Reconsidering Badass Historical Women
As it does every year, International Women’s Month brought a flurry of posts and tweets about people’s favorite historical women, and as always, one appellation appeared more than any other: badass. There is no crowd pleaser quite like a tough, cool woman who fights, beats the boys at their own game, accomplishes things no woman has ever done before, and (of course) doesn’t need no man. I’m not going to link to any specific examples because I don’t want anyone to feel singled out in what’s really a broad cultural trend, but you’ve seen them. And I completely understand. I like those women too.
But it’s time to rethink our priorities.
Historical figures necessarily undergo interpretation when they’re presented to modern audiences. We choose who we talk about, what facts we present about them, and what gloss we put on those facts. The wave of interest in historical women is a positive change in a field that has long been dominated by male historians telling male-centered stories. But the framing of “Hey, did you know that a woman did a thing?” can only last so long before it stops being empowering and starts becoming yet another way of diminishing women’s accomplishments. The implicit assumption that we haven’t heard of these people and should be surprised by the existence of accomplished women feels belittling in an era where, yes, we know that Marie Curie discovered radium, Ada Lovelace invented computer programming, and Boudica led an uprising against the Romans*. (The fact that the same women always seem to pop up on these lists doesn’t help.)
We need to move past the idea that the very existence of interesting historical women is such a novelty. Instead, let’s work from the baseline assumption that women were everywhere, were a part of everything, and should feature in virtually every historical narrative. Then we can move on to telling women’s stories because of their importance as individuals rather than as proof that women can be badass. And instead of accepting that every blog post about a badass historical woman is progressive and feminist, we can look critically at the connotations and consider whether the message it’s sending is really as positive as it appears.
I have two main objections to the way badass historical women are usually framed. The first is with the word “badass” itself, as exemplified in the archetype described at the beginning. If this sounds more like a movie character type than a real person, you’re right: It’s the old Strong Female Character transplanted more or less directly from film into history. Sophia McDougall insightfully criticized the Strong Female Character; many of the same criticisms apply here.
If you’re about to say “But they’re real people who actually did those things,” that’s why interpretation is so key. The people who get profiled as badass historical women are a specific subset of the population: women who did traditionally male-coded things. Most often they’re some kind of fighter, but they may also be scientists, athletes, inventors, or the like. Annie Oakley shows up on these lists. Florence Nightingale does not. And which facts about these people get mentioned further reinforce the Strong Female Character archetype. It’s good that we’ve moved past the time when who she married and how many kids she had were the first facts you learned about any historical woman, but only talking about what she did that was badass is, in its own way, equally shallow and reductive.
For one thing, instead of forcing women into a box of acceptable femininity, it forces them into a box of acceptable masculinity. It doesn’t question the base assumption that only male-coded traits like violence are valuable or worthy of recognition; for historical women to get their accolades, they have to embrace the patriarchal social order and become “cool girls” who do whatever the boys do.
Of course, many historical women did do male-coded things, overcoming enormous barriers in the process, and we should talk about them. But accepting the cultural assumption that only male-coded pursuits are important leaves out all kinds of women and distorts the rest as they’re measured against a metric that, for most people, is just nonsense. (Some people try to solve this problem by expanding “badass” to encompass any kind of cool, impressive, or interesting behavior, but surely it’s better to just say “interesting” or “impressive,” or to simply say “historical women” with the assumption that women are inherently interesting.)
Consider my favorite artist, Leonora Carrington. Was she a badass? Well, she ran away from her oppressive aristocratic British upbringing, told off Joan Miró for asking her to buy him cigarettes, and wears a breastplate in a portrait by colleague Leonor Fini. She was also infatuated with a married man twice her age, wrote mopey stories vilifying her romantic rivals when her love life was going badly, and had a mental breakdown when they were separated that ended with her interred in an asylum. (And that’s only the first act of her story.) Badass? Maybe you could use that word, but it’s a weak descriptor that fails to capture the breadth of her character. She was, at various times, vibrant, accomplished, joyful, troubled, jealous, innocent, wise, fallible, and deeply human.
