Gabby Giffords, Role Model for Girls

As a political activist who called Tucson, AZ, my home until I moved to Los Angeles just last week, the attack on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, her staffers and constituents has been a heartbreaking personal as well as national tragedy.

I have worked with Gabby–that’s what she’s familiarly called in Arizonaat neighborhood canvasses sponsored by Planned Parenthood, which she graciously attended and where she reached out to voters as a pro-choice Democrat. Indeed, I came to know her as as an unwavering advocate for women’s rights in a state where other politicians have tried to pass restrictions on everything from a woman’s right to choose to the rights of high school students to access comprehensive sex education. Gabby has spoken out on the importance of these issues both through the venues provided to her as a congresswoman and as a guest speaker at Planned Parenthood fundraisers.  She may be a centrist “Blue Dog” Democrat, but she has never wavered in her support of women’s rights despite the risk of striking a note of discord among her many conservative constituents.

While I agree that Saturday’s shooting represents the horrific culmination of recent vitriolic political speech in the United States, it also has an awful resonance because it was an attack on a woman in power–a role model for other women, young and older. When I tell people how much I admire Gabby, I like to share what I have seen her represent to girls in Tucson.

In 2008, I attended an official presidential election party hosted by the Pima County Democratic Party. Throughout the evening, the room became more and more ecstatic with Obama’s gains and during the celebration I bumped into a father of one of the families I used to babysit for. He explained that he was there that night because his oldest daughter, then only 8, “really loves Gabby Giffords.”

Sure enough, as I scanned the crowd, I saw the congresswoman poised to address the revelers with my young friend staring up at her. The look of giddy admiration on that girl’s face is what I will always remember when I think of how important Gabrielle Giffords is. Women leaders like her are an invaluable asset, not just in Southern Arizona, but to people everywhere. They are especially invaluable to young girls, who deserve to have women like Gabby that they can look up to right there in their community and not just on a TV set. The fact that Gabby was attacked while doing community outreach–and that a young girl seeking advice on becoming a leader in her own school was killed in this senseless violence–is just one more reason why this attack struck me and countless others so profoundly.

On Monday I spoke with the mother of the young girl who looked at Gabby with such admiration. She told me that informing her now-10-year-old daughter that her idol had been shot was one of the hardest things she’s had to do as a mother. At first the young girl was inconsolable, but when she found out that Gabby is fighting for her life she became incredibly optimistic. I have seen that same optimism bring people in Tucson together over the last few days. Hopefully, this cataclysmic event won’t dissuade young girls from becoming leaders themselves, but may impel them even more strongly to follow in Gabrielle Giffords’ brave footsteps.

Photo of Gabrielle Giffords with her excited young admirer in 2008, courtesy of Kristen Cook.


  1. Thank you for writing this! I am a huge admirer of Gabrielle myself. She and I are both alumnas of Scripps (an all women's} College in Claremont, CA, and I mostly remember her for an amazing graduation speech she delivered at our alma mater in 2009. I'd like to share of the most moving quotes from that speech. In light of the tragedy on Saturday, her words of two years ago are especially poignant now:

    ‎"Standing up for one's own integrity makes you no friends. It is costly. Yet defiance of the mob, in the service of that which is right, is one of the highest expressions of courage I know."–Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, 2009 Scripps College commencement speech

  2. K.Goldsmith says:

    I hope that Gabby Giffords' strength in office and as a human being will aid her in her fight to live and to reclaim her place in all of our lives. I further hope that all of us (girls and boys) will emulate her tenacity, bravery and charm to effect positive change in our world.

  3. Hannah G. says:

    Great piece! This act was horrible and senseless. I value Giffords' advocacy of women's rights and view her as a role model. I hope she recovers quickly!

  4. David Correa says:

    As a Tucsonan and soon to be step-father of an eleven year old girl this piece gets to the very heart of my consternation over this shooting. Thank you for dignifying Gabrielle Giffords “the role model to young women” and may our country be blessed with more girls who grow to be strong and fearless like Gabby.

