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

The Irish Times Magazine - - INSIDE -

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

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