Mothers are nurturers, negotiators, fighters and great equalizers in the home, but these 20 women have taken the best of these maternal skills and shared them with the rest of the world. (And we thank them for it!) Here they offer up wisdom and shatter myths about motherhood.
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The 20 Most Influential Moms of 2016
These extraordinary women offer up wisdom, admit imperfection and shatter myths about motherhood.
Moms Intro Story
The Master Doodler: Johanna Basford
Illustrator / age 32, mother of Evie,18 months
If you ever wondered how the adult coloring book trend got started, look no further than Johanna. The Scottish illustrator, whose hand-drawn works are featured in her wildly popular books like Secret Garden and Lost Ocean, reminds us that kids shouldn’t have all the fun.
I struggle with technology and prefer the inky charm of a wobbly hand-drawn line to pixels on a screen. Advancements will likely continue to rocket ahead and I’ll still be here with my pencil sharpeners and blotting paper.
Getting back into work after I had my daughter was a lot harder than I had anticipated. I quickly realized the work-from-home-mum ideal I had imagined was completely unrealistic: She didn’t nap; she was colicky and didn’t seem interested in re-creating any of the beautiful images I’d seen on Pinterest of happy kids dutifully playing with a small wooden toy at the side of their mother’s desk. The only way around this was to swallow my pride and ask for help. And quit Pinterest.
Embrace the chaos! That’s my motto.
My paternal grandmother was the only other creative person in the family, so we attribute my love of drawing to her. Sadly, she passed away before I signed my first book deal, but I know she would have been tickled by what has become of her granddaughter who liked to draw flowers.
The Barrier Breaker: Geena Davis
Thank heaven for little girls, and thank heaven for Geena. The actress’ organization works toward reducing stereotypes by educating media and entertainment companies to increase female representation and create stronger and more balanced female characters in young children’s media.
Being a mother really colors the types of roles I want to play—not that I’m only willing to do kid-rated projects, but I want to play characters that show women in charge of their own fate.
Tenacity has been an extremely important factor in my success. My agent called Ridley Scott every week for a year, telling him I was interested in Thelma and Louise. Ridley later said, “I figured anyone with that much persistence would do a good job!”
The world seems to operate under the assumption that people just “know” how to be parents. When my husband and I brought our first baby, Alizeh, home, we felt stunned that the hospital just lets you take home a brand-new baby! The first bath we gave her we washed her as if she were made out of blown glass.
I was 3 years old when I announced to my parents that I wanted to be in movies when I grew up. Thank heavens it worked out—I had no backup plan!
My first movie—my first audition—was a supporting role in Tootsie. Can you imagine, your introduction to film is directed by the great Sydney Pollack and starring Dustin Hoffman?! It was amazing but also felt so right.
The Game Changer: Viola Davis
Actor and ambassador for the Hunger Is campaign / age 50, mother of Genesis Nevaeh, 5
Whether she’s playing a maid in The Help or the fierce Annalise Keating in How to Get Away with Murder, there’s something regal about Viola. In fact, she was “crowned” with an Emmy—the first African American to win for best actress in a drama. Her impoverished upbringing inspired Viola to join forces with the Hunger Is campaign, raising awareness and funds to help children.
Forgive yourself—daily. That’s the motto I adhere to.
From my mother and grandmother I learned resilience, even when life has beaten you down.
I was one of the millions of kids that go without food every day. I promise to continue to tell my story until we have ended childhood hunger in this country. I am so proud to stand with The Albertsons Companies Foundation and the Entertainment Industry Foundation to raise awareness and funds to help fix this problem in America.
The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are. That is what I want for Genesis.
I’m proud of my daughter. She roots for people and will stop you if you say something negative toward others.
My kid describes me as “sweet, smart and kind.” She saw The Help!
The Goalkeeper: Jill Ellis
Head coach of the U.S. Women's National Soccer Team / age 49, mother of Lilly, 10
If it seems the world has suddenly awakened and found itself dazzled by women’s soccer, much of the credit goes to Jill Ellis. The dynamic coach led the United States women’s soccer team to victory in the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup and inspired a new generation of female athletes.
In a career where you are measured by wins and losses, my daughter has given me balance and perspective. Once I became a mom, a win was never more important than making sure she had a smile on her face.
