Amelia Earhart gave women wings. In 1921 she had her own plane called ‘the canary’ and broke many flying records including being the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic as well as breaking speed records, high-altitude and long-distance records. She lectured, published a book and became president of the 99s (a women’s aviation club).
When she married George Putnam, she described their marriage as a ‘partnership with dual control’. She famously said before attempting to be the first woman to circumnavigate the globe (and dying in the process): ‘I am quite aware of the hazards. I want to do it because I want to do it. Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail, their failure must be but a challenge to others’.
Amelia Earhart did not achieve these heights by doing the usual things women are expected to do in our society (even today). She wasn’t trying to please others, look beautiful, be agreeable or have children to find meaning. She achieved her flying goals for herself. Her life was her own and she insisted on the freedom to live it according to her own rules and standards.
In my work, I find that many people (especially women) spend their lives imprisoned by societal expectations of how women ‘ought’ to behave. Women find themselves trying to please others, seeking approval and constantly subordinating their own needs. For most women, there is barely any time devoted to visualising their own ‘big picture’ future.
Particularly, when I ask older women nearing the end of their lives what they would do differently if they had their time over again – they often say they would live life for themselves and not for others.
It does seem that life goes by in the blink of an eye. Each decade faster than the previous decade, or so it feels subjectively.
It is easy to think there is plenty of time. Easy to become distracted by pressure to conform and behave in accordance with societal expectations.
For women, breaking free of these expectations will involve dismantling the ‘learned’ female over-focus on pleasing others in order to earn their approval.
It also means stopping paying so much attention to our appearance: too fat, too thin, big breasts, small breasts, big eyes, small eyes, flat bum, big bum, bad nose, good nose, high shoes, low shoes, fat hips, thin hips, good legs, bad legs, old face, young face, made-up face, plain face, face-lift, face-sag, low-cut, high-cut, high-waisted, low-waisted, too tall, too short, sexy, ugly, slutty, decent.
Sadly, still today looking ‘beautiful’ seems to be the biggest compliment women can receive. Whole lives can be passed by on this banal focus.
In response, some women periodically try to change the definition of ‘beautiful’. They claim, that ‘it’s your choice if you want to have facial surgery, breast enlargement or liposuction or wear lipstick or stilettos’ or they insist that ‘fat women or black women can be beautiful too!’
The trouble is that while ‘beauty’ remains a sought-after commodity, women remain passive, non-agentic objects to be gazed upon and evaluated on their exquisite or flawed surface value.
Maybe a better solution might be for us women to reject the concept of beauty altogether. Stop giving a toss about what we look like. Refuse to emphasise anything about our looks (ugly or otherwise) and stop crippling ourselves in stiletto heels (like self-imposed foot binding) and start taking our own lives much more seriously. In other words, aim higher.
We could stop relying on our looks to get ahead and to out-compete other women for the scraps, and instead cooperate with other women (like men do) and rely on our wits, skills and perseverance. Using our looks keeps us believing we could not have earned our achievements fair and square and opens us up to the likelihood of more sexual exploitation.
In history, there are often only brief opportunities to effect change. Things can rapidly move forward or regress over-night (note the post COVID-19 world and being suddenly back to the Great Depression).
Women need to start making and writing history right now in equal footing with men while we have this brief window of opportunity. If we women are too busy ‘preening’ ourselves how can we ever expect our lives to be serious and not frivolous and second-rate?
We need to get real, stop chasing social approval and be true to ourselves. Who are we? What do we stand for? Then waste no time in changing our behaviour and being that person in every situation – irrespective of social pressure to do otherwise.