The perceived need for strong female role models

The other day, I re-watched one of my favourite childhood films.


I was reminded of it by this tweet from Labour blogger Sadie Smith.

Fortunately, Sadie is, of course, completely and utterly wrong. It’s wonderful – probably still the best war film I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen most of them. It doesn’t have the scale of Apocalypse Now, the pathos of The Great Escape or the special effects of many modern efforts, but it has an intimacy, a suspense and a set-piece scariness which thrilled me to bits as a child.

I still feel echoes of that now, like when the Zulus crest the hill for the first time, tiny black dots against the veldt sky, to the shiver of violin strings, and the camera ranges along the hill to show more… and more… and more of them. In fact the photography throughout is just masterful. You can taste the agoraphobia and the fear – you are there, on that plain with the 24th Foot, behind a few feet of mealie bags, waiting.

bourne, hitch and allen


It stars Michael Caine in his breakthrough role, the wonderful Nigel Green whose Colour Sergeant Bourne (above left) will live in your pub quote memory for ever (“No com-edians, please.”) and the vastly under-rated James Booth as the devilishly exciting (well, I was six and he said “bloody!”) Private Henry Hook. It has a wonderful ensemble supporting cast of ordinary gentle-voiced Welshmen and Londoners with sideburns that really do look as if they’ve been shipped out from the valleys and dock wharves of nineteenth-century Britain. More marvellous yet (I only discovered this quite recently) it has the real descendant of the Zulu king of the day, Cetewayo, playing the role of his ancestor and leading his own people, in full traditional ceremonial dress, in the battle scenes.

And it has the great Jack Hawkins, roaring across the screen like a biblical allegory – which he is – in the role of the missionary Otto Witt, treating peace with the aid of his daughter, the only female speaking part in the film. The daughter Margareta, who seemed to me unimaginably beautiful then and still does, was yet another way into the film for my six-year-old self. Yes I wanted to be raffish Henry Hook, capable Sergeant Bourne, and strong, silent Lieutenant Chard, I could feel the fearful lump in the throat of Private Cole and hold my breath as I broke out of the hospital with Hook, 612 Williams, 593 Jones and 716 Jones, yards ahead of our pursuers. And I could also feel Margareta’s discomfort as she, a nineteenth-century pastor’s daughter, sat among six-foot half-naked warriors with assegais, watching a mass marriage tribal dance. Still physically vulnerable myself, I felt  every pounding of her heart as the war cries started to go up over her head.

Now, it’s not that I’ve not seen it since I was six – no bank holiday weekend in Sidney Sussex TV room was complete without a Zulu-and-Haribo session – but watching that film after a couple of years spent in the political blogosphere is a very different experience. I realised how this film would look to the gender activism mindset I was barely aware of before the blogosphere. The only woman character is afraid, sometimes ineffectual, even subject to abuse at the hands of the men. Margareta has plenty of spirit at times, but she’s also priggish and in the end is simply overcome by brute strength. All is not lost, as she ends up being the means of her father’s salvation – but still the film is chockful of more appealing characters than her.

So why was I never offended, or troubled, or otherwise culturally damaged by this? Well, I had a bit of an odd upbringing culturally. I think it can be traced to the fact that my grandfather was born in 1910 and only had my father when he was forty. So my father’s upbringing was a little bit more Boy’s Own Paper, a bit more 1930s than perhaps was normal. And mine, in turn, was in some ways more 1960s than 1980s in terms of what I watched, what I read, what we talked about. Without being, particularly, a tomboy, I loved history and adventure and escapades and scrapes and exciting stories, on the page or in celluloid, and if there wasn’t any around I’d make up my own (and wars with My Little Ponies are a bit of a stretch, I can tell you; luckily I soon acquired a small brother who appeared to come with lots of Cowboy Playmobil and Pirate Lego and that was much easier).

In other words, all my favourite role models and stories from that time were to do with men and you know what? I think it has worked. It never occurred to me to differentiate the role models  I was offered on the basis gender, and in thirty years I realise I never have.

I loved Zulu, so I aspired to be brave and honourable. I loved the Goons and Spike Milligan’s War Diaries, so I aspired to be funny.  I loved reading war stories – biographies of Douglas Bader, various POW camp escape stories, Colditz – so I aspired to be ingenious and resourceful, and battle against odds. At eight or nine I read an old Josephine Tay novel, the Daughter of Time, and my love of medieval history was born, so I aspired to go to Oxford or Cambridge to study it, and I did, I went to both. My role models had never intimated  to me that I couldn’t aspire to do anything I wanted, and I didn’t know women weren’t supposed to get firsts, so I got a first. None of the usual barriers, none of the usual doubts that women are supposed to possess ever seemed to apply to me. I had a permanent psychological get out of jail free card.

