Are we all difficult women now?

From Gloria Steinem to Hillary Clinton, women who show ambition or defiance are dismissed as unlikable or emotional. But more and more Irish women are becoming keen upsetters of apple carts

As a woman, you do not have to go to great lengths to be called difficult: stick rigidly to an opinion, foster great ambition, question the status quo and there you have it

As a woman, you do not have to go to great lengths to be called difficult: stick rigidly to an opinion, foster great ambition, question the status quo and there you have it

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I have a sepia photograph of my grandmother and her friend on the wall in my house. It is 1952 and they are standing in the doorway of their new clothes shop, Primrose Dress Salon. In the shop window, the new dresses hang limply, no extravagance of mannequins. Nana was a tall woman, standing a full head over her friend, her hand resting gently on her shoulder. She is smiling, squinting in the sun, but there is about to be trouble.

It is unbecoming for a woman to have her own business, to be so independent. This is not allowed. People will talk.

The shop must close.

But before this happens, there will be wonderful busy weeks when success is a queue of factory girls, out the front door and down the street, holding pictures of dresses torn from magazines. Could they have them in time for the dance that weekend? Nana sits at a sewing machine, keeping momentum on the pedal, balled up banknotes gathered in her skirt.

Trouble ahead: my grandmother and her friend in 1952, in the doorway of their new clothes shop, Primrose Dress Salon
Trouble ahead: my grandmother and her friend in 1952, in the doorway of their new clothes shop, Primrose Dress Salon

Now all that is left of that adventure is a tiny photo and the story of its ending, of which there are only remnants. This is how ordinary women were left outside history – but their singular acts of bravery were a springboard.

As the Italian activist-writer Carlo Levi said, “The future has an ancient heart.”

She’s a bit much, isn’t she?

As a woman, you do not have to go to great lengths to be called difficult. The bar is set low. Stick rigidly to an opinion, foster great ambition, question the status quo, call someone out on bad behaviour and there you have it – now you are mouthy, feisty, emotional, thin-skinned. “She’s just a bit much, isn’t she?” someone will say, quick and damning.

In Karen Karbo’s new book, In Praise of Difficult Women (£18.99, National Geographic Books), she looks at 29 women of the past and present, from Gloria Steinem to Shonda Rimes to Elizabeth Taylor to Hillary Clinton; women who, “without apology, decided to be ambitious and bold, adventurous and emotional, brainy and defiant, incorrigible and outlandish, determined and badass. Women who showed the women of the world new ways of being.”

The author Cheryl Strayed writes the foreword, recalling her fascination with a childhood neighbour, Myrtle, “a spinster”, who, her father informed her with disdain, “ ‘thinks she can do whatever she wants to do’. Even at five, I knew this to be in violation of a cardinal rule in the unwritten but widely-known rule book of what it means to be female.”

Women are so strangled being nice and charitable and self-sacrificing and all these things which are part of our nature but not the whole part

“It really doesn’t take much to be a difficult woman,” Karbo tells me now, by phone from France. “Really you just have to not be too concerned with what people think about you and you’re eventually going to run into someone who thinks you’re difficult because you’re inconveniencing them.”

 She was first labelled difficult by a teacher at five years old. “I think it really starts you down the road of, If what I want upsets other people, then I have to figure out a way not to want it.”

Karbo’s mother died when she had just started college. “I found myself reaching for these stories of these women who lived on and on as a kind of solace and comfort and as a way to teach me to go forward,” she says.

She discovered the stories of women like Martha Gellhorn, a courageous war correspondent who was horrified to find herself best known for being Ernest Hemingway’s third wife (Hemingway once stole her war press accreditation from her), and Frieda Kahlo, who for so long was simply Diego Rivera’s wife. “There’s all these difficult women that have been part of my life for a very long time,” says Karbo.

In 2015, Karbo began to write potted biographies of these women, weaving her own life lessons through their stories. The book would go on to be published in an entirely different United States from the one Karbo had anticipated.

“We were thinking, Oh, this is going to be the first woman president, and these are all the women that brought us here. These are the sisters who paved the way. Then the election happened, and after we’d all picked ourselves up off the floor we found ourselves in a completely different place than we ever imagined we would be in.”

Hillary Clinton, declared by Donald Trump to be a “nasty woman”, is of course one of the subjects of Karbo’s book. “The reason why she’s difficult by American standards is because she’s ambitious, and that is the highest level of difficulty: a businesswoman who is just nakedly ambitious, and she doesn’t try to hide it. They’re still mad at Hillary; they’re still talking about her. She’s just a grandma minding her own business at this point. It’s insane.”

Hillary Clinton: regarded by many as difficult and unlikable because she was ambitious. Photograph: James D Morgan/Getty Images
Hillary Clinton: regarded by many as difficult and unlikable because she was ambitious. Photograph: James D Morgan/Getty Images

Each woman in the book is defined by another adjective, an explanation of how she is difficult. Hillary Clinton is “ambitious”, Lena Dunham is “imperfect”, Angela Merkel is “inscrutable”, Laverne Cox is “undaunted”.