  5. I am from Tucson and a strong follower and supporter of Gabrielle Giffords. A friend suggested I read this blog.
    Thank you Alana for this compassionate glimpse of Gabby. Thank you to the mother who shared this picture. The picture and blog captures the warmth and spirit of a wonderful woman and the integrity of public servant.
    Margaret. A

  6. Thank you, Alana, this is wonderful.

  7. Thank you for writing this—your keen observation on how traumatic this is for our young female citizens is poignant and must be used to rally us (once again) to never stop caring! Thank you

  8. P. Allen-LaFleur says:

    Wow, what a great perspective. With all the talk about partisanship, vitriol diatribes and placing blame on the left or right, no one has touched upon the remarkable influence Gabby has had on young women (including the writer Ms. Varner). Thanks for a great piece.

  9. Liam Cronin says:

    Thank you for this moving post. Tucson is my hometown and I follow events there with hope and trepidation. I know the campaign against Gabby was very hateful but she always seemed so bright and determined, like the young girls who have admired her.

  10. What a fantastic piece! Really brought home the fact that tragic events like these have a ripple effect that is felt not only among the people directly involved, but throughout the community, both locally and nationally. Kudos, Alana! Thanks for writing this!!

  11. Niala, Thank you for that inspiratioinal quote from Ms. Giffords. She was truely a role model. Let's hope more women will follow her lead.

  12. Thank you for sharing from this perspective! As a parent the story about young 10 year old Gifford follower really struck a chord.

  13. Larry Doherty says:

    Well done Alana Varner! Thats a beautiful insight into the genuine, warm and honourable person that Gabrielle Giffords is. People all over the world are hoping and praying that she recover and continue with her great work.

  14. Nancy Wolter says:

    What a wonderful and thoughtful piece which shows how critical it is for young women to have role models like Gabby Gifford. ALana captures, too, how profoundly young people are affected when our democracy is torn apart by random violence. While the right-wing media cannot entirely be blamed for this kind of destructive behavior, it can't help but influence the mentally unbalanced. How might this ugly talk scare our young people from getting involved and making a difference!

  15. I'll be honest, I knew very little about Rep. Gifffords before this weekend, but the more I learn about her, the more I admire her courage, conviction, and intelligence. Thank you so much for sharing this!

  16. Alana, you brought tears to my eyes. Let's hope the voice of reason and love wins eventually with all that's going on in our world today. Thank you for your well spoken piece!

  17. Last paragraph was especially moving. Thank you!

  18. Catherine says:

    What a beautiful and heartfelt post. Thank you for sharing.

  19. Anthony C. says:

    Great piece! Gabby is a great voice for women's rights and a great voice for all the people of Tucson. I hope she recovers quickly so she can get back to doing what she loves, helping the people of Tucson. We need her more than ever.

  20. Kristen Salkowski says:

    What a thoughtful, poignant tribute to a congresswoman who is such an inspiration.

  21. K. Pakulis says:

    Alana, as a father of two daughters, your piece really hit home. Thoughtful & very well written – thank you. With bright and caring people like yourself coming up through the ranks, there is much reason for optimism. Keep up the good work!

  22. Alana, great article, you should be very proud. We are all rooting for your success.

  23. Sherilyn Forrester says:

    Very insightful, Alana. Thanks.

  24. Thank you…this iis so very sad to us.

  25. Lovely post and tribute to a fabulous Congresswoman. . .and what an exciting, memorable experience for the young lady pictured wtih Gabby.

  26. Thank you for framing this story within the context of your personal relationship with Ms. Giffords. As the world veers further into fundamentalist reactivity (whether Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim or disaffected agnostic), it would do well to have more intelligent women smiling compassionately & working toward the greater (read: collective) societal good. The great bard Allen Ginsberg said, "Candor ends paranoia." Our world needs sincere communication, genuine equality, authentic financial justice…the list of subjects to be honest about goes on. It seems that it takes terrific violence (violence cultivated by social hierarchies which alienate, impoverish and disenfranchise) to get us all talking in a coherent manner about paranoia-free human values which cut across rhetorical divides. I commend you for beginning the work of seeding these difficult discussions & bringing your honest voice to bear on the challenges of our time. May you continue to do so.

  27. Lily Foss says:

    Gabby Giffords went to my college! We're all rooting for her here.

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