A speech written and delivered by Camille Lipford Seals ’02
What does it mean to be a notable woman? Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines the term ‘notable’ as worthy of note, remarkable, distinguished, prominent. When considered together, these words are about leaving a legacy. Contributing to the world in such a way as to be remembered respected and revered. Who comes to mind for you when you think of the word ‘notable’? What have they given or accomplished that makes them exceptional, respected, important, famous, worthy of watching? Perhaps they are an inventor, a maker, a performer, a teacher, a friend or confidant, a leader. Whatever they have done that brings them to the forefront of your mind, the consideration of their legacy begs the question, “where did they begin?” There is a writer who said, “the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” what were the conditions of youth that helped those we consider notable arrive at their destination of leaving their mark on the world?
What we all share by the nature of our human experience is starting out as a young dreamer. The classic question, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” is surely one that many of us remember answering in our youth. In the 2017 Imagination Report conducted by New York Life Insurance and Fatherly.com, 1000 children, 12 years old and younger, shared their aspirations for their futures. The top five professions kids aspire to during their elementary years are a doctor, veterinarian, engineer, police officer, and teacher.
Given the social, cultural and political influences, in addition to socialized ideas about gender and the economic realities of today, these choices shouldn’t surprise us. Kids aspire to be what they see, to do what they love, and their aspirations are rooted in admiration they have for the people who care for them: doctors, teachers and police officers, veterinarians who care for the animals they love, and engineers who create and make.
The survey also examined geographical differences: on the west coast, children are aspiring to be astronauts. While kids in New England aspire to be artists, kids in the southeast really want to be scientists, and right here at home, there was no clear winner with no career getting more than nine percent of respondents on its own. What I see in these numbers is that our kids are still dreaming of what’s possible and soaking in all that our region of the world has to offer.
Socioeconomics played a fascinating role in the research as well. Children coming from families making more than $200,000 annually were more likely to aspire to careers focused on the arts: musicians, artists, even YouTuber. While children in families falling below $200,000 were more likely to choose careers like doctor that represent the possibility both for stability and for upward mobility.
Also interesting to notice are the gaps: while ‘athlete’ is in the top three for boys, it doesn’t even make it into the top 10 for girls. The other side of this, however, is that 80 percent of girls surveyed said they wanted to be doctors and they were more likely than boys to pick STEM careers an uphill trend from years prior. What can we learn from these trends as we equip our daughters with the tools to be successful? They certainly illustrate the ways in which our world limits access to certain arenas for girls but they also require us to consider the work that we have done and still need to do to break down the barriers to possibilities for our daughters.
One essential message found in the data is that there are clear social influences on the choices our kids are making. Social media, film, and television play an influential role in their lives and very much impact how they see themselves in the future. Most of the children surveyed said media and not ‘personal passion’ (to the extent that means a great deal to an elementary school student), was the leading influencer in their career aspirations. Parents came in third with books and school closely behind. Almost 25 percent of kids who said they wanted to be a doctor also said they watched Doc McStuffins. That percentage is even higher for girls and the influence of her character on African American girls is clear in this research. This tells us many things: we have to be thoughtful about what we allow our children to be exposed to, creating intentional opportunities for them to engage with the larger world while also paying close attention to what they see online as to help them develop positive relationships with social media. We also learn the importance of representation: if kids aspire to be what they see, it is our job as their parents and teachers to present students with positive representations of both people who look like them and those who do not so they learn how to navigate a complex world of possibility. Allowing them to see lots of different people in roles of power and influence, breaking down stereotypes, gives our kids new vision. Through this vision, they will themselves imagine what is possible and they will give others permission to do the same.
When parents were surveyed, the results provided additional interesting thoughts to consider: 36 percent of families don’t feel financially prepared to help their kids achieve their dreams even though 86 percent feel they are doing their best to provide meaningful exposure to their children. And the concerns weren’t only financial: for parents of girls, the idea of ‘self-doubt,’ of your daughter not believing she can do it and the fear of her internalizing the world’s messages about certain spaces being inaccessible to girls enough to knock her down, were prominent fears for these parents. Parents of girls also worried about how their daughters will navigate career and family, asking “how possible is it for her to really have it all?” They also worried about prejudice and the limitations placed on their daughters who will also experience additional challenges because of other aspects of their identities: race or ethnicity, sexual orientation, or socio-economic status. And yet, 92 percent of families believe their kids can become whatever they set their minds to. So while we are bogged down by financial barriers and other stressors, we are still ready to dream their dreams with our children. What a tremendous gift we can give them: believing in their dreams.
The dreams of these kids are just as varied as those represented by each of us in this room. Your daughters are ambitious young women; I know because I’ve met them. I see them march through the hallways from class to class, command the attention of the room during the birthday song at lunch, make announcements about lemonade day and the candy drive in Upper School morning meeting, serve on the newly formed Prime student council, and dance like no one is watching at our annual Heritage Dinner. I know they dream big because I have a daughter, just a few years younger than yours, who every day is inspired by the world to dream of a bigger future for herself than the day before. From aspiring to be Beyonce (just the singing part, not the dancing), to being a doctor, to a mommy, to the first female President of the United States, she has already begun to dream beyond. I am sure that your daughters are doing the same. So the next question we must ask ourselves as parents are, what will we do for our daughters now to help them become the notable women of tomorrow?
We’ve all started well by giving them the gift of Hathaway Brown. Sending our daughters to this school is, for many of us, not without sacrifice. But, it is a sacrifice worth it because here at HB, she is already becoming notable. She is learning deeply and exploring the complex. Our daughters have teachers who care for them, who dream for them, and who work diligently to give them the tools they need to be successful in whatever endeavor they imagine. The richness of this community, the diversity of our students, is unparalleled and will most certainly help them create the world they imagine. At HB, they will gain the grit and agency they need to be the only woman at the boardroom table, to break a record as an Olympian, or to master the management of home and family. At HB, they will gain the knowledge they need to access the college that is best for them or the career for which they were born. They will be exposed to new people, places, and ideas, even those that challenge them to consider perspectives that are not their own and push them towards deeper understandings of the beautifully diverse fabric that is the human experience. It is through our partnership as parents, that we can prepare our daughters to be women worthy of note, to do and be remarkable, prominent, and notable. For every child that said “I want to be a doctor or lawyer, police officer or teacher,” there was also a child who said “I want to be a dancing unicorn,” or a ninja, a dragon keeper, even a librina… a librarian and a ballerina. These choices represent a whole different kind of dreaming and remind us of one other important gift we can give our girls at HB: the gift of playful vision, the opportunity to imagine, to create, and to dream about the impossible.
We often tell the story of HB’s five founding girls, sometimes in cheesy ways if you ask the students, but always with a reverence for their notability. Though these were young girls, just a few years older than your daughters, they left an indelible mark on the world because that early courage, the beginning of a dream, is what has brought us to today. This notion of becoming, as a grown up, what you wanted to be as a fourth grader, may seem long gone to many of us. I, like so many of your daughters, was a fourth grader at Hathaway Brown and I too, wanted to be a doctor when I was their age and alas, here I am with you today.
Wherever their lives take them is to be determined but we can start the work together today of giving them what they need to get there: love, encouragement, compassion, and empathy. Exposure to interesting and diverse peoples, places and ideas. Room to play, to innovate, to explore, to study, to engage. We can encourage them to become women of purpose, who leave their mark on the world. We can believe in their dreams. If we work together as our HB village, our girls will become the notable women of tomorrow.