As a young girl who aspired to greatness, I couldn’t think of too many people I’d rather be than Bat Girl. Bat Girl had a cool outfit and rode a bike and beat up bad guys. But I was always conscious that she was living in Batman’s shadow, following a path he’d already trodden.
Wonder Woman was my other favourite. She wasn’t following in anyone else’s footsteps, or being a slightly less powerful version of a male hero. She was a hero in her own right.
It used to frustrate me that there was such a dearth of female heroes. I loved that Princess Leia was strong and heroic, smarter than both Han and Luke, but she was still a victim, held prisoner by Darth Vader, needing to be rescued.
I became increasingly aware of the lack of women in public life. I remember one Saturday, my sister and I were making a mix tape of songs from the radio, and pretending to be DJs, recording chat and making announcements between each song. For a brief period in the late 70s/early 80s I thought I might like to work on radio when I grew up, but, as my sister pointed out to me, there were no female announcers on the radio, just men. We wondered why that was, and concluded that mens voices just sound more convincing than women’s. A high pitched female voice on the radio would sound silly. Or so we thought, having never heard a woman on the radio.
It was around that time that Deborah Lawrie was the first woman to make a commercial flight in Australia. This was after a prolonged sex discrimination case against Ansett Airlines. My uncle was a pilot for Ansett so my family paid close attention whenever they were in the news. I remember Ansett arguing it would not be safe for a woman to fly commercially, especially if she were having her period. I was delighted when she won her case.
We often hear the expression ‘It’s a man’s world’. That was certainly true when I was growing up. No one was TELLING me it was a man’s world, but it was apparent, even to a 7 year old child that there were opportunities and paths available to men that were closed to me, simply because of my femaleness. The lack of female role models made some careers seem impossible or absurd.
I started high school at a time when a poster campaign aimed at breaking these barriers was running. On classroom walls and corridors all around our school were posters of women in jobs typically considered to be men’s work. The two I remember most clearly were the car mechanic and the scientist. They all bore the simple message “Girls Can Do Anything”.
It was a simple campaign, but for us it was powerful. Until then, we hadn’t been aware of anyone challenging the norms of what women could do. The feminist movement had of course been happening for years, but as Year 7 students, we were oblivious to all that.
My friends and I weren’t sure that we wanted to be mechanics, but we liked that the posters suggested that we could. We felt stronger when we saw them. We loved that they challenged the way things were. They gave us hope that maybe being female wouldn’t stop us doing what we wanted. And of course, when the character Charlene, who happened to be a mechanic appeared on neighbours, we felt elated. Barriers were being broken all over the place.
A simple poster campaign made a difference to my friends and I, in a time when there were few female role models in public life, in literature or on television. While women have come a long way (and still have a long way to go), there are still many marginalised children in Australia growing up in an environment which tells them, through the absence of representation, that they can’t aspire to greater things.
How often do we share literature that features people with disabilities or diverse genders, or from diverse backgrounds? How often do we feature their stories in our history lessons?We need to be challenging the absence of role models, and actively seeking out texts and role models that represent the diversity of our student populations.For schools to be truly inclusive we must examine not just what we teach, but what we leave out, and who we ignore. We owe it to our students to show them that there is a place for them in this world, that they can participate fully and aspire to whatever it is they wish.