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Strong Women: Independent or Not?

Lesley A. Diehl is a strong, independent woman! She is also our guest blogger today. She talks about writing strong women, whether those women are independent or not. Hear what she says about her own writing, and that of others.

Lesley retired from her life as a professor of psychology and reclaimed her country roots by moving to a small cottage in the Butternut River Valley in upstate New York.  In the winter she migrates to old Florida–cowboys, scrub palmetto, and open fields of grazing cattle, a place where spurs still jingle in the post office.  Back north, she devotes her afternoons to writing and, when the sun sets, relaxing on the bank of her trout stream, sipping tea or a local microbrew.

“I taught courses in developmental psychology including a course on psychology of women for over 25 years beginning in the 1970s.  The first assignment I gave to my class on women was to look up “feminist” in the dictionary.  Most of them were surprised the definition didn’t include “man hater” and that it didn’t begin with “a woman who” but rather “a person who” and went on to read “espouses equality of the sexes in economic, political, and social areas.”  Even in what I’ve been informed is the present “post feminist era”, the definition still holds.  Unfortunately, so does the antipathy towards using it to describe oneself.

I don’t really care if a person uses feminist as a self descriptor, but I am concerned that discarding the term has allowed us to detach ourselves from a history that binds women together and acknowledges their support for one another, their debt to the contributions of women who have gone before, in fact, their dependence upon one another.  Perhaps it is part of the “me” generation for each individual to claim success was achieved solely through one’s own efforts.  As I left higher education I found more and more young women who had no use for the support of other women, who would make it independent of their sisters as if they existed in a vacuum and not in a society shaped by social forces.  The descriptor most popular among many of these women was that they were “independent” women, and it was this independence that made them strong.

In my class, I liked to talk about androgynous women, a term that has now gone out of style, but still says much about women’s search for a strong self.  An androgynous woman is one who is both independent and dependent; she can take independent action when the circumstances call for it, but she also knows when to call in others for help.  Doesn’t that sound like the perfect female protagonist in mysteries?  Yes.  These are the kind of protagonists we love.  Take for example, Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum, a strong woman who can get herself out of (and into) tight situations.  The men in her life may come to her aid at times, but it is often Lulu who is beside her when the bullets begin to fly.

Jean Henry Mead writes a mystery series about two retired women who have become amateur sleuths.  In her recent book Murder on the Interstate the women find a dead body along the interstate and set out to find the killer.  She achieves a perfect balance of the independent women getting into fixes and helping one another to get out of them.  These are strong women, but dependent upon one another when it’s necessary.

There are other examples, e.g., Goldie with her husband and her first husband’s ex-wife in Dianne Mott Davidson’s caterer series, Mary Daheim’s Judith who runs a bed and breakfast and relies on her cousin as a sleuthing partner, or Susan Albert Wittig’s herbalist who is surrounded by women friends to call on for help.  Whether we know it or not, we like to read about women who have both independent and dependent aspects to their personalities.  We don’t want men to ride in and rescue them, but we do want protagonists who are connected by love and friendship with other people.  We don’t want them to say no to a little help when facing down a killer.

In my own writing I try to remember what I like about others’ characters and craft my protagonists as strong women, but never so independent they can’t borrow their friend’s gun to shoot the bad guy.  How do you write your protagonist?”


Lesley A. Diehl, author of A Deadly Draught, a Hera Knightsbridge Master Brewer series and Dumpster Dying, a Big Lake Murder Mystery.

Visit her at and on her blog at

Independent or not, strong women are strong women!



18 Comments Post a comment
  1. This was a fascinating blog. I am so intrigued by the concept of the androgynous woman that it’s making me reexamine my own character and her relationships. I agree that so many women are eager to discard the support of other women as unnecessary or even, distasteful, as if by allowing themselves to be lumped together is somehow a weakness.

    I recall many a time when I was the woman pulling other women to me for us to stand together and they came, albeit reluctantly. I never had the reservation to ask for the help but I was always sad that it had to be asked for.

    July 6, 2011
  2. I still have my “Uppity Women Unite” pin! I think “a strong woman” is almost an oxymoron. Women ARE strong and have always been, it’s just been in ways that weren’t recognized. I have always hired women because they understand the true meaning of “multitasking.” The women protags in both my vampire books and my upcoming mystery are complete, successful, working women, supervising staff and making decisions..

    July 6, 2011
  3. Then Lesley did well, Karen! I find it refreshing to read something that causes me to go back and re-evaluate my thoughts, feelings and reactions to things–particularly those related to women. I too loved the androgynous comment. Interdependence, dependent and independent qualities have something important for each of us. Love to hear what others have to say.

    July 6, 2011
  4. It is strange how the term “feminist” is sometimes associated with negativity. Growing up to be a woman I always wanted to make my own money and be independent. I love reading about strong female characters. It’s so neat how your work has made you a better author. 🙂 Great post.

    July 6, 2011
  5. Michele, woman are definitely pros at multi-tasking! I get to going in so many directions, and sometimes all at once, but in the end they all get done. Thanks for dropping by. Folks, check out Michele’s link to her website.

