Finding the “Good Girl Role Model”

Kathryn Jean Lopez of the National Review Online finds a new hero for women, “The Good Girl Role Model,” in the late Polish volleyball player Agata Mroz, a 26-year old leukemia victim who became a national figure in Poland when she decided to forego a bone marrow transplant that could have saved her life because she was pregnant, instead postponing the treatment until after she gave birth. She delivered her daughter, Lilliana, on April 4th of this year, and two months later, on June 4th she died. Within hours, reactionary Polish President Lech Kaczynski attempted to posthumously bestow one of Poland’s highest honors, the order of Polonia Restituta, on Mroz through her widowed husband, though the husband declined, saying he didn’t want to politicize her death, and that the medal should instead go to the doctors who tried to save his wife’s life. But of course, the politicization of Mroz’s death was already assured long before she died, when conservative Catholics in Poland – the home of some of the most repressive abortion laws in the EU, which only allow abortions in the case of danger to the life or health of a pregnant woman, an irreversibly-damaged fetus, or a pregnancy resulting from crime such as rape—heralded Mroz’s decision as “a witness of ‘love, motherhood, the desire to give life and the heroic love for an unborn child.’”

Lopez brings the story of Mroz stateside as a part two response to her own question, whether it’s possible to find “any cool models out there of real or fictional single gals living differently (chastely)?” It’s not “Pam” from “The Office,” Lopez decides, nor is it “the 90210 newspaper editor who’s infamously a virgin … well, until she gets her repressed self pregnant. Not the Britney who pretends while slutting herself out on stage.” She’s looking for “Real, normal, cool 20somethings whose lives are so full and they are so loved or at least have such self-respect that they don’t need all that wonderful stuff until they’re married.”

In a bizarre follow-up the next day, the good girl Lopez finds is the dead Mroz, lifting her story of the “heroine on and off the court” directly from Fr. Roger J. Landry of Catholic Preaching, who recounted that Mroz had been not just a selfless mother in deciding to postpone her treatments to save her pregnancy, but also a model girl in other respects: coaxing her volleyball coach away from the bar in gentle tones, and always maintaining a cheerful attitude with her teammates—marks of demure womanhood almost as surely as what Landry considers Mroz’s crowning feat in death. “Accustomed to giving all she had on the court, Agata indeed gave the best of herself to her husband and every last ounce of herself to her daughter. She learned that there were things more important than herself, and she valued Lilliana’s life more than her own—even before she was conceived.”

Feminist blogger Hugo Schwyzer writes that he doesn’t wish to presume about what led Mroz to her decision—perhaps she felt the treatment wouldn’t work and wanted to leave a child to her husband more than she was motivated by any explicit pro-life politics—but the media-sanctification of Mroz as a selfless example of womanhood makes Mroz’s actual motivations a moot point.

Lopez doesn’t entitle her piece “A Mother’s Choice”. She calls it “A Good Girl Role Model”, driving home the point that young women ought to aspire to be as radically selfless as Agata to the point of de-valuing their own lives. …. The call to such extreme sacrifice traditionally falls harder on women than on men (recall the high rates of death in childbirth for mothers in the pre-industrial world). Rhapsodizing about the Blessed Agata (I won’t be surprised if canonization proceedings start following the predictable reports of miracles) as a role model gives young women the stern impression that their bodies were made for the purpose of their husbands’ delight and their children’s nurturing — not for their own pleasure or joy.

Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon digs in further to look at the deeper misogyny of women-dying-young narratives being reenacted by some of Mroz’s eulogizers, with a blend of religious and romantic notions of pure feminine souls always ready to sacrifice:

[The] idea that the best woman, the “good girl”, the ideal woman is someone who dies young is profoundly misogynist. And not just for the obvious reasons. The fantasy is that of women not as human beings, like men are, but as flowers. I’ve talked about this fantasy that lurks behind anti-choice proclamations on feminine purity before. A good woman is not a messy, bleeding, aging, thinking, desiring creature. A good woman is a flower who blooms, then turns to fruit, and then has the good sense to disappear after performing the single function they’ve set aside for women. …

Honestly, I’m tapped for useful words on this. Like Hugo says, it’s a dig at women who would dare have an abortion to save their own physical lives, much less those who would swallow a pill or get an early term D&C to save the lives we’ve chosen for ourselves. But more than that, it’s a dig at the very right of women to live our lives as if we were human beings that have purposes other than being young, beautiful, and fertile.

There’s also, it would seem, a yet more overtly political piece of fallout from Mroz’s story. In the week following her death, when Polish media and Catholic bishops were lauding her as a heroine of the faith, another “Agata” came into the news: a 14-year-old girl who was 11 weeks pregnant, after an alleged rape at the hands of a school friend, was seeking an abortion to end the pregnancy. In the media, fresh from ecstasies of mourning Mroz, the minor came to be known under the pseudonym “Agata,” as though a dark counterpoint to the example of the fallen, selfless mother.

In a report prepared in early June, members of Woman’s 8th March Alliance, Warsaw Poland (see a similar report here from the Polish Federation for Women and Family Planning), detailed the second Agata’s story: some weeks after the assault, the girl and her family requested an abortion at their local hospital on the grounds that the pregnancy resulted from an illegal act. They had one week until the Polish cut-off point of 12-weeks. The hospital responded by attempting to talk the young Agata out of the abortion—the girl says that the hospital gynecologist offered to adopt her and her and baby both, and a priest directed her in a writing a letter in which she agreed to have the baby—and then by informing directors of the local anti-abortion movement, who began a campaign of “intense harassment” against the girl and her family, publishing their personal details online so that activists could phone and text-message “Agata” to dissuade her from her choice. They followed Agata to a second clinic when the family attempted the procedure there; charging in the media that the girl was being pressured into the abortion by Planned Parenthood and informing the police that Agata’s mother was “inciting her daughter to abortion,” leading to the illegal separation of the girl from her family and her placement in a state home. The hospital subsequently refused to perform the procedure, bowing to anti-abortion pressure to run out the clock on the legal timeframe for the procedure, though finally, on the last day it was possible to have the procedure done in Poland, “Agata” was allowed her abortion. Though as Polish abortion rights activist Wanda Nowicka notes, “If it wasn’t for the Foundation and for the media attention that arose recently, the case would have never ended as Agata wished…Acting alone, Agata would never had the abortion performed legally.”

Not knowing who coined the pseudonym for the girl, it’s hard to know what intended evocation it was to have. Whether, the week after the death of the “good girl role model” Agata Mroz, who died for her fetus, conservative activists and media gave the young girl a newspaper nickname meant to highlight what they saw as the difference between their heroine of the faith, and a girl seeking an abortion to “escape” unwanted motherhood. (Such a pressure this becomes that Agata felt the need to tell the media that she does intend to be a mother when she grows up, but now wishes to finish school.) Or conversely, whether advocates for the young Agata, pressing for her eligibility for abortion on one of the few grounds allowed in Poland, sought to remind the public of her status as a rape victim by naming her after St. Agatha, the Catholic saint of survivors of sexual assault, indignity and women in danger. But in either case, an Agata condemned in contrast to the martyr-mother, or an Agata eligible for a reprieve only due to her sexual victimhood, what’s missing from the story, and from Poland in general, is an icon of a woman free to make either choice unhindered by public interference.