Reframing How We Think about Women and Courage

Throng of women, led by Mrs. Ida Harris, president of the Woman's Vigilance League, march on New York City Hall to protest the soaring cost of food, March 12, 1917 for gender women and courage post

In March 2024, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken presented the International Women of Courage Award to twelve women from countries around the world “who have demonstrated exceptional courage, strength, and leadership in order to bring about positive change in their communities, often at great personal risk and sacrifice.” Since 2007, over 190 women from countries as diverse as Afghanistan, Belarus, Iran, Cuba, and Uganda have received this little-publicized award. To read the biographies of the chosen women is to marvel at their strength, fortitude, moral integrity, and outstanding courage. Witness Fatou Baldeh from Gambia fighting to extinguish female genital mutilation and cutting in a country where 75% of women have endured some form of it.

What is courage? Is courage defined differently for men and women? What are the gender stereotypes associated with women and courage? Is courage socially conditioned, innate, or some mixture of nature and nurture?

Let’s begin with a loose definition. Bravery and courage are often used interchangeably, but the origin of each word illustrates the difference. Bravery is thought to be a quality a person possesses that is acted out spontaneously and without fear. For example, if you see a dog about to be hit by a car, you run into the street to save it. You do not feel fear; you simply jump into action. The origin of “brave” translates as bold, savage, and wild.

Courage is a learned skill and an aspect of character. One undertakes a perilous risk despite being fearful, often for a moral reason that serves the greater good. The challenge may create overwhelming fear; it may subject a person to ostracism, disapproval, and danger, but one takes action anyway. The war journalist Jane Ferguson reported from some of the fiercest battlefronts on the planet. In her memoir No Ordinary Assignment she writes that courage is being afraid and doing it anyway. Belarusian human rights activist Volha Harbunova, one of this year’s IWOC award winners, said, “Courage is the ability to act in big and small ways every day, despite fear and pain, and to remain compassionate in the face of evil. Courage is when you care.”

Traditionally, in Western culture, courage has been the domain of male heroes, warriors in battle, men undertaking risks of derring-do.[i] Role models for women of courage too often center on physical bravery or athletic stamina, celebrating exceptional women like Serena and Venus Williams or Megan Rapinoe. But let’s pause to consider more invisible but equally courageous women.

As a nation of immigrants, many of us have female ancestors as well as contemporary relatives who demonstrated enormous courage in arriving at these shores. Their journeys may have occurred centuries ago as a child crossing an ocean alone on a ship, or as an enslaved woman, or more recently as an endangered mother entering the country with her children. Other examples include the myriad of unknown Indigenous heroines who defended their native lands and people, women who challenged Jim Crow laws, or single mothers across centuries who raised a family under dire circumstances.

Today’s everyday heroines might include the thousands of women, especially those with children, leaving abusive relationships, despite the loss of financial and other support, and the real fear of retaliation against herself or her children; and those willing to challenge a pattern of unfair or unjust practices in their school or workplace, when they know they need a job in that field.

Celebrity role models offer validation and inspiration to thousands of young people, while less iconic courageous women go unnoticed and unnamed. These women are our unsung heroines, dismissed by the culture, and, because they are unacclaimed, they are unaware of how courageous they are.

Recognizing ordinary women as role models for exceptional acts of courage reframes what courage looks like and expands the vision of possibilities for the development of courage in young girls. Social role theory states that males and females learn different qualities through socialization processes and from role models during their formative years.[ii] Males, for example, may learn and be socially rewarded for displaying agentic behaviors (including feats of physical bravery) and socialized against behaving in ways thought to be feminine.[iii] This may account for some of the apparent gender differences in types of heroic behavior.[iv]

Our culture exhibits strong reactions in how traits related to courage are perceived based on gender differences. A 2018 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center involving over 4500 Americans found that people said traits related to strength and ambition are more highly valued for men and compassion, kindness, and responsibility are more highly valued for women. Specifically, the study reported that being powerful was viewed as positive in men in 67% of replies, whereas women being powerful was viewed negatively by 92%. Strength in men was found positive by 80%, but in women, only 60% found it positive. Aggression was viewed significantly more positively in men than women.[v]

Evolution has wired us to sense danger and feel fear. Fear is one of the emotions that ensures our survival, part of the basic equipment shared by all humans. The good news is courage is a learned skill.

According to social scientists, developing courage can be an ongoing learning process. We are never too old to learn courage. Jack Mezirow, the founder of transformative learning, studied adult women who returned to school. His research led him to conclude that when faced with new situations, adults don’t always apply their old understanding. When the learning involves critical reflection and review, it can lead to a transformative learning experience.[vi]

Transformative Learning Theory suggests that when we lean into a challenge, we have the potential to be transformed. We may be terrified of public speaking, but if we allow ourselves to face the fear and engage with it, we obtain a new perspective. We can be in the world in a new way. For women, especially, claiming our quiet acts of courage can lead to a revitalized sense of agency and a willingness to expand our sense of self.

Take a minute to consider courageous women you’ve known or admired. What do these women have in common? What qualities do you associate with female courage? Are there books, movies, poetry, or other sources that have modeled courage for you? Consider making a list of positive influences concerning courage and sharing it with friends. Where and when have you been courageous in your life?

[i] Kinsella, E.; Ritchie, T.; and Igou, E., “On the Bravery and Courage of Heroes: Considering Gender,” Heroism Science: (2017), Vol. 2: Iss. 1, Article 4.

[ii] Eagly, A. Sex differences in social behavior: A social role interpretation. Erlbaum (1987)

[iii] Bussey, K., & Bandura, A.. “Social cognitive theory of gender development and differentiation.” Psychological Review, (1999) 106, 676–713.

[iv] Becker, S. W., & Eagly, A. H. “The heroism of women and men”. American Psychologist, (2004) 59, 163-178.

[v] Walker, K., Bialik, K., van Kessel, P., “Strong Men, Caring Women: How Americans describe what society values (and doesn’t) in each gender” Pew Research, July 24, 2018.

[vi] Dirks, John, “Transformative Learning Theory in the Practice of Adult Education: An Overview,” PAACE Journal of Lifelong Learning, (1998) Vol. 7, 1-14.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at 

If you found this post interesting, you may also want to read “Fatherless Daughters: The Impact of Absence,” “Given Away: The Plight of the Wounded Feminine,” and “Mindfulness for Women: Confronting and Overcoming ‘Othering’

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