Edie Sedgwick, Andy Warhol’s Studio 54 darling, is a surprising addition, included because “I didn’t want to have 29 women who were all obviously heroines. Edie was just lazy [but] had this amazing charisma that she just traded on, and was kooky and people were just drawn to her.”

The US current-affairs presenter Rachel Maddow is deemed difficult here because of her fierce, unwavering intelligence, which makes her the subject of much derision. Karbo was conscious from an early age of the way intelligence can be viewed as a liability. “When I was growing up my mother was very clear. She said, ‘You’ll never have a date if everyone thinks you’re the smartest person in the class.’”

Nell McCafferty has been accused of being difficult and provocative all her life, but there is no questioning her impact on Irish women’s lives, or any doubt that she allows the full range of her humanity to play out before us

Hurt feelings

We now live in a time when we are surrounded by women quite visibly choosing to live their lives in new and different ways, but Karbo thinks that little has changed at the level of a woman’s ordinary daily life, particularly in work environments. “You’re in a room with men, and it’s 2018, so obviously people would expect you to have an opinion, but if you don’t, and then change your opinion to encourage consensus, you get called difficult. Men aren’t expected to change their opinion, so there’s no conflict. I don’t think it’s going to go away.”

She tells me about a text she just got from her daughter, who is getting married and is worried about invitations and hurt feelings. Women tend to not want anyone to be upset with them. “That kind of keeps us in line a little bit. If I think someone is upset with me I want to immediately rush in and do something to make them not feel upset: I’m so sorry, let’s go for coffee, I was having a bad day. Whereas men say, I’m going to check back with that person next week. Time will pass. He’ll get over it.”  

Karbo is certain that “difficult” is a not a word ever used to describe a man. “A good man is expected to be somewhat difficult because it means he stands up for what he believes in, he goes against the grain.”

Rather than “setting out to be difficult”, Karbo is more concerned with how women might “take the corsets off of our personality. Women are so strangled being nice and charitable and self-sacrificing and all these things which are part of our nature but not the whole part”.

The writer Nora Ephron is included in Karbo’s list because of what is tactfully described as her “exacting” nature. Karbo recalls being at an event where “a woman came up to me and said, ‘I went to Wellesley with Nora Ephron, and she was a real bitch.’ That was so good to hear because I thought, Am I including her in the book because I just love her so much, and maybe she’s not that difficult – but apparently she was.”

Seemingly well aware of that perception of her, Ephron, in her commencement address to the students of her alma mater, instructed them in the ways of difficulty. “Whatever you choose, however many roads you travel, I hope that you choose not to be a lady. I hope you will find some way to break the rules and make a little trouble out there. And I also hope that you will choose to make some of that trouble on behalf of women.” 

It seems that this might be the era of the difficult, outspoken, disruptive woman. Like Oprah Winfrey standing on the stage at the 2018 Golden Globes declaring that a new day is on the horizon because of the women “fighting hard to make sure that they become the leaders who take us to the time when nobody ever has to say ‘me too’ again”. Or Asia Argento at the closing ceremony at Cannes last month, telling the audience, “In 1997, I was raped by Harvey Weinstein here at Cannes.”

Annie Murphy, who presided over Ireland’s first big church scandal, appeared on The Late Late Show in 1993.
Annie Murphy, who presided over Ireland’s first big church scandal, appeared on The Late Late Show in 1993.

“I think we are making progress,” Karbo says. “Part of what I was thinking about when I was writing the book is that it’s great to have #MeToo and #TimesUp and people like Oprah giving her speech, but then eventually every day we have to get up in the morning and go to work and live our lives. Reading about women throughout history who have done it, from Coco Chanel – born in 1883 – to now, and looking at the women in Ireland who got this referendum through, the stories of women who are doing it, and how they’re doing it in a boots-on-the-ground day-to-day way, is what will help us move forward inch by inch.”

Trolling and tone-policing

After speaking with Karbo, I wonder how Irish women fare under her hypotheses. Perhaps we are now embracing our difficult selves; maybe even the men are coming around to that idea of us.

Perhaps it is just that in recent times our refusal to sit down and shut up has finally paid off, but not without moments of terrible castigation for many campaigners. There was the trolling and the tone-policing; the women were “shrill” and “going on a bit”. The voices were “too Dublin media”. The jumpers were too militant. The celebration of a Yes win would be reprehensible.

I met the prominent Repeal campaigner Tara Flynn briefly after a talk given by Gloria Steinem in 2016. An anti-abortion woman in the audience had made grossly insensitive remarks. I had simply rolled my eyes but Flynn was furious and mobilised. And where would we be now without the burnishing fury of so many like her?

