Islands at war: Strong women in a sea of patriarchy

Behind every community organization there is a strong woman… but usually only one.

I started noticing this uncomfortable reality once I got to be about thirty-five. When I was younger, I saw strong women as my mentors and leaders. I looked up to them, especially those who led groups, almost worshipfully and they usually responded with a bit of motherly advice and a job for me to do. But once I became clearly middle-aged, I started running up against their hard edges.

I was probably a bit oblivious in the beginning. It didn’t occur to me that we should be in competition. I had my plans and didn’t have any designs on their jobs or positions, but let’s face it. I’m opinionated, loud-mouthed and energetic. Wherever I got involved a hot friction quickly ignited between me and any strong women in leadership roles.

Creative Commons image by Tee Cee

Creative Commons image by Tee Cee

For awhile, I thought there must be something about me that simply irritates capable, educated and professional women, who I viewed as my natural peers and potential friends. But gradually I realized that if I was in an organizational role of authority above another strong woman, we were fine and often friends, and if I wasn’t part of their organization or social group, we were also usually fine. It’s only when I encounter strong women on a similar level or as a superior in an organization or social hierarchy that we run into trouble. And frankly, there aren’t any meek women in these roles.

I observe other women interacting. There are often smiles and hugs that quickly turn to vicious jockeying and betrayal that usually ends with all but one woman out the door and gone.

After I recently joined a group and quickly rose through the men to lead my city’s branch, the head of the national office (also a hard-working woman) called me to say we would be working together closely. But the close cooperation never materialized. A few weeks later, another woman started making waves in my branch with my support and the national head was telling her that she was the new “go to person.” And within a few days, the new girl was in tears and supposedly leaving the organization. I watched the same cycle happen with several others.

So many women leaders say they want to support other women, but they will only extend that support if the women near them have no opinions or gumption. Can we so quickly forget that you don’t get to be in leadership roles if you’re female and NOT strong, opinionated and feisty?

It is possible that we strong women rub one another the wrong way precisely because of the fact that we are pre-selected by the patriarchal system to be the competitive, enduring and assertive individuals of our gender. If we didn’t have these qualities, we wouldn’t be successful in a world run by men. And it is also these qualities that make us difficult to get along with.

But I doubt that is all there is to the antagonism between strong women. I see a lot of evidence that women in leadership tolerate opinions and challenge from male coworkers much more than they do from female coworkers. And apparently I’m not alone. When I finally decided to write about this, I googled “women leaders hostile to female coworkers” out of curiosity as to whether or not I’d come up with any random anecdotal hits. Instead, I got a flood of articles, studies and surveys including:

“Why do women bully each other at work?” a massively researched investigation from The Atlantic

“Female coworkers: Allies or Enemies” from Forbes

“The dark side of female rivalry in the workplace and what to do about it”

And even from the Yale Law Journal, “Hostility to the presence of women: Why women undermine each other in the workplace and the consequences for Title IV”

So, apparently this is “a thing” and not just my experience. Strong women fight one another, compete, undermine and bully one another and presumably also women who are not quite as tough.

Our feminist mothers didn’t tell us about this when they told us we could be anything and we were as good as any man. When I was a girl, going through a rare rite of passage with a supportive circle of older women I felt that i had been given a promise: “We will stand by you. The world may be made for men and men may still hold most of the economic and social power but you are the generation that will push beyond the barriers and we older women will be here urging you on.”

I went out into the professional world completely unprepared for the backlash from women. I saw women as allies and supports and some early experiences seemed to confirm it, possibly because I was nerdy and not sexually attractive to most men and as a younger, disabled woman I didn’t seem like much of a threat.

A male colleague recently told me that at least one woman higher than me in professional authority expressed feeling terribly threatened by me.

Threatened? By me? I am not only almost blind, I have a disabled child and I am socially awkward. I not only couldn’t be a threat to anyone if I wanted to, I don’t have any competitive designs on anything. I’m happy to be barely hanging on to my little bits of work and social engagement and have no intention of expanding anywhere.

And yet, the fact is that some feel threatened. That feeling isn’t nothing.

My first reaction is to think it is a byproduct of patriarchy. The over-competitive world of men has taught us to be this way. Or maybe it is that the tokenism of a lot of disingenuous affirmative action has forced us to operate in a world where most organizations would accept one high-ranking woman and one high-ranking person of color and that’s it. Maybe it is simply that the Old Boys Network lets only those women with very hard edges through.

I don’t know exactly what the reason is or even whether or not I am part of the problem. I don’t feel like I am competitive with other women. I generally feel safer and happier when I’m working with a lot of women… until the fighting starts, that is. I don’t tend to have conflicts with women who are below me in any formal or informal hierarchy. I am known as a good mentor. But then again I do have some hard edges and I can’t say that I didn’t get them the same way other women did.

