In honor of the International Women's Day, I want to devote a post to some of the incredible women who have impacted my life personally. I want to caveat that this is just a limited selection, but the complete list is quite long. I've been very privileged for many reasons, and one of those is living in a city that attracts a multitude of intelligent, driven, and passionate women. Even beyond my life in DC, I've been lucky enough to meet women who have inspired me to strive for better than I had even expected for myself. So here goes.
1. My Grandmother, Dorothy Loiseaux - I had written a previous post entirely about her that I had removed because a marketing expert told me it was too personal and inappropriate for a professional blog. Well, that may be the case but this seems like a very appropriate time to talk about her again. Dorothy was a special woman: warm, giving, smart and a strong, but kind, presence in her community. The year that my parents separated, my mom took my brother and I from Hawaii and the life we knew to stay with our Grandma in Redlands, CA, while she looked for job and got back on her feet. This was really the beginning of how Grandma grew to be the second most important woman in my life (after Mom, of course). She was a positive influence, instilling in me a love of nature, with frequent camping trips to the San Bernardino mountains and occasional summer trips to Yosemite. And the summer wasn't complete without a beach trip with Grandma. She also taught me the importance of education and a curious intellect. We would often talk about books of all subjects, and she loved that I had inherited her aptitude for languages. She was very emphatic about the importance of family, and she was the rock and Matriarch of ours. Grandma's house was where our extended family came to gather for every special occasion, from weddings, holidays, and birthdays, to BBQs for Fourth of July. Our relationship grew especially close after I moved across the country to DC. I think the distance made me realize the immense gift I had in her. Ever year that I came home for the holidays, she and I would have a special lunch, just the two of us.
The day that I got the call from my brother that she had had a stroke, I knew my life was about to change and that my rock was about to leave this earth. I booked a flight back to California as soon as I could, but she was already unconscious in a hospital bed by the time I arrived, being kept alive only by a breathing machine. She passed peacefully, after the whole family had gathered to say goodbye. I was devastated. However, I find solace in my mother's words, which were that Grandma and I had had a special relationship because we were so much alike. Someday I may even finish the book I started writing about her life. In the meantime, she lives in my heart always. Love you, Dorothy.
2. Ambassador Steph Sullivan - I first met Steph Sullivan when I was still in the relatively early stages of my career at the State Department. I was seeking an informational interview with someone in the regional bureaus (one of in which she worked at the time) and a mutual colleague connected us. Our first meeting was not terribly long, but I remember that she was very down-to-earth and straightforward. She gave me practical career advice, which I appreciated because I was finding it difficult to steer my professional trajectory in the direction I had hoped. Our paths crossed a few more times after that initial meeting, but it was in 2014 when I heard from a colleague in the Foreign Service who was posted at our Embassy in Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo. He was shipping out to his next post soon, and there would be a gap of two months or so before his replacement arrived. They needed someone who had decent French and Department experience to hold the fort down. Was I interested in being a Political Officer in the field? I am in the Civil Service, and the opportunity to work at an embassy was something I could NOT pass up. Guess who had been appointed Ambassador to the Republic of the Congo during this time? Steph Sullivan. So between my French skills, my colleague's recommendation, and my prior acquaintance with her, she agreed to allow me to come work at the Embassy until the new Political Officer arrived. I was terrified. This would be, after all, my first (and it would turn out only) experience as a American Diplomat. It was an honor to serve my country in this way, but so much pressure! I was eager to rise to the challenge. Those two months were probably the best experience of my entire career at the State Department to date. A great deal of that had to do with how welcoming, supportive, and patient Ambassador Sullivan was with my adjustment to life and work at Post. She offered me valuable counsel and amazing opportunities. What impressed me the most, however, was that she was so incredibly humble and down-to-earth despite her distinguished position. As the Ambassador of the United States, she was a celebrity in the Congo, in no small part due to the fact she had served in the Democratic Republic of the Congo as a Peace Corps volunteer, and spoke the local dialects that were shared between both Congos (French is the official language in both, but there are many local dialects). So she spoke to the Congolese at a level they may or may not have expected from an American dignitary. Watching her at work was inspiring, and it made me proud to be part of the mission representing our country to the Congolese people. She is now the Ambassador to Ghana, another place about which she had spoken to me fondly. I'm sure the impact that she is making there is just as deep, just as personal. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to work so closely with her.
3. Hillary Clinton - So this one is not quite as personal (and I don't have a photo with her). I certainly can't say that Hillary Clinton and I are close friends, but I did meet her once when she was the Secretary of State. I was chosen to present to her on an initiative that she had started at the Department, and for which my office was responsible for executing. So, before her departure she was receiving her end-of-term briefs on the progress of these programs that had started under her watch. I prepared for this briefing harder than anything since my Grad school exams. I rehearsed what I was going to say a hundred times. I changed my outfit that morning several times. Let me back up a bit by saying.....I already very much admired Hillary Clinton. She was smart, she was driven, and she empowered women. She had set up the office for the Special Envoy of Global Women's Issues, for example. For me, she was up there with Gloria Steinem as examples of female powerhouses, and I was about to stand ten feet away from her. So the time comes and there I was, and there she was, looking at me an expression of patient expectation. I began my carefully rehearsed presentation. On sentence two, I blanked. I just couldn't find the next words. My mind raced. Was I about to choke in my first and only opportunity to impress Secretary Clinton? She must have seen the expression on my face, and her eyes met mine. She nodded ever so slightly, as if to say "it's okay, just breathe and continue when you're ready." I found them, the words that would get me through the rest of the speech. I barely remember the rest. I only remember the moment she nodded and I found my words. Thank you, Hillary, for helping me find my words, and for being a role model to women everywhere.
4. My strong female friends near and far - I'm sure many women say this, but I truly am grateful for the group of female friends that I've established over the years. They are among my childhood friends, University and Grad alums, State Dept. colleagues, my sisters in dance, and my fierce justice warriors in the various geek communities of which I count myself a part. More recently, they are the leaders in the tourism community. They are diverse and follow many paths, but in all they are true to themselves. We've grown to see each other pursue great careers, get married, have children, fail gracefully, love passionately, experience great loss, pick ourselves up and persevere in this journey we call life. They are strong. They inspire me every day.
5. My Mom, Gayle Timilione - I saved her for last. My mom made very difficult decisions in my childhood that I did not appreciate until I was older. She left a marriage in which she didn't feel valued and moved with her two children to start a new life. She worked hard night and day to make sure she could support us, advancing her career as a Physical Education teacher. She was unfailing in her patience and caring, and supportive of every move I've ever made. We are different in many ways, but I can't deny that I am becoming more and more like her every day (ask anyone who has spoken to us on the phone, and mistaken one for the other). Even though she is now retired, she is relentless in being active with her school, her church, and her family. We are my Grandma's legacy. She is my heart.
As I stated at the beginning, this list is not nearly a complete one. To name all of the women across the spectrum, including scientists, public servants, teachers, artists, and justice warriors, who have inspired me would take a lifetime. In addition, I've found so many incredible women in history through the research and writing of my tours, and I love sharing their stories and contributions to this world. I look forward to learning more, and the well is endless.
Who are your most inspiring women? Who do you look to for strength, as examples of resiliency? Whoever they are, I wish them all, and you, a very happy International Women's Day. Let's persist.