It's a Bird... It's a Plane... It's a Girl?

Feminine heroics are private, fueled by empathy rather than displays of physical strength and power.

By Kat McGowan, published November 1, 2005 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Our image of a hero is a man: specifically, a burly, quick-thinking he-man. And the annals of heroism are dominated by courageous men—warriors, explorers and rescuers—acting decisively to protect the defenseless.

One of the major requirements for heroism seems to be a willingness to face physical danger, and as anyone with cable TV can confirm, risk-taking behavior is something men specialize in. Experimental studies have shown that women find risky heroics appealing in potential mates—which is perhaps why men engage in them.

But the same studies show that men also find valiant behavior attractive in a female partner. So why don't we see more Joans of Arc?

The list of the Carnegie Hero medals, which are awarded by the Carnegie Fund for exceptional acts of bravery like fighting off a bear or saving a drowning child, is overwhelmingly male. But when big muscles or a soldier's training aren't required, women may be slightly more likely than men to take death-defying risks to help others, finds an analysis by psychologists Alice Eagly and Selwyn Becker. The roster of Poles, Dutch and French who harbored Jews during the Nazi occupation skews female, despite the fact that many were executed for their troubles. Living organ donors, who risk disability and endure pain to save another's life, are mostly women.

The difference? Feminine heroics are private, fueled by empathy rather than displays of prowess: Think Harriet Tubman or Mother Teresa. Female risk-taking may not be flamboyant, but it's just as, well, risky: not the stuff of superheroes but no less heroic, in the end.