What I do know is that only strong women can solve this. If we can look at ourselves and see what we are doing to one another and how it feeds into a system that is still keeping women underpaid and disempowered, we should be able to find a way to change it.

Let’s look for healing—for ourselves and for other women.

The kind of rite of passage to womanhood that I had as a young teen is crucial and it is sad that it is still rare. Let us openly express support for younger women, tell them we support them and then do so, even when feelings of insecurity creep in. Yes, sometimes they will be “too much.” They will be louder, more entitled, less self-sacrificing than we were at their age. It’s a good thing that they don’t have to work three times as hard and juggle both work and family without a hair out of place, as our generation did. When they look like a million bucks, let’s not forget that we support them.

And just as crucially, the next time we feel threatened, criticized or bossed by an older women, let’s stop and really think out whether or not the same behaviors and words would seem threatening, critical or bossy if they came from a man. Let’s slow down our judgement of older women and err on the side of compassion. When they look hard-edged or overdressed or frumpy or bitter, take a moment to recall that we are culturally conditioned by every Disney cartoon about evil queens and by all the social expectations of women to see their exhaustion, stress and capability as negative. And let us remember how and why they got to where they are. These older women who made it from generations past had to be tough and even ruthless at times to fit in a male-dominated world. Their gentler sisters often had to sacrifice their dreams and their very selves to have a family or a basic non-career job. And the patriarchal world taught all of us to be harsher than we would have naturally tended.

I don’t know how to heal it, not exactly, but I’m trying.

Strong women, you are sisters and you are needed—without perfection, without being goddesses, without winning—you are enough.

Guarding against poison

Commuter trains in the Czech Republic are strange, almost surreal places. They are often packed so tightly that you are touching several other human beings and breathing their breath even if you are all trying not to.

And yet these trains are often utterly silent.

In some places where I've ridden trains, subways or buses--for instance in New York, the US west coast or Western Europe, not to mention the global south--commuter vehicles are noisy, crowded and full of local culture, often featuring someone making impromptu music.

But in the Czech culture, there is a social contract that holds silence and pretend privacy as the highest virtues.

Creative Commons image by Eric Wüstenhagen

Creative Commons image by Eric Wüstenhagen

That was why the man sitting across from me yesterday sounded so loud. He was speaking into his phone, his voice pitched a little low but not nearly low enough. All around us everyone else was painfully silent. And this man's voice was audible throughout the train car.

"I told you, I turned it off... What you think you know is irrelevant. I know I turned it off... Well, listen to me. There are stupid people, as you well know. I am an intelligent person. I turned it off.... If you cannot accept reality, you are just what you are... I told you, I turned it off. I don't care. It's there on the counter. I turned it off. Maybe you turned it on in your sleep. I know what I know."

It wasn't so much his words, going on and, on mile after mile, that had me gagging on rising vomit. It was his sickeningly condescending tone. Superiority and contempt dripped from his every word.

I couldn't help imagining who he might be speaking to. Maybe a child or an elderly, senile parent... but most likely his wife or female partner, given the context.

The more I was forced to listen, the more I didn't give a flying rat's ass who he was talking to, how difficult they might be or what was the truth of his history with the device on the counter.

I couldn't hear the person on the other end of his line, not even a peep, despite sitting just a few feet from him. But shrieking would have been a reasonable response to his tone, in my view.

Am I oversensitive? Possibly.

I have known contempt. I am intimate with it. It is the natural child of delusions of superiority. I would wager that every person born with a significant disability has met contempt as well as its somewhat prettier but no less poisonous little sister, condescension.

Their existence is often hard to prove in a digital world. Reading the words of this man on the train, you may wonder why I was upset. Ninety percent of it was in the tone.

It often is that way. The person who wields contempt or condescension must maintain--at least for themselves--the illusion that they are superior, in-control and beyond reproach.

Last week, someone criticizing me for firmly insisting that my child not play in the water until she had changed out of her clothes and into her swimming suit used that tone on me. Parents of children with neuro-diversity are often judged by those who see the difficulties those children have and assume it\s all about bad parenting. Far too many people jump immediately to feelings of superiority.

A police officer patrolling a climate-crisis protest I was involved in used that tone on me just yesterday because he was convinced that I was holding a white cane as a media stunt and only pretending to be visually impaired. When people leap to conclusions about another, they are often wrong.

Haven't I ever felt contempt myself? Yes, to my regret. There is a fine line between disgust and contempt. Disgust arises when a we encounter something utterly abhorrent.

