In this lesson, we learn about the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah lived during a time of wickedness when the people were in complete apostasy. Jeremiah’s efforts to raise a “voice of warning” earned him a lot of persecution as he was rejected, hated by his friends and relatives, beaten and unjustly put in prison. Yet, Jeremiah remained faithful and true to his convictions. God tells Jeremiah that He has made him “a defenced city, and an iron pillar, and brazen walls against the whole land…” (Jeremiah 1: 18).
Jeremiah, a person of great faith and personal strength, is presented to us as a role model, somebody’s whose example we should emulate. The teacher’s manual concludes with the instruction to “challenge class members to become, like Jeremiah, an iron pillar for the Lord.”
Finding role models like Jeremiah can inspire us to do new things, endure difficult challenges and be our best selves. Role models are important because we see in them something of ourselves while also seeing something we want to do or become. As we read about Jeremiah, we might think: If Jeremiah overcame so much adversity, then I can too. Or: If Jeremiah was able to exercise so much faith, then perhaps I can also. Sometimes, we even learn new ways to accomplish things or new skills that can help us by having a role model whose example we can follow.
The ability of role models to inspire us is partially based on our ability to relate to them—our ability to see ourselves in them. Because of this, it would make sense that women and girls are more inspired by female role models. Research confirms this. For example, a recent article stated, “We find that the educational attainment of female students is positively and significantly correlated with the percentage of faculty and professional staff at their high school who are female.” Other research shows that girls who had a role model in the STEM field are much more likely to choose a STEM field themselves.
I recently read a paper entitled, “Someone Like Me Can Be Successful: Do College Students Need Same Gender Role Models?” The study once again showed that women were more inspired by women role models in their field than by male role models. I wondered what the study would find if it had looked at something just a little different: Someone Like Me Can Be Faithful or Someone Like Me Can Overcome Adversity. If girls with a role model in a STEM field are more likely to choose a STEM focus in their lives, then might girls or even adult women with role models of faithful women be more likely to choose a life of faith themselves?
The problem is, of course, that in traditional scripture and even in our current Sunday School and other lessons, there’s a dearth of female role models. While I can be (and often am) inspired by examples of men, how much more might I be moved by female examples? I am impressed by the story of Jeremiah, but I cling to the story of Esther. I love to hear about Joseph Smith, but I long for more information about Emma.
In recent years, there has been more acknowledgement of this need for women examples both in official church publications and in books and other works published by others. Examples include the Church’s Daughters in my Kingdom book as well as the Girls Who Choose God or Women in the Scriptures books. These are important steps but we still have a ways to go before women and girls don’t set through most of their Sunday meetings hearing little to no stories and examples of women. The hard truth is that while these books have done a good job of pulling women’s stories from the scriptures to create role models, we actually have very little to work with in terms of female role models in the scriptures.
When I feel discouraged about this, I remember that role models don’t all have to be people of the past. In fact, research shows that people who we relate to and identify with can be the most powerful role models of all. While we may look up to Esther in the Old Testament, in truth most of us have little in common with a queen who lived so long ago. What can inspire women and girls today even more than Esther perhaps are women role models in our current church leadership and even local wards—women of faith who we can see and try to emulate now. And fortunately, there is not a dearth of them. So let’s make sure we tell their stories so we can all—women and men—think: Someone like me can be faithful.