From Gloria Steinem and Hillary Clinton to Sinéad O’Connor and Vicky Phelan: why more women than ever are willing to upset the apple cart
From Gloria Steinem to Hillary Clinton, women who show ambition or defiance are often dismissed as unlikable or emotional. But, writes Catherine Conroy, more and more Irish women are becoming keen upsetters of apple carts
Ihave 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.
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.”
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 ( National Geographic, £ 18.99), 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.”
“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
Trouble ahead: my grandmother and her friend in 1952, in the doorway of their new clothes shop, Primrose Dress Salon. MAIN PHOTOGRAPH: GEORGE PETERS/ DIGITAL VISION/ GETTY