What Good Is Fame?

We live in a Kim Kardashian world, where celebrity is worshipped and is, for some, largely unearned. From that world view, fame is a currency that can be accumulated and used - but not necessarily in ways that benefit the society and culture the rest of us live in.

I marvel at how many different ways there are to become "famous" these days...reality TV (hello, Kardashians!), YouTube, and so forth and yet how hard it can be to be recognized for substantive and positive, world-changing accomplishments. (And I'm not against reality TV...it's entertaining...it's just not real.)

These thoughts surfaced again recently when I attended the induction of 10 remarkable women into the National Women's Hall of Fame. Going into the weekend in upstate New York I had been pondering the question of fame - who has it, how they get it, and what good they do with it once they have it. And I had been thinking about notable women and the accomplishments that made them notable...but not necessarily famous.

My formal reason for being at the Hall of Fame induction ceremony was the pleasant fact that the woman we know as Mary Harriman - founder of The Junior League and one of the people most responsible for creating the modern volunteer ethic and opportunities for women in our country - was a member of the class of 2015.

And what a diverse class it is! Let's start with Tenley Albright, an athlete who overcame childhood polio and went on to win two Olympic medals (gold and silver) for figure skating. (After a successful career as a surgeon and leader in blood plasma research, she was named one of the "100 Greatest Female Athletes" by Sports Illustrated!) The inductees also included Nancy Brinker, the leader of the global breast cancer movement as the founder of the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, groundbreaking feminist Eleanor Smeal and Martha Graham, one of the greatest dancers of the 20th century.

In listening to many of these highly accomplished women speak (as well as other high profile women like New York Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul and U.S. Representative Carolyn Maloney), I was impressed by how "ordinary" they are - and I mean ordinary in the best sense of the word, women like you and your neighbors and colleagues...except these are people who happened to have achieved remarkable things.


Every story is different, of course, but if there is a common denominator it would have to be how they rose to, and embraced, the challenges they faced as individuals, as women and as citizens. And in doing so, they left remarkable legacies.

So I left my weekend in Seneca Falls, the birthplace of the women's movement in this country, energized and excited - by what these women have done, and by what the founders and supporters of the Hall of Fame have done in recognizing their achievements.

But here's my question. Why are so many of the stories of these women - including the 256 other remarkable women previously inducted into the Hall of Fame - unknown to today's girls and young women? And what happens when their perceptions of "fame" are largely shaped by a celebrity culture that is often disparaging, hurtful and even hostile to women?

I don't have an answer. Do you?

P.S. The work that the National Women's Hall of Fame and the National Women's History Museum, an initiative to build a world-class museum on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., is vitally important. (Full disclosure: I am proud to sit on the board, as Treasurer, of the National Women's History Museum.)