Deborah Hughes is a hero. No question.
The retired nurse stepped into a mob to stop the beating of the driver of a pickup that had accidentally struck a 10-year-old boy in Detroit on April 2. Her action may have saved the life of Steven Utash, who remains hospitalized with severe head injuries in a medically induced coma.
Utash, a 54-year-old tree trimmer, was driving a company pickup when David Harris stepped off the curb into the street. Utash stopped to check on the child, and a half-dozen or more men and teenagers began punching and kicking him, according to various news reports. (Three have been arrested so far.)
Hughes, 56, who lives across the street, went to help the injured boy, but then the mob turned on Utash. As she told the Detroit News, “He [Utash] was screaming, and they were beating him, and kicking him.”
So, Hughes ran toward the crowd. “I said ‘Please don’t hit him anymore,’ and they backed up. Everybody cleared the way and gave me room to work on him. Nobody cussed me; they didn’t attack me. They just let me do what I needed to do.”
She said she massaged Utash’s neck to get “his circulation going” and helped emergency personnel when they arrived.
“She is nothing less than a hero,” Detroit police Sgt. Michael Woody told the Associated Press. “She basically kneeled and laid down with this guy to get them to stop hitting him. She essentially saved this guy’s life. They wouldn’t have stopped.”
I’m thrilled. Thrilled that it was a woman who stood up to a bunch of men and boys and stopped a brutal beating that could have turned into a killing.
But it wasn’t that long ago that “men were the action heroes,” said Amanda Diekman, professor of psychology at Miami University who researches gender roles. Men were the ones who took action and risked their lives and physical safety. Women were more likely to want to nurture and foster a sense of community.
Those perceptions of gender roles were backed up by scholarly research, like the 1986 review of social-role theory by Alice Eagly and Maureen Crowley, who found that men acted in ways that were “heroic and chivalrous” while women were “nurturant and caring.”
Think of the Carnegie Awards given for acts of bravery. Male recipients have far outnumbered women like Katherine Lee Osiecki, a 21-year-old college student from East Hampton, N.Y., who saved a woman from drowning in Napeague Bay, off Long Island Sound, and Virginia R. Grogan, 54, of Gloucester, Va., who died trying to save her grandsons from a burning house.
The Carnegie Hero Fund award has been given to 863 women, compared with 8,812 men, since 1904 — that’s a ratio of 8.92 percent women to 91.08 percent men, according to Walter F. Rutkowski, president and secretary of the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission.
Fast forward to 2004. Eagly, now at Northwestern University, teamed up with Selwyn W. Becker of the University of Chicago to research “The Heroism of Women and Men,” which was published in “American Psychologist” in April 2004.
That article “looks at a broader view of heroism” by including living kidney donation and volunteering for the Peace Corps and Doctors of the World, Diekman said, as well as risky situations like those of the Carnegie Awards and the rescue of Jews by non-Jews during the Holocaust. The results showed the number of women engaged in heroic actions equaled or even out-numbered men, except in the case of the Carnegie Awards.
These days it doesn’t seem that unusual to use the word “hero” when talking about a woman. Stereotypes have changed as more and more women enter formerly male-dominated fields — such as police work and firefighting — that require physical risk-taking.
We also have women fighting — and dying — for our country in the armed forces: 159 of the 6,775 U.S. military deaths since 2001 have been women. These are women like Army Spc. Caryn E. Nouv, 29, mother of two young children, who was killed in an IED attack in Afghanistan on July 27, 2013; and Army Pfc. Lori Ann Piestewa, 23, also a mother of two young children, who died Mar. 23, 2003, after being captured in Iraq.
But there’s another factor — one that surprised me, at first — that has had an effect on women’s risk-taking, according to Diekman: More girls are playing team sports. “The more we socialize girls to participate in team sports, the more girls are trained to respond in situations where quick decision-making is important and where risk-taking is part of the picture,” she said.
Yet we still value those “feminine” qualities of nurturing and peace-making in our girls and women, Diekman said.
So, we shouldn’t be surprised that a woman risked her life to save another (though Hughes admitted that she put her .38 in her pocket because “this neighborhood is terrible”).
“She’s [Hughes] an interesting intersection of what I see as the changing norms about bravery and courage that are increasingly important for women,” said Diekman. “But there’s also this continued emphasis on helping other people and being altruistic and peacemaking.”
Hughes’ past career as a nurse combines these characteristics. “I would certainly expect that her training and experience in emergency responding were helpful in preparing her to respond quickly,” Diekman said. “It’s impossible to know in any particular situation, but training and experience certainly matter.”
Hughes did all that last week when she left the safety of her home to help an injured boy and then stopped an angry mob from killing a man. We need more heroes like her.