Where have all the role models for girls and young women gone?

It’s a question that gets asked a lot, in all kinds of circles, from feminist ones to the family around the dinner table ones; where are the good role models for girls today? In the eyes of some, the female youth of the world have nothing other than Disney Princesses, Pop-Princesses, Super Models and (erm) Porn Stars to look up to…

To them I say, look at a television, where the Olympics are on…

There really are some pretty amazing women doing some pretty amazing stuff in Beijing. I mean, I love the Olympics, I love sports, and I love seeing women athletes from all over the world out there doing their thing, competing hard, giving it all they’ve got, win or lose. There are some awesome women doing just that, right now! And I can’t help but think that’s not only cool, but yeah, it could be mighty inspiring.

Take a look:

From top left to bottom right, we have…

Guo Jingjing of China, a three time Olympian, multiple medallist, and the most decorated female diver in the history of the sport.

Cheryl Haworth of the US, a two time Olympian weight lifter who won bronze in Sydney.

Yelena Isinbayeva of Russia, a two time Olympian who won gold in Athens and is looking to defend it in Beijing in Pole Vault…she also holds the world record.

Tirunesh Dibaba of Ethiopia, a runner who won Bronze in Athens and Gold in Beijing, and she’s not done yet!

Lolo Jones of the US is in her first Olympics here, doing the 100-meter hurdles. She’s the indoor world champ, and looking for medals in China, and sounds like an all around cool woman who cares a lot about her community.

Ryoko Tani of Japan has been in five Olympic Games and won five medals in Judo.

Natalia Dobrynska of Ukraine is now known as the best female athlete in the world…winning gold in the heptathlon tends to bring that title with it.

Kirsty Coventry of Zimbabwe has seven swimming medals to her credit, won in Athens and Beijing. She is also a bit of a national hero.

Meseret Defar of Ethiopia won gold in track in Athens, and is looking to do it again.

Jeannie Longo Ciprelli is a French Cyclist who won medals in 92, 96, and 2000…she’s doing some coaching these days.

Zhang Juanjuan is a Chinese competitor in Archery, she’s been in two Olympics, and has three medals; two silver, one gold.

Dara Torres of the US has been in five Olympics, tearing up the swimming pool. She’s 41, has 12 medals, oh, and happens to be a mom.

Nastia Luiken of the US Gymnastics team is now a 3 time medal winner, and did so with style and grace.

Fencers Rebecca Ward, Sada Jacobson and Mariel Zagunis of the US are all now multiple medallists…and students at Duke, Yale, and Notre Dame.

Paola Espinosa won the first diving medal for women for Mexico at the 2008 games.

And she’s not on the picture, but how about Oksana Chusovitina, who at the age of 33 won a silver medal in gymnastics on the vault today? How about the story about her son, and her coach Shanna Bruggemann, and how she went from competing for the Soviet Union, to the Unified Team, to Uzbekistan, to Germany? Have you heard that story? You really should. Truly a tale of not one, but two pretty amazing women.

Plenty of good role model material there, don’t you think?

When I was 13 or so I had a poster of this amazing woman hanging on my wall:

Florence Griffith-Joyner, I thought she was simply amazing; muscle, beauty, style, grace, charisma, determination and a wonderful smile. Oh, and some damn fast feet too! Two Olympics, five medals, and a couple world records. I remember when I heard that FloJo had died at the age of 38 on September 21, 1998, I cried. She was, after all, a superhero of my youth, and certainly someone who inspired me to run.

So yeah, thank you women athletes of the world, good luck to you, and the girls and young women you inspire. You are role models.


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31 comments for “Where have all the role models for girls and young women gone?

  1. hbsweet
    August 18, 2008 at 1:46 am

    Wilma Rudolph will always be my hero.

  2. August 18, 2008 at 3:07 am

    Tamora Pierce’s heroines were always my little sister’s favorites. And a lot of the Dear America books, but I don’t remember those stories very well.
    My sister hates sports, so athletes aren’t good role models for her (yay public school PE–disheartening youth for decades!).
    So, mind you, her role models are often all fictional; Pierce’s girls and women were helping gods defeat evil, catching criminals, saving folks from fires with their magic, etc.

    After I finish Transgender History I’ll be lending it to my sister too; Silvia Rivera was an amazing woman who did a whole lot for queer and trans* rights even while living on the streets and later on her deathbed. She was at the Stonewall uprising! She helped start the major queer and trans* groups of her time!