What alchemy of genetics and nurture allowed me to absorb all these male influences and strive to match them, and often succeed, without my at any point being undermined by a great wash of hormonal self-doubt? The same wash that causes so many women to demand female role models before they, or their daughters, can do anything? We are constantly being told that politics needs more female role models. What is it about me that doesn’t need specifically female role models if so many others apparently do? I wish I knew. If I did, I could bottle it and sell it. Oh, I have self-doubt like everybody else, and went through the usual teenage angst like everybody else. But there’s nothing uniquely female about any of that.

I think background and schooling had a lot to do with it. The pure statistical fact of being born in Surrey, even if not to a wealthy family, immunises you to a lot of life’s woes, sad to say, and I went to an all-girls’ state school whose teaching and management was, in retrospect, little short of magnificent. And there were role models there too – a fantastic and lovely history teacher, the elegant headmistress and wooden boards in the hall full of the names of previous gels. And all that seemed to jumble itself up with Spike Milligan and Stalag Luft III just fine.

The funny thing is that the more I read about feminism, the more I recognise its earliest progenitors as twin souls of my own – writing liberal tracts, bashing windows in, reading papers to the Royal Society, flying the English Channel and running country estates without it ever crossing their minds that they needed anyone to show them how to do it. They didn’t need female role models – they got on with being them. They didn’t need a “safe space” for their activities or their debates – the world was their space. They grew up, interestingly, in exactly the age of over-confident empire whose frontier badlands are invoked by Zulu.

So now, lucky me, when I look at the Lib Dem parliamentary party, I get so many more role models to choose from. I want to be like Chris Huhne, because he’s a right fierce and effective wossname and I reckon I could do with being a little more like that. I want to be like Vince, because honestly who doesn’t? I want to be like Nick because he’s an eternal optimist and a tryer, and quitting too soon is one of my worst failings. I want to be like Steve Webb, because he’s clever and impassioned and reminds me of some of my tutors, I want to be like Lynne Featherstone because she’s just so capable and self-assured and glamorous and reminds me of CJ Cregg in the West Wing, I want to be like David Howarth because he’s brilliant and forensic, I want to be like Norman Baker because he’s One of the Good Guys and like John Hemmings because he is the King of all the Geeks.

It seems strange to me, the idea that I can only be inspired, or confirmed, or protected in any endeavour if someone else with the same genital configuration has already done it. The whole rich panoply of human courage, and kindness, and greatness to choose from, and you cut out the half that’s been, for various historical reasons, most active for the last several millenia? What on earth is wrong with women having men as role models? People of both genders have wonderful qualities and have achieved wonderful things and they’re all there for study and emulation. Isn’t the whole luxury of living in a post-feminist world that we can do this now?

If I ever have daughters, I’ll be showing them Zulu.



  1. Yes! Well said, Alix. I share much of the same outlook, and never felt constrained to look only to role models of my own gender.

    I don’t share the Surrey background or the all-girls schooling (though I did end up at Cambridge), but I did have parents who encouraged me to believe I could achieve whatever I set my mind to do.

    And though I’m SO much older than you (my father was born in 1929 and I in 1958), that means his upbringing too was 1930s and mine 1960s.

    My reading was predominantly encyclopaedias, but I also remember “100 Great Lives” which I read over and over again – perhaps reading biographies encourages aspiration? Do children do that any more?

    And I too read and adored The Daughter of Time; such a great book.

  2. Oh thank you Alix – thank you!

    Every so often I get the strange feeling that it’s just me being curmudgeonly in not considering it to be an issue whether my daughter prefers Snow White (frilly pink princess), Mary Poppins (capable and authoritative maternal figure) or Jack the Pumpkin King ( … ) or anyone else.

    I’ve always thought the issue isn’t which role models she chooses to identify with, but rather the fact that she chooses to identify with a positive role model, whatever their gender and whatever their strengths. I don’t get to pick and choose who she wants to be. I got quite irritated with the ‘Pink Stinks’ thing recently, because they pretend to be trying to empower girls whilst really they’re trying to impose some kind of ‘negative conformity’. As you say, there’s no reason why a person needs to be that same sex in order to be a role model.

