The Power of Role Models
History is written by the winners, and far too often in our history even winning women ultimately have been on the losing side, their brilliance and valuable contribution no match for centuries of an entrenched patriarchy and institutional misogyny.
Even in the face of insurmountable inequality there have been countless female leaders to admire, but unfortunately we have not celebrated them as we should. We do not immortalize them with great statues and monuments or public bank holidays; many great women’s contributions have been all but forgotten. In fact, it was only this year we finally saw the first female commemorated in Parliament Square.
As a leader in the women’s suffrage movement Millicent Fawcett paved the way for the UK to become a full democracy with women allowed to vote and eventually take up seats in the building outside which her likeness now proudly stands. She is arguably the indi- vidual most deserving of a space in Parliament Square, as her actions have had a direct impact on its composition.
The reason I am highlighting this is because I believe it is important for all genders to have female role models as a vital element to seeing women as equals and as potential leaders. Here is an ‘easy win’ if you want to support gender equality: research and educate yourself about a woman from the past or present that you can admire. Then inform others about her, by referencing her story or achievements in general conversation or as part of your work, particularly if you are a teacher or trainer or someone who has to speak to groups of people. In this way you are educating yourself, as well as both your social and professional circles, about female excellence.
As I’m a woman who likes to practice what she preaches, I would like to share the story of a female heroine of mine who is not so well known in Western society, but is literally a legend and national hero in Ghana, espe- cially amongst the Ashanti people. The Ghanaian culture (especially Ashanti) is essen- tially matriarchal and therefore people of Ghanaian heritage like myself are raised to see female strength as normal and natural.As a result, the women in my family have always been very opinionated – a trait which I can happily say hasn’t bypassed me. Every Ghanaian child is taught aboutYaa Asantewaa, our own African Warrior Queen, the woman who took on the might of an empire, like Boudica, and inspired men to fight against a foreign foe when all seemed lost (like the first Queen Elizabeth).
The story of Yaa Asantewaa is set during the European scramble for Africa in the nine- teenth century. Britain wanted to expand its Gold Coast colony (present-day Ghana) and subdue the Ashanti Kingdom which threated their authority in the region. Lengthy brutal battles meant the Ashanti Kingdom had taken a bit of a bruising from the British, who had superior weaponry. It seemed all was lost, and the Ashanti king was about to accept defeat risking the fate of the Golden Stool, the ancient royal divine throne which the Ashanti believe houses the spirit of the Ashanti nation. However Yaa, the Queen Mother, had other ideas. The role of the Queen Mother is incredibly significant in Ashanti royal custom; she is an advisor who choses a male member of the female line to inherit the Kingship and is ultimately the moral gatekeeper of the family and tribe. So Yaa had influence which she was about to bring to bear;The Queen Mother rallied all the Ashanti women to take up arms against the British invaders and prepared to lead them into battle with or without the male warriors.This act of defi- ance served to shame the male warriors into remembering their duty to fight and defend the sovereignty of the Ashanti nation. However, shaming the men into action wasn’t Yaa’s only tactic; the Queen Mother also delivered a powerful speech and inspired the men into remembering the brave warriors they were, which empowered them to seize victory over the British imperial forces. Known as the ‘War of the Golden Stool’, Yaa Asantewaa’s leadership in this monumental battle is celebrated and revered as an example hat women are as powerful as men, and that true partnership between the sexes can result in significant success or even indeed save a nation.
Eventually, the British conquered the Ashanti, but the integrity of Ashanti as a kingdom and a culture endured even through coloni- sation and independence up to the present day.This long-lasting cultural pride is in part due to Yaa Asantewaa’s bravery and is some- thing the people of Ghana have never forgotten. Her story exemplifies what women can achieve when they are able to express the fullness of their potential: leading, coun- selling, and inspiring others regardless of gender. So I call on you to choose your Yaa Asantewaa and champion her story wherever you go, so that female role models become as commonplace as male ones. Because, as we know, perception engenders reality. And if we change perception, we can change reality.
Source: June Sarpong OBE