I have been lauded--and demonized--for being a strong woman: bold; outspoken; a passionate defender of equal rights and an advocate for those unable to stand up for themselves. My books are regularly challenged, and so are my views, which I refuse to shy away from expressing because, love me or don't, this is who I am. My generation of women was largely not encouraged to think this way, and I credit two special ladies with fostering my independent spirit. My mother. And Scarlett O'Hara.
I was adopted at birth in 1955. My mother was forty-two, my father thirty years her elder. He was born in 1883, the son of German immigrants, and built a sixth grade education into several thriving businesses. His first wife, whom he adored, was a lung cancer victim and after four decades of marriage, her death left him reeling. She was his voice of reason, and his caretaker.
Born in 1912, my mom's adolescence was heavily influenced by the Great Depression. She fought her way into college, and became a nurse's aid (later a Gray Lady, helping returned WWII soldiers). She found work as a live-in caregiver for a polio-stricken gentleman, and remained with him for eighteen years, until he died. In dire need of a job, she answered an ad for a secretary at my father's steel company. Within a year, they married. Whether their union was forged from love or loneliness, I can't say. I suspect a little of both. But Mom didn't require employment anymore. All she had to do was run the household and raise the two children they adopted.
At the time, most women were housewives. Those who worked outside the home struggled to find acceptance on the job, or in the eyes of a wide swath of the American public. Television shows like My Three Sons and The Dick van Dyke Show reflected those gender roles. With notable exceptions, women were comfortable staying home and keeping house, while their husbands went off every morning and returned in the evening, expecting dinner on the table.
As a child, I was the chubby kid who endured teasing and bullying, mostly by boys. I felt inferior and helpless, and spent a lot of time on my own. Books were my escape. I was a voracious reader, thanks to my mom, who loved literature and taught me to read before kindergarten. She never sought to censor what I read because she understood that books would allow me eclectic views of a world much wider than my own. We had that in common. Forced into a position of weakness because of her gender, she gained knowledge through words, and knowledge empowered her.
When I was in the sixth grade, Mom took my brother and me to Hawaii. Before we left, she handed me a copy of Gone With the Wind. I spent the entire trip reading that book, and it changed the way I looked at myself, and at women's societal roles. It was a time of great change and unrest. The Viet Nam War, the Civil Rights Movement and the Equal Rights Amendment were all in play, and all informed the belief system integral to the woman I would become. But I wasn't her yet.
At twelve, a growth spurt had slimmed me, but when I looked in the mirror, I still saw the
fat little girl, worthy of scorn. I was a straight-A student, which only made me a bigger
geek. I ran a mean 440, but felt awkward in my body. I didn't turn heads. I'd never been
kissed. I'd never even been asked. I didn't aspire to greatness, or to ever controlling my own life. My self-confidence hovered near zero.
But then I found Gone With the Wind and Scarlett O'Hara. Oh, there was a girl to emulate--intelligent, courageous, witty. A child of privilege who had everything taken from her, yet found the strength to survive and keep her family alive. Not only that, but she used her feminine wiles to accomplish those things. Feminine wiles! Did every woman have those? (Even me?) Scarlett's ability to bend others to her will fascinated me. If she didn't get her way the first time, she tried another tactic. She refused defeat.
While I adored Scarlett, Melanie Wilkes irritated me. I couldn't help but draw comparisons between the two. One spoke her mind unabashedly, the other refused confrontation at all costs. Take charge and win the day, or play the passive flower, allow yourself to be manipulated? Which woman was I? Which did I want to be?
Sure, Scarlett did some less than admirable things: cheat; steal; lie; kill, even. But what other choice did she have? And, yes, she married two men she wasn't in love with. One for revenge, the other to save her birthright. Some might argue she married three men she didn't love, but I knew in my heart she'd realize she was wrong about Rhett eventually. They were destined to be together. Okay, maybe that was the twelve-year-old in me talking, but wishing that all-encompassing love for her made me wish it for myself, too.
My mom and I discussed the book at length. We talked about gender roles. About challenging stereotypes. About equal rights and why it was important to fight for them. She opened herself up to me, and our conversations turned to feminine wiles and marrying someone for the stability they could offer. And even more. Though she didn't give details, she confessed that during the Depression, there were things she had to do to survive that no woman should be forced to do.
That was a great gift, one that allowed me the determination to take control of my life. To carve my own way, remain self-reliant, and yet accept love when it found me, unlike my heroine, Scarlett. But from Miss O'Hara, I learned the value of tenacity and the importance of speaking my mind. Love me or don't, this is the woman I have become.