Do you need role models that are just like you? Can a girl imagine being a pilot or astronaut without having women astronauts visible? What about journalists and historians, national leaders and brain surgeons? Can an African-American child dream of becoming a fighter pilot if they never get to see African-American fighter pilots? Are such role models necessary, or am I just exceedingly odd? I ask because I don’t recall seeing any female pilots live and in person until I became one and discovered that if you go to airports, you are far more likely to encounter them (although pilots are not that common and women pilots are less common. Women mechanics are scarce as hen’s teeth, and having worked on planes, I can guess why.) I read about women who flew planes, mostly way back when (Amelia Earhart and company).
I realize this is a controversial topic, one that easily lurches into a variety of angry words and shaken fingers, and firm declarations that of course women and minorities need visible examples to serve as role models or they won’t believe such things are possible and they won’t even try to become journalists or pilots or president or orchestra conductors or engineers or brain surgeons. To which I am tempted to make a sad (or snide, depending on who is saying what in what tone) comment about the lack of imagination and parents who don’t support children’s dreams by encouraging hard work and preparation.
(The whole thing bubbled up because of a commenter at the Passive Voice, who suggested that without people seeing examples of women in various fields, no girls would want to go into those fields. I almost stuck my oar in, but that’s not my blog. This one is.)
It strikes me that, however well-meaning, people who demand visible role models with the idea that if you can’t see someone, you can’t be someone, are part of the Great Pidgonholing of America (and perhaps the western world) that seems to be well underway. We seem to be lurching sideways into the old stereotypes and treatment, where Asians are musicians or scientists, all Blacks are great athletes or musicians and performers, and so on. My hackles shot up when I was informed in grad school that all women history PhDs are expected to be able to teach Women’s History because, well, because we have two X chromosomes, and that the proper answer if asked on an interview is “I will need time to prepare but yes, I can if given advance notice.” It got worse a few years later when I learned that every female grad student from [midwestern university] attending a Western History conference studied some aspect of women in the West. I was given some odd looks for NOT writing about women specifically, or not looking for some thread, no matter how slender and tentative, of a hint of a narrative about women in national resource planning in the 1920s to include just because I was a woman.
I also encountered that when reading about the growth of environmental history, and ecofeminism. That line of research leads into some fascinating, and to me worrisome, concepts about how people with two X chromosomes “know” the world. At worst (in my opinion) it ends up with the doctrine that women and indigenous peoples, and especially indigenous women, have an emotional and instinctive connection to Nature that westerners and males cannot have, and that emotional and instinctive approach is the proper and best way to relate to Nature. Western innovations and culture, and ways of thought and inquiry, are dangerous and wrong.
This strikes me as being unfair to women and others who are interested in science and in using Western science and rationality as a way to understand and improve their world. And as condescending, because it can be turned against women and native peoples. “You can’t understand because your different way of knowing, so don’t worry.” Or at worst, “Its better for people to starve to death and die of painful diseases than to be contaminated by GMO grain or exposed to vaccines and western ideas about hygiene.”
Am I taking the implications of visible identical role models too far? Maybe, but in this day and age, with the splitting and subdividing of people into ever smaller and smaller groups, each assigned to a certain limited range of options and opinions, I’m not so certain. In an ideal world, the world I want to live in, if a child watches Seiji Ozawa or Itzhak Pearlman or Wynton Marsalis or Richard Feynman or Sally Ride and says, “I want to do that!” or “Can I do that?” the only answer should be “Yes, if you work hard.” No matter what the child looks like on the outside, or what their chosen role model looks like on the outside.