    I’m also trying to get her more into blogs so she can learn about amazing women like Ren and Monica Roberts (Transgriot) and others, but she’s more into gaiaonline at the moment.

  3. August 18, 2008 at 3:27 am

    Oksana Chusovitina, who at the age of 33 won a silver medal in gymnastics on the vault today?

    Oh yay! I had to work and forgot to set my tivo, so I’d missed it! I’m so glad she metaled! I was rooting for her!

  4. Ren
    August 18, 2008 at 3:29 am

    Vanessa, she’s real hard NOT to root for.

  5. August 18, 2008 at 3:29 am

    Oksana Chusovitina’s story is amazing. So great to see her win a medal.

    Personally, I love Shawn Johnson – super talented, but also seems to have a very genuine positive attitude, and is really supportive of her teammates. She also said that one of the reasons she wanted to do well at the Olympics was to make her coach proud – he grew up in Beijing and she wanted to do well in his hometown to show how successful he’s been in America.

  6. Falyne
    August 18, 2008 at 3:39 am

    I gotta say, THIS young woman was more inspired by the long list of beefcake posted back at your place…. ;-)

    I was a young nerdling once who found a great role model in Star Wars’s Mara Jade. Then again, I was a messed-up young nerdling who was wont to flagellate herself (mentally… and physically (although flagellation’s usually not done with a knife, but, yeah)) because the aforementioned super badass assassin Jedi (among others) would have contempt for her worthless mundane life. Likewise, say, the fact that I couldn’t equal the Aiel Spear Maidens from Jordan’s Wheel of Time, or other fantastical role models I held myself to, and the fact that I probably won’t equal Alexander the Great or Isaac Newton or anyone else that people bother to remember, and would thus most likely be forgotten entirely, also distressed me greatly.

    I guess my point is that it’s sometimes not healthy to have role models, if you don’t realize that it’s ok for you not to completely measure up to them. Olympics athletes are better than fantastical heroes, obviously, since they’re grounded at least somewhat in reasonable expectations of human capability, but they’re definitely the outer bounds of that human capability.

    Then again, a lot of this comes from my own inability to NOT internalize unrealistic expectations of myself, not the role models themselves. Most folks manage to keep themselves grounded in reality, and not wind up concluding that it is good to feel that they’d hate themselves if they stopped striving for unrealistic things, because that shows they at least have pride, unlike the other worthless mundane ants who don’t even realize how worthless they are….

    Heh. And this is why I’m on (doctor prescribed) happy pills now…. But, yeah, having unrealistic role models of ANY type can be mind-fucking for some people, given a degree of previous mind-fuckage. And now I’m off to bed.

  7. August 18, 2008 at 3:39 am

    I lurrrv Dobrynska.

    I also love Podkopaeva, though she is long retired from gymnastics. A group of thugs beat her up in the center of Kiev a few years ago, and she just kept on keeping on. A really amazing woman.

  8. August 18, 2008 at 3:44 am

    And also, I too love FloJo, as proof that a certian degree of self-chosen (what Octo termed, and I shall forever call) sparkle is not a hindrance. Yes, you can have fabulous long fingernails and a one-legged suit and still kick ass if you want to.

  9. Lorelai
    August 18, 2008 at 7:40 am

    Valerie Villi from New Zealand who won gold for shotput rocks too:)

  10. natmusk
    August 18, 2008 at 8:04 am

    Not to forget the Williams sisters who won in tennis and completely put the world of tennis in a tailspin when they came on the scene

  11. August 18, 2008 at 8:42 am

    and some current Canadian heroes:
    Carol Huynh of Canada – Gold in Wrestling (48kg class)
    Tonya Verbeek of Canada – Bronze in Wrestling (55kg class)
    Melanie Kok and Tracy Cameron of Canada – Bronze in Rowing

  12. elise
    August 18, 2008 at 9:36 am

    I want the first pic and accompanying text as a poster now!

  13. Ledasmom
    August 18, 2008 at 11:09 am

    “Cheryl Haworth of the US, a two time Olympian weight lifter who won bronze in Sydney”

    We watched her in the heavyweight finals the other night. Actually, for pretty much the whole final my husband and I were staring at the TV and yelling “Did you see that? Did you see her lift that? Omigod, look at her lift that!” They’re saying there’s been a huge surge in kids signing up for swimming lessons because of Michael Phelps but, damn, I like to think that, just maybe, there’s girls lining up at gyms because of Cheryl Haworth.

