Years of discussion with girls and women of all ages have convinced me that one of the greatest challenges women have to overcome are the culturally entrenched assumptions about their own gender. Women continue to face many overt and covert forms of harassment and discrimination, but none so damning perhaps, as their own subconscious participation in how Western culture defines them.
Long before a girl reaches adulthood, she has been bombarded by so many images (many of them tragically graphic and exploitive) of the roles she is expected to fulfill, that there is scarcely opportunity for her to make her own choice. Women must be physically attractive, sexually alluring yet modest, intelligent but not overly competitive, nurturing mothers, homemakers, supportive spouses; the list goes on. In short, she must fulfill the expectations of men. Assuming she can somehow comply with that absurd compendium of requirements, perhaps there is room for her to have a career, or craft some singular, personal achievement beyond the horizon of social convention.
This is not, of course, encouraged. Conformity is encouraged.
Imagine, though, a world absent of these expectations. What path might a woman choose who had not, since girlhood, been standing in supermarket lines of fashion magazines, watching Miley Cyrus swing on her wrecking ball on the entertainment segment of the network news. What might she achieve if her reflection were not composed of a kaleidoscope of presumptions spread out across a spectrum ranging from abusive to liberating.
One such example might be Elspeth Beard.
In the annals of popular culture (otherwise known as Google search), Ms. Beard is an Englishwoman primarily associated with two things: being one of the few people and fewer women to circumnavigate the globe on a motorcycle, and her work as an architect, specifically her renovation of the Munstead Water Tower in Guildford, south of London. I won’t recount the stories here, but I encourage you to read them. The details of her work and her adventures are truly inspiring, but the point of this article is the idea of her experience rather than the fact.
I don’t know what type of childhood she had, what role models or popular influences shaped her as an individual, but by virtue of her exceptional achievements it seems clear that she met the world on her own terms rather than the other way around. One of the purposes of this site is to provide examples that counterbalance those of pop-culture. If my daughter decides never to ride a motorcycle, much less ride it around the world, I want it to be because she truly did not find the desire within herself, not because she never imagined it at all.
Elspeth Beard worked to earn and save her own money, fabricated her own aluminum panniers, overcame injury, theft, and navigated a world of foreign cultures to achieve her goal. As an educated craftsman, she spent seven years completing renovation of her water tower home. She went forth boldly and wrung from the world a rich and storied life. Any one of these achievements are remarkable, regardless of the issue of gender.
I think we like to imagine that in our modern, post-Enlightenment era, we have achieved some sort of transcendent mastery over discrimination and inequality. However, I wonder if possibly the world of a twenty-four year old Londoner in the 1980s (before the Internet, Instagram, and the 24-hour news cycle) was somehow less fraught than it is today. I wonder if it is perhaps less likely for a young woman to imagine such a venture in 2014 than in 1984. I worry that it may.
Regardless, I offer this post and her story in the hope that girls and women of all ages might discover it; might look at the photograph; might meet the gaze of young Elspeth, crouched, fierce and shadow-eyed, beside her machine — the machine she earned and owned, cared for and cursed, and rode around the world.