The man's tone on the train filled me with disgust, but not with contempt. I heard his abusive words and suppressed anger. I knew he wasn't doing well. I felt sorry for the person he was speaking to, but I also was well aware that I am not on a different level from him. I have to remind myself of that, which is why I know I am not "above" such negative thinking.

Contempt is disgust with the added punch of a belief in one's own inherent superiority. I didn't feel contempt that time on the train, but I think I have at times slipped down that slimy slope a little and had to pull myself back through shame and remorse.

The fact is that no one is superior to another in that way. It isn't easy to keep that belief firm in today's world in which so much is horrible. But the knowledge that I might be wrong in my perception, that I don't really know the experiences of others, keeps me back from contempt now.

I swallowed back bile on the train and spoke firmly and calmly to the man across from me. "Sir, I don't care who you're talking to or what they may have done. That tone you are using is inappropriate and abusive. I have to ask you to stop because that tone is poisoning the air for everyone here."

He glared at me for a second as if ready to argue or fight. Silence reigned all around us. The other passengers turned their faces a fraction more away from him. Finally he hung up his phone without any further comment, got up and left.

This is why I don't want to perpetuate contempt, no matter how disgusted, outraged and furious I may be at the injustice, greed and cruelty practiced by some human beings.

Simply put, contempt is poison. It poisons the one spoken to, the one speaking and all who hear or read it. It is the poison that has made social media toxic and broken our public discourse. Open display of contempt is the thing that most sets Donald Trump apart from very bad presidents of the past such as George W. Bush.

Contempt comes from a belief that one is inherently superior to another, who is irredeemable regardless of future actions. So, this is the first thing we must guard against, like the key component to a lethal poison.

It wouldn't even matter if true superiority and inferiority existed in humanity. The poison such assumptions create is too toxic, like hot nuclear waste. It cannot be born.

Superiority and contempt destroy families, communities and nations. "A little innocent superiority complex" is actually the diametric opposite of trust and goodwill.

Let us then set our hearts to a conviction of basic respect for others. This doesn't mean I don't tell that man on the train that his tone is poisonous. It means that I nurture the hope that he might question his assumption of superiority. Many people don't change. But everyone could change.

Do we still need feminism?

It took me a very long time to say "me too." on Facebook.

I have to explain this because many of my readers are old-school email junkies and don't frequent Facebook or Twitter much. So in case you were doing valuable non-screen-related things this week, this will get you up to speed. There is currently a movement on social media where women, and some men, post "me too," as their status if they are a survivor of sexual assault or harassment. 

It's a good idea. It comes as a response to revelations of celebrity rape and sexual harassment in the past few weeks, and it is meant to show that these are far from isolated incidents. Many, many women experience sexual harassment on a regular basis and far too many have been subjected to rape or assault. 

Creative Commons image by Sodanie Chea

Creative Commons image by Sodanie Chea

Why didn't I quickly jump on the bandwagon then? 

First, I'm always skeptical of these social media campaigns, where you must change your profile picture to this or that or else be branded as a supporter of terrorism or some such. I decided long ago not to participate in those campaigns. It takes several minutes for me to change my profile picture, and being a working class mother of very demanding kids, I can't always guarantee that I'll be able to be on-line long enough to discover and abide by all such trends. I don't want my lack of response to some particular campaign to be taken as a statement. I also know many people with limited internet access for whom keeping up with these things is entirely impossible. If I refrain from all of them, we are all less likely to be blamed and labeled for neglecting one.

But posting "me too" is much easier and less permanent. It also isn't showing support for something but demonstrating a statistic in real-time. So, after some thought, I decided that this is a different situation.

But still I was hesitant. Most of the sexual harassment I've experienced is so mundane that it barely merits a mention and if one hundred percent of all women haven't experienced the same, it is only due to specific and fairly isolated social surroundings. I have been called fat in several inappropriate situations or had the same implied among professional colleagues. it has been many years since random men blocked my path and tried to force me into sexual conversation or made catcalls at me, which apparently means that I am no longer attractive. Either being catcalled or not is a sexual/social signal in a society where a woman's appearance and sexual allure is considered to be a large part of her worth.

I have been asked to clean up the kitchenette in an office where everyone else was a man and been GLAD to have a role because I felt otherwise left out, even though I had a specific professional job to do that had nothing to do with cleaning. Sometimes I don't know what is worse--that men buy into this culture that demeans women or that we do ourselves. 

And that made me hesitate to post "me too" because I do know that so many other women have suffered so much more and I have not been exactly exemplary in my resistance to the male dominated culture. Mostly I have been glad to stand on my mother's and grandmothers' shoulders and accept those benefits of feminism that my generation was lucky enough to inherit without doing much to free my own mind from the treadmill. 

