Bold Girls: 'May we know them. May we be them. May we raise them'
These short essays are part of Bold Girls, a Children’s Books Ireland project that includes an 88-page Reading Guide, school resource pack, events, and bookshop campaigns
Louise O’Neill: ‘Here’s to the Bold Girls. May we know them. May we be them. May we raise them’
When I was young, maybe around eight or nine, I remember a friend of my parents’ telling me a riddle. “A father and his son get in a car crash and are rushed to the hospital,” this family friend said, winking at my dad over my head. “And then the father dies. The boy is taken to the operating room and the surgeon says, I can’t operate on this child, because he’s my son. How is this possible?”
I struggled to solve this mystery, eventually giving up and asking for the answer. “The surgeon is the son’s mother,” I was told, and I gasped. It wasn’t so much that I was shocked by the answer – I knew a few female doctors at that stage – but surprised by my own inability to picture a woman when I heard the word “surgeon”. At home that evening, my father turned to face me and my sister. “I want you both to know,” he said in a serious voice, “that you can be or do whatever you want, as long as you work hard. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a boy or a girl – that has nothing to do with ability. I want you to have faith in yourselves, no matter what else happens.”
My parents believed that and they wanted their daughters to believe it as well. I felt proud to be a girl that day – it had never occurred to me to think otherwise. Yet as I matured through adolescence and into my early 20s, it became clear that the outside world didn’t always agree with me. Sometimes it can seem as if the patriarchy is determined to keep girls small, to make them feel as if they are “less” than their male peers. Girls are too often insidiously encouraged to believe that their self-worth can be measured on a weighing scales or by how much male attention they “win” on a night out. It was increasingly difficult for me to ignore the demands of moving through the world in a female body; having to deal with everyday sexism, casual micro-aggressions or more forceful attempts to touch my body without my consent, all while still keeping a smile on my face. (You’d look prettier if you smiled, love!) Eventually, I decided that if I wanted to survive the maelstrom of misogyny that pervaded every facet of our society I would have to stop trying to be a “nice” girl, and instead focus my attention on becoming a bold one. I would be kind, yes, but I wanted to be outspoken, opinionated, determined and fierce. I would raise my voice and I would refuse to be silenced. I would be fearless.
And so, to all the young women out there, I say – take up more space in the world, not less. March to the beat of your own drum. And above all else, be true to yourself.
Here’s to the Bold Girls. May we know them. May we be them. May we raise them.
Louise O’Neill is the author of Only Ever Yours and Asking For It. Her next two novels, Almost Love and The Surface Breaks will be published this year.
My mother’s full name at birth was Anne Bernadette Drum. Later she was called Nancy. And she is my hero because she always believed in my ability to achieve whatever was my heart’s desire.
When I was ready for secondary school, I sat my 11+ exam to see if I could get into a very exclusive girls’ free grammar school because my mother felt I was smart and wanted the very best for me. But despite the rigorous studying, I didn’t get in – I was ill on the day and maybe not quite as clever as she thought, but as I didn’t pass the exam there was no do-over so that was that. My mother and I agreed that perhaps it wouldn’t have been the best place for me in any case, as it really was an Oxbridge hot-house, so we accepted this as something for the best.
However, as I didn’t achieve my first choice, I was then allocated another school by the council which was my no-choice, a struggling comprehensive with poor results and a very shady reputation. My mum was horrified and refused to buy the uniform or send me there. Instead she appealed to my second choice, the convent school located about an hour from where we lived, asking them to please give me an interview and look at my writing. They wouldn’t; they were full. End of.
But Nancy didn’t give up. She spent the entire summer calling and writing letters. Everyone in the convent’s office seemed irritated by her, and I started to get embarrassed, but eventually, three days before the summer ended and term began, Sister John, the head teacher, agreed to meet with me, though she made it clear there was “a waiting list and no space”. I washed my hair (in those days a sort of miracle), put on my best dress and took two buses with Nancy into Hackney to meet Sister John, an intimidating woman with a reputation for being tough on students, staff and parents. I was interviewed and terrified by Sister John, who didn’t speak very much but finally told me she’d add me to their waiting list. I went out to tell Nancy, who was waiting by the door, but before I could close it, she slipped in unannounced to Sister John’s office, shooing me into the corridor.
