly does not love them unconditionally. Most of us make this discovery the first day we're sent into it, lunch box in our hands and fear in our hearts. So that early unconditional loving -- which is not withdrawn when we do not meet some standard of perfection -- is a safe haven from which we can draw strength for the rest of our lives."
Given that the Greeks invented the concept of Democracy, it doesn't surprise me that Arianna has annoyed the "lamestream media" by inviting un-famous bloggers like myself to join the famous in her forum. Arianna's mom also believed in bringing the elite and the electorate together, albeit one at a time As Arianna recalls, in her book, On Becoming Fearless...in Love, Work, and Life,
"One night, when I was living in London, a member of Parliament I was dating at the time brought Prime Minister Edward Heath to dinner. My mother was in the kitchen ... talking to the plumber, who had come to fix a last-minute problem. As I was leaving the kitchen, I overheard my mother ask the plumber what he thought of the prime minister. I didn't hear his reply, but a few minutes later my mother had engineered a sit-down between the prime minister and the plumber around the kitchen table so they could talk things out."
She was also able to forgive Constantine when he begged her for it at the end of his life.
As Agapi relates in her book,
"Toward the end of his life, my father stayed with us in Los Angeles. ... The day he was leaving for Greece, we all knew he would not return. His health was failing. His bags were packed and the car was in the driveway, waiting to take him to the airport. ... As he was about to get in the car, he suddenly turned and reached for my mother's hands. Looking at her for what he knew would be the last time, he began to weep. "Forgive me, my Elli," he said. ... My sister and I stood on the front steps of the house, holding each other, witnessing this moment in which so much pain was being released. My mother held my father's hands for what felt like an eternity. ... She simply allowed him the gift of asking for forgiveness, and her silence spoke volumes of her acceptance."
I'm not normally a religious person but I do know that if there is a heaven Elli Stassinopoulus is probably running it.
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