And then there is the fact that I did face actual sexual assault twice and managed to escape, using specific techniques from self-defense classes. This made me perhaps most uncomfortable posting "me too." I did not want to imply by telling my story that women who did not have the good fortune to have the training or who did have the training and either couldn't fight back or simply failed to overpower an attacker are somehow to blame. There is far too much of that blame-the-victim going around as it is. 

I do want women and girls to know that self-defense training can work though. Let's just be clear. I was mostly just lucky.

In one case, I was at a large outdoor festival at night. I was sixteen and had never been on a real date. A man at the party treated me nicely and acted like he wanted to be my friend. I was attracted to him and excited by the prospect of a romantic involvement. But then he very quickly pulled me away from others into a dark field. He squeezed my breast and kissed me forcefully. I tried to back away but he gripped harder. I said "no" and he ignored me.

I had grown up in a culture that said that if I was attracted to him and initially went with him someplace, that I had given my consent. The fact that I was sixteen and quickly decided that the pace of things had gone way beyond what I wanted was irrelevant. Not only my friends, the media and society in general would have judged me to be an impulsive girl who got what she deserved, I thought so too.

I told myself, "That was really stupid. No one would or should help you." As a result, it didn't actually occur to me to scream for help. But I had recently had one of those one-day crash courses in self-defense that parents sometimes put their teenage daughters in, and one of the techniques we practiced was startling an attacker by yelling right next to his ear. I did not want to continue with the encounter and "no" wasn't working. So, I leaned in a bit, got right next to his ear and let loose a wild yell, that went unnoticed by the partiers all around. I have quite a loud voice and it no doubt hurt. His grip loosened and I ran, easily evading him once I reached a more crowded area. 

That night I crawled into my sleeping bag in a pup tent on the edge of the festival, still shivering and alone. As I was settling down one of the older teenage boys I had traveled to the festival with brushed his fingers along my tent and said out loud, "Such a shame. A pretty girl going to sleep alone." His friends laughed and they walked away, not knowing that I had just had to use a self-defense technique to escape a non-consensual encounter. And yet as I lay there I knew those guys weren't dangerous and that they meant the comment in fun. I was even somewhat glad they would call me a pretty girl, even in jest. I had been heavily ostracized and bullied at school for having a disability and being called "pretty" was a strong lure. 

Three years later, I had gained and lost my first serious boyfriend, had lack-luster sex and was started on a life of feeling uncomfortable about--and generally disinterested in--sexuality. I was still occasionally called pretty, but even at 19 that was fading. My first boyfriend and others had called me "fat" many times, though I was actually well within the most limited version of the "healthy" range and I'd love to be that physically fit again. Still I took them at their word. I never felt happy with my looks. I just wasn't that interested. I had more important things to do and I spent my time writing, studying at college and wriggling my way into as many foreign exchange programs as possible. 

One of these was in Siberia. My second brush with sexual assault occurred on that trip. I was studying in a mid-sized city in Siberia called Kurgan. This was 1995 and it was a lawless period. The streets were largely unlit and there were many abandoned buildings and open sewer holes. Organized crime ruled and gangs roamed the streets. Night also fell extremely early, because we were so far north. One evening, I was returning to the place I was staying around ten pm from a small party. Mostly people did not go out alone at night, but I was never particularly popular in social settings and I had not managed to form any close friendships during my stay. I either stayed in my room alone or I walked alone. Those were my choices. Being an adventurous risk-taker who loved learning about other cultures, I just did what I had to. 

So just as with my previous encounter, there are a great many people who might say I deserved to be assaulted. I was after all taking extreme risks. This was not a safe place and I knew it. But that is part of the problem that we are trying to address with the "me too" campaign. Neither iinitial interest nor risk-taking is a justification for assault.

I was walking under one of the few streetlights in town when a man came at me fast from the side. He stepped up and took my arm in a way that could have seemed friendly except that he gripped quite hard. He asked me in a falsely friendly tone how I was doing and where I was going. He told me I shouldn't be out alone at night. He then started to talk to me in a sexual manner that was apparently supposed to entice me. 

I was a naive risk-taker but still smart enough to know this was a very dangerous situation. There was no help anywhere nearby and I knew I couldn't best this larger man in a direct physical confrontation. So instead I used another technique learned in self-defense classes. I pretended (this time entirely falsely) to be interested in him. I joked and laughed and told him I was meeting my friends and my brother. I kept him talking for two blocks, until I was near enough to the building where I lived. The doorways of the apartment blocks were entirely dark as was most of the street. At that time desperate people stole everything, including any unguarded light bulb. Finally, the man's grip relaxed a little as he became more confident of my cooperation. Then I called out cheerfully as if greeting my brother in a dark doorway. His grip loosened further and I judged the second, kicked him hard and ran. Being visually impaired helped in this case. The stairwell I bolted up was pitch black and I could hear him stumbling around as he tried to catch me but I knew every crack in the uneven concrete steps and I reached a door I could lock behind me by memory and by feel. 

