Book Review: ‘In Praise of Difficult Women’, ‘A to Z of Amazing South African Women’, ‘Stories for Boys Who Dare to be Different’

9 September 2018

There is a tremendous wealth of reading material on the topics of feminism and gender equality – books, news stories, opinionated blog posts (scroll back a bit to see evidence of that…), etc. You can’t open a newspaper, or indeed any form of social media, without having to engage with the topic, and this is entirely to the good. However, an important part of moving forward with the conversation is to also see reflections of the positive reality we should all be striving for. This requires highlighting certain previously-ignored (deliberately or otherwise) people and experiences, and reframing others through a new lens, one free from the grubby fingerprints of patriarchy and discrimination.

I’ve been lucky enough to read three fantastic books over the last few months that do exactly this, without trying to score worthiness points or make the reader feel like a complete arse for not previously having heard of many of the people featured. The first of these was, full disclosure, written by my former university digsmate, Ambre Nicholson (with gorgeously vivid artwork by her husband, Jaxon Hsu), but we haven’t seen each other since we graduated 15 years’ ago, so she certainly had no expectation of me buying her book.

A to Z of Amazing South African Women is a celebration of 26 genuinely extraordinary South African women (as Nicholson points out in her foreword, choosing just 26 was a near-impossible task). From the famous fossil, Mrs Ples (surely the world’s only 2 million-year-old celebrity?) to 28-year-old gender norm-subverting musician, Dope Saint Jude, this book looks at the dazzling achievements of activists, athletes, artists, actors, authors, and many other occupations that don’t actually begin with ‘a’ (sorry, slight alliteration safari there). The things that these incredibly diverse women have in common are immense courage, conviction, and a lasting impact on South Africa. While the page dedicated to each is brief (by necessity, as each one would otherwise warrant a very large book of their own), every single description leaves you wanting to explore more. This is a book to read with Google close to hand, as I guarantee you will immediately want to read up on each of these heroines.

Rather than feeling ashamed of not having heard of so many of these women (many of them do not slot conveniently into a racist, patriarchal interpretation of South African history), I felt inspired by their stories, and delighted that this well-researched and beautifully-written book exists to highlight their contributions, and to show a new generation of South African women just how much there is to aspire to. Even if you’re not from that part of the world, it’s a glorious and important snapshot of female tenacity and brilliance within a society that didn’t allow women to even have their own bank accounts until a few decades ago, not to mention one within which an entire ethnic majority were denied the vote until 1994.

In looking for ‘new’ heroines, Karen Karbo’s In Praise of Difficult Women is another fabulous book, with beautiful yet fierce portraits of each woman by Kimberly Glyder. Highlighting 29 women who have unapologetically taken their place in history, Karbo neatly turns the patriarchal putdown of being described as a ‘difficult’ woman on its head. Yes, the women in this book are and were all difficult, in all the diverse ways that their 29 different personalities made them. With Karbo as our hilarious guide, being difficult is reframed as a refusal to conform, to stay silent, or to live in a way prescribed by either gender norms or society at the time. These women – among them Josephine Baker, Amelia Earhart, Nora Ephron, Shonda Rhimes, Margaret Cho, and Ruth (Badass) Bader Ginsberg – are ultimately all defined only by their own measures of success, whether professionally or personally. They’re also all fallible, not interested in hopping up on a pedestal and maintaining some arbitrary standard of feminine perfection. Karbo is honest about the fact that almost all of them did hurtful things along the way (you know, like a normal person), but how many male achievements does history caveat with the fact that ‘he was also sometimes a bit of a meanie’?

It is a joy to watch Karbo so deftly play with the very definition of ‘difficult’. In Jane Goodall’s case, she writes, ‘She always seemed to trust herself, which made her a difficult woman.’ When describing the unstoppable force that was Martha Gellhorn, she makes the important point that ‘The most difficult women are the angry ones.’ As we know, anger is rarely seen as a positive feminine trait (unless it results in a tabloid-worthy cat fight between two pop stars…or Kardashians) – how refreshing to have it cast in a new light as a great motivator to do great things. For those of us here in Brexitland, her description of the formidable Angela Merkel emphasises just how unassuming she is, and how this is in fact one of her greatest strategic advantages – ‘Difficult women need not be tap-dancing, opinion-slinging extroverts.’ She so successfully dismantles the traditional notion of being ‘difficult’ that, by the end of the book, I found myself listing all the ways I could try to be just a little more difficult in my own life.

A particular highlight of the book for me was the inclusion of Laverne Cox. While so many people are getting their knickers in a twist about which public bathrooms transgender people should be allowed to use, she just cracks on with her unique combination of activism and megawatt glamour. Feminism is for all of us, and Karbo, with her mix of deliciously dry humour and low tolerance for bullshit, isn’t going to let us forget it. You will finish this book determined to read every word, listen to every note, and watch every screen time minute by the women featured, and her amazing asterixed (it’s a word if I say it’s a word) footnotes of humour will make you wish you could go for a drink with the author herself.

Finally, a book that doesn’t feature a single woman (although transgender men who were raised as girls are on the list), but entirely reinforces the idea that feminism is good for everyone, especially as it breaks down the stereotypes of being a boy or man. Stories for Boys Who Dare to be Different by Ben Brooks describes itself as ‘true tales of amazing boys who changed the world without killing dragons’. As damaging as we believe the Disneyfied tropes of pretty, predominantly-white princesses in need of rescue are for young girls, the idea of chisel-jawed, muscular heroes as the masculine ideal surely don’t do anything good for boys? The boys in Brooks’ book are all heroic in different meaningful ways: Barack Obama, Oscar Wilde, Harvey Milk, David Attenborough, and Ai Weiwei are just a small sample of the 100 inspiring stories of boys from all walks of life, of various nationalities and ethnicities, and from near and far points in history. Quinton Winter provides lush and entirely frameable illustrations for each one.

With two boys of my own, this book (a gift from one of their wonderful godmothers) is a total game-changer in our discussions around traditional expectations of their gender. As well as highlighting extraordinary accomplishments, and often huge triumph over various odds, this book introduces concepts such as being gay or transgender in a very simple and unforced way. My husband read it for our eldest, and when the word ‘gay’ first appeared, my eight-year-old asked what it meant. While he knows several of our friends are either in relationships with, or married to, people of the same gender, we’d never actually discussed the language around it. He completely understood the idea that you simply love who you love, and wasn’t at all fazed by the idea of gender not being a binary state. While we’re not on a mission to produce the world’s most ‘right-on’ eight-year-old, being able to introduce examples of people who live lives different from his own limited experience is invaluable in opening up ongoing conversations.

The book similarly provides role models who have called upon their intellect, ingenuity and courage to do great things. With the amount of toxic masculinity floating around so many traditional ‘heroic’ endeavours (the world of team sports in particular seems to present us with an inordinate number of grim examples of ‘macho man’ culture gone horribly awry), I want my boys to know that they needn’t be defined by their ability to kick a ball, or whether they can act tough. The things that would make them great in my eyes would be to live a life truest to who they are, with an openness to all the complexities of the world around them.

We live in strange days, where a rabid tangerine somehow dominates every headline, and entire sections of humanity still find themselves under constant threat. However, these three excellent books remind us that heroines and heroes still exist, and have always existed, even if the context they’ve lived in prevented them from being acknowledged. I would highly recommend you read at least one, or ideally all three, and find yourself inspired, uplifted, and even, perhaps, a little more difficult.

C x