From this day forward, I am never going to write about strong female characters again.
Even though I consider myself a feminist, a dear friend recently pointed out an insidiously subtle social value I’ve been perpetuating. In my defense, I think I might be forgiven for it: I am a baby boomer, after all. Raised in a time when girls were trained to be deferential, to be content with a limited number of traditional career paths, discouraged from concerning themselves with such silly things as pay equity. There were some warped old 8-tracks playing in my head, so familiar that I scarcely thought to question them.
Thanks to my friend, I’ve seen the light. Every time I write the words, “strong girl” or “strong woman,” I am implying that the default state of the female of the species is weakness. And I, of all people, know first hand that nothing could be further from the truth.
Consider my great-grandmother, Hattie Inez Brooks Wright, who as a young woman left Iowa to work a homestead claim near Vida, Montana in about 1914. Hattie had to build a cabin in which to live, set 480 rods of fence (picture 500 VW Beetles nose-to-nose), and plow/plant/harvest 40 acres of crops. Oh, and haul water from the nearby crick. Survive 65-degree-below winters. And grasshopper infestations. And lack of rain. And wild horses. And wild wolves. And stick it out on that harsh prairie for three long years. Which she did. All. On. Her. Own. I have a copy of her homestead affidavit to prove it.
Or consider my grandmother, Lois Thomas Wright Brown, who ran away from home at 14 to marry her 17-year-old sweetheart. A sweetheart who thought he found his true love in a bottle. By the time the Great Depression rolled around, my grandma was a divorced mother of four. She worked two jobs to keep her girls fed and safe. But my grandmother did not let a lack of education or single parenthood stop her from anything. Dance lessons for the girls? She traded her masterful sewing skills–creating elaborate costumes– in exchange for ballet and tap classes. The old house needed remodeling? She grabbed hammer or wallpaper brush or saw and got to work. And when her own heart could no longer deny its passion to be an artist, she converted her garage to a studio and taught herself, becoming a successful painter.
Or consider my mother, Donna Marie Brown Miltenberger, who, in addition to having four kids, worked a full-time job as long as I can remember. Because she didn’t have a college degree, she could not move up the managerial ranks, despite being one sharp cookie. However, she was so good at what she did that she was required to train each of the young men who became her boss. And, thirty-five years ago, when a botched operation caused her to lose her sight in one eye, she didn’t whine or complain. No, she set herself to cross-stitching Christmas ornaments for each of her grandchildren. Ponder that: Legally blind. Cross-stitching itty-bitty ornaments. If you met my mother, you would never know of her “limitations.” Because she refuses to be limited by them.
I come from a long, long line of such women. Amazing women are the status quo in my family. They’re likely the status quo in yours, as well. So I profoundly regret ever having written such dangerously sexist phrases as “strong girls,” or “strong women.” From this day forward, when I am asked to describe my female characters, I will say they are as complex and fascinating as the real girls and women I know or that I’ve met in history.
And who wouldn’t want to read about people like that?
*This essay is dedicated to M.B.