It’s an exciting time to be a woman. Female leaders worldwide are standing up and speaking out to help their struggling sisters regain power, to educate and inspire them to achieve personal success, and to officially bridge that gender gap. But despite these efforts, we are still largely underrepresented in STEM fields, politics, film, and more. America now ranks 98th in the world for percentage of women in its national legislature, down from 59th in 1998.
According to a University of Southern California report, from 2007 to 2014, women made up only 30.2% of all speaking and named characters in the 100 top-grossing fictional films distributed in the United States—and only 19.9% of female characters were aged 40 to 64. A mere 1.9% of all these movies were directed by women. To help change this, we looked to some of our motivational figureheads for their advice on how to summon our inner ambition and move forward into a future where equality reigns.
When actress Reese Witherspoon co-founded her production company Pacific Standard, she was shocked by the lack of female leads in Hollywood. Speaking at the recent Glamour Women of the Year Awards, Witherspoon addressed the industry’s double standards, the sexist behavior she’s encountered, and why it’s important for women to be ambitious and speak out if we want to see change.
“I believe ambition is not a dirty word. It’s believing in yourself and your abilities,” she said. “Imagine this: What would happen if we were all brave enough to believe in our own ability, to be a little more ambitious? I think the world would change.”
As the American Ballet Theatre’s first African-American principal dancer in its 75-year history, Misty Copeland is forging a new landscape for minority women. She wrote a memoir, Life in Motion, which is now a New York Times best seller, and her Under Armour commercial, “I Will What I Want,” went viral. In an interview with The Washington Post, she spoke about the importance of self-belief and forging your own path.
>“Belonging shouldn’t mean you are like everyone else. You want to feel accepted, but you don’t have to look like everyone around you, you don’t have to follow the exact same path as someone before you. I think that’s been my experience—that it’s okay to be different, it’s okay to be unique, that you can set your own path,” she said.
Charlize Theron is a modern crusader for equal rights and female empowerment. The Oscar-winning actress is a UN messenger of peace, and in 2007, she founded the Africa Outreach Project to help keep African youth safe from HIV and AIDS, a big part of which is education. Theron recently joined first lady Michelle Obama on stage at Glamour’s “The Power of an Educated Girl” panel to launch the governmentwide initiative Let Girls Learn, which supports and encourages education for women worldwide.
She had this to say about smart women: “There is nothing sexier than a smart woman. We have been told to live by a certain mold, especially women, and it’s time to break it, and it’s up to us to do that. Stop waiting for men to do that; look in the mirror and see yourself and say, I am sexy, I am attractive, I am smart, I am intelligent, I am powerful, I have a voice, I look cute in these jeans. Yes, I don’t have long hair, I have short hair, but I am still a girl, and I’m still hot.”
Considering she’s one of the world’s most successful female actresses, it’s hard to believe Australian Nicole Kidman ever doubted herself. But at the Women in Film’s Crystal + Lucy Awards dinner, she said that as teenager, she was a “living metaphor for what had always held women back,” and she spent her entire career rejecting the industry’s expectations to honor her power as a woman.
“I was afraid of my own power, afraid that it would threaten people, intimidate people, and it’s a great sadness wishing to be less than you actually are,” she said. “And it’s hard to take on the world when you’re constantly in a battle with yourself. I worked through it; I’m working through it.”
Australian actress Cate Blanchett is a formidable force. The epitome of beauty and strength, she is a living example that a woman can be both of these things if she so chooses. This inner power is visually present both on and off screen, where she exudes confidence, integrity, and artistic intelligence. But reaching her level of success takes more than talent: It’s about dedication and discipline.
“Someone might have a germ of talent, but 90% of it is discipline and how you practice it, what you do with it,” she told Vanity Fair. “Instinct won’t carry you through the entire journey. It’s what you do in the moments between inspiration.”
Kerry Washington is more than just an actor; she is a vocal advocate for human rights and equality. Speaking at the recent GLAAD Awards, the Scandal star called for minority groups to stand together in the fight.
