Meet the ‘Difficult’ Women Who Wrote Their Own Rules
These 29 women weren’t willing to be anything but fully themselves, from Jane Goodall to Frida Kahlo to Billie Jean King.
This story is part of Women of Impact, a National Geographic project centered around women breaking barriers in their fields, changing their communities, and inspiring action. Join the conversation in our Facebook group.
“If you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun,” Katharine Hepburn once remarked. So, in honor of Mother’s Day, we have asked Karen Karbo, author of In Praise of Difficult Women, to talk about some of the iconic women that have inspired her, from aviator Amelia Earhart to newscaster Rachel Maddow and National Geographic Explorer Jane Goodall. What links them all is a determination to trust themselves and the courage to break the rules.
Speaking from her home in Portland, Oregon, Karbo explains why Jane Goodall was one of her childhood heroes; why she finds the demands of modern American womanhood such a challenge; and why women are often labelled “difficult” just for being themselves.
Being difficult is usually a negative character trait. But you celebrate it as a virtue. Unpack the paradox for us and explain how it links the diverse women you profile.
There are invisible quotes around “difficult” that don’t appear in the title. Women who are strong, passionate and determined don’t walk around saying, “Oh, look, I’m difficult.” They just believe they’re living their lives. It’s a word slapped on them by other people. If you don’t care too much what people think, you risk being called a difficult woman because you’re not staying in your lane or doing what is expected of you. For the most part, any time a woman doesn’t do that she can be called difficult. When a woman inconveniences somebody she can be called difficult. A woman who believes her own needs, goals, and desires are at least as important as everyone around her risks being called difficult. One of the first reviewers said, “That’s a pretty low bar.” I said, “Thank you for making my point for me.” Because it actually doesn’t take much to be considered a difficult woman. That’s why there are so many of us. [laughs]
In the book, there are 29 women and each woman has what I believe to be her very specific traits. That was the lens that I used when I wrote these essays. If you look at someone like Rachel Maddow, she’s brainy. Oftentimes a woman who is not afraid to display her intelligence can be considered difficult. It’s like, “What is she, a know-it-all?
The first person in the book is J.K. Rowling, whom I call “scrappy.” She is someone who, given the position she finds herself in, could rest on her laurels, continuing the Harry Potter franchise or writing adult mysteries. But she takes to Twitter, calls people out, speaking truth to power, and so gets in a lot of hot water. But that’s her nature. She needs to express her opinion regardless of the fallout.
One of National Geographic’s most celebrated explorers is Jane Goodall. Tell us about that key moment when she stood her ground in the face of criticism from male superiors, and why trusting yourself is so important for a woman.
Jane Goodall was one of my very first idols. My parents had a subscription to Nat Geo and before I could even read I would flip through pictures of Jane Goodall in Africa, squatting down in her khaki shorts, talking to a chimp. But it is important to look at where she came from. She was one of only eight people ever allowed to do a Cambridge PhD program without having an undergraduate degree. Everything she knew, she knew from the field.
When she had to meet with the Cambridge dons, you can imagine how intimidating it must have been. They were sort of mocking her because she insisted on giving the chimps names, and believed they not only had a very specific social structure, but specific personalities, which sounded extremely silly in that day and age. When they expressed that to her, she went back to her own childhood and said, “Anyone who has ever had a pet dog knows that an animal has a personality.” Imagine the courage it took to say, “Look, I know what I know and all of your grandeur, authority and power is not going to move me off of my position.”
You write, “We are exhausted—or at least I am—by the demands of American womanhood.” Talk about that feeling and whether it has got harder—or easier—to be an independent woman today?
Women today feel like they have to be better all the time. I remember a friend in college who would run a mile every day. It was like she was headed for the Olympics! Now, if you run a mile a day it’s practically like you’re not even exercising. [laughs] We all have to be super fit, which takes a lot of time; we have a baby and then eight hours later we have to be ready to walk the red carpet; we have to have a great career; and we have to be up to date, having read all the good books and seen the good movies.
The Internet hasn’t helped because we can now hop on 24/7 and see all the ways in which we are not trying to improve ourselves. [laughs] It used to be women’s fashion magazines, but those came out once a month! Once you had read that, you were good for three weeks. Now, it’s ever present—10 ways you can improve your tennis game, 9 ways to improve your love life. All of that, coming at you all of the time, doesn’t give you a lot of headspace to think of anything other than yourself. You also wind up thinking, “Oh, God, my tennis game is crappy and I didn’t think about that until this moment!” [laughs] It’s insane!
Amelia Earhart once said, “Women, like men, should try to do the impossible.” She also had some very unconventional views on marriage, didn’t she?
