Guest Blog: Female Heroines

Labour Party


Today’s guest blog is from Geraldine Evans, of the  South London Fawcett Group.

While flicking through my book The Suffragettes in Pictures in preparation for my dissertation I came across a charming picture of the ‘Famous Women’ Pageant of the Women’s Coronation Procession. I suspect you are not familiar with this picture, let me fill you in.

On 17th June 1911, the Women’s Social and Political Union (the leading organization campaigning for Women’s suffrage) organised a march across the streets of London from Blackfriars Bridge to a rally at the Royal Albert Hall in which over 66,000 women took part to represent their political views. The ‘Famous Women’ Pageant of the Procession comprised of suffragettes who had dressed up as notable women from the past. The characters included Grace Darling, a heroine who rescued 13 survivors from a boat wrecked off the Farne Islands in 1838; Jenny Lind, the most celebrated and recognised soprano of her time and Mrs Somerville, an advocate of higher education for women and women’s suffrage and also a science writer, after whom Somerville College, Oxford, is named.

As a university student, dressing up as ‘notable women’ (or men, or animals, or inanimate objects for that matter) is no foreign concept. However, the chances of turning up to a fancy dress party to find women dressed as scientists, heroines, or campaigners are incredibly slim and leads me to wonder, just who are the ‘notable women’ in today’s society?

According to magazines, newspapers and television, they are heiresses, talent show judges, socialites (whatever that means), fashion models, glamour models, reality TV stars, singers, footballers wives and actresses. The list is endless, and apparently it doesn’t take much to be considered a celebrity anymore, and often women become famous for their scandals, rather than their achievements.

Although I don’t intend in any way to undermine the many notable achievements of women in today’s society, I can’t help but feel young girls are being let down. A recent survey by Girl Guiding UK found that 57% of girls interviewed were interested in hairdressing as a career choice. Of course, there is nothing wrong with this, however, the survey found that 51% veered away from engineering careers because it didn’t interest them and 60% claimed this was due to the lack of role models.

These results are not surprising. I expect most of us will fail to name even three notable female scientists or engineers. This is a tragedy. Women such as Millicent Fawcett, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Eleanor Davies-Colley fought for the right to practice medicine and open up the profession to other women, so why are we not recognising women who not only succeed in traditionally male dominated spheres of life, but also give hope and influence to our younger generation?

Of course, this doesn’t just apply for science and engineering. Whilst studying A-Level politics I became acutely aware of how often textbooks mentioned male politicians, however failed to mention any female politicians apart from when discussing feminism or Margaret Thatcher. There is a general lack of female role models mentioned in teaching resources across the entire national curriculum. Is it just because the women don’t exist? Of course not. They exist, in every profession, from politics to business, and science to engineering.

Why are we not appreciating and recognising women who defeat institutional sexism and prejudice in traditionally male dominated careers? Surely providing young girls with role models such as female politicians, businesswomen and scientists would inspire them to realise they can succeed in traditionally male dominated professions?

Unfortunately, today’s celebrity culture doesn’t just disadvantage the younger generation in terms of role models. It is also considerably detrimental to their self-esteem.

According to the same Girl Guiding survey, 55% of girls claimed the pressure to look like a celebrity was a major cause of stress, and another survey found that girls associated being slim and pretty with popularity and happiness.

As a 21 year old I constantly feel the pressure to look like a celebrity- or perhaps, to conform to the idea of what is now considered beautiful.

Unfortunately, this notion of beautiful which women are constantly bombarded with in newspapers, magazines and on television is not only unnatural but also unattainable, unrealistic and not to mention increasingly sexualised.

Despite being fully aware I will never achieve this level of unnatural and unrealistic beauty, it doesn’t stop me, (and of course other women) trying. Unfortunately, I suspect this pressure is becoming worse for the younger generation.

The Internet and television are becoming two increasingly ubiquitous sources of entertainment, and I expect it would incredibly difficult to find a young child without access to either.

This not only ensures that young girls can constantly see these levels of unattainable beauty, but networking sites such as twitter and facebook also allow them to interact with these celebrities, feel part of the celebrity culture themselves and further idealise and aspire to unrealistic images of beauty.

Secondly, television programmes more often than not endorse gender roles and stereotypes. The changing role of reality TV is particularly worrying.

Television shows such as The Only Way is Essex, Made in Chelsea and Geordie Shore are not only providing entertainment, they are also offering a way of life and more than ever young girls will be feeling the pressure to tend to their appearance and look like a celebrity. Don’t our younger generation deserve more?

Let’s let them know that not only can they succeed in traditionally male dominated professions by honouring the women who have already achieved this, but also that they don’t need to constantly aspire to this unrealistic level of beauty- they are great just the way they are. Until then, I will just have to be the only one dressed up as Emmeline Pankhurst at the fancy dress party.

Geraldine Evans