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How to Be the Lead Character in Your Story

Both genders can grasp empowerment lessons from strong, fictional women.

Key points

  • Elizabeth Zott is her generation’s Mary Richards, a fictional icon of independence.
  • Even those with the "it factor" face "no, not now, and just because" without reason or logic behind the discriminatory roots.
  • Women are nudged into accepting less, paying more, or being bullied into complying with intimidation, threats, or guilt. Assertiveness is key.
Source: jacobund/iStock

In counseling and therapy, we often impress upon clients empowering concepts. March is women’s month, celebrating historical heroines and female achievements. Remembering how exceptional women succeeded every month, every year, aids men and women alike.

Strong Humans Defy Limits

Meet Bonnie Garmus, a copywriter who saw her work and ideas stolen by a man as she sat in marketing meetings, returned to her desk, and rather than fume, penned the first fragments of Elizabeth Zott in Lessons in Chemistry, a story set in the 1950s and 60s.1

Zott is her generation’s Mary Richards, a 1970s TV news producer who also exuded self-reliance and independence. Both toppled societal norms, yet each showed how excruci­ating it was and may still be today. A hit show and a bestselling novel. What does that say about women wanting recognition? Still, in 2023.

Both characters had the “it” factor. Exchange off screen for TV celebrity, the typewriter for beakers, the irascible Lou Grant for the countless cads who under­estimated and judged a smart chemist turned television host—judgment and roadblocks equals discrimination. Men are favored for the family they must support, yet women face admonishment by guilt over the same choices and self-preservation. It’s as passive-aggressive and double-standard as it can get.

Add the disrespect Mary Richards and Elizabeth Zott each swallowed and the intimidation that countless women still do being nudged or forced to comply, accept less in negotiations, or pay more in everyday transactions. Yes, retail pricing targets women to pay more when often earning less. Of course, no professional woman’s story is complete without episodes of sexual harassment—lewd remarks, groping, even assault.

Mary Tyler Moore, who played Richards, once said, “Take chances, make mistakes. That’s how you grow.”2 By example, Richards and Zott have a no-nonsense, take-no-chauvinism spine. They embrace being unconventional and resist apologizing for it.

Formidable People Turn Timidity Into Courage

Life isn’t easy. It’s unfair. Downright disappointing.

The two characters I feature here persevered. They weren’t born with a microphone or platform to speak. Refusing to be tamped down, each fueled her growth by gradually gaining a voice and the confidence to speak her mind.

Elizabeth Zott was by far the more brazen of the two. She’s also as neurodiverse as the male lead in this story and smart enough to take positions early on. Her lack of filter both helps and hinders–no to the engagement ring, yes to keeping her name, and to hell with management firing one-half of the life-conception team. She’d set up her experiments at home where no one could take credit for her work, and she would assist others as she saw fit.

We often don’t often equate being bashful and unassertive with men, but in my 18 years counseling both genders, men indeed tolerate what they should not and often self-sabotage by not speaking up. I wrote a book on hidden anger, explaining that people have three paths when faced with stress and decisions—explode, implode, or take a position. That last choice is the healthy one, born of one’s thought-out values.3

Taking a stance is assertiveness where no one gets trampled with disrespect and even allows for mutually-satisfying compromise. One says, “This is what I can do; this is what I cannot. I can go this far, but here is my line.”

Lessons in Chemistry grants a parenting primer for the next generation to succeed. I loved the precocious, second-generation boldness that Zott’s daughter exhibits. As inimitable as her mother, Madeline Zott grows from the gullible girl whose lunch is stolen to the one who not only raises her hand but interjects when she is spot-on to the teacher’s dead wrong. Needless to say, she traipses to the principal’s office quite a bit.

Effective People Embrace Others’ Strengthens

Another favorite novelist of strong women–Nora Roberts—has written: “If you don't go after what you want, you'll never have it. If you don't ask, the answer is always no. If you don't step forward, you're always in the same place.”4

Sometimes, going after that higher rung means keeping cards close at hand, strategizing, and asking for assistance, harkening to Fred Rogers' famous “look to the helpers” when the going gets tough. “Chemistry is change,” uttered one such helper to Zott, “and change is the core of your belief system. This is good because that’s what we need more of —people who refuse to accept the status quo and aren’t afraid to take on the unacceptable.”

I loved the supporting cast Bonnie Garmus created in her novel, from the clergy or the single dad to the doctor, the next-door neighbor with the horrible husband to the HR director, and the dog with his phenomenal vocabulary (no spoilers. Six Thirty eclipses canine qualities and makes us smile).

Whether you’re a man or woman reading Lessons in Chemistry, you can’t help but acknowledge the limits our mothers had, the massive ones, if you’re in the boomer generation. Readers can determine their role, whether they’ve helped or hindered anyone, and change if they must.

“Courage is the root of change—and change is what we’re chemically designed to do,” said Zott, the host of Supper at Six.

So when you wake up tomorrow…no more holding yourself back. No more subscribing to others’ opinions of what you can and cannot achieve…do not allow your talents to lie dormant.

This was her television send-off to her amassed followers, along with: “Design your own future.”

Whether there is a big chunk of Elizabeth Zott buried within you or a tiny morsel, you, too, can craft outcomes you wish to see. One foot in front of the other, weaving around limits. Find your voice and position; with courage, seize life and succeed in your goals.

Copyright © 2023 by Loriann Oberlin, MS

Related Posts: Remembering Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Men Mentoring Women


Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus (New York: Doubleday/Penguin Random House, 2022); Barnes & Noble Book of the Year with exclusive edition:

Overcoming Passive-Aggression: How to Stop Hidden Anger from Spoiling Your Relationships, Career and Happiness by Tim Murphy, Ph.D. and Loriann Oberlin, MS, LCPC (New York: Hachette/DaCapo, 2016); and

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