She married George Putnam and they were the perfect couple because he was a born promoter. He was the heir to the GP Putnam Sons Publishing house, who had published a lot of explorers and adventurers, and he was one himself. So what was so great about falling in love with Amelia was that she was the perfect person to promote. Not only was she courageous, she was very photogenic and polite; she wore clothes well; and she had a lot of stamina and a genuine interest in talking to people.
On her wedding day, she gave Putnam a letter saying, ‘I’m not gonna stop doing what I’m doing to be a traditional wife.’ There was also a veiled subtext, saying ‘I’m going to try and be loyal to you if I can, but don’t have too high expectations on that front.’ [laughs] I included her specifically because I was interested in including women who were introverted. When we think of difficult women, we tend to think they’re extroverted and opinionated. But there are a lot of quiet, introverted women, like Jane Goodall and Amelia Earhart, who were doing exactly what they wanted to do and moving under the radar.
Martha Gellhorn, the writer and journalist, is best known for being the partner of Hemingway. But she was much more than that, wasn’t she?
When I give shorter interviews, Martha is always Hemingway’s third wife. I know she is spinning in her grave, because she was a writer and intrepid journalist in her own right. In fact, she wound up leaving the marriage to Hemingway, the only wife who did leave, because she couldn’t bear the insular life they had. She wanted to be where the world was being made or unmade, as the case may be.
She was extraordinarily courageous. She made it to the front in WWII by hook or by crook. She was forever sneaking aboard a ship, or flying under false pretenses, or pretending to be a nurse, in order to get to the front lines. Throughout her life, she was concerned with injustice—particularly economic injustice—for people all over the world who were not getting a good deal. She was smart, very difficult, and also glamorous! She was blonde, long-legged, and would wear these great hunting outfits.
Like the Mexican painter, Frida Kahlo, quite a number of the women you celebrate have fluid attitudes to sexuality and gender. Is this part of “being difficult,” or, at least, different?
Women tend to be people-pleasers. But the problem of being a people-pleaser is that you wind up shuttering off more and more of your personality, like someone in a big house who keeps shutting up empty rooms until they are living in the kitchen and the front room. Difficult women have all the doors open in all the rooms. They are so fully human that, to keep the metaphor going longer, they are happy to walk through every door.
I don’t think is has anything specifically to do with being difficult, but difficult women tend to be in touch with all the different parts of their personalities. They’re inhabiting the fullness of themselves. So, being gender-fluid, as we say today, or having sexual proclivities you’re not willing to ignore, is often true of difficult women.
Billie Jean King was recently celebrated in the movie Battle of The Sexes. But her tennis match against Bobby Riggs was a small part of her contribution to women’s liberation, wasn’t it?
The battle of the sexes was obviously the headline event, but there was a lot of interesting backroom politics, when she broke with the USTA and started the women’s tour, in protest of the fact that, as tennis became more popular, men were paid more and more while women’s wages remained stagnant, or even declined.
When Billie Jean first hit the tennis courts in the 70s, women’s tennis was a kind of nice sideshow to men’s tennis. They wore these little skirts, they were pretty and would glisten with sweat. It was all great, but nobody took it seriously. From the get-go, though, Billie Jean was a competitor. Today, we take it for granted when we see someone like the Williams sisters out there being competitive, grunting and groaning and hitting that ball for all they’re worth. But that wasn’t always the case. Billie Jean was the first female competitor to show that she was competitive and what it meant to be a serious professional athlete.
She also became an inspirational figure for the LGBT community, right?
She did, though she grew up in a conservative part of Southern California that was very homophobic. She openly admits that when she first came to terms with her own sexuality she was also homophobic! So, it was very confusing. When she was outed by her partner, Marilyn Barnett, everyone said, “Deny it, deny it, deny it!” But she couldn’t. She had to be honest and it was extraordinarily difficult for her. It made things complicated with her parents. The book is not just a celebration of difficult women. It is also, sub-textually, saying, ‘You can be difficult and get through these tough parts of your life. You will survive it.’
If you could have dinner with just one of these women, who would you choose, and why?
OMG! Give me a moment. [laughs] You know, one of the women people don’t talk about much is Vita Sackville-West. I think I would have dinner with her. She was a writer and a poet who married fellow writer Harold Nicholson. She was also Virginia Woolf’s lover. We talk about gender fluidity now as if we all know what that is and it’s no big deal. But she was one of the first people who really struggled with this. She lived a long life and had two sons, one of whom wrote a wonderful biography of her marriage to Harold Nicholson. She even created a world-class garden, at Sissinghurst Castle. So I would, for sure, want to hear her gardening tips. [laughs]
This interview was edited for length and clarity.