    I’ve never quite got round to watching Zulu myself – though I’m sure I will eventually get round to it. I’m just hoping my little girl enjoys Star Wars… 🙂

  3. Well put. Next you’ll be saying white people can learn from black role models…

    And isn’t a bit silly to set about creating good role models, anyway? I think good politics will have good role models, naturally; if there aren’t good role models to be found, something more fundamental needs fixing. (Possible analogy: You can’t walk on to a football pitch, say ‘I will be great!’ and expect to win, because the the people who practised throwing and kicking and tackling will be better than you.)

    Tangentially, btw, that bit when they start singing ‘Men of Harlech’ is gold. For two minutes, every time, I feel so Welsh.

  4. Chard: “Do you think the Welsh can do better than that, Owen?”

    Owen: “Well, they’ve got a very good bass section, but no top tenors – that’s for sure.”

  5. Hmm….this is a far more complexed issue that can’t be dealt with effectively in one small-ish article.

    I also loved Zulu, the atmosphere but realised it was very male and testosterone filled at a young age-as well as being perplexed at to why they wanted to take the Zulu’s rightful land?….I wanted to be Che Guevera because I empathised with that need to seek justice for greater good but noticed there was a lot of posturing..

    I think the bottom line is that there are less people like you (possibly 30%) of society and more people who desperately need to look up to someone who looks like them-physically in terms of sex and race and who acts like them-socio-economical in terms of class and money.

    This was one of the obvious and glaring reasons for the success of Jade Goody, how long could that large percentage of working class Britain who are consistenly ignored, not seek a person they could look up to me or empathise with?

    I mean the rise and phenomena of celebrities within our cultural society says it all. The shift of cultural power from the scholars and scientists now crudely lie in the hands of the gutter press and attention celeb whores.

    But why?

    Because everyone needs, wants to be recognised. People inherently seek a role model in order to further their development emotionally and socially.

    So it is important for female role models even if people like you and me had the original thought or independent emotional persuasion to carve out our destinies, irregardless of the obstacles.

    This is what the Lib party don’t seem to realise. It shows a strong lack of emotional intelligence which comes with people with high intergerative complexity.

    I volunteer as a mentor in a really deprived area to a few 8 year old kids who some are clearly being abused and some are apathetic because all they see out of their bedroom window is a concrete wall.

    I personally try with the girls to instill some kind of ambition because I know they’ll just turn out like their mum, sisters or older friends with a bun in the oven by the age of 14..

    And before one assumes they want this life? They don’t…these kids are so bright, they’re inspiring me.

    So please, more female role models.

    1. “This is what the Lib party don’t seem to realise. It shows a strong lack of emotional intelligence which comes with people with high intergerative complexity”.

      Exactly – the tendency for Lib Dems to believe that just because it’s the policies that count for them, that everybody feels like that drives me mad!!

      My Mum, who now that she’s retired and has the time, reads the paper from cover to cover EVERY day, has decided all her life who to vote for on the basis of how she feels on polling day. Not my cup of tea, to be honest but I suspect there’s more people like her than there are like me – hence the success of political marketing and narratives.

  6. I never understood how it was possible to magic up role models on political demand anyway.

    I don’t need someone to show me that something’s possible before trying something 😉

  7. oi Charlotte, you broke the universal love-in before I could!

    Personally I’m against all role-models as it sets a false standard which is impossible to live up to.

    Everybody’s human and flawed so no role model will ever live up to the expectations they created in your imagination.

    Me, I say: decide what’s good and what’s bad and learn why; how happy your life is is a reflection of how well you learnt that lesson and applied it to everything you do.

  8. Fascinating- wthout wanting to sound like I’m moaning or owt, my upbringing was quite different to yours as the whole culture I grew up in was one in which people thought little of themselves &, in particular, are all convinced that they’re stupid: a lot of very bright & capable people go through life doing nothing whatsoever because they have such low horizons.

    It seeps into your soul- & is, in my view, something which needs to be combated. We should all have some of this southern approach of life being there for the taking rather than simply having to endure whatever “they” inflict on us.

    You might have noticed that I actually give away some of those tics- such as not being all that articulate face to face for fear of being browbeaten by someone or appearing ridiculous- even though my rational mind knows that is not going to happen & wouldn’t.

    Yes- culture is important- but culture changes, doesn’t it? Think what our culture was 100 years ago, bearing next to no resemblance to today’s world. Who knows what Arab countries will be like in 50 years? & so on, we should be demanding a new tone in culture & society as well as in politics & the law. It is all part of life.

