06/20/2011 12:49 pm ET Updated Aug 20, 2011

Face It: Where Are Today's Heroines?

With the humiliating burnouts of a group of powerful -- and horny -- men, we must turn once again to women to be the role models. The usual suspects emerge: Oprah for her classy exit and self-empowerment message; Hillary for her ability to roam the world doing good deeds, remain married (sort of) and raise a strong daughter; Michelle for caring about kids and vets and looking great sleeveless; Nancy Pelosi, for attaining real power in the House; anyone we know who has stubbornly refused to dye her gray locks.

I have had the same heroine since 1973. That is when I interviewed Helen Gahagan Douglas, who had been labeled the "Pink Lady" by a young Richard Nixon in their infamous 1950 California Senate race. Here she was, all these years later, smack in the middle of Watergate, refusing to badmouth the guy. "I only feel bad for what has happened to this great country," she said, ignoring all the "Don't Blame Me, I Voted for Helen Gahagan Douglas" buttons at the time. She had also been a stage actress, opera singer, mother, wife (of great actor Melvyn Douglas) and congresswoman at a time when very few even attempted to do it all. Most important, she refused to stoop to Nixon's level during the campaign and paid a price. "But I woke up feeling uninjured, whole," she later said.

These days, potential heroines are not those filling the screens large and small, though Meryl Streep and Edie Falco are worth admiration for aging and popping pills (respectively) with grace and humor. And they are rarely on the front pages of the newspapers, unless they are claiming Paul Revere warned the British with bells and whistles. Rather, I find myself drawn to the obituary section (the old joke being if you're not in it, it is a good day) to learn about women who rather quietly crossed barriers or found balance long before doing either was expected.

Women like Lilian Jackson Braun who died at 97. The Depression put college out of reach, but she managed to find work as an ad executive and lifestyle writer in Detroit. Then in 1966, she started writing The Cat Who... series of books which became enormously successful. And then there was Albertina Sisulu, dead at 92, called the mother of South Africa's liberation struggles. "She kept her dignity through decades of government harassment," wrote the New York Times. When Lynn Pressman Raymond died last year at 97, she was still wearing her trademark colorful hats every day. Here was a woman who wanted to take the "mystery out of medicine" for her three young kids and so invented the Doctor and Nurse's kits that became so successful for her husband's Pressman Toys, Inc. She became actively involved with the business and was its chief executive for 20 years.

These women and so many more, were obviously way ahead of their time and at least received respect in death from the news media. But I now go a step further, shifting my eyes over to the right hand side of the section. That is where one must pay to pay their respects, so to speak. Here, family members write touching tributes to the unfamous, but those they loved: women like Judy Weiss, who is remembered as a "devoted daughter... proud and loving mother... adored and admired by her extended family and all who knew her." One learns she was also a "tireless" volunteer for the Guide Dog Foundation and Meals on Wheels. There are so many more Judys.

I don't read these out of morbid fascination, but to remind myself how long women have taken care of, or thought first about, others while trying to find meaning in their moment of time. There is something powerful, as well, in seeing full and fruitful lives reduced to a few paragraphs. It is not unlike reading the daily toll of young American soldiers who died serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. These are real people with friends and families back home, for whom the repercussions will last longer than the soldiers' lives. Call those who gave their lives heroes, if you must, but think also of the mothers who gave them life.

The very word "hero" has come to be rather flippantly used, perhaps saying more about the reality show times we live in than the actual deeds done. There is clearly a hunger for doing the right and noble thing when no one is watching. While so many of the guys are imploding, it just seems an appropriate time for a special shout out to all the women who cling -- and clung -- to their beliefs even when being told to shut up and get off the field. Whether they were remunerated, received attention outside the immediate neighborhood, or in the end, warrant memorials on the left hand side of the pages, they are heroines in my book.

And who are yours?

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