“I don’t decide to play the characters I play as a political choice,” she said. “Yet the characters I play often do become political statements. Because having your story told as a woman, as a person of color, as a lesbian, as a trans person, or as any member of any disenfranchised community is sadly often still a radical idea. There is so much power in storytelling, and there is enormous power in inclusive storytelling, in inclusive representations.”
At just 26, Cheryl Strayed left her familiar surroundings for the wild. In 1995, she strapped on a backpack and set off solo on the 1100-mile Pacific Crest Trail. Later she wrote about the transformative experience in a memoir, Wild, whose 2014 film adaptation, starring Reese Witherspoon, became one of Hollywood’s most feminist films of the year. So far, the film has earned $34 million worldwide, inspiring a new generation of PCT trekkers and positioning Strayed as a feminist icon.
>Early on in the book, she refers to the challenges of being a woman and how she hoped to shed those “notions of femininity” on her PCT hike. “I’d been a girl forever, after all, familiar with and reliant upon the powers my very girliness granted me,” she told The Guardian. “Suppressing those powers gave me a gloomy twinge in the gut. It’s a really interesting part of being a woman, especially a young woman, and especially somebody who has been conventionally attractive. I think most young women go through this experience.”
She continued, “I’m just fascinated by the fact that the main power we grant young women in our culture is the power of their beauty and sexual appeal to men. And we also punish them for cashing in on it and admitting to it.”
Is there anything Victoria Beckham can’t do? She went from Posh the pop star in the Spice Girls to a fashion force to be reckoned with. Her self-titled label has won over the industry elite and just about every celebrity in Hollywood. On top of that, she’s a busy mother of four, wife to retired soccer star David Beckham, and international goodwill ambassador for UNAIDS—that’s some incredible work ethic right there—and now she wants to throw her influence behind female empowerment.
“It started with the Spice Girls and girl power, and I want to send that same message to women through my collections,” she said told the Glamour Women of the Year Awards crowd. “I want to support, empower, and really make women feel like the best versions of themselves.”
Since her role as Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City, Sarah Jessica Parker has redefined what it means to be a modern woman. SATC quickly became the “new voice” for the next generation of women, challenging society’s traditional expectations. This clearly rubbed off in her personal life when she challenged herself to create her own shoe line, SJP Collection. Now the entrepreneur runs a shoe empire.
>She told InStyle how she summoned the boss woman within to make it happen: “Do not allow failure to be your undoing. I’m in a position to fail because I have the resources to cushion my failures. But for most people in this country who work incredibly hard, a setback can be catastrophic. Luck and hard work have something to do with success, but it’s often the relationships you cultivate that can help you regroup.”
Ever since Emily Ratajkowski starred in the explicit “Blurred Lines” music video, she has had to defend herself. Instead of being privy to the public backlash, she turned it into a platform for speaking her mind about female empowerment and owning her sexuality.
“I think you can be a sexual woman, empowered and be a feminist. I think sexuality should be empowering to women; it’s not always misogynistic or exploitative,” she told The Daily Mail.
The Gone Girl star thinks women should have a right to be sexy and be taken seriously. “You get people who are like, ‘If you want to be taken seriously as an actress, don’t post any sexy photos.’ … You can do whatever you want—that’s what being a woman is,” she told Los Angeles Times.
Despite many setbacks, single mom J.K. Rowling pushed on with her book about a young wizard, determined to see it succeed. She finally sold Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone for a mere $4000, but the fantasy series went on to become an international hit, one of the most popular book and film franchises in history. Rowling never stopped believing in herself, and she says setbacks are what make you stronger.
In her Harvard Alumni Association commencement address, she said, “The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself or the strength of your relationships until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more than any qualification I ever earned.”
>How do you assert your inner power? Discover your own power with our book selections below.
What is the mantra you live by? Share the motivational quotes that make you feel powerful below.
This post was originally published on November 25, 2015, and has since been updated by Sacha Strebe.