I Need A Hero – Women As Heroes, Both In Literature And In Real Life (Part 1)

So, this morning, I was watching Super Soul Sunday on Oprah Winfrey’s Network.  Mainly, because Liz Gilbert was the guest, and I like Liz Gilbert. I was interested, engaged and taking it all in. Until…*cue dramatic music* Liz Gilbert started going on about how Joseph Campbell left women out of the very important book ‘The Hero Journey” and how that was so upsetting, and Oprah, who I think is pretty much the embodiment of a woman who took on a hero’s journey herself, nodded and agreed. They talked about Odysseus, Jesus, Moses, but both stated clearly that there were no hero’s journeys that featured women in mythology.


I know I was a tiny and impressionable child during the ERA movement in the 1970’s, but I also KNOW that Liz and Oprah, all due respect to them, are dead freaking wrong. Just because the women’s stories weren’t TOLD,  or lumped into a book by a 20th Century Mythologist doesn’t mean they didn’t happen or aren’t important. As a matter of fact, the idea that this mythologist was male and completely ignored the women (who certainly did NOT sit by and wait to be saved) in the Greek myths is appalling, but not so appalling as the idea that people accept his view as the one that mattered enough to completely erase the female heroes in mythology. I’m not looking for a feminist reconstruction of history, but I am saying that it’s time to be balanced in examining what’s between the lines and overlooked so that we can have a complete mythology. So, my first message to Liz and Oprah is: go back and read some Greek myths. Fill in the blanks of the stories to see the women’s roles and why they actually are important. I think you’ll be surprised, ladies.

What makes a hero in the first place?  A dear friend who has spent time in the military and later on as a state police detective told me that being brave isn’t about the absence of fear. The brave, he said, are scared to death by what they have to deal with or go through but instead of turning tail to run, they push forward anyway. I often consider this statement when people talk about heroes, real or fictional. It doesn’t matter what fuels the determination.  It can be faith in God, a vision of what is right, a desire to make the world a better place, or the most basic need to protect what is dearest to us. This means a hero can have moments of doubt.  They should have moments where they question the very core of what their quest means.

Being recognized as a hero by their contemporaries, especially the men of their time, is not important.  All recognition does is shove a hero into the limelight.  It doesn’t change the effect their sacrifice and struggle has had on them or on the world around them. The hero doesn’t take on their quest with an eye on being lauded for it. They do it without a guarantee of glory, possibly even knowing that they’re flirting with disaster.

Starting with the Bible, The Book of Esther chronicles the life of a female hero. Stop, what?? That’s right. And, not a mythological one. Someone that really existed. She chose the lives of her people over her own safety to plead for them with a king who was determined to massacre them all. Esther not only saved her people, but exposed traitors and saved the life of the king himself.

The story of Mary, the mother of Jesus is another example of heroism. In a society where being pregnant out of wedlock, engaged to another man meant death by stoning, a barely grown girl risked EVERYTHING on the word of an angel. The support of her intended only came by way of another angelic visit.  Mary accepted what she was told and moved forward with faith, which is evidence of the kind of fortitude and strength that we associate with heroes, right?

Jumping past the Christian martyrs and St. Monica, the mother of St. Augustine, we come to the Middle Ages and bump right into two powerful female heroes. That actually lived, real women and a real impact because they did not hide from the call to action.

Joan of Arc. A scared French farmer’s kid that took up arms to rally the French army against the English invaders. She heard the voice of God telling her what to do, and was guided by that, so what makes her any different than Odyessus, Hercules and Ulysses? NOTHING.  At great personal risk, eventual persecution and death, too.  Her story has been pulled apart, analyzed, diagnosed and used as an example of mental illness because she heard voices and ignored her femininity.

Eleanor of Acquitane is another example.  Let’s put aside the fact that she invented the whole concept of courtly love for a minute. Instead, let’s look at this: She married a king when she was young, bore him children, led her armies into the Crusades,  annulled her marriage to the King of France, married the much younger Henry to become the Queen of England, was the mother of two Kings, and four Queens. For her time, she was as powerful a figure on the political front as her husband. Then, she led a rebellion or two against him with her sons, waved her strongest heir off to the Crusades, advised the weaker heir as best as she could, held England as regent for her son, Richard.  She bore exile for the last years of her marriage to Henry after ruling as his near equal for decades. Why? Over accusations of murdering his mistress and best friend. But she raised two kings, influencing them with her ideas and hunger for knowledge and her vision of the world helped shape the future.  That’s pretty heroic.

in the 17th century, Pocahontas worked to create a better understanding between her people in the New World and the colonizing Old World.  She faced discrimination on both racial and gender fronts in doing so. Leaving behind her people, culture and life to go to England with her husband, John Rolfe, became the first ambassador from what would become America. No one recognizes that contribution.  It was reduced to a Disney cartoon where she was left behind watching John Smith sail away.

Jumping even further ahead to the eighteenth century, Abigail Adams, used her education, personal moral code and her love of country to encourage her husband, John Adams as he helped forge a new nation out of 13 colonies. She sacrificed, didn’t she? Yes,she did, but the sacrifice, while raising her children on her own, was a necessary one. Her signature is not on the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, but she contributed to them just the same.

We can’t walk into the 19th and 20th centuries without recognizing the heroes that shaped our modern society. Harriet Tubman, who risked her life to save thousands of escaping slaves. Florence Nightingale and Clara Barton for their self sacrificing work in reforming the very structure of caring for the sick. Susan B. Anthony, Marie Curie, Amelia Earhart, Eleanor Roosevelt, Mother Theresa, just to name a few, all took up the banner of their own hero’s journeys and blazed trails we still are affected by today.

These are just the noteworthy, the famous and not even all of them.  These aren’t the every day women that are currently living their personal hero’s quests, but they’re all out there.  If you’ve read this far into my rant on real life women that were heroes, you’re pretty heroic yourself. The hero’s quest for women in literature will have to be part 2. The take away from this is that no matter who you are, and no matter what you think your place in this world is, when you are called to your hero’s journey, you will not be able to avoid it. So, don’t. Buckle up and enjoy the ride.


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