    1. Of bloody course.

      It’s soo fucking lazy to assume just because you have the same cars or houses you are ALL alike.

      I spent my WHOLE in private education and have never met the most dumb and unimaginative people in my life…but then I started doing voluntary work etc…and wow…how shocked was I! And I’ll admit it!

      I have this one kid I am mentoring who wants to be a Vet, well, I told HER she should look into cause she likes animals and since then…she’s being getting ‘star’ of the classroom..which was the opp which was why I was brought in…

      Un-tapped talent!

      Short sightedness is a redundant.

    2. I’m guessing I grew up in a similar environment to yourself and, whilst I was someone who could identify with male role models I could see that this definitely wasn’t the norm and to be honest, would have quite liked some female role models. I have no idea how to create/who is one though, I’d take anyone over Jade Goody but I can’t think of anyone from the same background who I would consider a role model, any ideas?

  9. @ Charlotte

    “I don’t need someone to show me that something’s possible before trying something”

    Good for you!

    So erm, what do we do about that population of inbreds who have Baby P mummy and daddy as role models??


    Lets see? Do I want to get stabbed whilst I’m walking at 8pm in Camden after a meeting with friends by a Baby P who grew up to be a ickle little bad girl…OR do I want to do ethnographic, quantitative and qualitative research about WHY ‘bad girl’ wants to stab me??

    Common sense or Ego sense?

    I choose common sense.

    We live in a world were I want to see role models magically created on demand!

  10. “It never occurred to me to differentiate the role models I was offered on the basis gender”

    * inserts an “of” and then agrees heartily *

    My role models as a child were Rumpole, David Attenborough, and Brian May. And my dad, obviously, who combines elements of all three, but sadly doesn’t play guitar (he has Brian’s curly hair).

  11. Zulu is one of my favourite Christmas films. Despite the fact that in a number of ways it is historically inaccurate. Not anywhere as bad as “Braveheart” “Titanic” or Errol Flynn movies, but still with enough things to make one be a little careful. Chard probably learned the techniques of fortification from Colonel Jeremy Taylor Marsh RE at Chatham. Also, remember that Henry Hook knew Lenin.

    1. Noo! I just wiki’d him and couldn’t find that – where did you read that? (Other random factoids thereby gleaned: he was in reality a model soldier and probably a teetotaller, and he worked at the British Museum and lived in Sarf London. Who knew?)

  12. Naughty Girl watching Film’s with men that have Handle Bar Moustaches! 😆

    Have you seen carry on up the Kyber? 🙂

    I have not been up the Kyber Pass recently but am itching to get my passport stamped! 😀

  13. @ Charlotte, well don’t go into politics, cause unfortunately it’s not that sweet and easy…to have your singular opinions..

    But at least you are honest…

    Fair play. 🙂


    Carry On films were great and had charm, like Zulu…

  14. Heh @rantersparadise. I concur – please don’t try and represent other people’s opinions by going into politics then Charlotte, because you’ll fail miserably if you can’t even be bothered to see from someone else’s POV.

  15. You know, if I were Charlotte (and I’m not, sadly, I envy her her crowd of enraptured fanboys) a bunch of self-aggrandising MEN who are telling me to take the speck out of my eye when they have ruddy great planks in their own would be just the spur I would need to urge me on to evening the gender balance of politics a bit.

    It’s a good job I’m not Charlotte.

  16. Children, children!

    Coming back to this late, but just to say thanks especially to Lorna and Jennie – good to know one isn’t a total weirdo ;-D I am semi-serious about the “bottling it and selling it” bit, by the way – if only I could properly distil what makes me like this and find a way to put it across, maybe it could help other women/girls who don’t feel particularly helped by the exclusively female role model mode of thought. A thousand flowers, and all that.

    RantersP, you’re right that something like working with deprived kids needs a whole different set of thoughts applied to it. I was talking here (not all that clearly, I guess) about political role models specifically.

    And Stuart, I bet your daughter is v v cool (although I am now slightly paranoid about launching on future such tirades; little did I know that people might be absorbing parental lessons from them…)

  17. you’ll fail miserably if you can’t even be bothered to see from someone else’s POV.

    um, well, you can’t either. What with not, you know, being them.

  18. As for what everyone else has said – yeah, whatever.

    Personally, I love ‘Zulu’. I still love it. Comment no. 4 brought me out in goose-bumps.

    What Alix says, in effect, ‘against’ the film is entirely fair. The meta-text, though, more than makes up for that.

