When I was a little girl growing up in the 80s, Wonder Woman, played by the radiant Lynda Carter, was on television while simultaneously available at every Walmart was an epic superhero brand of underwear for kids called “Underoos.” You could select your favorite superhero and don the undergarments (underwear + T-shirt) of power.
The neighbor kids and I loved our Underoos and wore them outside in the pounding heat of summer as we did battle with garden hoses on our lawns (in the era when sheets and towels were both passable as capes). Wonder Woman was my role model in life, and I felt proud of my sense of spirited connection to her mythical origins. In her aura, I drew strength even as I noticed that the majority of heroes from my childhood were boys and men.
I never thought about the silent implications of this, or about how as an adult I would deal with and personalize endless misogyny and sexual harassment in all my careers, or how difficult it would be to wield my soft voice at a table of loud men. (In fact, to claim my turn to speak, I often had to take to my feet and wave my arms.) This was normal to me but so was the pain inside me about how I was treated. I mostly dismissed it until I could dismiss it no longer and started using my pen to turn the tide.
I have a new friend I adore named Kinga, a brilliant television travel host and producer. We met and bonded over something we had both noticed: the absence of women role models from the books of our childhoods. Both tomboys growing up, we were tree climbers and devout Wonder Woman worshippers. As Kinga astutely observes in her pitch meetings with male producers in Los Angeles, “Why is the only strong female heroine you can name Wonder Woman? There’s an abundance of real women heroines omitted from our history books that aren’t fictional.”
She’s referring to names like these: Grace O’Malley, the Irish clan chief and pirate; the so-called “Night Witches” who were the extraordinary female military aviators war heroines of WWII; Mary Kingsley, the tireless African explorer and scientific writer; the Trüng Sisters of Vietnam who launched a rebellion against the Chinese and became national heroes; Zenobia the Syrian empress who led attacks against the Roman Empire in the 3rd century; and Joan of Arc, the young teenage peasant warrior who led battles in France against the English and was accused of being a witch and burned at the stake, ultimately finding redemption in death as a saint.
I know when I discovered Hypatia of Alexandria, the first female mathematician/philosopher who was headmistress of the Great Library of Alexandria, I felt betrayed by the history books of my childhood. I had never learned about her in school: not in grade school, high school, or university. She wasn’t royalty; she was an intelligent and confident scholar who rose to power and international renown by virtue of her own merit. Hypatia was also brutally murdered by the Christians of her city in the 5th century under accusations of practicing witchcraft, setting the precedent for the very same suspicions that would destroy Joan of Arc centuries later.
Hypatia is the reason I wrote my first novel, Written in the Ashes, which focuses on her contributions to science. (I was arguably raised on too much Disney to kill off my main character, so she plays a supporting role in the story that illustrates the journey of a Jewish shepherdess who becomes a slave in Alexandria.)
I wrote a book about powerful women of the ancient world, women inspired by the strong women of my own family. These female characters in my novel are intellectually and spiritually developed. They exhibit intelligence, cunning, devotion to science and truth, mastery of languages, deep compassion and also some serious fighting skills and even sexual prowess. Many are Goddess worshippers, which was one of the dominant religions of the ancient world of the Mediterranean before the rise of Christianity.
I wanted to shed some light on the powerful women of the past and carry them into our awareness today.
I feel thankful to witness the encouraging rise of women that is happening in the world now, alongside the recognition that we all, men and women alike, need powerful female role models in the media who do more than talk about their men and go shopping. A quick search for the hashtag on Twitter, #IfSheCanSeeitSheCanBeit reveals women gathering and promoting positive role models, both fictional and actual.
During the writing of my novel, I asked over a hundred people how many women of history they could name in under a minute. Even the Oxford University scholar could only name nine. NINE.
It was only a few months ago that record was broken by Chloe, a precocious 11-year-old in Manhattan Beach who could name thirteen.
Given the opportunity to name as many men as possible from history in one minute, the record to beat was seventy-five, by a Princeton grad and yoga teacher in Silicon Valley. He kept going even when the timer ran out. Most people struggle to think of more female names around the twenty-second mark.
It is up to all of us to change this. To place more women at the center of all our stories, both in books and in film and television. Only when women are given voice will we matter.
If you think the only importance to this is just representation, guess again. The United Nations released a report that as many as 200 million women and girls are thought to be missing in the world today. MISSING.
Could the absence of women from our books and media be mirrored in the way women are globally marginalized, killed, trafficked into slavery, even disappearing in vast numbers?
I believe so. The rise of modern women is also about the rise of “soft” feminine qualities like compassion and love, kindness and collaboration. When these qualities are observed as strengths, our world will change for the better.
Women are important. I hope the world will continue to acknowledge the power and importance of women for all our contributions, including but not exclusive to our ability to birth new life.
Recommended Article: Written in the Ashes – a Review