From the first soccer game I ever played as a kid to right before the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup final, my mom has always said these four words: “Just do your best.” It is so simple, yet if you think about it, to do your best you have to make sure your preparation, confidence, execution, etc., are all better than before.
My wife has been incredibly important to my success in terms of supporting my career and me. With as much time as I spend on the road, it is a huge comfort to know that Lily has a stable and loving environment around her. It gives me great peace of mind.
At some point we all deal with personal and professional challenges, but rather than focusing on the issue, I think what has helped me most are the tools I have learned to utilize. Being humble enough to ask for help and maintaining your integrity are two principles that guide me during challenging moments.
The Giver: Danielle Gletow
Founder and executive director, One Simple Wish / age 37, mother of Mia Rae, 8, and Liliana, 7
No child should feel neglected, and Danielle’s organization does its best to help. When children in foster care have a need, anything from school supplies to music lessons to a prom dress or a bike, she connects them with caring donors who grant their requests online.
Dreams don’t work unless we do. What I like best about myself is that I know how to take a vision and actually turn it into something. I get things done. I kind of think that’s the secret to being successful.
My husband is still that boy I had a crush on when I was 16. He is behind every amazing thing that has ever happened in my life and one of the biggest reasons I am or have anything wonderful.
My mom is the kindest soul in the universe. But she’s also really tough—I like to think I got that from her. I had a very difficult time as a child and a teenager and battled a lot of depression and dark times. My mom really saved my life; she was always my cheerleader, my protector and my shoulder to cry on.
I don’t want my children to ever be afraid to try anything they think might bring them happiness, no matter what other people say. If I have kids who are at peace with themselves and smile often, I will think I’ve done my job.
The Guardian Angel: Karen Guenther
President, chief executive officer and founder, Semper Fi Fund / age 53, mother of Brooke, 18
Semper fidelis: always faithful. That is the best way to describe Karen. A registered nurse with more than 20 years’ experience and the wife of an active duty marine, she is the heart and soul behind the nonprofit organization supporting men and women of the U.S. armed forces and their families.
When we began the Semper Fi Fund in 2004 with $500 in the bank, I never imagined the 10 years to follow would see us offer our service members over $125 million in assistance, helping more than 15,000 service members and their families. I hope a decade from now we’ll not just double those numbers, but multiply them tenfold or even more!
I don’t recall exactly where I heard it, but somewhere along the way the idea of “Semper Gumby” entered my consciousness. Always flexible—it’s good life advice. You have to learn how to roll with the punches.
As a mother, you can’t map out every specific step for your children, no matter how much you want to! You learn pretty quickly that your role as a parent is to set guidelines, to establish borders and then allow your children to exist and explore and learn and grow and thrive within those guidelines and borders.
The Challenger: Megyn Kelly
Journalist and anchor of Fox News Channel's The Kelly File / age 45, mother of Yates, 6, Yardly, 4, and Thatcher, 2
Megyn played her Trump card during the first round of Republican debates, proving she wasn’t afraid to take the gloves off. The former attorney’s outspokenness makes her a media MVP.
Reporting on the Sandy Hook mass shooting in Newtown, CT, was awful. I was pregnant with my third child and already feeling somewhat emotional. My executive producer telephoned me as the story was breaking and said, “This is going to be a bad one.” And it was—beyond bad. I remember looking into the camera, picturing the other parents out there and saying, “We’re going to get through this together.”
Being a mother has made everything I do at work seem less and more important at the same time. Less, because I know I have all that really matters to me back at home. More, because those three little people are going to live in this world on which I am reporting, and so often the news gives such cause for concern.
My 100-year-old nana is one of the funniest people on earth. She’ll leave this kind of thing on my voice mail: “How are you, honey? I pray for you and my three little treasures so much! [Pause] I hate these $&@?! machines!” My nana and my mom both taught me the importance of not taking yourself too seriously, and showed me in tough times how humor can be a healing balm.
Settle for more! That’s my motto.
My husband Doug’s role in my life and success cannot be overstated. He is a novelist, which gives him a flexible work schedule so he is with our kids when I go to the office in the late afternoon. But it’s his mind and good sense that really get me through. He’s the smartest person I know.
Mother Teresa suggested there will come a time when you won’t want to forgive someone. Do it anyway, she said. It’s also true if the person is yourself.
