Besides my parents and a few other adults, I’m not sure who my role models were when I was growing up. Han Solo, perhaps? Then I locked onto military history, and while there was not one single individual I declared, “I want to be like that person,” I found a lot of values and ideas I tried to live up to. Ditto in certain fiction, because I was in a place where I needed inspiration along the lines of, “If she can survive that stuff, then I can get through High School.” If William Slim could reorganize and rebuild an army and then start fighting back, I could survive High School. And so on. Reading about Marie Curie and other women in medicine and science was interesting, and I remember all the big news about Sally Ride, but the fact that they were women wasn’t so important to me.
Later, I also had someone serve as a horrible warning as far as how not to treat coworkers and associates. He was an anti-role-model of sorts.
None of my role models looked like me. None were nerdy, overweight girls growing up in the Midwest or High Plains. Perhaps Lessa of Pern and Talia from Valdemar might have been close. William Slim certainly wasn’t, neither was Admiral Chester Nimitz, nor “Pappy” Boyington. Nor Erwin Rommel, not all the submarine commanders whose books I devoured. But there was something about what they did, and their approach to the world, that made sense and that made me want to behave like them, even though my circumstances were very different from theirs. The fact that they were military men, or fictional characters, didn’t matter to me. It wasn’t important that I have a role model who looked like me. Since my Mom was in a science field, I knew that girls could grow up to do science, or anything else.
I was thinking about this as I read a new military biography of Prinz Eugene von Savoy. His private life was . . . private, much to the frustration of later historians and writers. He didn’t have any flamboyant affairs. His wife was not well known (too well, in the end) in the royal court like John Churchill the Duke of Marlborough’s, in part because Eugene never married. He might have had a mistress, or he might have looked at his mother’s adventures in the court of Louis XIV and have decided that power and military campaigns ranked far higher on his list of interests than did physical intimacy*. No one knows. However, since his enemies accused him of, to use today’s term, being gay, he has been lauded and praised as “the first great gay general since Alexander the Great or Richard the Lionheart.” Except Richard has been dropped because he was an icky crusader. Funny, no one claims that Tilley, the great general for the Habsburgs during the Thirty Years War, was gay even though HE never married.
The argument seems to be that “because this historical figure never married, and was accused of being [whatever], therefore he/she/it is the role model needed today by young people who might be [whatever].” Role models are people who accomplished a great deal, not people who accomplished a great deal and look just like or act just like [characteristic]. At least in my world. If kids are told “Oh, no one like you can be a pilot,” well, the adult is to blame unless there is a solid, physical reason for the denial. For example, anyone who still tells girls, “No, you can’t fly the plane, but you can be a flight attendant if you want!” should be thumped with a wing spar, or landing gear leg.
I grew up in the benighted years of the patriarchy, and Reganonomics, and it didn’t matter that I was a girl. I’ve had people turn me down for a job because I’m too small (valid in one case, not so in another), and in one case because they couldn’t take the legal risk of hiring another women after a Spectacular Horrible Warning soured the chances for a whole lot of people. [No, I was not informed officially, but tell-a-pilot and the flightline grapevine are very effective. I wasn’t surprised, just peeved at the Horrible Warning.] Girls, poor kids, kids who don’t look like their heroes, it doesn’t matter – kids need role models who can inspire and encourage, who show how to do it. That’s what society needs to be teaching and showing.
*The more I read about his childhood, the more convinced I become that Eugene von Savoy preferred power, wealth, and military success to marriage. Once he made a name for himself, his mother trying to match him up with various noble women in order to advance her own position probably just iced the cake.