  14. August 18, 2008 at 11:20 am

    I watched Oksana last night and got all emo. I was secretly willing the women who went after her to fall. I know that’s terrible of me, but…she’s so amazing.

  15. August 18, 2008 at 11:21 am

    I was watching a women’s table-tennis match this morning, and the hand-eye coordination and reaction-time were fucking amazing. Apparently, the ball comes off the paddle at something like 70 mph, but the players are only about 12 feet apart. Unreal.

  16. Ali
    August 18, 2008 at 11:22 am

    I think Falyne makes a really good point. Role models are great and fabulous (and I cried when Flo Jo died too) but we should make sure to present a mix of the awesome and (usually) unattainable (Olympic athletes, Nobel Prize winners, etc) and the awesome and “normal” (for lack of a better term… too early for me right now) that we see in day to day living.

  17. August 18, 2008 at 12:12 pm

    The diving last night was awesome! I was rooting for Guo who if she had nerves never showed them.

  18. exholt
    August 18, 2008 at 12:13 pm

    Depending on the Olympic sport, I was cheering for the American and the Chinese/Chinese Taipei teams.

    Though some of my friends have had strong issues with the “America uber alles” attitude of the NBC coverage, I’ve tried to explain how from my experience living in the mainland for a bit, I’m betting their coverage of the games is going to be “China uber alles” as well.

    Was also caring more about how well the games were being played than who was going to win….especially when I keep in mind all the Olympic athletes are the best in the world and have worked very hard to get there. Lots of amazing performances and a few heartbreaking stumbles which in my mind humanizes the athletes and caused me to sympathize with them more.

    My sister hates sports, so athletes aren’t good role models for her (yay public school PE–disheartening youth for decades!).

    Interesting to hear you say that considering how pervasive and popular sports is not only in American society, but also among my public junior high school classmates where several of them were idolizing basketball starts like Patrick Ewing and Michael Jordan and were banking all their hopes on winning an athletic scholarship……even to the point of ignoring their studies altogether.

    It is also surprising considering how many public high schools…not to say privates tend to prioritize sports over academics and the fine arts…..consider the privileging of funds for football stadiums and other athletic facilities over teaching materials, classrooms, and teacher’s pay among other things in many states.

    Though most Chinese on both sides of the straits in the ’50s to the 80’s did enjoy playing sports and rooting for their favorite teams, the level of sports obsession was never to the point that it was privileged or completely obscured the need to take one’s studies seriously….or that the popular culture made them heroes at the expense of luminaries of other fields such as science and the arts.

    It is one reason many international students and some Profs….even those from mainland China where they do have “special admissions” for those with exceptional athletic or other talents are flabbergasted and sometimes even outraged at the idea of athletic and legacy admissions….especially when the athlete’s/legacy’s mediocre academic is overlooked because of their athletic talent/legacy status as is even at some Ivy-level schools according to friends and relatives who have worked as undergrad Ivy-level admissions staff or volunteers.

  19. Kakalina
    August 18, 2008 at 12:25 pm

    I know we’re focused mostly on the Summer Olympics, but what about Michelle Kwan?

    Oksana Chusovitina rocks! I saw her on vault, and for those who missed her, she was gorgeous! If you have CBC (like Maine does), you can probably catch it, I’ve seen it on that channel about five times now.

    Both Torres and Chusotivina are (were, I’m not sure which…if you’ve finished your competition but the games are still ongoing are you still considered in the Olympics?) in their fifth Olympics. What a great way to pack a punch for the “oldsters” (that’s what a friend refered to them as anyway…). All my parents and their friends were rooting for those two as if there was no tomorrow ^-^

    But my personal favorite is Yoshie Takeshita, she’s the starting Setter for the Japanese Women’s Olympic Voleyball team and she’s 5″3, which is practically unheard of on that level. I keep seeing her scoring “Best Setter” and “Most Valuable Player” Awards at World Cup competitions and stuff, plus she has the nickname “the shortest and best setter in the world”, which is pretty funny ;) She’s also team captain.
    I’m a setter-in-training and 5″4, so she’s the perfect role model for me “`\^0^/“` Unfortunately Japan (men’s and women’s) aren’t doing so well in the Olympics this year, which is odd because they have really really great volleyball in Japan. Hopefully they’ll go back home, train like hell for the next four years and come back strong ^-^

    I also admire the Algerian and Kazahkstan women’s Olympic volleyball teams, it must have been so hard for women growing up in rather oppressive countries (for women at any rate) to play voleyball, and somehow they made it to the Olympics–they must be so strong.

