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.
Independent or not, strong women are strong women!