I was taught to be prey. Many men are taught that women will flee and the only way they can catch one is by force. I was simply taught to be smart prey, but even so the assumption I held and the assumption of my self-defense instructors was that I would be prey. 

This is why, even though I escaped, even though I am far luckier than many women, I want to support the "me too" campaign. We should not be prey. Sexuality should not be about fear and force and conquest. Being a woman should not be considered grounds for any particular assumptions. 

This is one reason why we still need feminism today. 

We needed it before we had a president who openly declares that a woman's worth is primarily in her sexual attractiveness and appearance. And we certainly need it now that we have such a president. A few months ago The Daily Beast reported that Republican Rep. Robert Fisher (R-NH) wrote under the username FredFredrickson,  “I’m going to say it—Rape isn’t an absolute bad, because the rapist I think probably likes it a lot. I think he’d say it’s quite good, really.”

This kind of attitude still exists today, even in places of power. Rape culture has not been successfully relegated to some small criminal element. Both women and men need to be on guard against it. Both women and men can be legitimate feminists. 

My generation has perhaps been living partly off of the achievements of past generations of women and there are so many other terrible problems in the world to fight against. It is hard to focus on the small, mundane assumptions or the hideous comments of politicians. The "me too" campaign shows how alive and well the scourge of assault and harassment is.

We still need feminism and we still need self-defense classes for our daughters.

Why is the queen always evil?

"We have princesses and a king and a dragon," one seven-year-old girl gushes.

I'm sitting with my daughter and her friends, playing with marionettes and our home puppet stage.

"I'll be the queen," I suggest. 

"No, the queen is too mean," my daughter says, pushing a knight into my hands. "You be a knight." 

It was unconscious. The kids hadn't yet decided on a plot line or a premise for their fairy tale, but one given is apparently that the queen is always evil.

Public domain image from the  LBJ Library

Public domain image from the  LBJ Library

The printable flashcards I use with my ESL students make a similar assumption. In the fantasy set, there is a king, a princess, a prince and a knight who are all nice-looking protagonists. Then among the antagonists there is a green monster, a sadistic wizard and an evil queen with a dripping, red-stained dagger.

I have started noticing this trend and searching for positive "queen" stories and symbols. There is of course the age-old British obsession with their queen, who is considered a benevolent figure. But there are few others in the modern world. Very rarely does a Disney movie feature even a neutral queen.

And when I come to think of it, a large part of the attraction of the British queen is that she is a symbol of wealth and celebrity but has very little power in the world. 

Consider what our popular culture conceives of as a good king--the qualities that make a king truly admirable in the modern imagination. You don't have to look only at kings to see this. Anyone who is in a king-like position (with a measure of absolute power in a certain area), whether it is a lord of a domain in a fantasy novel or a Star Trek captain, fulfills the "king" archetype.

In modern culture today, a king should be strong and able to protect his people, first and foremost. He should make hard and even harsh decisions bravely and only for the true common good of his people. He should be a warrior, willing to go first into battle. If he is ever called upon to sacrifice one of his people to save the others, he must insist that he will be the sacrifice. How many plot-lines use this device? 

Women are never portrayed in this way. They can sacrifice themselves for the people, sure. But they cannot hold such power at the same time. If a woman holds massive power over an area or a people, she is always portrayed negatively in modern western culture. 

Creative Commons image by Tim Green

Creative Commons image by Tim Green

I just tried googling "queens in popular culture." Google didn't even initially want me to put the query and tried to insist on "drag queens in popular culture." Then when I finally typed out the whole query, the first result was titled literally, "Evil Queens in Pop Culture." No result on the first page of Google results has positive messages about queens.

There are "drag queens" and "evil queens." There are "welfare queens," "queen bees," "drama queens," and "ice queens." But there is no role model, no symbol, no archetype in the great common subconscious of a strong, honorable queen, such as we have for the strong, honorable male leader.

Wildly popular female heroines do exist in popular culture, of course. and there are positive examples. But they are universally young and rebellious. There are Katniss, Tris and a host of recent plucky Disney heroines. Even Hermione Granger gets harsh judgement from my teenage English students when they write about the Harry Potter series, because she is not rebellious enough! 

One only needs to look at the wildly popular Game of Thrones to see how young, strong but relatively powerless heroines compare to older, powerful queens in the popular imagination. Young girls can have their flaws, but they are essentially sympathetic as long as they don't have much power. They can even be ruthless and not be seen as evil. 

But a queen with power is immediately the object of hatred and disgust. 

And I have to wonder why.