And I waited.
And I waited.
At last the door opened and my mother appeared with this stoic look on her face. “You have a place,” she said. She sounded satisfied but not overly grateful – she had argued for what she thought I needed and got it because that’s what she always did: fought for what was right and only following the rules if they served her or those she loved.
Nancy isn’t a woman who has won a Nobel Prize, or even a decent raffle, as far as I’m aware, but she is fierce and she is loving, and she is the reason I got a great education and became a writer and the reason I now continue to believe anything is possible, for me and for my daughter.
My mum is my best friend – the one I call first with good news and the one I call in my grief.
Behind every bold girl is an even bolder one.
Sarah Crossan’s novels include The Weight of Water, One and Moonrise. She worked as an English teacher until she became a full-time writer.
I come from a long line of bold women: from my great-grandmother, who hid guns under a baby, to my grandfather’s carer, Delia, who raised him and his sisters when the Spanish Flu took his mother. Delia was paralysed from the waist down, but that didn’t stop her. Stories of women who defied expectation permeated my childhood. And stories are powerful. They show you possibilities, horizons.
My mother is a warrior. She was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at the age of 13, after an illness, and she was the first member of her family to attend college. She cycled in every day, defying expectations of what women and disabled people were capable of at the time. When we were kids, one of our regular jobs was to go over to people who were parking in disabled spots and say, “Excuse me, do you have a wheelchair sticker?” and then go back to the car and stare at them till they moved. Righteously giving out to adults felt bold, but it was also important to realise that some grown-ups will choose the convenient thing over the right thing and get angry when confronted with that.
Some people hate mirrors.
My godmother, Carmel, has the gentlest heart of anyone I know, but is fiery enough to defy expectation and forge her own path. Meditation and yoga, alternative forms of spirituality and self-care, were modelled for me from an early age.
My grandmother began travelling the world when she lost my grandfather. She went to Russia, South America, all kinds of places. She took up painting. When something precious is lost, you can find other treasures in yourself.
My journey in writing is full with bold women. Maria Griffin (whose communion shoe ended up on the roof of a chalet), who was the first person to hear a lot of my writing as a teenager, when I was thoroughly ashamed of putting things into words because it felt like notions. Suzanne Keaveney (who did wonderful and terrible things with Sharpies) who introduced me to so many of the books that shaped my brain. Moya Cannon, who took the time to read my poetry when I was an undergrad to Ciara Banks (absinthe and red lipstick), who published a poem of mine in The Sharp Review (a journal she co-edited in NUI Galway). My first novel, Prim Improper, started with the very bold Siobhán Parkinson, whose belief in me has meant the world to my career. My latest book, Tangleweed and Brine, features Karen Vaughan’s wonderful artistic responses to my stories. Gráinne Clear (the other half of Little Island Books) found Karen’s work very early in the process of putting the collection together. Bold recognises bold. We advocate for and support each other.
The thing about putting your work out there is that it’s terrifying. You are asking people to look at pieces of your brain and heart, and that’s a lot to ask. The generosity and enthusiasm of the artistic community in Ireland has surprised me and lifted me up time and time again. I’ve forged friendships with writers whose voices make my heart sing and booksellers and librarians whose passion for books reminds me how magical stories are. There’s a whole coven of good witches on the path between writer and reader, and I’m encountering more and more of them all the time.
We all have the capacity to be brave and bold. It’s what motivates us to do that and to keep on as things wax and wane around us. What sparks the flames underneath our cauldrons. What keeps it burning.
Other people, mostly.
And great books.
Deirdre Sullivan is a writer from Galway. Her most recent book, Tangleweed and Brine (illustrated by Karen Vaughan), is a collection of dark retellings of old stories.
Kathi ‘Fatti’ Burke
I was never a bold girl as a child – in fact, I had always thought of myself as the exact opposite. I would get my homework done early and spend my evenings reading Jacqueline Wilson books and drawing pictures of my dog (RIP Kim). I was teased for being a “swot” in school – light-hearted ribbing that probably stemmed from my father being the principal of our school. It wasn’t something that bothered me, though. I knew I was a swot and wore the title proudly, especially to table quizzes. Okay, I was the last to be picked for football and camogie but just wait until the Credit Union quiz rolls around, lads.
