I’m not ashamed to admit my addiction to Downton Abbey, the Emmy® Award winning drama about the Crawleys, a well-to-do British family around the time of World War I. The acclaimed series—a phenomenon, really—transports viewers to another era; one in many ways simpler (and no this is not commentary about smartphones and technology), and one in many ways much more complex. Think servants working downstairs, gilded furniture, marriages arranged to your cousins and multiple-course formal dinners, after which women are sent away so the men can discuss the “real business” of the day.
Like many, in my addiction to this fictional saga, I’m struck by the impulsive and impassioned character, Lady Sybil Crawley, the youngest of three daughters born into this life of opulence and privilege. Not only does she – in her own way – defy her aristocratic upbringing, she fights for women’s rights, often asserting in conversation that women can – and should be – equal players in politics, the workforce and family matters.
- She empowers other women: Lady Sybil insists that one of the chambermaids – a character with whom she is not expected to engage beyond her duties helping her get dressed – get a job as a secretary, a career (gasp!) that excited the maid’s passion. Lady Sybil’s belief that women should not be simply expected to play out a role assigned to her, but rather to follow one’s own aspirations tempers the maid’s worry that her family would not understand giving up a good job (as a maid, no less) to do something that she felt inspired to do.
- She maintains her own identity (and a touch of style): The glory of Downton and its ladies is embellished evermore by the refined, intricate, conservative, lacy, ultra-feminine styles of the day (not so much our wash-and-wear attire of today). But Lady Sybil rebels. In a much subtler scene, Lady Sybil enters flaunting a new style of dress – pants! – considered a bit risqué for the day. By shocking her parents and the (ever delightful) Dowager Countess, Lady Sybil reminds us that every woman should be able to build her own identity on her own terms.
- She’s outspoken: Outside the safety of their Abbey, Lady Sybil defies her father and attends voting rallies comprised of men that, at the time, often include discussions of whether or not women should have the right to vote. By showing up, she shows that women can–and should–be part of the conversation. Her presence alone helped change the dialogue.
- She takes action: Lady Sybil refuses to sit idly during a time of crisis like so many others of her social class. She, instead, enlists herself in training to become a nurse, heading straight to work helping those injured at war. Regardless of her privilege, the Lady makes a point to get her hands dirty for the greater good, all the while engaging with people from outside her close-knit community.
- She has integrity: Her family condemns the Lady’s marriage to Tom Branson, the family chauffeur. Yet, Sybil is guided by her heart, not by tradition. Despite this tension, she continues to love and respect her disapproving family even when they threaten to cut her off.
Lady Sybil’s actions on Downton Abbey wouldn’t likely end up being recorded in today’s history books. These acts – usually done quietly – reflect those of women who stand up for themselves, their daughters, their mothers, their sisters and their supportive brothers across the globe everyday. But, all combined, Lady Sybil’s characteristics complete the portrait of a strong, inspiring woman deserving of recognition and to whom we can still connect today.
I, like many others who are addicted to the Abbey, have many modern-day Lady Sybils in my life: my great grandmother who went to work to support her family at a time when that was frowned upon, my aunt who faces every challenge with dignity and poise, a dear friend who fights for equality through modeling an inclusive life to her daughters, and on and on. They inspire me daily.
My hope – as a man who proudly considers himself a feminist – is that on International Women’s Day, we honor not only the great pioneering women who have led the cause of women’s rights throughout history but also the Lady Sybils in our own families and communities who have done their part to build a better world for us all.
And this year, perhaps you can honor your favorite “Lady Sybil” by dressing as her for Purim. I know that I will – as long as I can find some trendy pants…