In what has become an annual feature since 2004, Time magazine has come up with its list of the 100 people it deems the most influential in the world. And the usual debate is ensuing: Why was one person on the list? Why was another person left off the list? The amount of discussion and debate related to the list would almost make one think that something actually is at stake here.

Does it really matter that former Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska was left off the list? Is it significant that Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota is on the list? I love the comedy of Amy Poehler, but should she really be mentioned in the same breath as Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona or Aung San Suu Kyi, the freedom fighter in Myanmar who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991?

The truth is that the Time lists, like other similar lists,  are simply the opinions of a small group of people. If you’re one of the people in the room where the decision is made, you get to influence the list. But who is to say that your opinion is any better than anyone else’s?

That lesson was driven home to me in February 2006, when ABC News Now invited me to appear with some other women on a webcast to talk about the five most influential African-American women of the previous year. I immediately assumed the producer was asking me to suggest an African-American women to appear on the webcast. No, I was told, the invitation was for me.

As a white woman I found the invitation to be somewhat curious, but then I reasoned that clearly African-American women influence people of all races.  I had also been involved in teaching a seminar on covering race and ethnicity at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Perhaps that was the reason for my invitation.

I drew up my list and truly struggled with the choices. I realized that there was no real quantitative, dispassionate way to judge influence. But I came up with serious justifications for my choices and felt I could engage in intelligent discussion. When I arrived at the ABC News studios and met the producers, the expressions on their faces certainly seemed to indicate that they had expected me to be African-American. But the webcast went forward with no one asking me overtly about my race.

While the individual selections on these sorts of lists should be taken at no more than face value, the lists themselves are markers of how far our culture has come and how far it has to go.

This year Time’s list includes 34 women, the largest number of women ever on the list. Twenty-seven of the selected women are over the age of 40, the oldest being Dharma Master Cheng Yen (left), the 73-year-old Buddhist nun who runs the Tzu Chi Foundation, which provides aid to victims of natural disasters. That compares with 23 on the list in 2004. So women are gaining ground in being recognized for their roles in the spheres of influence.

Another list – America’s 50 most influential rabbis — released this month by Newsweek and the Daily Beast underscores the advances for women. This year the list includes 13 female rabbis, compared with six last year, five the year before and three the year before that.

As Debra Nussbaum Cohen pointed out on the Forward blog The Sisterhood,  the larger presence of women on the rabbi list may have something to do with the fact that a woman — 46-year-old Abigail Pogrebin — was involved in the selection process, for the first time since the list was started in 2007.  Talk about being influential.

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