National Geographic: women in the modern world

Bilyana Yordanova discusses the recent National Geographic feature that breaks down anti-feminist stereotypes.

Bilyana Yordanova
18th November 2019
Image: Wikimedia Commons
Today, almost 100 years after American women gained the right the vote and despite the global claim for female empowerment, women continue to face a higher level of discrimination in their work and everyday life than men. Consequently, in order to continue reaching our potential and to achieve new goals in spite of these difficulties, perhaps we should simply look around us for inspiration in other, brilliant women. That is why the latest National Geographic magazine’s issue is important - it is the very first one in which all the involved writers, photographers, artists, and interviewees are women, all of whom will make you rethink what it really means to be a woman in the modern world.

Back in the 20th century, women were represented only as ‘exotic beauties’ (perhaps thanks to the white men behind the camera) though, together with the evolution of the camera, photography culture saw a gradual shift. Yet, photographs remained connected to the traditional archetypes and ideas – women were portrayed mainly as wives, mothers, sisters – confined to outmoded societal roles. In great contrast to this, this issue documents women who went beyond that – who successfully became scientists, social justice warriors, philanthropists, attorneys and many more.

In the culture section of this issue of National Geographic you can find six provocative questions, answered by women with different backgrounds. One of the most remarkable responses is that of Oprah Winfrey, the well-known broadcaster, publisher and entertainer. She responded to the question: ‘what is the greatest hurdle you’ve overcome?’ with ‘the disease to please. It happens when we are not raised to know our own value and our own worth.’

Another provoking question asked was: ‘what advice would you give to young women today?’. Asha de Vos, the only Sri Lankan with a Ph.S. in marine mammal research, asserts that females should try their best to be defined by their capacity and accomplishments rather than by their gender and race: ‘I’m a necessity: the system needs me to help to make changes. I would say to any girl out there, that’s what you want to aim for—to be defined not by your gender but by your capabilities’ asserted de Vos.

‘I’m a necessity: the system needs me to help to make changes. I would say to any girl out there, that’s what you want to aim for—to be defined not by your gender but by your capabilities’

One very interesting perspective is the section labelled ‘women warriors’, which illustrates nine markedly strong and brave women. One of them, Fu Hao, is perhaps the earliest woman warrior in history. Emperor Wu Ding’s wife, she was a courageous military commander in her own right, directing many troops and leading campaigns. It is known that her tomb contained more than 100 weapons.

The story of Jessica Reinschmidt is also significant. When she was six years old, Reinschmidt would often have to wait for her father at the airport. Upon observing the pilots walking through the terminal, she realised she could not count on one hand the number of female pilots. In a stroke of inspiration, she decided to become one, soaring far above stereotypes and social expectations. Forty years later, apart from being a captain for a major airline, she is also among the six percent of pilots who are women. She describes the frequent unpleasant instances she experiences on board, such as a captain thinking she was a passenger, and a flight attendant who refused to work on board after realising the two captains were women. Reinschmidt argues that the key is ‘constantly proving that you know how to fly’- not to herself, but to others, though of course it should not be a necessary workplace chore.

There are many others brilliant stories in this issue that can be defined as a powerful response to female stereotypes. They are a reminder that women are more than a gender, but an external character, comprised of all their battles, goals, capabilities, and achievements. It is vital for society to realise that one can be a mother, wife, sister and a scientist, pilot and even warrior without compromise or discrimination. National Geographic, by using female-focused features, reminds us of this. This month’s issue, full of outstanding sections and vivid examples of strong, successful females, should be read by every woman in the world. Let’s rethink dusty archetypes and antiquated social discourses. The past may not have been female, but our future in an ever-changing world will see strong, modern women as a staple.

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