Nell McCafferty has been accused of being difficult and provocative all her life, but there is no questioning her impact on Irish women’s lives, or any doubt that she allows the full range of her humanity to play out before us. Ireland was the last country in Europe to legalise contraception, and in 1971 McCafferty, as a founding member of the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement, was among the 48 women who headed off to the North to bring contraceptives back into the Republic. “It is the system that divides,” she wrote in 1970. “Break the system, unite the people.” 

In 1990, in an unlikely move, Ireland elected Mary Robinson as president. A pro-choice lawyer whose battles most often took place at the intersection of religion and politics, Robinson had been at the fore of campaigns for the introduction of contraception and divorce. She was a minority voice against the introduction of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, in 1983, and took the Irish government to the European Court of Human Rights to challenge its homosexuality laws. She used new language in her inaugural address, “I want the women who have felt themselves outside history to be written back into history.”

Mary Robinson: “I want the women who have felt themselves outside history to be written back into history.” Photograph: Matt Kavanagh
Mary Robinson: “I want the women who have felt themselves outside history to be written back into history.” Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

And so women in Ireland continued to make history by battling with it.

In 1992 Sinéad O’Connor ripped up a picture of the pope on Saturday Night Live and implored us to “fight the real enemy”. If such a thing were to happen today, there might only be a mild ripple of disapproval, possibly a meme. Certainly, the following week’s guest, Joe Pesci, would have come under more fire for his response that he would like to give her “such a smack”.  

O’Connor defended her actions in an open letter: “It has occurred to me that the only hope of recovery for my people is to look back into our history. Face some very difficult truths and some very frightening feelings. It must be acknowledged what was done to us so we can forgive and be free.” O’Connor’s words now look prophetic.

A year later, Annie Murphy presided over Ireland’s first big church scandal, one that now pales in comparison with much that would follow. The night Annie Murphy appeared on The Late Late Show in 1993, she was put on trial. Gay Byrne and the women in the audience chastised and goaded. Pushed hard to feel shame, Murphy refused shame.

In 2013, Galway County Council told Catherine Corless that she could not have information on the Tuam mother-and-baby home because she did not have a college degree, so she requested the death certificates of every child who had died in the home, paying €4 for each one, eventually taking up 796 certificates. “If I didn’t do it, nobody else would have done it.” 

The story of the mass graves of the Tuam babies emerged slowly, radiating outwards; local news, then national, then global. Corless withstood doubts about her research. Eventually, the Government could no longer ignore her work and set up a commission to investigate.

Sinéad O’Connor rips up a picture of Pope John Paul II on the TV show Saturday Night Live. Photograph: Yvonne Hemsey/Getty Images
Sinéad O’Connor rips up a picture of Pope John Paul II on the TV show Saturday Night Live. Photograph: Yvonne Hemsey/Getty Images

The apple cart

In an interview in 2016, Bernadette Devlin McAliskey said, “People are afraid of upsetting the apple cart, upsetting the peace process, upsetting the funding process. But part of me still needs to tip it, and see how far it will tip over”. 

More and more Irish women are becoming keen upsetters of apple carts.

There was a rape trial in Belfast.

Women took to the streets.

In the midst of her own distress, Vicky Phelan uncovered the CervicalCheck controversy.

Women took to the streets.

Individual pain branched out. One difficult woman became many.

After the referendum Clare Daly stood up in the Dáil and raged that it had taken so long to get here. She forced everyone to acknowledge that it was ordinary women who forged the path.

Smaller stories emerged in the aftermath; older women explaining to priests exactly why they voted how they did, and sometimes the priests really listening. A surprising text from an older relative on May 26th to say, “Us oldies remember the past and all the people who suffered”. As the former president of the Irish Countrywomen’s Association Mamo McDonald once said, “I didn’t start out as a feminist. It was life that made a feminist of me.”

Are we all difficult women now?

There was a 94 per cent increase in turnout of women voters aged 18-24 in the recent referendum. Where will that take us next, now that so many young women have the courage to stand on the doorsteps of strangers and talk about the things that matter to them?

The feminist poet Muriel Rukeyeser wrote, “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.”

There was a 94 per cent increase in turnout of women voters aged 19-24 in the recent referendum on the Eighth Amendment. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
There was a 94 per cent increase in turnout of women voters aged 19-24 in the recent referendum on the Eighth Amendment. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

An ancient heart

A couple of weeks before the referendum, I was in a small restaurant with a friend and her baby, Louie, who is named after the Irish suffragette Louie Bennett. Mary Robinson was having lunch one table over. We had Yes badges on, and hoped our appreciation of her might register in some small way.

After her meal, Robinson came over and cupped Louie’s little head and leaned down to smile at her. Then she left. 

“Well, that’s it. You’re annointed now,” my friend said to her baby.

The future has an ancient heart.

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