    July 6, 2011
  6. Aubrie, thanks for stopping by and for the kind words. Feminist being associated with negativity, I believe, often has to do with men’s fear. And if men are afraid of us, many women will follow that fear and avoid the tern so as not to alienate men they love–or want to love.

    That’s a good question, too. I’d love to hear from other readers — why do you think the term has been portrayed with negativity?

    July 6, 2011
  7. Why am I just now hearing about this blog? It’s fabulous here! Thank you, Lesley, for emailing authors from our literary agency about blogging here today. Your post was quite timely for me, I’m writing a romance about a feminist who, because of childhood abuse, does not reach out well to other women for support. Now I know which way to take her on her journey of growth. I love strong women, yet often have trouble writing them as strong in the beginning. Usually by chapter 5 or 6, I’m getting a better handle on my heroine which means major rewrites of previous chapters. I think the majority of us take life’s adversities and eventually turn them into advantages–this is one of our strengths. I try to showcase this steely trait in my heroines. Great post, Lesley. Great blog, too.

    July 6, 2011
  8. Great article, Lesley. I’m flattered that you mentioned me and my senior sleuths. Women have traditionally been strong but worked quietly behind the scenes. We’ve finally come into our own but we’re not quite there yet. Women in power around the world would make it a MUCH better planet.

    July 6, 2011
  9. Thanks, Vonnie! Thrilled you like the blog! And I am so happy you found us–thanks to Lesley! On the topic of strong female characters–I too write them in my mystery series and also in my historical novel. The thing I find thrilling is to have my protagonist actually not be so strong at the beginning–then watch her grow and develop throughout the book. Sooooo, that means by the time I finish with them, they have made major steps in their growth and in finding their voice. That approach, I hope helps become a stepping stone to others, showing them the process and the journey. I have heard from many who resonated with the protagonist and how she grows–modeling for them steps they still need to make!

    Hope you drop by often–and what about being a guest here! Would love to pick your brain on your take on strong women and how you write them! If so, shoot me an email at sds(at)

    July 6, 2011
  10. Agree with you, Jean! And that’s what we’re working toward! Maybe not in my lifetime, but……….

    Thanks for stopping by!

    July 6, 2011
  11. What interesting and inspiring comments. Who thought reminiscing about my days in the classroom and the topic of androgyny would instigate this discussion? Of course, the old theoretical stances on characteristics such as independence, dependence was that they were two end points of the same continuum, one was feminine and one masculine, so no one could (should) be both. It’sclear we’ve come a long way from that point and our characters show it. The issue of men’s fear comes into play here as you’ve suggested. Men would be particualrly fearful of taking on any hint of dependency. So have we moved our male characters beyond this fear?


    July 6, 2011
  12. Very interesting. Although I had not looked at it that way, I do write strong women. The protagonist in my WIP is strong, but she also has other strong women around her that she can turn to when needed. In this book, though, her problem is admitting she needs others and letting them know her secrets.

    July 7, 2011
    • Strong women come in all shapes and sizes, Helen. And some start out not so and grow–finding their voice as they go! So, finish that book so I can read it! Or, or you done?

      July 7, 2011
  13. Valerie Horowitz #

    I have been thinking about the topic “whatever happened to feminism?” a lot lately, and enjoyed your post. Perhaps what you describe as the “independence” of young women not relying on others the way 70’s women did is a reflection of the technologically-based isolation of our times. Feminist consciousness raising groups in the 70s were a way for women to come together out of the isolation of the post-WWII 50s and 60s.

    July 7, 2011
  14. Valerie, could well be a part of it. Perhaps it is a big part of technology age. Young women connect constantly with text messages, FB, Twitter, etc. My granddaughter in law had her baby on Facebook!!!

    Isolation was indeed a big issue in the 50s and 60s for homemakers. But what about the 19th and 20th centuries pre-all these tech instruments? Times change, and needs change. The memory of where we’ve come is important to remember, for sure.

    Thanks for stopping by. And jump in anytime!! Great discussion.

    July 7, 2011
  15. The isolation women felt in the 50s and 60s was only partly isolation from one another. It was also isolation brought on by social proscriptions for how women should behave and what they should feel. There were some very shocking things that went on when the neighborhood women got together over their morning coffee. Ask Betty Friedan.
    I sometimes wonder if we’re kidding ourselves that we are more closely connected now because of technology. Or are we hiding behind a kind of pseudoconnectedness, an illusion that, because we have 500 friends on Facebook and we tell them when we go to bed, we are close? Oh, oh. This sounds like another topic.
    Thanks everyone for making this an inersting and lively discussion.


    July 8, 2011
    • Lesley,

      Connected is not always connected is it? We can be connected, but that isn’t the same thing as intimate, one on one openings of the heart. Connecting on FB does not come close to the heart to heart connections women have when they gather. Particularly those nights when Baubo the Belly Goddess comes calling. When we let our hair down, giggle, share confidences, and laugh ourselves silly! No Facebook can equal that!

      And I’m ready for another topic–let’s go!

      July 11, 2011
  16. Very interesting points you have mentioned , thankyou for putting up. “Success is a journey, not a destination. The doing is often more important than the outcome.” by Arthur Ashe.

    July 14, 2011

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