Then there’s how we judge the actions. Historians have a track record of being moral scolds to women, but the badass historical women narrative goes the other direction and divorces them completely from any judgment of whether their actions were right or wrong as long as they were sufficiently awesome. Wu Zetian, a perennial favorite, murdered a long string of people in order to gain and hold power, including smothering her own baby. Now, whether historical accounts have been fair to Wu Zetian is a reasonable question, but the badass-woman articles don’t tend to argue that she didn’t do those things or that the good outweighed the bad. Instead, it’s those very acts, presented in their most lurid forms, that make her a badass. According to this metric, the only virtues are audacity, violence, and willingness to flout social norms.
Sometimes this is simple romanticizing (will we ever get over our collective love of pirates?), but sometimes it’s a double standard. Actions that would make a man dangerous and malevolent can be reinterpreted as lovable feistiness in a woman, the implication being that women are so harmless that even actual murder is nothing more than a cute personality quirk.
And “badass” is simply a very shallow way to look at anyone, regardless of gender. People are more than collections of actions that make other people go “awesome,” and focusing on those moments (as in any list of “cool things you should know about this person”) risks painting over their subtler traits, their importance within a historical context, and the whole general thrust of what they were about. We owe it to the women of history to consider them as complex, multifaceted human beings who both influenced and were influenced by the direction of history.
Manduhai the Wise was a queen who reunited the Mongol tribes 300 years after Genghis Khan’s death. She did her requisite share of badass things, like going into battle while pregnant with twins and throwing hot tea in the face of an advisor who wanted her to get married, but those incidents aren’t of any great historical importance. Her statecraft, her battlefield strategy, her attitude towards Genghis Khan’s legacy, her bizarre yet successful adoptive mother/wife relationship with the feeble boy-khan: These are the aspects of her character that actually changed history. Yet in the badass-woman framework, these things are only important insofar as they explain why she was throwing tea.
That’s my objection (or rather my slate of objections) to labeling historical women as “badass.” But there’s another problem with the way we talk about badass historical women, and its repercussions are potentially even worse.
Badass women are always exceptional. They’re defined by standing out from the pack, by accomplishing vastly more than anyone else—more than their male peers, but also more than other women. They’re almost always unique women with no comparable female peers, or at least treated as such, and they’re often the first, or preferably only, woman to accomplish something. Wu Zetian was the only female ruler of China in 4000 years, and so on. Very often they’re rulers (especially, of course, princesses).
Partly this is the nature of history, with its constant tendency to revert back to talking only about the most powerful strata of society. But women’s historians shouldn’t fall prey to this mistake because we should recognize it as another facet of the attitude that kept women out of history books for so long. Women shouldn’t need to be born to privilege in order for their stories to be worth telling.
And by treating these women as so exceptional and focusing on how they did things that no other woman was able to accomplish, these articles paradoxically reinforce the perception of ordinary women’s lack of ability. If the only woman who could compete in a male-dominated field was an outstanding genius, it’s easy to give the impression that women in general actually aren’t cut out for the field and that one woman was a fluke who transcended her gender and became “one of the guys.” This framework doesn’t make anyone rethink their assumptions, doesn’t make them wonder whether their Silicon Valley startup is missing out by not hiring any women except the secretary. Why would it be? Ada Lovelace was unique.
The focus on women who are powerful heads of state, exceptionally talented geniuses, or other larger-than-life figures just gives the impression that women need to accomplish something spectacular in order to be worth talking about. Essentially, they gain the right to be known by making themselves impossible to ignore. Conversely, the sheer number of men in history books demonstrates that historical men don’t need to be exceptional; they can be mediocre or outright failures, or simply quiet people with modest goals, and still get recognition if they were at the right place and time in history.
