Why are our heroes always men? (On celebrating the every-day courage of women.)

Let’s talk about heroes.

The legislature of the Canadian province where I live has just decided to name our little section of the Trans-Canada Highway the “Highway of Heroes.” And I think that’s a great thing! We should absolutely honor the heroic acts of self-sacrifice that we see all around us every day – acts that we tend to take for granted. We totally need to recognize – and promote – the sort of altruism that is evidenced by someone giving to others with utter selflessness. With no thought of personal gain.

By all means, let us celebrate such heroism!

Where I begin to have a problem with the re-naming of our road, however, is with the narrow way that this legislation – which passed through the legislature unanimously – is opting to define just what a hero is. According to the bill, the only “heroes” we will soon be honoring with these road sign designations are “veterans, soldiers, police, firefighters and other emergency personnel.”

That’s it.

Nobody else.

And to me it seems that this is a pretty one-dimensional – and highly patriarchal – view of just who is a hero.

No problem with honoring traditionally-masculine heroes. Just to be clear, I have no problem with recognizing the heroism and sacrifice that are often required of our “first responders” – our firefighters, paramedics, and police officers – most of whom happen to be men. I still get choked up when I listen to Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising, an album he wrote after the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York City. On that album he has songs that directly honor the firefighters who went up into the Twin Towers to rescue people and to try to extinguish the flames. Over 300 firefighters died that day, as did 60 police officers. And I sometimes tear up when I hear the song “Into the Fire,” a tune that memorializes the brave firefighters who climbed ever higher into those flaming towers… climbing to their death:

It was dark, too dark to see.

You held me in the light you gave.
You lay your hand on me,
Then walked into the darkness of your smoky grave.
Up the stairs, into the fire…

I need your kiss

But love and duty called you someplace higher

Somewhere up the stairs, into the fire…

We so need to honor the sacrifice of our brave first responders.

Honoring service to country. I also think we need to recognize those in the military who give their lives in the service of their country. Whether or not we totally agree with the conflict in which they are engaged, they are still making the ultimate sacrifice. I had a family member who saw combat in the first Gulf War. It was terrifying to have him in harm’s way. Fortunately he made it home. But many do not. And I absolutely think their sacrifice needs to be honored.

Of late Canada has been much better about this than has the USA. While the George W. Bush administration had a policy of not allowing any media coverage of the bodies of US soldiers being sent back from Iraq, Canadians have been much more honoring of their war dead returning from Afghanistan. There is a 100 mile stretch of road in Ontario on which the repatriated bodies of soldiers are transported from a military base to the coroner’s office. Alongside that road, members of law enforcement, firefighters, and every-day people stand at attention as these funereal convoys pass by. You can see admiring U.S. media coverage of this Canadian tribute here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n1R8qLAmkLU.

But what about the women? Women firefighters, police officers, and soldiers also lose their lives in the line of duty. And we honor their sacrifice as well – just as we do with the men. But the reality is that the majority of the people who serve – and die – in the role of soldier or first responder are men.

What of the bravery of women who fulfill in other roles – of women who show incredible courage in intervening in extremely dangerous situations? Are they not heroes as well?

What about women like Keshia Thomas? Thomas, an African-American woman who in 1996, as an 18 year-old high school student, attended a counter-protest against a KKK rally that was occurring in Ann Arbor, Michigan. At that protest she saw a white man – a man who was wearing a vest bearing the “Stars and Bars” (the Confederate battle flag), and whose shoulder bore a tattoo of the emblem of the feared “SS” – the Nazi Schutzstaffel, Hitler’s vicious paramilitary organization that was responsible for so many crimes against humanity during WWII.

This man got into a scuffle with people who were there to protest the KKK. He was knocked to the ground, and no doubt would have been badly beaten, except for the actions of Keshia Thomas, who stopped the attack on this white supremacist man by quickly throwing her body down on top of him. Protecting this man was not her job. No one ordered to do it. She simply did it because it was the right thing to do. She threw her body down – a body this man no doubt would have despised simply because she was black.

This young African-American woman risked her own physical safety in order to protect a white supremacist.

“He is still somebody’s child,” she said later, explaining why she did what she did.

I think Keshia Thomas deserves a sign on the highway honoring her, too.

Singing to the children while the bullets fly. And what about Martha Rivera, a kindergarten teacher in Monterey, Mexico, who in 2011 kept her class of kindergarten children safe and calm as bullets flew right outside of her classroom? As five people in the street were being assassinated in an eruption of drug violence, Rivera had the children lie on the floor, and she sang to them a song about “if raindrops were made of chocolate.” You can find the video of that horrific day here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kJ4WSedngt0.

