Megan Baker is a second year undergraduate History student at King’s. She is particularly interested in women’s unpaid care responsibilities, maternity leave provision, reproductive rights and violence against women.
The bestselling children’s book, Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls has an entry on the fashion designer Coco Chanel, detailing how she succeeded in setting up her own shop in Paris and designed the now-iconic ‘little black dress’. Yet, the book entirely fails to mention that Chanel was also the lover of a Nazi officer and directly collaborated with Nazi intelligence services. This is an interesting example of how our supposed feminist heroes are airbrushed to make them appear ‘perfect’, when in reality they are complex, flawed people, just like you and me. Although Chanel undoubtedly challenged the status quo, we should not hide away the darker aspects of her life. Moreover, the book also spotlights the Egyptian Queen, Cleopatra, who likely murdered her siblings in order to become pharaoh, and Margaret Thatcher who waged a war in the Falklands and introduced homophobic policies that have far-reaching implications in Britain to this day. Although these topics are arguably too complex for a children’s book to tackle, it invites us to examine how female role models are held to unreasonable standards.
The story of Erin Pizzey who was responsible for establishing the world’s first domestic violence shelters and who founded the charity Refuge in 1971 which supports 6.000 women and children on any given day is another interesting case study when looking at the treatment of female role models. As incredible as this work is, Pizzey is not a household name today and I had never even heard of her prior to reading Helen Lewis’ book Difficult Women. This is likely because she parted ways with the charity in the early 1980s after a disagreement around feminism and her belief that it was anti-man and allowed women to take the role of victim. In 2009, Pizzey wrote for an article for the Daily Mail about how she realised that feminism was a ‘lie’ that has created a ‘rift’ between men and women. Pizzey is now an advocate for men’s rights, working for the anti-feminist organisation A Voice for Men. Outside of the feminist mainstream, her work in helping survivors of domestic violence has largely been forgotten.
In a sense, this is the opposite of the narrative surrounding Chanel, which completely brushes over the negative aspects of her life in favour of focusing in on her ground-breaking work in fashion. Pizzey, on the other hand, has been written out of the narrative entirely. This perpetuates the idea that women must live flawless lives in order to be remembered and appreciated. I would argue that we need to take a nuanced perspective, taking the good with the bad, accepting people’s flaws but acknowledging the positive work that these women have done. It is rare to find a female role model, or indeed any woman, who has led a perfect life.
Men are not held to the same perfect standards as commonly expected of women in this respect. Winston Churchill has been called the ‘Greatest Briton’ for his part in defeating Nazi Germany in World War Two, even appearing on the £5 note in Britain. Because of this monumental victory, Churchill’s role in the so-called ‘man-made’ Bengal Famine of 1943 in British India during which up to 3 million people are estimated to have died, is almost entirely ignored. Furthermore, he has also made some very controversial comments on race. This demonstrates that if the achievements of a man are deemed to be impressive enough, the bad things they have done hold no importance. Few people question that Churchill did very questionable things, but he is still seen as worthy of respect and admiration. With female role models, we either have to ignore the bad things they did, or cut them out of the narrative altogether.
Yet, we can appreciate female role models for their contributions without neglecting their flaws. In politics for example, one can appreciate a woman for challenging the status quo in a man’s world and yet disagree with their policies. For example, I agree with very few of Margaret Thatcher’s policies, yet I can appreciate that becoming the first female British Prime Minister is an incredible feat, especially as early as 1979. She worked incredibly hard to get to where she did. At this point, very few women had been selected as head of government in the world. She was the first female head of a government in Europe. Even in 2021, the United States still has not elected their first female President.
I argue that we need to be more realistic when examining the lives of women in the public eye. We can appreciate the things they accomplished as revolutionary, powerful or having a long-lasting impact, without ignoring the negative aspects of their lives. We should not have to choose between entirely ignoring the bad things women did, as with Coco Chanel, or cutting them out of the mainstream narrative altogether, as with Erin Pizzey. As real people, women are complex and flawed. As Mary Wollstonecraft wrote in AVindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792, ‘Why are girls to be told that they resemble angels, but to sink them below women?’
Favili, Elena and Cavallo, Francesca, Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls (London, 2017).
Lewis, Helen, Difficult Women (London, 2021).
[Image from Pinterest.]