Does this hatred of queens stem from some deep historical wound? Or are powerful, good queens just generally unknown in history? There have been a few but mostly their names are much less known than the female rebels. How many more people have heard of Joan of Arc than have heard of Boudicca? Not many westerners beyond history buffs know the names Eleanor of Aquitaine, Hatshepsut, Empress Theodora or Empress Wu Zetian.

Those who did study Maria Theresa of Austria, Elizabeth I of England and Catherine II of Russia in mandatory school textbooks found them described as cold, harsh and cruel for decisions that were no more harsh or calculated than those of similarly positioned kings. 

But at least the British for a very long time did have a popular, kindly concept of the queen and the phrase "God save the queen" was often said with all sincerity. So, I am not certain that history can be blamed entirely for our modern antipathy toward queens. 

Is it a backlash then against the feminism of the late 20th century? Is there an instinctual fear among men and women alike that female power will result in tyranny? 

Surely, this ubiquitous undertone of negativity about women with political and military power hurt Hillary Clinton as a presidential candidate. And at the same time she contributed to that stereotype by being cold, out of touch and--I'll try to be diplomatic here--strategic. 

Creative Commons image by  Carole Raddato

Creative Commons image by  Carole Raddato

But I have to wonder if the reason why the women who have come anywhere close to power in recent decades have been so cold and ruthless is that it requires harsh calculation for a woman to reach that pinnacle of power in today's world. Among activists and rebels, there are certainly plenty of positive figures who are warm and capable of leadership, but they never seem to rise high in power if they are female 

Maybe that's all it is. It has been a long time since we have seen a good and honorable queen-like figure, because the patriarchal system screens out women with those qualities from political power. 

After imbibing a lot of popular culture myself, I find that I cannot even conceive of a strong, powerful and protective queen figure without doubts about cold and ruthless women creeping in.

Take a moment, if you will, to imagine a female queen or general who must protect her people and tackle complex ethical issues. What qualities would such a leader embody? Could the same qualities that make a good king--honor, protection, ethics, the setting of clear boundaries and guarding of borders and self-sacrifice--transfer directly across?. 

Would these same qualities make an ideal queen whom the popular imagination could embrace? I have thought on it for a long time, trying to come up with the plot for a fantasy novel in which a queen possesses these same qualities. And it just doesn't quite work. Such a queen would inevitably be seen as too cold.

Where Captain Archer of Star Trek Enterprise can make questionably ethical decisions to save humanity and still be admired, a queen would be judged as "evil." Captain Janeway of Star Trek Voyager, the series' one admirable attempt to switch the gender roles, lets an alien who stole the lungs of one of her crew members keep them to save the alien's life. And still she is perceived of as cold and sexless. Captain Archer employs torture and kills massively in his quest to save Earth, and he never loses the viewer's sympathy or his cult of sexual attraction. 

After skimming through many modern and historical stories, my search finally led me to the ancient Celtic concept of a Brig, a great lady. The time is so remote and there are no written documents from the ancient Celtic culture, so we cannot be entirely sure of details. But we do know that a Brig was a judge, a woman of great power. 

The term appears in the name of the goddess Brigid/Bride and Saint Brigid. This is a figure of vast importance to Celtic cultures and very likely originated with an ancient woman or women of power. And through this legend it is possible to grasp at the qualities that might just make an ideal, good queen in the popular imagination.

The Goddess Brigid was traditionally the lady of the hearth, ruling fire and the great hall. She is anything but cold. She is a mother of the community, an authority but also a refuge. 

She was also the keeper of the well and a powerful healer of body and soul. She is connected with inspiration and creativity as well as protection. While much of her legend appears very feminine and homey, there are the ancient stories of Brigid as a warrior queen. In these legends she does not ride forth often. But she does go into battle to put injustices right, to fight for the dispossessed and the downtrodden, for innocent outcasts and for ill-treated orphans. 

I am beginning now to get a picture of a good queen, one a Disney movie or a popular fantasy series could embrace. She must be keeper of the hall and castle, much as the king is. But her power will be in the creation of abundance more than in the destruction of enemies. She is creative and she integrates inner and outer worlds. 

Beyond that she is a healer and a giver of solace, and not only for her own people. She is generous without exhaustion for she can always create more plenty through her wise policies. Rather than holding iron borders to protect her people, she protects through the forging of alliances and the invitation of wanderers to add their talents to her realm. Still she can defend boundaries when there is true need.

She is maker, artist, poet, healer and mother of the people. But she is also the judge, who weighs both logic and compassion, ethics and organic fairness. Her boundaries are strong, but made of reason and prudence rather than of iron or stone. And like the  mythical good king, she is protective, although she is rarely roused to battle. When she sees injustice and no one but her to cut it down, she will go. 

