In Praise of Difficult Women

A scant three years ago, the biggest question plaguing the Internet was whether the dress was gold and white or blue and black. Everywhere else, things seemed rather rose-colored. Gay marriage had just been legalized in all 50 states; the Affordable Care Act, while not solving the health care boondoggle, was a step in the right direction.

Things felt so rosy, in fact, that A-list actors and culture influencers decided it was time to pen demure op-eds about how they weren’t feminists.

CC Chapman / Creative Commons

Feminism was like dial phones and travel agents—once useful, now a relic. A quick Google search unearths dozens of think pieces and posts from that year with names like “I’m Not a Feminist and Here’s Why,” “Please Stop Asking Me Why I’m Not a Feminist,” and “What I Actually Mean When I Say I’m Not a Feminist.” The Huffington Post explained the whole hairsplitting phenomena in “What Saying I’m Not a Feminist Really Means.”

While all this disavowing of feminism was going on, in Spring 2015, I sold a proposal to National Geographic Books for In Praise of Difficult Women: Life Lessons from 29 Heroines Who Dared to Break the Rules. It was to be a collection of personal essays about iconic women who made their mark by charting their own course, which required them to be, on occasion, difficult.

To celebrate Women’s History Month, Ms. is giving away 100 copies of In Praise of Difficult Women. Snag your copy—and a year of Ms.—today!

My researched proved that it didn’t take much for a woman to be deemed difficult: All she had to do was be consistently impervious to the cultural demands of her era, stick to her opinion and voice it, display some ambition or the occasional flash of anger, and voila—a difficult woman was born.

I signed my book contract during what would turn out, in hindsight, to be an extraordinarily woman-friendly time in history. Hillary Clinton appeared to be such a shoo-in for the presidency that it seemed to be a waste of everyone’s time to even hold an election. We had an African-American president and now we were going to have a woman president, one whose priorities were protecting and championing the rights of women and children. Women were in a great place. Sexism was history. The most challenging situations most of us thought we’d be dealing with from here on out were micro-aggressions.

Through 2015 and 2016 I worked on my book. My heroines, as I thought of them, comprised a multi-cultural sorority of the dead and living, bound by their universal penchant for being difficult. Some were extroverted and outspoken, some were quiet and determined. Some were stubborn. Some were charismatic and bossy. Some were braver than 10 men. I wanted the list to be diverse, to write about women I’d long admired—Frida Kahlo, Martha Gellhorn, Diana Vreeland—and women who were currently inspiring me with their bold, badass lives—Shonda Rhimes, Rachel Maddow, Amy Poehler. My personal definition of difficult was a badge of honor, and I was hoping my living heroines would agree with me. I tried not to lose sleep wondering whether J.K. Rowling, who pretty much rules Twitter with her wit and snark, would nevertheless take umbrage with my adjective.

Then, more than a year after I’d begun writing, the winds began to change. During the final debate between the two, then-candidate Donald Trump hurled an iconic insult at Hillary Clinton—“nasty woman.” Within a day, women all over the country were rocking the phrase on tee shirts, proud to be thought of as nasty, a first-cousin to both difficult and feminist.

Then came the election. Then came a political climate in which reproductive rights were, once again, called into question, and women’s health in general was dismissed as irrelevant. Then came the sexual misconduct scandal—and the realization that many, if not most, women were experiencing not simply micro-aggressions in the workplace, but actual aggression, and actual sexual assault.

Another round of A-list actresses and influencers now penned strident op-eds proclaiming #allwomen and #metoo. Maybe it wasn’t time to retire feminism after all.

The passing of time between idea and finished copy with this book—which debuts today, just in time for Women’s History Month—has been a blessing. In Praise of Difficult Women will arrive at a time when so many women are allowing their “difficult” natures to peek out into the world and sporting sassy t-shirts proclaiming themselves to be wild feminists.

Three months or so before publication, a friend who’s a well-known writer sent me an email last week asking why she wasn’t in the book. (She was joking, but only slightly.) Likewise, a famously difficult singer friend of some renown wanted to know if I’d thought to include her.

Best of all, I also received a lovely note from one of the living heroines whom I described as indefatigable. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote to say she was honored to be in such good company, and was looking forward to a reading treat. She didn’t mention it, but I suspect in her wisdom she knows the reality: that for a woman to have the life she wants, regardless of the times, she must always be difficult.


Karen Karbo is the author of multiple award-winning novels, memoirs and works of nonfiction. Her best-selling "Kick-Ass Women" series includes The Gospel According to Coco Chanel: Life Lessons from the World's Most Elegant Woman, which was an international bestseller. Karbo's short stories, essays, articles and reviews have appeared in Elle, Vogue, Esquire, Outside, the New York Times, Salon and other publications. She is a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Fiction, and a winner of the General Electric Younger Writer Award. She lives in Portland, Oregon, where she continues to kick ass.