Maybe because my mother fell ill in her 40s and died at 61, or perhaps because growing up I found very few female role models that inspired me, I'm always scanning for older women I can look up to and emulate.
They're not easy to find. The generation of women before mine mostly didn't have careers or do anything noteworthy. I certainly never aspired to be like my dreary teachers, or the apron-wearing mothers of my friends, or even like my own mom, who seemed frustrated and angry in her housewife role.
It was only after I went to college and moved into the working world that I met real women on whose lives I thought I might want to model my own. The writer Linda Rosenkrantz, with whom I ended up coauthoring ten baby-naming books, was the mother of a young child when we met nearly 30 years ago and was also publishing books, probably the first woman I'd known whose life contained that golden combination.
The legendary editor Ruth Whitney, who ran Glamour magazine when I worked there in the eighties, inspired a generation of young writers and editors with her no-nonsense energy and intelligence, her belief that a woman's magazine could and should cover both mascara and politics -- and be successful in the process.
I'm lucky enough to have a few friends now on whose lives I can model my own. The memoirist Louise DeSalvo inspires me to stay devoted to my long-term marriage and to experiment with my writing, but also to take time off to travel or walk or just drink tea. Dr. Margaret Brisco, who became a gynecologist half a century ago and now has a vibrant career as a short story writer, inspires me with her elegant style and her ongoing willingness to try new things.
By necessity, I also look to well-known women for inspiration. The short story writer Alice Munro, who only began writing seriously after her children were grown and who manages to write about women's concerns -- love, marriage, houses, children -- in surprising ways that are taken seriously by the literary establishment is one inspiration.
Nora Ephron, who manages to be both smart and funny and to always write about the very thing that is niggling at your heart, is another. I admire the way her career has veered from books to movies, from journalism to fiction, from commentary to romance, without apology.
Meryl Streep is an artist who inspires me by reinventing her post-40 career to allow herself to be silly, bitchy, and outrageous and not just a theatrical grande dame. She puts herself out there again and again, perennially trying new things.
Other women from history are inspirational: Margaret Sanger, for instance, who founded Planned Parenthood against great odds. Authors such as Edith Wharton or the Bronte sisters, photographer Margaret Bourke-White, artist Georgia O'Keeffe are all great role models.
Not merely launching a career but keeping it going over time, not just combining family and work but continuing to stay vital for the long haul, not simply being successful but doing new and interesting work all the time -- even if that means daring to fail -- is what excites me.