As for self-sacrifice... The male commanders of today's popular culture are always insisting that they will go into battle first or lead the impossible mission to save humanity. Their supporters try to dissuade them, telling them that they are needed to lead the people and that their death would be too great a blow to the cause. By all logic, another should go. But the male hero's answer is always that he will not order another to attempt a suicide mission.

What is the ideal queen's version of this? I know that surely this ideal queen would go hungry rather than see her people starve. She would fight for justice. But I do not see her abandoning her post for some mission that will eventually bring her great glory if she somehow wins through.

She would stake her power, her position, her livelihood on being right in a gamble to save her people. But she would not leave the hard work to others while she went off to win acclaim. She would risk her own safety but she would most likely not bet on a risky mission in which one solitary individual has to save the world through an insanely risky act. 

She would use diplomacy, wit and the strength of nature for protection and justice. She would risk more than her life to save her people. She would, unlike most male heroes, sacrifice even the memory of her name and her deeds. She would do what must be done, even if it meant that her name and her very existence would be forgotten by future generations.  Such would be my ideal queen.


Arie Farnam

Arie Farnam is a war correspondent turned peace organizer, a tree-hugging herbalist, a legally blind bike rider, the off-road mama of two awesome kids, an idealist with a practical streak and author of the Kyrennei Series. She grew up outside La Grande, Oregon and now lives in a small town near Prague in the Czech Republic.

Of Barbies and Guns: A mom in the crossfire of gender stereotypes

When my daughter was a baby, I swore we would have no pink. I never liked pink in the first place. It reminds me of overly sweet synthetic medicine and being sick as a child. 
And it promotes gender stereotypes. 

But then I was given baby clothes. My family lives on modest means and it’s against my religion to be wasteful. When you’re a new mother in a circle of friends at the lower end of the middle class, you're in the baby-clothes rotation system whether you like it or not. It’s silly to buy new when your friends are desperate to reclaim their closet space. 

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The problem was that mostly I was given pink. Some boy clothes turned up but mostly I had garbage sacks full of tiny pink dresses.

When I—on rare occasions—actually bought baby clothes, they were never pink. And my daughter wore the non-pink clothes we acquired to rags. Every day I told her she was strong and smart. (And she was.) She was also very pretty and I tried not to tell her that too often. 

I had the dream that my children would grow up without the limitations of sexism and gender stereotypes. When I was a child my parents were firmly anti-establishment and I never had pink dresses. I owned only one doll before the age of seven and I played swords with my brothers. I am convinced that this played a positive role in my development. 
But my daughter had other ideas. 

My daughter adored pink from the beginning. Before she could talk, she would watch me pick out her clothes and she would reach down under the pretty blue and green dresses to the pink ones hidden at the bottom of the drawer. She’d howl any day that I insisted she where something not pink. Pink was the first color she learned to name. 

Let’s be clear. I was a “good” mother. I listened to the American Pediatric Association. My child never saw a lighted screen before the age of two, except in passing at someone else’s house. We don’t own a TV. Our storybooks were about nature, boys and very non-princess-like girls.  She didn’t get this infatuation with pink from the media. 


When I was growing up, “feminists” were people (like my parents) who insisted that men and women are exactly the same on the inside. I simply couldn’t believe that a little girl could be inherently drawn to the color pink by something encoded in her DNA. 

But as much as I am a feminist, I’m not a controlling parent with an ideology to force down my child’s throat. So, I relented and let her wear pink. I even started buying pink clothes. I even allowed a few princess books to sneak into the house, even though I still buy the anti-princess books too. 

You see. I have these troubling memories from my own childhood. Yes, I grew up out in the sticks with two wild brothers and no TV. Yes, I enjoyed playing swords and army and building forts and Legos and sled racing. 

But deep down inside, I longed for dolls and dresses. I loved my first doll and still own her, ragged and bleached by time as she is. And I notice that when we drew pictures as children, my brothers drew pictures of complex military battles and underground hide-outs. I drew ladies with amazing princess dresses and little high heels. 

Where in the world had I even SEEN high heels at that point? (Seriously. I not only didn't have a TV,  was also legally blind.)

I remember the day my daughter saw high heels for the first time. My adult niece was living with us then and she was dressing up to go to a traditional European winter ball. So, she pulled out a pair of bright red heels from a deep closet and put them on under her dress. 

My two-year-old’s mouth dropped open and her eyes literally went as round as quarters. She reached out her little hands and nearly fell over in a swoon of ecstasy. And that was the beginning of a true obsession.

It only took seeing them once and my little girl was hopelessly enthralled. For the past five years, not a day has gone by without my hearing about high heeled shoes, who has them, what color they are, what they sound like, "when when when when" she will be allowed to destroy her feet with them. 

