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Elizabeth Sherman
Scholar

Elizabeth Sherman

Assistant professor of American Politics at American University; founder and former director of the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

A Female Hero

This post is In response to the following question:
As the heroic Capt. Richard Phillips reminded us when he offered himself to the pirates instead of his crew, sea captains, like all good leaders, are expected to sacrifice themselves and their personal interests to protect those under their command. What are other examples from other fields of endeavor of leaders who have succeeded or failed to live up to this obligation? What factors should leaders consider when deciding when and whether to make extraordinary personal sacrifices?
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We naturally think of "heroic leadership" like that of Captain Phillips, someone willing to pay the ultimate price to protect the well-being of those under their command. But this definition of heroism fails to take account of the circumstances of patriarchal societies where most women have lived throughout history.

Only rarely have women been allowed to participate equally with men in warfare or other roles where their leadership might put them in harm's way to protect those in their charge. As we reflect on Capt. Phillips's heroism, then, It's worth remembering an English woman from our colonial history who stood up for her beliefs and in so doing, became an icon for individual rights. Anne (Marbury) Hutchinson (1591-1643) challenged both the Puritan church and the civil authority of Massachusetts to limit the content of religious ideas and the right of individuals to assemble and discuss unsanctioned ideas.

By establishing and leading a religious group (primarily for women, although men were later included), Hutchinson posed a threat to the prevailing culture. Condemned by both church and state courts for her for her unorthodox teachings, (such as her claim that it was "a blessing and not a curse" to be a woman,) she insisted on her right to preach sermons and lead discussions. Banished from the Bay colony, this dangerous "Jezebel" was instrumental in the founding of Rhode Island, a sanctuary of free thought. (The Hutchinson River Parkway in New York bears her name, since she and her family perished violently in that area.) We learn from Hutchinson's courage the price to be paid for holding fast to unpopular and threatening ideas, especially in cultures where beliefs and behaviors are established by religious or civil codes.

The history of America's social movements is full of heroines who risked reputation and social standing to claim the benefits of freedom for themselves, their daughters and all members of their sex. Anne Hutchinson challenged mores that prohibited women from being educated, from speaking their minds, or even from having independent thoughts, much less participating as equals with men in church or civil affairs. Anne Hutchinson and her family paid a dear price for her insistence on stepping out of her place in a legal and moral system severely defined and circumscribed by gender mores.

One might assume that a society based on such onerous constraints on individual thought and action is thankfully far removed from contemporary democratic society. Or is it? Even though "out groups" like Muslims or gays are no longer persecuted in court and banished for their beliefs, there are many situations where their full enjoyment of human liberties and opportunities to enjoy all the rights and privileges of American society remain restricted.

Those with the courage to oppose such marginalization and stereotyping demonstrate the kind of heroism that risks social opprobrium and as Anne Hutchinson found out, that can be a death sentence. She faced the wrath of the most upstanding leaders of her community for holding fast to her belief in gender equality and religious toleration. Fortunately women can still be found today in almost every country of the world following her example, risking all for the right to think, speak and live in freedom.

By Elizabeth Sherman

 |  April 14, 2009; 7:19 AM ET
Category:  Self-Sacrifice Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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