Times have changed, but we still need more female icons

Downing Street and Buckingham Palace have discussed - and dismissed for now - giving women equal rights in royal succession.

Last month, a report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission suggested parental leave should be shared equally between mums and dads.

This move would have far-ranging consequences for how new mums are considered in the workplace. The commission's chief executive, Nicola Brewer, described the proposal as "one of the most radical changes in a decade".

At the same time, several requests have come my way for suggestions of powerful female icons to be used in media or training presentations. This request is fairly common, whereas the reverse - requests for male icons - never happens, because I guess they are all too obvious.

Can you imagine a world where male and female icons are equally prominent? This thought reminds me of an article written two decades ago by ex-Cosmopolitan editor Marcelle d'Argy Smith.

In her piece, entitled "Page 3 Passions", d'Argy Smith imagined a world where the sex roles were reversed. A world where men would feel nervous about accepting lifts from women they barely knew, where MPs wore dresses and high heels, where page 3 boys opened supermarkets and where male newspaper columnists idolised those who stayed at home to be good fathers and husbands.

I think the author might have expected things to move a little faster than they have in some respects, but times have undeniably changed. Women managing their work/life balance and successfully running companies is far less of a shock today. So, for the next set of people looking for female icons, I can suggest a few, apart from everyone's favourite first choices Maggie Thatcher and Oprah Winfrey.

Firstly, Hester Thrale, the famous mistress of Dr Johnson born in 1741, who wrote three centuries ago: "A woman of passable person, ancient family, respectable character, uncommon talents and three thousand a year has a right to think herself any man's equal."

Speaking of iron ladies, how about Golda Meir - the first female prime minister in the Western world, who Israel's founding prime minister David Ben-Gurion called "the only man in my cabinet", and was much admired by Thatcher.

Next, there is Boadicea, who fought off the Romans, the Pankhursts, who fought for the right for votes for women, and Hillary Clinton, who fought for the presidency. Florence Nightingale and Marie Curie excelled in their chosen fields against all odds, and Catherine de Medici invented high heels.

And, of course, there are the Bettes: Bette Midler, Bette Davis and the formidable Elizabeth 1. Perhaps we will soon reach a time when the media industry can spontaneously think of an equal number of great icons of either gender.

Sue Unerman is chief strategy officer at MediaCom, sue.unerman@haymarket.com

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