    To me, anyway, this is a film where people encounter ‘the other’, they find it’s pretty damned formidable, they resist it, they respect it, and ultimately, there’s a strong sense of ‘fair fight – we respect you, you respect us’. Okay, there’s a lot of killing – but back in the real world, that’s what conflict is often about. What I love about ‘Zulu” is that race, difference, whatever are ultimately dissolved, being seen as nothing compared with courage, persistence and resolution. The racists in ‘Zulu’ all end up looking like morons. Bravery is what counts – not skin colour. Oh, and it has the best sound track of almost any film, ever.

    Oddly, my four-year old son was at school this week, and ‘topic’ was South Africa’. ‘That’s where the Zulus are’ said my son. I thought this was very good comment.

  19. Whilst I would argue with your choice of politics, I cannot find fault with your choice of favourite film. Filmed at the very location where the Battle of Rorke’s Drift was fought, and also being the place where no less than seven V.C.’s were won for acts of extreme courage, it is indeed a fitting tribute to the brave men of both sides!

    I have been to that blood-soaked field, and the shadows still whisper of the deeds of that day. The Action was leapt upon by the British Press to present an atonement of sorts for the preceding massacre of Isandlwhana, where an entire column of some 1700 soldiers were slaughtered by some 20,000 Zulus, despite the spears of the Zulu being matched by the most modern weaponry available.

    My congratulations on your taste in film, and the very best of luck.

  20. The ‘perceived’ need for female role models?

    Well, you may not feel you need them but then some people do. Personally I prefer a mix of all sorts of role models but I do really, really value strong female role models – particularly when it comes to women who do well in a man’s world, without losing sight of their well, femaleness!

    So Margaret Thatcher I do not find a particularly helpful female role model but Janet Street-Porter – oh yes!

    Male role models are all very well but there’s a limit to what you can learn from their journey through life because, as good and exciting as they may be, they will not have suffered the same barriers to achievement that I, or many other woman might have done.

    And when I think of my own identity, being a woman is a very important part of that identity. I would never swap being a woman for being a man, no matter that I earn less, have less of a chance of making it to the top, am taken less seriously and continuously patronised and underestimated, even though I’m heading towards 40, by men, young and old as a result.

    I’m very much a nurture rather than nature kind of person but I really value many traditionally feminine traits jut as I recognise masculine traits in myself.

    When I look for a female role model, I’m not assuming that I will be just like them, just because we’re the same gender but that they will have experienced things in life that women experience more than men.

    In my professional work I am competing at quite high income and power levels with men and frankly it’s bloody hard work – not because I’m not up to the job but I do feel like I have to be one of the best to get included at all – I can’t afford to be mediocre, as a woman.

    There are not many women of my age and ‘level’ doing what I do which is pretty senior level interim transformational change and programme management – the lack of women is particularly acute in the interim market. In fact, although I know there are other women out there but I’ve never actually worked with them.

    There’s certainly very, very few who have managed to combine this ‘so called success’ with a balanced family life or in fact any family at all.

    I am desperate for role models of that kind – just to make me feel it’s possible, possible not for the 50 year old guy whose wife looks after the whole family whilst he works away and only comes home at the weekend, of whom there are plenty in my line of work, but for someone like me.

    There may be lots of potential male role models but then but they didn’t have to meet the challenges that I am trying to and are therefore of limited use.

    And if I feel that way, near 40 and the sort of person who spends a lot of time thinking about these things then I guess 5 year old kids, or 13 year old girls from vulnerable backgrounds might feel it too.

    This is a very long comment and I might go and turn it into a blog as there’s more to say but then again, I might actually go and do what I’m supposed to be doing instead!


  21. Isn’t it better to decide to be a role model?

    Is it possible that Jo Christie-Smith is actually the first Jo Christie-Smith and not the bastard spawn of Janet Street-Porter and Margaret Thatcher (a much more attractive proposition if you ask me, much as each have their own strengths)?

  22. Molly Ivins and Ann Richards are two of the most effective political role models yet in American society for women.

    Palin has potential as does Hillary; neither has yet made the grade.

    When one thinks of the courage and attributes of our fore-mothers, and grandmothers, we would yet not have suffrage if it had not been for those courageous loud-mouths who made it possible, even if only for their bitching bonanzas.

    Women should learn something from the civil rights era, and Jesse Jackson; without trying, they’ll get nowhere. The ability to generate social and political success has never been anything except making waves in the ocean of patriarchal proselytizing.

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