And here is a translation of what she said as she and kids all lay on the floor of the classroom:

Yes, sweetie, everyone on the floor. Little ones... what? What, sweetheart? No, nothing's happening love, just put your little faces on the floor... with your... sweeties, put your little faces on the floor. Nothing is the matter, nothing is going to happen to us, just don't get up please. We are going to sing a song! We're going to sing... I know which one! Yes! “If rain drops were made of chocolate, I would love to be there…” Who wants chocolate?

Martha Rivera kept those little ones alive as the adults outside were murdering each other.

I think Martha Rivera deserves a sign on the highway honoring her, too.

Honoring every-day heroism. But let’s not only honor the acts of women who do incredible things in a time of crisis. Let us also honor women who perform acts of heroism every day.

Let us honor the elementary school teacher who every day greets a classroom full of little ones with a smile, and who works so hard to get the kids – some of whom have had nothing to eat because the cupboards at home are bare – to learn to read and to write and to do math so that they can get off to a good start in life. She deserves a sign on the highway honoring her, too.

Let us honor the nurse who cares for us in our weakest moments so that we will heal, so that we will get better. And also let us honor the nurse who works in palliative care, who helps ensure that we will not have to face our last moments on this earth alone and in pain. She deserves a sign on the highway honoring her, too.

Let us honor the brave rape crisis center volunteer who answers a call in the middle of the night and who leaves the safety of her own home to head to the hospital emergency department to lend courage to a woman (or sometimes a man) who has just been terribly violated in the most intimate and painful of ways. This brave volunteer deserves a sign on the highway honoring her, too.

Let us honor the brave women’s shelter volunteer who accompanies a bruised and battered woman to the courthouse to request a restraining order, and who soothes the woman’s crying baby as the judge hears the woman’s story and decides whether or not to offer her protection. This brave volunteer deserves a sign on the highway honoring her, too.

And let us honor the brave struggle of the woman who is raped, who is assaulted, who is beaten, and yet still somehow finds a way to pick herself up and go on. Who finds a way to heal from the wounds, first just to survive, and ultimately to thrive. She deserves a sign on the highway honoring her, too.

Let us honor the underpaid and overworked daycare teacher who holds our little ones when they cry. Who calms them and reassures them and assumes total responsibility for their health and safety while we are off doing other things. She deserves a sign on the highway honoring her, too.

Let us honor the single mother who is dedicating every moment of her personal and professional life to support her children. She deserves a sign on the highway honoring her, too.

Let us honor the grandmother who is raising her grandkids because her own daughter or son is unable to do so. This grandma-mom deserves a sign on the highway honoring her, too.

Let us honor the strong women who in so many communities are stepping up into leadership positions (both formal and informal) because the men are incapacitated, incarcerated, or absent. These women are looking out for the wellbeing the next generations. They deserve a sign on the highway honoring them, too.

Let us honor any woman who is stepping into a leadership position anywhere. She is a trailblazer who is ensuring that women (who represent over one-half of the world’s population) will finally be able to take their rightful place at the table. This female leader is slowly changing the face of leadership, and the way that power gets expressed and used. She deserves a sign on the highway honoring her, too.

And let us honor every woman who has ever given birth. To her sacrifice we owe the very survival of our species. She deserves a sign on the highway honoring her, too.

And let us honor every woman who has ever made the difficult decision to not bring a baby into this world – or to give that baby away – because she knew that she could not adequately care for that helpless little soul. These are both selfless acts. And those women deserve a sign by the highway honoring them, too.

If not road signs, then at least in our hearts. Ok, so the provincial legislature probably isn’t going to put up signs honoring all of these women. But even if we don’t see these women graphically represented on our new “Highway of Heroes,” let us at least keep them in our hearts. Let us remember that there are women all around us who are committing acts of great personal heroism – every day.

By all means let us honor heroes. But let’s just make sure that our definition of hero is broad enough so that it is not just limited to roles that are overwhelmingly occupied by men. Bruce Springsteen sings about brave male firefighters climbing up to their death. But another singer, Mary-Chapin Carpenter, in her song “Family Hands,” sings about the chain of women whom we all have in our past. Women who passed down to us their love, their caring, and their skill in raising up the next generations. These are the women who raised those brave men that Springsteen sings about. These are the women who, through the generations, have raised us all. Carpenter sings:

And a rich man you might never be, they'd love you just the same
They've handed down so much to you besides your Christian name
And the spoken word won't heal you like the laying on of hands
Belonging to the ones who raised you to a man

Raised by the women who are stronger than you know
A patchwork quilt of memory only women could have sewn
The threads were stitched by family hands, protected from the moth
By your mother...and her mother, the weavers of your cloth.

Yes, by all means, let’s talk about heroes.