By Peggy F. Drexler
Wednesday, April 3, 2002
As the remains of two women heroes are unearthed at the World Trade Center site, Peggy F. Drexler considers the changing face--and gender--of heroism.
(WOMENSENEWS)--It was another poignant story in the never-ending saga of discovery and grief at the World Trade Center: On March 20, the badge and shield of Officer Moira Smith, the only female New York City Police officer to die in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, were found with her remains at Ground Zero.
The month before, workers at the site uncovered a fragment of blue uniform, which led them to the body of Port Authority Police Capt. Kathy Mazza, one of five Port Authority police officers killed in the collapse of One World Trade Center.
Both women showed remarkable acts of courage that day, as witness accounts and photographs attest.
The commander of the Port Authority's police academy, Mazza is said to have used her handgun to blast through glass doors as she helped lead her team from the 29th floor of One World Trade Center to the building's lobby. She and her fellow officers died attempting to carry a woman out of the building.
Smith was photographed on Sept. 11 leading an injured man out of the World Trade Center and into safety; moments later she ran back into South Tower, only to be killed when it collapsed.
At a time when men showed themselves to be sensitive and openhearted as tragedy rained down, women took their equal place beside them as colleagues and heroes. The brother lost on the battlefield can now be a sister. And that is an historic change in how men and women relate to each other and honor each other's efforts, sacrifice and heroism.
"Comrade" was once a heroic synonym for the male buddy, one of a band of brothers who fought wars and saved lives. Now it is a word beyond gender.
Ever since Achilles mourned Patrocles and David fought alongside his beloved Jonathan and lost him, warriors have been almost exclusively a fraternity. Women, if they were heroes, were martyrs, like Joan of Arc, or maybe nurses, like Florence Nightingale.
No matter their circumstance, they were not part of a larger fellowship, but creatures as extraordinary for their womanhood as for their heroism. If a man died in battle, he was part of a fraternal communion--one warrior among many who died for others. From the Virgin Mary of the Pieta to Jacqueline Kennedy and Antigone, the primary job of women was to grieve.
In our own times, the war movie reinforces the fraternal aspect of manly action and sacrifice. The depiction of the lost warrior who dies trying to save others is one of the most compelling images of humanity we have and it has been mostly male.
In the 1949 film "Sands of Iwo Jima," John Wayne dies trying to save others. More recently, Tom Hanks led a band of brothers to rescue Pvt. Ryan at great human cost.
Thelma and Louise might have died heroically, but they were busy trying to save themselves.
On Sept. 11, Kathy Mazza wasn't able to get that woman out, nor could she lead her fellow officers to safety. Moira Smith helped rescue some, ultimately sacrificing herself while trying to save some of the other thousands of people trapped in the twin towers.
But their efforts were a triumph nonetheless. In death, they showed us all how women can exhibit leadership, selflessness and physical bravery. Just as important, they offer a generation of boys and girls a new definition of heroism--a definition that doesn't transcend one gender or another but offers both genders the qualities conventionally associated with each: the nurture and fellowship of women, the command and courage of men.
Hearing about their bravery, there will be children who will want to grow up to be just like Kathy Mazza or Moira Smith--and those children won't all be girls. The fact that many of these possible heroes will be girls is itself a huge change; girls haven't had that much of a chance to see women as valiant leaders of others. But it is equally important that boys will look at women like Mazza and Smith and want to follow in their footsteps.
Maybe, before another generation grows up, calling someone else a "girl" on the playground won't be an epithet. Instead, it will be a badge of honor and heroic possibility.
Peggy Drexler, Ph.D., is an affliated scholar at Stanford University's Institute for Research on Women and Gender.
International Association of Women Police:
National Center for Women and Policing: