Facing the Dragon: Reflections on Female Heroism

Facing the Dragon: Reflections on Female Heroism

by Merle Hoffman

In a world with no more Wests to conquer or empires to build, where risk-taking comes packaged as adventure vacations, what becomes of the concept of the heroic — and how, if at all, do women fit it?

These questions filled my mind when I contemplated the terrifying danger and death that befell the Mount Everest climbers this past summer. I wondered about the obsession that led people to risk hypothermia, edema, death by oxygen deprivation and exposure to stand on the top of the world.

Then there was the journalistic inequity of the coverage. Women climbers were “driven” or “egocentric,” while the men were comfortably placed in the category called hero. I’ve always considered myself a person who takes risks. When I was a child the risks were mainly physical — riding my bike with no hands, challenging the “bad girls” in school, getting into fist fights, or insisting on swimming in ice-cold pools in the middle of winter. This adventurous engagement with the physical world created a state of high anxiety in my already anxious mother, who filled my childhood with the word “don’t.” “Don’t walk there; it’s dangerous. Don’t play in the dirt; you’ll get dirty. Don’t run too fast; you’ll fall.”

One response to the personal limits set by my mother and by the cultural boundaries placed on little girls in the 1950s was that I developed a fantasy life replete with risk-takers and heroes who amazingly defied their physicality to accomplish great feats. Joan of Arc fascinated me — her voices, her youth, and the “miracle” of her inspired military triumphs. I marveled at her extraordinary physical courage while leading her troops into battle and was awestruck at her choice to be burned alive rather than suffer a lifetime of imprisonment. Joan broke every boundary that existed for her time, place, and gender. She personified the mythological Greek heroes who fought monsters to save victims (usually women), conquered worlds and civilizations, and became masters of their universe. Joan was a hero in the classical sense — the classical male sense — and I loved her for it.

Gradually, as I grew up and shed the cloak of my childhood invincibility, I came to express my risk-taking by exposing myself more to loss than to injury. I learned to be afraid of physical pain and to view my body as a fragile vessel requiring constant protection. The boundaries I have challenged as an adult have been psychological, spiritual, and political: the risk of being unaccepted, the risk of loving unexpected and inappropriate people, the risk of an unconventional marriage, the risk of becoming an entrepreneur, the risk of being childless, the risk of political dissent, the risk of following my own dreams, the risk of being alone.

On the other hand, my mother has not changed. Our respective ages and journeys through life have not altered or diminished her anxiety. She is beset with fears about the few remnants of my childhood physical daring that remain — my fast driving, horseback riding, adventure traveling. The real physical risk I face daily, that of being gunned down by a fanatic “right to lifer,” is usually left unspoken between us.

I am aware that there is a strange inconsistency between my fear of physical pain and my willingness to risk my life for my work and my beliefs. I’m frequently asked whether I’m afraid of death at the hands of some fanatic, and I always answer that it comes with the territory, as it does for all of us who work on the front lines. But I do wonder sometimes whether this is a type of heroism or a pattern of denial.

The Random House Dictionary defines a hero as a “man of distinguished courage or ability admired for his brave deeds and noble qualities, or a person who, in the opinion of others, has heroic qualities or has performed a heroic act and is regarded as a model or ideal.” Joseph Campbell, in The Hero With a Thousand Faces, believes that everyone faces heroic opportunities. In a sense, one could say that heroes are defined not so much by their position in life as by their stance toward life, a stance of active engagement. Though Campbell writes of an ageless heroic myth that has universal application in all cultures, the hero in America has come to be synonymous with the “great man.” He, as hero, is the avatar of humanity who encompasses a transcendent value, such as courage or loyalty, and, ideally, puts his life at extreme risk for the good of others or of the whole community.

By this definition, one could reasonably argue that women and girls are by their very nature heroic. The physical risks they face are global and transgenerational — the risk of pregnancy, abortion, rape, childbirth, intimate violence, oppression — risks that for the most part are faced for their husbands, children, and others that make up their community.

But these are the unchosen risks, the ones that come with the territory of being female. They do not belong to the style of risk that is usually labeled heroic. And at the risk of being labeled politically incorrect, I believe we need to reserve that standard for individual acts of great physical courage or challenge.

Currently, that standard is in danger of melting away as the modern heroic style is effectively diminished to fill the requirements of a shallow and celebrity-obsessed culture. The concept of role model, celebrity sports figure, political leader, and icon have become so fused and confused that even Hillary Clinton meets the criterion! “I love Hillary because she is a hero to so many American girls,” one member of her fan club told a TV interviewer. It seems that having the good strategic sense to marry a man who ultimately becomes President of the United States is now considered heroic. Even Susan McDougal, former Whitewater partner of the Clintons, was described (albeit by her lawyer) as a “true American hero” on Larry King Live for choosing to go to jail rather than agree to answer questions from the grand jury about President Clinton’s role in Whitewater.

The heroic concept is now used to sell cars (Peugot’s “Search for the Hero Within”) and has been absorbed whole into the personal-growth industry. One training organization — Meristem, founded by Carol S. Pearson, Ph.D. — postulates a six-stage heroic journey based on integrity rather than dragon-slaying. While Pearson recognizes that many feminists attempt to embody the heroic paradigm through the Amazon archetype, she believes that the warrior myth with its focus on power over other people and the earth is “ultimately lonely and tragic.” For Pearson, women can and do become heroes by fleeing, rather than slaying, dragons. The highest goal for men and women (after passing through the stages of innocent, orphan, martyr, wanderer, and warrior) is to reach the egalitarian magician stage where one views life as a gift, says Pearson. Heroism is then defined as “not only moving mountains” but “knowing mountains.” This interpersonal-, psychological-growth model for the heroic is conceptually far more available to women and more socially acceptable. But it leaves unsettled the question of how to view women who dare to choose the classical heroic journey.