There are many interesting historical women who fall by the wayside because they don’t fit within the bounds of the badass-women archetype. They weren’t princesses or other heads of state; they didn’t become the first woman to accomplish this or that; they didn’t fight in wars or go into male-coded pursuits; they didn’t beat the men at their own game or necessarily beat anybody at any game. Their personalities and accomplishments are not easily reduced to sound bites that make you say “Awesome!” They were neither shining heroes nor nefarious villains, but humans with a mixture of positive and negative traits.
Describing Annemarie Schwarzenbach as a globetrotting crossdressing lesbian morphine addict certainly makes her sound like she belongs on a list of badass historical women. But the closer you look, the less she fits. There is a subtlety to her story that doesn’t translate well into superlatives. There aren’t a lot of over-the-top anecdotes about her, unless you count dying after hitting her head doing a bike trick. The inevitable string of love affairs and (more often) unrequited loves isn’t especially sensational, and many of the more badass aspects of her life, like driving sports cars and getting involved in the wild Weimar Berlin nightlife, were closely tied to the depression and addiction that would plague her for her whole life. There’s a vulnerability behind those haunted, sunken eyes that belies her go-everywhere, do-everything attitude. She was cool by any definition, but limiting her to nothing but coolness would mean completely missing who she was as a person.
The question is how should we talk about historical women in order to move the conversation forward, neither relegating them back to irrelevant set dressing nor stagnating at the point of treating them like Strong Female Characters. There are several important steps we need to take. And don’t worry: You don’t have to stop talking about Annie Oakley. You don’t even have to stop using the word “badass.”
First, to dispel the impression that these badass women were unusual exceptions, let’s talk about them in the context of other women. If you’re discussing Amelia Earhart, for instance, talk about the 99s, the women’s flying club she cofounded specifically because she was tired of being treated differently because of her gender. To understand her place in aviation history, consider her in relation to her predecessors (Therese Peltier, Blanche Stuart Scott), her contemporaries (Katherine Sui Fun Cheung, Sabiha Gökçen, Pancho Barnes), and her successors (from Jacqueline Cochran to Mariam Al Mansouri). The ease with which we can create a list of other interesting, accomplished women in the same field is a sign of how much we lose by treating historical women like exceptions.
Second, instead of reducing historical women to “Did you know…?” sound bites, we need to have longer conversations. We need to look at these women’s entire lives, not just their wildest anecdotes or most famous accomplishments, and to really absorb their personalities, feelings, relationships, all the subtleties that made them three-dimensional individuals instead of copies of the same archetype. We need to find out how they felt about their own accomplishments. We need to open their letters and writings so that their own words are front and center, something I see surprisingly rarely.
Finally, we just need to expand how we view historical women beyond the dichotomy of “badass, therefore worth knowing about” and “not badass, therefore not worth knowing about.” Feminist Frequency’s new web series, Ordinary Women, covers a typical slate of historical women, but the title reframes them in a positive way by implying that these women weren’t wild exceptions but regular people and that any woman could aspire to similar accomplishments. We need to truly believe that all women are important and all their stories are worth telling, not just the rulers, the warriors, and the women who did male-coded things better than the men. Sure, most of us would say we believe that. But do we act on it? Do we actually give the Depression-era mother of six as much respect as we give the princess who made her suitors wrestle her for her hand and defeated them all? Do we treat women’s choices as valid whether they take up a male-coded pursuit or a female-coded one, whether they flouted their cultural mores or accepted them? Do we give women room to fail?
We should take care. After all, we’re setting the groundwork for how people of the future will judge us.
*Audience needs to be taken into account here. Those badass-women articles attract a predictable crowd of misogynists insisting that women really haven’t ever done anything in all of human history, facts be damned. But these people aren’t the audience for the articles and they don’t stand to be convinced by them. Generally, although with the obvious selection bias, I see these articles aimed at the sorts of people who least need to be won over.