When I heard the news of Shirley Temple’s death this morning, I wondered how I will tell my six-year-old daughter, Stella. Stella has a deep love for all things Shirley Temple, and has come by it naturally. The Shirley Temple paper dolls she plays with are exact reproductions of the originals that my grandma played with and lovingly handed down to my mother and then to me. Stella is the fourth generation in my family to be captivated by the movies Curly Top and Bright Eyes. My grandma never got to meet Stella, but Stella goes to sleep with a Shirley Temple doll not so different from the one my grandma had.
But maybe when I tell Stella that Shirley Temple died, it will be a chance to talk about all the things Shirley Temple did when she wasn’t a little girl any more, even when people assumed she couldn’t do them, because she was a woman and because they found it hard to believe she could really be a grown-up. She ran for Congress, for example. President Nixon appointed her as a representative to the U.N. General Assembly. She then became the ambassador to Ghana during the Ford Administration, and was the first woman to be Chief of Protocol of the United States. During the administration of the first President Bush, she was ambassador to Czechoslovakia, during the period when communist rule was overthrown, Vaclav Havel went from dissident to president and the country had its first free elections in 44 years. In short, she was a woman who won leadership roles during a time when it was harder for women to do so, and achieved these positions despite the fact that many people somehow expected her to still be forever six years old. Indeed, she claimed she got her first ambassador appointment when then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger heard her discussing Namibia at a party and was surprised she knew the word. She also was brave in a way that made a difference for other women. She publically discussed her fight with breast cancer and mastectomy in 1972, when that sort of thing largely wasn’t done. As a result, in the words of her New York Times obituary, “is widely credited with helping to make it acceptable to talk about breast cancer.”
Stella loves Shirley Temple like I did and my mother did and my grandma did because her movies help six-year-old girls imagine themselves as plucky orphans who can overcome any hardship through innocent charm and childish enthusiasm. But even more importantly, Shirley Temple’s long career as a grown-up can help six-year-old girls imagine growing up to achieve other kinds of courageous successes too. That’s what I will tell Stella about tonight.