The Voice of Compassion: Martina McBride
Grammy-nominated singer and partner, with Sarah Cannon, The Cancer Institute of Hospital Corporation of America / age 49, mother of Delaney, 21, Emma, 17, and Ava, 10
The country singer, whose cancer advocacy was reflected in her single “I’m Gonna Love You Through It,” is now helping raise awareness and funds with a new initiative, Band Against Cancer, a series of concerts across the United States.
My mother and two grandmothers were both very strong role models. I never felt there was anything a woman couldn’t do, or that there were limitations to being a female.
I've been singing ever since I can remember and it’s always been what I believe I was put here to do. It’s when I feel most alive and like myself.
Helping families who are facing cancer has always been a cause that is near and dear to my heart. Together with Sarah Cannon, I’m honored to be the voice that connects these individuals and their families with a fully committed team of cancer experts. This means each person can fight cancer where they get their greatest strength, in their own communities, with their own band of support.
Being a mother has made me a better listener.
My hope for my children is that they find their passion and are able to spend their lives doing what makes them happy and truly lights them up inside.
The Storyteller: Cammie McGovern
Writer and cofounder of Whole Children/Milestones / age 52, mother of Ethan, 19, Charlie, 16, and Henry, 12
As long as Cammie is around, children with disabilities will see themselves represented. Her books, such as Say What You Will, A Step Toward Falling and Just My Luck, are sensitive and inclusive. The resource center she cofounded offers assistance for young adults, teens and children with disabilities and their families.
Though I’d been writing for 15 years, I didn’t publish a novel until after my first son was born. When he was diagnosed with autism, I thought my career was over. As it turned out, the opposite was true. I didn’t really succeed until my son’s needs forced me to step back from my own ambition and consider what I wanted to say with my writing.
I started my organization to ensure that my son would always have a place to go after school with people who would welcome him. In the end, I suspect it’s given me as much as it’s given him. I met so many children with disabilities that I began to wonder at how rarely we see their stories depicted in popular culture.
My mother always said, “When you start feeling sorry for yourself, think about other people and do something nice for them.”
The greatest myth about motherhood? That if your family doesn’t look or act like other families, you won’t be happy.
The Social Chef: Deb Perelman
Food blogger and cookbook author / age 39, mother of Jacob, 6, and Anna, 9 months
We’ll have what she’s having. Deb’s food blog, SmittenKitchen.com, has been serving up honest, foolproof family dinners—heavy on the humor—to millions for 10 years now. She then took her wildly popular franchise and turned it into a New York Times best-selling cookbook.
The best advice I ever got? Always soak your dirty dishes.
All of this matters a whole lot less than you think—that’s my motto.
While it has always irked me when men are complimented just for doing their fair share of parenting, it would be crazy not to mention that my husband does way more than that, and it truly makes all the difference.
My son describes me as “nice” and “good cook.”
The Dough Gooder: Jessamyn Rodriguez
CEO and founder, Hot Bread Kitchen / age 39, mother of Dahlia, 4, and Emile, 2
Warm bread, warm heart. The former Amnesty International consultant and United Nations staffer combined her passion for social justice with her love of baking to create a nonprofit. At Hot Bread Kitchen, low-income, immigrant and minority women receive paid baking training, English language classes and career development assistance to help them translate their culinary skills into a business.
Starting a social enterprise from scratch is just one challenging moment after another. Every day is full of small, medium and jumbo-size challenges. My trick to overcoming them is focusing on the daily successes that have defined Hot Bread Kitchen and the success of our graduates.
Someone once told me that I should go about my work as if I knew that I was doing everything correctly. Many women, myself included, act with fear that we are going to make a mistake. If you tell yourself that you are doing the right thing, you can act on instinct, with conviction. More often than not, your instinct is correct, and trusting it makes you a better professional.
Family means food for us. So many of my early happy memories happened around the table. My mother and both grandmothers taught me to care about food; they taught me to care about quality and value the joy that can come from nurturing others.
It is a commonly propagated myth that motherhood is all work and no fun—that it is a selfless act. My kids make everything so much more fun—they are hilarious. It isn’t selfless at all!
The Beauty Queen: Mally Roncal
Celebrity makeup artist and founder of Mally Beauty / age 44, mother of twins Sophie and Pilar, 9, and Vivienne, 6
Mally traded a stethoscope for a blush brush. But since she’s adding some diversity to the industry and has megawatt clients like Beyoncé, Angelina Jolie, Rihanna and Jennifer Lopez on her roster, maybe, just maybe, she did the right thing.
