What is a heroine?

In my course in Conflict Transformation & Social Justice at Queen’s University, Belfast, and in all of my travels around Europe, I am focusing, broadly, on women. I am consciously examining everything that I read and see through a gendered lens. This process is purposeful, primarily because it is interesting to me to better understand the role of gender in every aspect of life. My research also benefits from this gendered lens: I am researching the complex roles of women as both victims and perpetrators of violence during the conflict in Northern Ireland.

As I have traveled and read and researched, I have primarily focused on ‘misbehaved’ women. By that I mean, women who in one way or another do not live up to their society’s or community’s expectations or adhere to their restrictions. Sometimes this takes the form of being a violent woman; sometimes this means that the woman in question has somehow failed to be a proper mother; sometimes this means that the woman is defying conventional gender norms by becoming a successful scientist in the 1800s. The quality that all of these women have in common is that they disobeyed social norms about how to behave as a woman specifically, not just as a human being.

I love learning about how people of the present (us) represent these women of the past. My favorite women are the ones who are considered rebellious, who are considered ‘misbehaved’ by their communities and by their time, but who I would consider a heroine, a hero. I love when the boundaries between being misbehaved and being a heroine are blurred, and when being one might automatically qualify you to be the other.

For example: Princess Theresa of Bavaria. Theresa was a princess of Bavaria in the 1800s. She was a zoologist and botanist and she traveled extensively to Africa, North and South America, and throughout Europe collecting specimens. In 1892, she became the first and to date only woman admitted to the Bavarian Academy of Sciences and Humanities. According to the Museum Der Bayerischen Konige, today, a bust of Theresa can be visited at Munich’s Hall of Fame (Ruhmeshalle). This bust is one of only four women among more than one hundred men.

Theresa clearly was an incredible woman. But she was, in her time, considered a ‘misbehaved’ woman. She was criticized for her scientific interests even as she was rewarded for her research and contributions to science, because women were not supposed to become intellectuals (not even princesses).

So Theresa falls into two categories allegedly on opposite sides of the spectrum: she is both a misbehaved woman and a heroine. How can this be possible?

What is a heroine? Today’s heroines – in movies, television, books, and real-life – often fit similar criteria as Theresa of Bavaria. If a woman is a rebel, disobeying societal expectations for women’s behavior, she is often lauded as a heroine. But are there other ways for women to be heroes?

Surely there are, but all of the heroines I have come across in my travels and in my research so far have two things in common:

  1. They were criticized heavily by one group of people for their actions because those actions disobeyed society’s expectations for how women are supposed to behave [they were ‘misbehaved’ women]
  2. They have been praised by another group, sometimes displaced from the first by hundreds of years, for those very actions because of the bravery, strength, and resilience required to perform them [they became heroines because they were ‘misbehaved’]

Obviously, this blog post is not nearly long enough for me to thoroughly explore the topic of “what is a heroine?” – and thus I plan to continue to explore the relationship between misbehavior and becoming a heroine during my remaining months in Northern Ireland.


Further information on:

Theresa of Bavaria

  1. Wikipedia page on Princess Theresa of Bavaria
  2. Further information available at the German National Library

Misbehaved Women/Misbehaving Women

  1. The Importance of Women Misbehaving
  2. Misbehaving Women and the History They Made Over the Ages
This entry was posted in Class of 2015, Conflict Resolution, Northern Ireland, Queen's University Belfast, Travels in Europe and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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