Has the idea of heroism changed over the ages? Do we demand different qualities from women today? Has our moral code changed much over the centuries?
Certainly if we look at popular culture today the example of the heroine that springs to mind is Katniss in the Hunger Games. She sacrifices herself for her little sister and bravely steps into her place. An archer of considerable skill, she surprises all by hitting the apple in the roasting pig’s mouth. She shows great stamina and endurance and overcomes all sorts of dire dangers and proves herself capable of killing. Is this brave young woman so different from the heroines of old?
Certainly there have been women capable of violence when it has been necessary all through history. There is the story of Judith, the beautiful widow, who enters the tent of the Assyrian general Holofernes because he desires her. She cuts off his head because he wishes to destroy her home, an act that has been an inspiration for artists over the ages. There is Salome, of course, who dances her seductive dance of the seven veils for Herod and then asks for John the Baptist’s head which Caravaggio amongst others has painted so dramatically. There is Delilah who cuts off Samson’s hair and deprives him of his strength. There is Charlotte Corday who stabs Marat in his bath during the French Revolution.
Researching a book called "Bluebird or the Invention of Happiness" based on the life of the Marquise de la Tour du Pin, an eighteenth century aristocrat who leaves France during the French Revolution with her two small children and her Marquis husband in the dead of winter and makes the voyage to Boston in a small boat, I was struck by the woman’s courage. This privileged and pampered aristocrat becomes a dairy farmer in the Albany area, churning her own butter. She loses five of her six children which seems almost unimagineable to us today. Though her life may have been very different in certain ways ( for example she only hears of her guillotined father’s death two months after the event) her curiousity, her courage, and her endurance have a very modern ring.
Even 19th century women heroines like Jane Eyre are capable of integrity and physical bravery when facing difficult situations. After her aborted marriage, when she discovers that Mr. Rochester already has a wife locked up in the attic at Thornfield, Jane runs away across the moors without any sort of sustenance. Her wanderings on the bleak moors without food or shelter are not entirely unlike the modern Katniss and her adventures in the Hunger Games.
Young Dora, Ida Bauer, one of Freud's early patients, so often maligned, was a brave woman who started a bridge club in order to make money with her father's mistress as partner during the depression in Austria. Later she escaped the holocaust, taking refuge in Casablanca and finally arriving in New York where her son had emigrated and where he was to become a great musician.
It seems that through the ages, certain qualities in women, and perhaps also in men, continue to be admired and emulated: integrity, the idea of sacrificing oneself for family and friend and the greater good, bravery, and even the use of physical violence in a laudable cause.
Sheila Kohler is the author of many books including the recent Dreaming for Freud.