There are a handful of dictums in the modern feminist discourse that are so omnipresent, so incontrovertible, so apparently obvious, that, whenever they are pronounced, the only appropriate reaction is enthusiastic head-bobbing. Or, if you prefer, solemn brow-knitting. Like two plus two equals four, these dictums are axioms, not to be discussed, let alone contested.
Challenge them, however, and you’ll see how easily they fall apart. For example, consider the adage “What will we tell our daughters?” Each time I hear this phrase, I remember Emmeline Grangerford from Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Miss Grangerford spent her short life writing funereal poetry and died of disappointment, aged fifteen, after failing to compose a satisfactory eulogy for a deceased neighbour called Whistler because she couldn’t find a word to rhyme with his name. What will we tell our daughters? Why not tell them the same thing we will tell our sons, our friends and colleagues, our Thursday night poker group—and that should be whatever is the fairest and most honest analysis of the situation. What else is there to tell? To imply that our daughters require a special dispensation because they are too fragile to handle reality is very Emmeline Grangerford indeed.
Another apparently undeniable tenet is “We need a female perspective.” Editors use this to justify the publication of dull women writers. But there is no such thing as a female perspective. Or a male perspective, for that matter. Our perspective is based on our individual experience and is therefore fundamentally subjective. Two years ago, a Sunday paper asked me to write an article about being a woman in the City. Tell us how you were harassed and discriminated, the editor instructed, and how hard it was to work among men. The truth is, I was never harassed, discriminated, or mistreated in any way. In fact, I had a fabulous time. Looking back at my career, I realise that I enjoyed greater success than my modest skills deserved and, as a young and attractive woman, I got away with things for which any balding, grey-suited City man would have been fired on the spot.
So that is what I wrote, and it was a “female perspective,” all right. But was it a universal female truth? Of course not, and other women may have very different stories to tell. Granted, I knew more about the City than, say, a farmer, or a professor of French literature—but my experience was still limited. If the Sunday paper wanted a comprehensive article on gender diversity in the City, commissioning a woman as a guarantor of gospel truth on all things female was a mistake. An experienced sociologist, someone who studied dozens of companies, interviewed hundreds of employees and approached the matter with scientific impartiality would have offered a far more useful perspective than mine.
But perhaps most aggravating of all is the idea that “Young girls need female role models.” As its proponents are especially militant, I should elaborate on this particular bromide in more detail. Yes, young girls need role models. But whether these role models are male or female is irrelevant. We admire other people for certain qualities. For me, these are honour, courage, talent, kindness, intellect. Decency. Perhaps skill, if it’s on the level of mastery. At a stretch, I would add commercial savvy. But not gender. Gender does not belong on this list.
When I was six years old, I saw a picture of my great countryman Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, and I resolved to become a cosmonaut. Gagarin’s open, luminous smile, his astonishing courage, made me want to pull on the spacesuit, buckle up the scaphander, strap myself to the pilot seat of Vostok 1 and shoot up, up, to the open skies, to the far and the unknown, shoulder to shoulder with Colonel Gagarin, my co-pilot and second in command. Together, we would discover Mars and Venus and Jupiter—and Asteroid B612, the home of the Little Prince. Every evening, we would sit on the edge of the Little Prince’s tiny planet, feet dangling in the open space, and we’d watch the sun set and the planet Earth gleam blue from very far away. Gagarin was my first role model. I will always be in awe of his heroism.
“But why wasn’t your role model Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space?” some people ask. “Tereshkova would have been a more appropriate example for a young girl.” Sorry, more appropriate in what way? “Well, she was more like you—as a woman, she faced similar challenges…” But why should I be inspired by people like me? Out of a sense of duty or loyalty, rather than sincere admiration? Isn’t this the definition of thinking small and narrow? Valentina Tereshkova was formidable, and she continues to inspire others. But to me, there was simply no-one like Gagarin.
In my early twenties, I developed a new fascination—my university professor. He taught an elective on French existentialism and gave me an entirely new understanding of the world. He introduced me to André Gide’s Paludes (‘Swamp’), an 1895 novel which annihilates everything that, today, we would regard as an exemplary life. Gide’s protagonist works hard, loves his family, cares for his friends, helps his neighbours. He is decent and dutiful, he lives to do good. But that’s an ideal human, you might exclaim, is he free for a commencement speech/TED talk/podcast interview?
But, you see, to Gide, this man is not a human at all. He’s a social entity. Something fundamental is lacking. Something, perhaps, that a few decades later, Allen Ginsberg would call “the spirit of the universe.” People who do not possess it, who live in the domain of the practical and the day-to-day, who do not seek the transcendental, who do not question if there is something else out there beside work, friends, and family, people who do not search for that divine spark which distinguishes us from, say, a clever dog, live in the swamp. This is a very difficult concept to grasp, and each time I try to explain it, no one understands. But my professor did. He took a sabbatical once, and sent a replacement to finish his course. The new lecturer was perfectly competent, but when I listened to him and compared him to my mentor, I felt a palpable dip in intellect. If you ever read Camilla Shamsie after Nietzsche, or listened to Justin Bieber after Beethoven, you would know what I mean.
My professor was a man, and so was Yuri Gagarin. Both changed me for the better—and this is all that matters in a role model. The person who influenced me most, however, was a woman. But this is not why I admired her. I admired her because I never knew her to be weak—just as I never knew her to be unkind. I never heard her tell a lie. I knew of the sacrifices she had made for those she loved. I knew of the sacrifices she had made for her country: in the Second World War, she was the only woman to attain the rank of a captain in her division. Afterwards, she had a high-flying career and was the main bread-winner in her family—decades before the emergence of second-wave feminism. And she wrote good poetry. Whenever I was around her, I felt I was in the presence of a triumphant human spirit. To this day, whenever I am confronted with a major decision, I think about what she would say and do. If I had not had her in my life, I would have turned out worse. Much worse.
So, yes: Yuri Gagarin, my university professor, and the woman I will not name because her memory is too sacred. These were my role models. We all need role models. Role models can do wonders to our lives. But, please, let’s choose them for their qualities—not their gender.
Elena Shalneva is a London-based journalist, writing about books and film for Standpoint and about office politics for City AM. She has published several short stories, and is currently completing her first collection. She is also guest lecturer at King’s College London. You can follow her on Twitter @ShalnevaE