WASHINGTON — The label ''role model'' is well intended, and the concept is useful. Yet the term is bothersome. Why?
Young women in the 1930s and '40s, when I grew up, had real heroines. Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham were among them. Their extraordinary talents made dance into an original art form. They initiated schools, had followers, were leaders; their unconventional personal lives were romantic. Heroines, yes, but role models? Most American women of my generation could not have imagined an unconventional personal life, and most lacked the talents of Duncan and Graham, not to mention their courage.
Marie Curie was another heroine of ours. The biography of Curie, written by her daughter Eve, inspired scientifically inclined young women in an age when heroism still mattered and not many women were scientists. Through the book and the famous movie based on it, we were touched by the image of Marie and Pierre Curie stirring great vats of pitchblende in their dark shed of a laboratory. Nor could anyone forget that this hard physical work led to two Nobel prizes: one in physics in 1903, shared by Marie and Pierre Curie with Antoine Bequerel, and another in 1911, for Marie alone in chemistry for the discovery of radium.
The description in Eve Curie's book is of a heroine, not a role model. No young American woman could imagine the sacrifice of the lonely years Marie Curie spent in Poland as a governess, sending money to her sister who was studying medicine in Paris, saving what was left for her own eventual opportunity to study. And none of us would want to emulate her disregard for the known dangers of radiation, a disregard that ended in the destruction of her life.
Still, these heroines are more worthy exemplars than contemporary women occupying the roles to which young American women aspire. For one thing, a heroine is distant while a role model's proximal reality encourages too close scrutiny and a destructive mimicry of both public and private behavior. More important, a heroine is, by definition, known for courage and nobility of purpose, thereby uplifting our own ambitions out of narrow, self-centered concerns.
Why then do young women now speak so often of role models and so rarely of heroines? Why are heroines and even heroes so out of fashion? Nobility of purpose is not currently admired; our society is afraid that following such a leader will extract too high a cost from us as individuals or as a nation.
Rather, we deny greatness and seek instead a false image of equality. In our compulsive effort to make everyone ordinary we assume license to delve into personal matters, from the trivial to the profound; unsurprisingly, the glorious images are tarnished. And for those who are truly great, where the effort to make them ordinary cannot succeed, we strive to make them evil. Not even the giants of our world can escape. Consider the sad efforts to tarnish Martin Luther King's image, as if that could undermine his greatness.
Technology makes this program easier. Television is unforgiving in its ability to reveal the personal flaws of everyone from athletic stars to scientists. Modern high-speed journalism sometimes seems to make the whole world into a soap opera.
People have always known that heroines and heroes are imperfect. But they chose to ignore the warts so that the greatness could inspire new achievement. We are all diminished by the disappearance of heroism. Role models will be for naught if there are no heroines and heroes from whom to learn about courage, about noble purpose, about how to reach within and beyond ourselves to find greatness.
Young women now have more freedom to shape themselves than young women anywhere or at any time in history. That freedom is a lonely and difficult burden, but it is also a blessing. The burden cannot be conquered nor the blessing realized by standing in anyone's shadow. But both can be achieved by standing on the shoulders of the great heroines.
Maxine F. Singer is president of the Carnegie Institution. This article, from a commencement address given at Barnard College, is reprinted with permission from Science magazine.