In choosing this path, there often is an element of what, when women do it, is defined as selfishness. This is especially true when, unlike the adolescent virgin Joan of Arc, they are married and are mothers. That was the case with Alison Hargreaves and Sandy Hill Pittman, two world-class mountain climbers who personified the archetypal hero but received none of the rewards. Their transgression? Leaving their families behind, one dared to die and the other to survive.

A survivor of the worst disaster ever on Mount Everest, Pittman first made up her mind to climb the highest mountain in the world in 1963 at the age of nine after the first American team reached the summit. “In the National Geographic photos, the gender of the climbers was concealed by their bulky, high-altitude gear and oxygen masks; never mind that they were all men. I saw people in those pictures standing on top of the world,” she wrote in Vogue. She started her working life as an editor at Mademoiselle. By 1992, Pittman recounts, “I was ready to embark on a project that has been accomplished by only a handful of people — all of them men. I would climb the highest mountain on each continent, plus the highest peak located on an island.”

Criticized for leaving her wealthy husband and child to risk the Everest climb, Pittman writes that many of her Manhattan friends considered her ambitions misguided. “‘Aren’t you afraid that your husband will take up with someone else while you’re away,'” she reports they asked her. “‘How can you be a good mother when you’re gone for so long?'” Pittman, who did eventually get divorced, believes that following her dreams had in fact strengthened her marriage: “That it lasted for seventeen years is, I believe, due to the fact that I was able to live my dreams rather than stifle them as married people often do.”

Surviving last summer’s Everest disaster in which eight people were killed, Pittman was pilloried in the press for “publicity seeking” (she had an NBC website on the mountain), for being “assertive,” for “worrying over her image,” for seeing everything as “centric to her.” Her only public support came from celebrity columnist Liz Smith in the New York Post. “And really, what has she done that’s so bad?” Smith asked. “She needed a little help to get up the mountain? She placed herself in a more heroic light than some felt was called for?” While recognizing that the risks she takes are “grave ones,” Pittman wrote that “ultimately, despite the risks, I find myself more peaceful on a high mountain than anywhere else I can imagine.

“Simply stated, I live by the belief that sweat confirms life,” Pittman added.

Like Pittman, Scottish climber Alison Hargreaves fell in love with climbing as a child. Starting with rock climbing at 13, she gave up her parents’ expectations for her to read mathematics at Oxford. By her early 30s, she had climbed six major alpine north faces solo-becoming the first person to do so in one season. Reaching the summit of Switzerland’s formidable Mount Eiger in 1988, Hargreaves created a stir when it was discovered that she was five months pregnant at the time. She was attacked by journalist Nigella Lawson as personifying “me-first mountaineering”; he described her climbing as a neurosis that “shows a reality-denying self-centeredness.”

“I was pregnant, not sick,” she responded. “What kind of mother would I be if I sacrificed climbing for my children? It makes me me, and is what makes me the good mother that I am.” She went on to become, in 1995, the second person, male or female, to climb Mount Everest solo without using oxygen. “We did not know if a woman could do it before Alison,” one physician remarked, noting that women have smaller lungs than men. Along with posing questions about her physiology, The Angry Corrie, a Scottish fanzine, described Hargreaves as “driven, out of control, and greedy, ” as “gobbling up summits while she could” and becoming “perhaps too good of a climber.”

As a group of British women journalists noted, every news report about her accomplishments started with the words “mother of two.” When a male climber either summited or died in the attempt, the headlines never read “father of one killed on Everest.”

What really frightened Hargreaves was not the death zone on Everest above 26,000 feet, or climbing without oxygen, but the thought of having no further challenges to meet. “When I set off for Everest…I was desperately afraid that if I reached the top I wouldn’t know what to do next,” she told an interviewer after the Everest climb. Her fear led her to attempt K2, the other major Himalayan mountain, three weeks later. And that climb led to her death.

Are Alison Hargreaves and Sandy Pittman feminist heroes? Hargreaves, who supported her family by mountain climbing, did not think of herself as either. “I don’t go around saying I’m a feminist because I’m not. I’m a woman and I’ve had a rough ride, but that’s understandable. I’m in a male world. I’ve tackled it head on. I’ve got on with the job,” she said. “Nobody can ever take away the climbs I’ve done.” Pittman has not been quoted on the subject.

However they see their extraordinary accomplishments, I see them as feminist heroes. In a world that demands — of women, far more than of men — that the good of one’s children come before personal desires or obsessions, freedom to follow the solitary heroic journey is labeled as the ultimate selfishness.

I salute the heroic selfishness of Sandy Hill Pittman and Alison Hargreaves. I acknowledge their solitary journeys, their extreme risk-taking, and welcome them back to their community of women and girls worldwide.

I also welcome Lisal Clayton, who circumnavigated the 31,000 miles of the earth’s oceans nonstop and alone, and Ffyona Campbell, who walked 20,000 miles around the world, barely escaping attack and rape on more than one occasion. Campbell was accused of self-promotion, even though her trek raised $60,000 for charity. Her extraordinary deed was attacked in the press as “intolerant and ruthless.”

Hargreaves’s favorite quote was the Buddhist “Better to live one day as a tiger than 1,000 years as a sheep.” Ffyona Campbell’s advice is more succinct: “Don’t let the bastards get you down.”

Don’t indeed!

MERLE HOFFMAN is publisher/editor-in-chief of On The Issues magazine and founder/president of both Choices Women’s Medical Center, Inc., and Choices Mental Health Center.