By Marion Subah, Liberia Country Director, Last Mile Health
This op-ed was originally published in the Liberian Observer on March 29, 2021, with support from the Aspen Institute’s Healthy Communities Fellowship.
The month of March is all about celebrating women in all ways possible. But sometimes, these global commemorations seem to be centered around famous women and their historic accomplishments. When names such as Michelle Obama, the first Black American First Lady, or former Liberian President and Nobel Peace Prize winner Ellen Johnson Sirleaf get mentioned, we get a deeper appreciation for what being an exceptional woman means.
But what about the women in our day-to-day lives? Or the woman you might see in the mirror every day? Are exceptional women all around us?
As Women’s History Month draws to a close, I would love to see a broader definition of who we hold up as exceptional. For example, when I was awarded a Margaret McNamara Education Grant back in 1983, I was truly honored and humbled. I was the very first grantee, but in no way did I consider myself exceptional. Like tens of millions of women around the world, I was just doing the work that needed to be done.
Even though I consider college degrees and social prominence as important, through my work in Liberia’s communities, I see the exceptional stature of people like the market women in our communities. They wake up early, run behind trucks, and come to the market despite challenges they face in their personal lives, to make sure that people can get food and other items to be healthy.
Exceptional women not only grow, sell, and cook the food, but these women are committed to maintaining their focus on the things that matter. They are community touchstones for health, well-being, nutrition, childcare, and cleanliness, and they acquire these skills to ensure that others will have the chance to grow and contribute to their families.
Exceptional women are also those who possess a basic value of equality, social justice, and dedication. They are humble yet assertive and do not take special pride in what they accomplish. Like the namesake of my award, Margaret McNamara, the exceptional woman is a woman with values. Margaret was the wife of a prominent businessman and former U.S Secretary of Defense and President of the World Bank. She was also a highly accomplished and educated woman in her own right. But one of Margaret’s friends described her as having a quiet sense of destiny and as someone who took no special pride in her work. She did what needed to be done and went where she had to go, doing it all with an uncomplicated “Yes.”
That spirit fuels the Margaret McNamara Education Grants program which prioritizes education and gender equality. But there are other aspects that distinguish an exceptional woman who is not an exception. She is deeply spiritual, especially amidst challenges, loss, and adversity. Like many women the world over, she has a deep sense of improving the lives of others in a quiet and peaceful approach that others cannot help sensing and emulating.
Some believe that the average woman they see on the street or caring for children cannot be exceptional, because to be exceptional requires fame on the local, national, or global stage. This argument is wrong because there are many women who are exceptional in their efforts to never stop learning and expanding their world views.
An exceptional woman is one with a sense of inclusion and rightness that can change the world. There are many exceptional women who need to not only be brought to the table but be encouraged to make their own way there, to sit and share with strength, poise, beauty, and dignity.
So, as you look around your community today—or as you look in the mirror—who are those exceptional women who are not exceptions to you? Name them and honor them today, this month, and every day of the year!