I may have drawn pictures of high heeled shoes as a toddler, but I grew out of the interest long before I was a teenager. I have never even been tempted to wear them. As a young adult I simply thought they were ugly, stupid and a plot by patriarchal men to slow women down. Now I really and truly hate them, but I have to admit that I haven’t been able to find a man who likes them either.

Over the years, I have given in inch by inch, because I AM NOT one of those controlling parents who doesn’t accept their child for who he or she really is, now am I? (Written with gritted teeth.) 

My daughter now owns more princess dresses than will fit in the jumbo dress-up box. We’ve spent a small fortune trying to lure her away from high heels with sparkly pink, shiny black, frilly white, red-hot and every other imaginable type of princess slipper. She owns a dozen very pretty dolls (very multicultural, mind you), a play kitchen and boxes upon boxes of ignored puzzles, legos, blocks, train sets and books. She even owns pretend make-up, real nail polish and many tubes of organic lip balm (organic because she likes to eat it rather than just wear it).

I eventually simply gave up on trying to raise a non-stereotypical girl. My hope lay in my son. 
I couldn’t very well dress him in dresses in the conservative Eastern European country where we live. But I did everything short of that. He had dolls before he could crawl. He wore diverse colors, including pink. He got stories about strong women and kind men (along with all the stories read to my daughter). And the first time he saw fictional violence on TV during a visit to someone else’s house, he ran to me crying that someone was hurt. 

The truth is that my son is very kind and sensitive. At age five, he is still confused about why some kids at preschool insist that boys can’t wear pink when he and his best friend really like pink along with lots of other colors. But he likes camouflage more. A lot more. Sigh.

And his initial reaction to toy cars was very similar to my daughter’s reaction to high heels. His first word was not “Mama” or even “Papa,” but “backhoe.”

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Having kids will always make you rethink your beliefs one way or another. And for me, it has meant the grudging conclusion that at least some boys and some girls do have hardwired stereotypical tendencies. 

If there was ever an environment that would have promoted a more balanced division of clothing and toys between children it was ours. Being an immigrant and unable to drive, I spent most of my children’s toddlerhood isolated from society as well as TV media. I was very careful in my approach to the issue, neither pressing one way or the other, providing many different toys and books.

But the preferences of my children were clear from an early age and stated in no uncertain terms. 

Today, my son is a camo-crazed truck and soldier enthusiast with a heart of gold, who wants to rescue the vulnerable and chase away bad guys without actually hurting them. He’s a quick reader and loves to draw things with wheels. He hordes dolls and stuffed animals but doesn’t actually play with them. My daughter is Elsa-obsessed and yearns to watch make-up videos on YouTube. She’s also reasonably good with numbers and puzzles, extraordinarily strong-willed and the more violent of the two. 

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Parents, you can’t win.

There are things I draw the line at--primarily toy guns and Barbies. Sometimes unwise friends or relatives gift the children such objects. I quietly discourage the adult offenders and grit my teeth through a few days of domestic disgust until these objects are carelessly left lying around and then they are disappeared. I have talked to my kids about both issues, quite openly. I don’t like toy guns that don’t shoot projectiles because they promote unrealistic ideas about firearms and play into a violence obsession in our society that I find extremely harmful. Barbies are ugly, difficult to dress and promote ideals of women being anorexic, clumsy, appearance-focused and brainless. 

My son gets to have bows and arrows and swords because these are not quite as poorly used by the entertainment media, but it’s a fine line. He also gets to have toy soldiers and tanks because they can be used to talk about history and real warfare. Hiding from the hard things in life will do us no good. But Mama has to draw the line somewhere.

As for my daughter, beyond clothes, shoes and make-up, she is sometimes interested in drawing and music. I promote these interests with great gusto, as somewhat more wholesome gender stereotypes. She does get lots of pretty stuff and lots of dolls. Just not Barbies. She gets to watch Disney princess movies but not Barbie or Lego Friends and other things that portray girls as cliquish and ditsy. She’ll get to wear high heels when she’s reached her full height. 

These are my lines and my husband’s lines, where we have been able to draw them. Every situation is different. Would I outlaw all military toys and pretend make-up until age twelve if I could? Probably. I’m not judgmental of other parents who are trying to find balance in other ways.

It isn’t easy trying to bring up well-balanced children in a media-saturated, fashion-aware world. If you come up with any nifty secret strategies, please let me know.


Arie Farnam

Arie Farnam is a war correspondent turned peace organizer, a tree-hugging herbalist, a legally blind bike rider, the off-road mama of two awesome kids, an idealist with a practical streak and author of the Kyrennei Series. She grew up outside La Grande, Oregon and now lives in a small town near Prague in the Czech Republic.