Both of my parents, who are from the Philippines, are doctors. I wanted to be just like them, so I studied pre-med. However, my true passion was always makeup. I am blessed to have a family that loves and supports anything I want to do and be—even to this day! And I do the same for my kids.
My mom always told me that what makes you different is what makes you beautiful. This is something that was instilled in me early on, and I have carried this motto with me throughout my life.
I am at my best when I am educating people, speaking to people and lifting them up. That makes me feel strong and confident—like I am doing what I was put on this earth to do.
When I turned a year old, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. I lived my entire early life with this sense of uncertainty hanging over my head. She taught me to seize the moment and cherish every second.
The Savior: Malika Saada Saar
Google's senior counsel on civil and human rights / age 45, mother of Sage, 11, Jonah, 9, and Gabriel, 5
Women’s rights are human rights, and Malika fights for them every day. Her work addresses gender-based violence and the trafficking and exploitation of children, using technology in innovative ways to advance her crusade.
I went to law school with an abiding commitment to justice. I went because of Charles Houston, Thurgood Marshall and Albie Sachs and how they used the law to advance fundamental civil and human rights.
I stand on the mighty shoulders of my mother and grandmother, who sacrificed everything so that I might be able to thrive. I lost them both by the time I turned 22, but I carry them with me.
My children have both grit and grace, and I adore that. Of course, it’s rare that all three demonstrate grace at the same time!
Mothering is the hardest thing I have ever done, and I think it is so important to unapologetically say that out loud.
It is because of my husband that I can even claim to have work-family balance. He is an equal partner in every aspect of parenting and domestic responsibilities. He has taught me how to be a better parent and allowed me to create a home and family in a manner that gives dignity and support to my work.
The Tech Supporter: Reshma Saujani
Founder and CEO, Girls Who Code/ age 40, mother of Shaan, 14 months
Reshma is always evolving. She left Wall Street to run for Congress in 2010, and although she lost, her experiences on the campaign trail inspired the concept behind her nonprofit. Since 2012, it has provided free computer science classes to over 10,000 young women in low-income areas in 42 states. She is also the author of Women Who Don’t Wait in Line.
I wanted to be a public servant from an early age. My parents came to the U.S. as political refugees from Uganda, and that desire to give back was instilled in me very early on. During my 2010 congressional race, I saw the gender gap in technology and wanted to do something to close it. I would walk into classrooms and see a sea of boys, from the poorest of zip codes to the wealthiest. This question of “Where are the girls?” Really haunted me. When I lost the race I went on to start Girls Who Code.
My mother taught me to be resilient. She came to America with my father with next to nothing. My parents were one of the first Indian families in the suburbs of Chicago and faced a lot of discrimination, but they always seemed to overcome each and every setback.
I’d like my child to know that failure is okay. I know that sounds strange to say to your child, but if you learn to be okay with failure, you can’t be afraid to put yourself out there. I’d rather my son try and fail 50 times over than hold himself back from his dreams.
The Animal Whisperer: Tracey Stewart
Animal advocate and writer / age 48, mother of Nate, 11, and Maggie, 10
Call her Dr.Dolittle. Tracey has always wanted to take care of all creatures great and small. The former veterinary technician and lifelong animal advocate is creating a sanctuary for abused and rescued farm animals. She is also the author of the New York Times best seller Do Unto Animals.
Facing fear has always brought me to greater happiness—whether it was fear of going back to school, becoming a parent, starting a business, writing a book or speaking in front of more than four people at a time.
Having kids is like showing tourists around your city. All of a sudden everything you’ve taken for granted becomes alive and new again.
Being happy is sexy. I’m very sexy.
My husband [Jon Stewart] is a kind warrior. He inspires me to be a really good human being and he keeps me laughing all the way through it.
I’ve known a lot of women who’ve decided to have a child because they wanted to make their own buddy. If you’re having a child because you love gardening and you can’t wait for your kid to be beside you happily weeding the garden, you’re much better off investing in a weed whacker!
How my children describe me: My daughter said, “Kind, caring, funny.” My son said, “Thoughtful, kind, funny (especially to yourself).” After they saw my reaction to hearing them describe me, they added, “Cry-ey.”
