Word debates: sheroes and herstory

Nellie Bly

Nellie Bly statuesSomeone on a Facebook page that is about words asked a question. “Heard on NPR a discussion of heroes and sheroes. What’s wrong with heroine?”

Folks on the list replied that heroine is a diminutive for “hero” and may demean and trivialize the qualities of the women. They noted that words such as comedienne and poetess have fallen by the wayside. I remember that, in my lifetime, some people were trying to reintroduce the word authoress. For what purpose, I no longer recall. It hasn’t been embraced, fortunately, except as an “old-fashioned” word in some dictionaries.

The one word that has survived is the word actress. While I’ve often heard “actor” used for all performers, “actress” still is in the lexicon for awards, such as the Oscars and the Tonys. That is understandable. Getting rid of categories by gender might be someone’s idea of “equitable,” but one could reasonably believe that men would end up receiving the lion’s share of recognition.


“Heroine” also has people thinking that it sounds very much like something else, which I’ve believed for a half-century. Even the Free Dictionary and others note this. “Not to be confused with: heroin – highly addictive narcotic derived from morphine: He had a hard time kicking heroin.” This I did not know: “The name heroin was coined from the German heroisch meaning heroic, strong. Heroin is stronger (more potent) than morphine.”

One objection to sheroes was this: “I just think it’s mostly patronizing. If a woman is a hero, she’s a hero. ‘Sheroes’ sounds like the Women’s Auxiliary of Heroes. It’s the ‘Hear Me Roar’ version of heroism.” I don’t hear it that way, but OK.

We can beat them, just for one day

Another noted all the female heroes we have had for decades. “Alice Stebbins, first American woman police officer hired in the 1910s. Loretta Walsh, the first woman to enroll in the military in 1917. A whole century earlier in 1815, Molly Williams was the first woman firefighter and I’m pretty sure women have been doing ‘everyday stuff’ since the beginning of time.

“I mean, sure, let’s go with sheroes but don’t excuse it thinking that women police officer/military/firefighter are some progressive new thing. That’s just the wrong narrative and honestly, most of my personal heroes are some (my mom and grandma for example) and a new word just seems unnecessary in my opinion.” Ah, but what of severe pushback are some of those women still receiving, particularly in the US military?

“Language is a social thing and if the majority decide to start using this kind of language, then my opinion becomes irrelevant. Let society decide.” Which, inevitably, it does. I really don’t have skin in that game. Maybe it’s because of the ease people are presently dubbed heroic, IMO. Though I’m rather fond of the Misty Copeland-inspired Barbie ‘Sheroes’ Doll.


On the other hand, I’m rather fond of herstory, though my spellcheck is not. Sure, women’s history IS history, just as black history IS history. But there are so many examples where it’s not as well-known as it should be.

I was particularly taken by a monument of several statues honoring journalist Nellie Bly opening on Roosevelt Island. It was created by sculptor Amanda Matthews. “In 1887, Bly went undercover as an inmate at the island’s asylum. Her report ‘Ten Days in a Mad-House’ revealed the deplorable treatment of women in the facility and prompted outrage and reform.” On the backs of the sculptures are engraved with the quote from Bly’s writings that inspired the selection of each subject.

“Matthews also made a sculpture of educator Nettie Depp. It will be installed next year at the Kentucky State Capitol. She said she made the statue after she discovered the state lacked sculptures honoring women.” The only female who had been honored with a statue in KY heretofore was a horse.

“‘Women’s history didn’t show up in our history books the same as men. It’s not written down as much. It’s not portrayed as much. So, we have to reach back into history, find this information, bring it into the 21st century,’ said Matthews.” And I would agree. For instance, I had never heard of Alice Stebbins Wells, Loretta Perfectus Walsh, or Molly Williams.

What do you all think of sheroes and herstory?

Author: Roger

I'm a librarian. I hear music, even when it's not being played. I used to work at a comic book store, and it still informs my life. I won once on JEOPARDY! - ditto.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Social media & sharing icons powered by UltimatelySocial