At home, my favourite thing to play with was the mammoth collection of Barbie dolls, who all had their own names, personalities and intertwined relationships. There might have even been a binder containing all their likes and dislikes at one stage.
My sister and I would spend hours constructing their narratives and recording their stories on our dad’s video camera never to be watched again. My mam and dad would indulge us in our play – letting us turn the whole house into a playroom; turning a blind eye to the spatters of paint and doll-hair remnants on our bedroom floor.
As I began to grow older, I found myself floundering through secondary school. The concept of “fitting in” had always sounded unappealing to me, but it completely makes sense when you’re 14 and impatient and confused. I drew less. I read less. I dressed in uncomfortable clothes and said mean things. There surely is nothing more confusing than being a teenage girl who doesn’t know where she fits in.
It wasn’t until I found myself striving to be an illustrator that it became clear to me – I am the same person I was as a girl. Ever so slightly taller (with a few more tattoos) but with the same wants and desires. I want to learn. I want to read and draw and dance and be silly. Being unapologetically myself was the boldest thing I chose to do. Yes, there’s not much glamour associated with staying inside and trying to learn all the countries of the world off by heart, but the simple pleasures I found in learning, creating and exploring as a girl are the things that have led me to succeed in my work as a woman.
From the authors and artists that I obsessed over as a kid, to my mother, grandmother and sister who have held my hand for the past 28 years, I have learned that honesty, kindness and curiosity are the keys I needed to unlock my inner boldness. And there’s nothing bolder than being truly yourself.
Kathi “Fatti” Burke is an illustrator from Waterford, residing in Amsterdam. Her books include Historopedia and Irelandopedia.
Sometimes I was a tomboy; sometimes I played with dolls. Sometimes I had plaits; sometimes I wore my hair cropped short like George in the Famous Five. I owned nothing pink, but as everything in the 1970s was swathed in brown-and-orange paisley swirls, that wasn’t a political statement. At my girls’ school, it was fine to be good at maths and science, though I wasn’t, and I always knew I could grow up whatever way I chose to.
I was a bold, confident girl – the first hand up in class; the first one on to the stage; always ready with an opinion. I loved writing stories and music and books, and I called myself a feminist as soon as I was old enough to spell it. For me, feminism has always meant fairness.
The estate I lived on was quite rough, and I was the kind of bold girl who easily got into fights, so I was encouraged to spend most of my spare time in the local library. This wonderland was where I first fell in love with the world of books and stories, a world I’ve never left. I used to look at the books on the shelves and imagine seeing one – or two, or a whole row – with Sheena Wilkinson on them.
At school and in books I was used to seeing women in positions of leadership, but growing up in Northern Ireland in the Troubles, it seemed to me that men made conflict and women tried to stop it, but men were in charge. Mrs Thatcher was a bold girl, right enough, and a leader, but even as a teenager I could see that she didn’t stand up for other women.
Studying books set in girls’ schools for my PhD deepened my feminism because it allowed me to read women’s history in much more depth than the wars-and-rebellions history we’d done at school. I learned that this history wasn’t considered as important as “real” history. This is changing now, as we celebrate the role women played in shaping our present, the battles they fought for votes and equality and respect.
Now I write those books I dreamed of in my orange-and-brown paisley-patterned library-haunting days. I write about girls and boys and horses and wars and rebellions and music and suffragettes and schools and stars and friendship.
I visit a lot of schools and I see plenty of bold girls, but I also see girls who don’t like to speak up, girls who are worried about not being “nice”, girls who let themselves be defined by how they think society wants them to be. And even though in some ways there are so many more choices now, and society is so much freer, I often feel that it was easier for me to be my own kind of girl back then.
I’ll always write about bold girls, and I’ll be a bold girl even when I’m an old woman. Being a bold old woman sounds like fun.
Sheena Wilkinson’s novels include Star by Star.
These short essays are part of Bold Girls, a Children’s Books Ireland project that includes an 88-page Reading Guide, school resource pack, events, and bookshop campaigns, launching on March 8th, International Women’s Day, with an exhibition in the old library at Trinity College Dublin.