The Trend Tracker: Lisa Sugar
Founder and president of Popsugar / age 39, mother of Katie, 10, Juliet, 6, and Elle, 3
Lisa took her love of pop culture and style, food and wellness and turned it into big business. Along with husband and business partner Brian, she formed PopSugar, a go-to digital media lifestyle platform for women ages 18 to 40. The site now attracts more than 86 million monthly visitors worldwide.
My mother was always there for me. She was very present while making sure she had something else going on for herself. She also had a love of handbags, which for many years I pushed back on, but have now fully embraced!
What I love most about my children is their ability to love and learn new things, their compassion toward others and their lack of prejudice, which I wish all generations could embrace.
When do I feel most confident? After I’ve gotten all three kids to sleep before 8:30 p.m.!
The Legal Eagle: Rashida Tlaib
The eldest of 14 children born to Palestinian Muslim immigrants, Rashida knows how to be a leader. A former Democratic member of the Michigan House of Representatives and the first female American Muslim state representative in the Michigan Legislature, she now pursues justice through legal work and her national campaign, which addresses prejudice and discrimination.
“People like us never think about running for office and that’s the problem.” This was the best advice I got from a friend when I hesitated to run. A lightbulb went off. I filed 10 days before the deadline and became the first Muslim woman ever elected to the Michigan Legislature, and only the second female Muslim state legislator in America.
My sons keep me grounded and free me from the stresses of life. When I walk in that door and see my boys, I’m simply “Mama.” It’s so powerful to feel their unconditional love.
My sitti [grandmother in Arabic] Shama would fight for what she needed to survive. Growing up watching her not back down when someone said no to her made such an impact on me. When I am the most determined to get a project done, I can really feel her presence in me.
My biggest hope for my children is that they will be happy, always. It may be impossible for it to be that way all their lives, but a mom certainly can dream!
The Gym Dandy: Kathleen Tullie
Founder and executive director of Boks (Build Our Kids' Success) and director of corporate social responsibility for Reebok International / age 46, mother of Cameron, 14, and Paige 12
There will be no couch potato children on Kathleen’s diligent watch. She gets kids up and moving in schools all around the country. BOKS is a free before-school physical activity program offered at more than 1,700 elementary and middle schools in 49 states.
To have the Reebok Foundation, The Boston Foundation, the Boston Bruins Foundation and many others believe in my mission and continue to support me confirms that I’m doing what I was meant to do. Our growth has completely exceeded my expectations and proves the need for these kinds of programs.
Challenging moments are what I thrive on. Every “no” is just a wonderful opportunity to sell, convince, implement, prove and impact.
The love for a child is like no other and it has driven me to be the best I can be. I believe moms are the ultimate multitaskers and can accomplish an astronomical amount of things in a day, but it truly helps when your kids are part of the equation.
I live in the moment. Since overcoming cancer in 2009, I now live life thanking God for every day. I hope that in 10 years all of us—my kids, pup, husband and I—are healthy and happy
The Smooth Operator: Alli Webb
Drybar cofounder / age 41, mother of Grant, 11, and Kit, 8
Good hair days are what Alli is all about. Her company, which started small in 2007 with her operating a mobile blow-drying business from her car, generated almost $70 million in sales last year from services, styling products and tools in nearly 60 stores nationwide. Her business model has created a salon trend: the convenient in-and-out hair fix.
The biggest challenge for me these days is not personally overseeing every single aspect of the business. It’s an adjustment to allow others to take over.
Motherhood has taught me empathy. I think being a mom has given me a softer, more understanding side.
Life is too short to be unhappy. Don’t be afraid to go for what you really want.
The Mother's Helper: Katharine Zaleski
President and cofounder, PowertoFly / age 35, mother of Charlotte, 2
When you know better, you do better. Back when she was a young, childless manager, Katharine didn’t understand the working mother’s struggle. Once she became one herself, she penned a mea culpa in Fortune that went viral after she cofounded a company called PowerToFly with partner Milena Berry. They match highly skilled women in tech with remote, flexible jobs.
Motherhood has been a crash course in time management. I’m on a tight schedule every day because I want to give Charlotte dinner at night. The best advice I ever got? Use “soft elbows.” Nothing comes easy in life. You have to push your way in to get what you want, but do it softly.
My cofounder, Milena, and our amazing team are showing women they don’t have to choose between being a mom and having a career. We launched the company so women could have a third option.
Be kind to others. It’s a small world and you’re one of the lucky ones. That is the wisdom I want to pass along to my daughter.