    And since I’m giving a monologue about volleyball, I might as well throw in Logan Tom and Ogonna Nnamami, who were the two youngest players ever to play on the US Women’s volleyball team in 2000 and 2004 respectively, and are the team’s leading spikers.

  20. Kakalina
    August 18, 2008 at 12:26 pm

    Oops–I forgot Jenny Lang Ping ;)

  21. Ren
    August 18, 2008 at 12:35 pm

    Kakalina….I love female sports fans! Yay for us too! I’m busy having sympathy pain and angst for Lui Xiang at the moment (he’s a dude, but still!) And yes, the Japanese women’s volleyball team is TOUGH. They are also a joy to watch, when they do well, they show how happy they are about it without being jerks!

  22. August 18, 2008 at 1:45 pm

    I think the defending Japanese marathoner Mizuki Noguchi had to withdraw this time around. I felt bad for those who were impacted by injuries and still competed too. Paula Radcliffe running a marathon despite losing all of her running time since May with a femoral stress fracture and Deena Kastor out at the 5K mark with a broken foot injury. She had pain in the foot the week before but if you’re a competitor in the final days before a big race, you just hope it will hold out. And Catherine Ndereba when she hit the track at the race’s end, great finish for the silver!

  23. Thlayli
    August 18, 2008 at 5:03 pm

    Jeanne Longo finished fourth in the individual time trial, just missing a medal.

    She is 49.

  24. August 18, 2008 at 5:24 pm

    To me it is not just about women succeeding it is about the diversity of women that are succeeding. Often in the media we are shown white women as the image that all women should seek to imitate. The Olympics provides a myraid of examples for young girls of color and I think that is something that is extremely important, in a society that routinely tells us that we are less than. This are what your sheros look like.

  25. Melloncollie
    August 18, 2008 at 6:06 pm

    I think it’s not that there aren’t any role models but they just don’t get as much press as the women who flash a bit of tits and ass. Bloody media again…

  26. August 18, 2008 at 8:34 pm

    To the roster of sportswomen, I feel compelled to add Ellen MacArthur, until recently record holder for the fastest circumnavigation of the Earth by solo yacht, something most people couldn’t even attempt let alone achieve.

  27. Tlönista
    August 19, 2008 at 4:50 am

    Oh well, if we’re counting the Winter Olympics too, I nominate the entire Canadian women’s hockey team, who have won gold at the past two Games. People were all pissy about the men’s team not even making it onto the podium and not even talking about how the women’s team was PWNING everyone else. Or so it seemed to me. :)

    FIFA World Cup & the Winter Games are the only times when I care about sports, so please forgive my overenthusiasm…

  28. August 19, 2008 at 2:10 pm

    *sniff…I miss FloJo.

    Thanks for the pic!

  29. August 19, 2008 at 5:18 pm

    There are role models for every woman at every stage of our lives. The Beautiful Women Project has thirty five women that are women that I look to for the way that they have met their challenges and carry their experiences. It is so important to recognize that role models, like women, come in all shapes and sizes. Individuals who make it to the world stage are not the only women we should be looking at as role models. There are women who do amazing things every single day that do not get recognized because they live their lives quietly and comfortably, but that does not make them any less spectacular. Take a moment and recognize, and look for, the role models that live right in your community. You may be surprised to find one staring right back at you in the mirror.

  30. August 19, 2008 at 10:57 pm

    I think the entire women’s gymnastics team needs some huge props. Most, if not all, were judged unfairly. And most of the time, it benefited China. I believe there was some serious conspiracy going on there. How could Alicia Sacramone not have won a medal in vault? She should have won bronze, but that went to China. She and Oksana Chusovitina were the only two finalists who didn’t fall on their vaults. How could Nastia Luikin not have won gold in uneven bars? She was nearly flawless and shouldn’t have tied (and the tie-breaker went to — China!). Even Shawn Johnson’s floor exercises were arguably the best of the night (China didn’t medal, but I think Shawn still got screwed). All of them dealt with that unfairness with great sportsmanship. Where’s the gold medal for that?

  31. August 20, 2008 at 12:23 am

    Crystl Bustos of USA softball is my shero. Did y’all see her knock a homerun in extra innings tonight?

    But watch…will she become the next face of softball like Jennie Finch? No.

    Hmm…guess why? So yeah, it’s nice that the women of the Olympics are so amazing and dedicated and talented, but then there’s the reality of the sports world that ignores them and/or over-emphasizes their body parts the rest of the year.

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