Thursday, February 13, 2020

Choosing Another Word for Strong Women?


LUCY BURDETTE: Today we're delighted to host longtime Reds friend, Liz Milliron with her musings on strong female characters. Take it away Liz!

LIZ MILLIRON: Thank you, Lucy and all the Reds, for having me back. It’s always fun coming out from the back-bloggers and stepping “in front of the mic” as it were.

Today I have a confession to make and it’s a biggie.

I’m not a big fan of the phrase “strong woman” as a literary conceit.

Now, now, hear me out before you start boo-ing.

I absolutely want to write women who aren’t always being pushed around (unless that type of character is necessary for the plot). I don’t want to write a woman who is TSTL or always needs to be rescued (although needing a little help from her friends is not a bad thing). But the term “strong woman” always puts my back up because it seems to mean different things to different people.

photo by marvelousRoland
For some, a strong woman is someone like Black Widow from the Marvel movies or any other female action hero – one who is able to kick-butt and take names. But the ability to throw someone across the room is only one aspect of “strong” in my opinion.

For others, “strong” is a personality thing. They are independent, feisty, not afraid to say and do what they believe is right and sometimes verge into the always dreaded “unlikeable” label. Again, I think this definitely isn’t quite complete.

What I prefer is a term I came across a few years ago: agency.

A character with agency (male or female) is in charge of the story. She makes decisions, sometimes bad ones, and pushes the plot forward. She is active, not reactive. She isn’t like a video-game character, subservient to the whims of the player, but gets to choose for herself. That includes the ability to make bad choices.

It’s not that she doesn’t need anyone else, or never seeks advice, but she’s capable of taking that help from others and moving forward on her own. Or not taking it and moving alone, as the case may be.

This is the type of character I wanted to create when I came up with Betty Ahern, the protagonist in my Homefront Mysteries. The time is 1942. The world is at war and women were doing all sorts of things they didn’t historically do. Betty, only 18, works at Bell Aircraft in Niagara Falls, NY, making the P-39 Airacobra. She’s the second child of an Irish Catholic family living in Buffalo’s First Ward. She loves movies, particularly detective pictures, and dreams of being a private eye herself.

Betty is straddling two worlds. The old one, represented by her mother, where women stayed at home, took care of the family, and confined themselves to the domestic front, and the new one, where women had to don pants go out and wield a rivet gun because as she says, “These planes aren’t gonna build themselves.”

World War II completed what World War I started. Women weren’t bystanders any longer. They loved their families, but they were going to make their decisions and do what their hearts told them. They might always have been strong, but now they had agency. They could make their choices and be in charge of their own stories.

It’s a process that’s still in progress. Women have seized their agency in so many ways since 1942 – and if you look at the 2016 elections, they are still finding new ways to make themselves the directors of their own stories.

I’m glad Betty is now part of that story.

*Side note: Betty is very loosely based on my paternal grandmother whose name was also Betty. She really did work at Bell Aircraft during WWII. She went on to get married, raise two boys, and spent 30 years working in a high school cafeteria. She could quell an argument with a single look. Talk about a strong woman.

Readers, tell me: Is there a woman in your life who you admire for her strength/agency? Or how you see women seizing agency today? We'll be giving away one copy of The Enemy We Don't Know to a commenter today... Ebook or paper copy (US only)

About the Book:


November, 1942. Betty Ahern is doing her part for the war, working at Bell Aircraft while her older brother and fiancée are fighting overseas, but she really wants to be a private detective like her movie idol Sam Spade. When sabotage comes to the plant, and a suspected co-worker hires her to clear her name, Betty sees it as her big chance.

As her questions take her into Buffalo’s German neighborhood, Kaisertown, Betty finds herself digging into a group that is trying to resurrect the German-American Bund, a pro-Nazi organization. Have they elevated their activities past pamphlets and party-crashing?

When the investigation leads Betty and her two friends into a tangle of counterfeiting and murder, as well as the Bund, the trio must crack the case--before one or more of them ends up in the Buffalo River…wearing concrete overshoes.


Liz Milliron is the author of The Laurel Highlands Mysteries series, set in the scenic Laurel Highlands and The Homefront Mysteries, set in Buffalo, NY during the early years of World War II. Heaven Has No Rage, the second in the Laurel Highlands Mysteries, was released in August 2019. The first book of the Homefront Mysteries, The Enemy We Don’t Know, was released in February 2020. Soon to be an empty-nester, Liz lives outside Pittsburgh with her husband, two children, and a retired-racer greyhound.


56 comments:

  1. Congratulations on your new book, Liz. Betty sounds quite formidable . . . I’m looking forward to meeting her.

    My mother and grandmother were both take-charge women; both worked outside the home to provide for their families and set wonderful examples for their children . . . .

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    1. Thanks, Joan. In a time when women didn't work outside the home, that takes two kinds of strength - physical and mental.

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  2. My mother was take charge. She home schooled my brother and me while still keeping the house organized.

    And I like the fact that you are recognizing strength in taking help at times and working alone at others. You do need others. Taking help doesn't mean you are weak.

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    1. Absolutely right, Mark. I see too many people - men and women - who think the exact opposite. And they usually are struggling.

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  3. Congratulations on your new series! Both my mom and her mother met challenges and persevered whether it was hitching the mule to do the plowing when Grandpa was sick or learning how to dialyse my youngest sister.

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    1. Thanks, Pat! It always amazes me (but not really) how much women did around the home. Just because you didn't have an outside job didn't mean you didn't work.

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  4. I come from a long line of strong women or, as I like to call them, "women." Because c'mon, let's face it, women have to be strong to get through life. In my family, both my grandmothers worked outside the home, in retail and as cooks to get their families through depression and war. My mother and my aunt also worked--my mom as a teacher and my aunt as a never-married "career gal, who spent her life climbing the corporate ladder at AT&T. I grew up assuming that all the hand-wringing about women entering the workforce was for wealthy women, because--duh--of course women had jobs outside the home.

    The other night, in rehearsal for our latest concert, I was chatting with a couple of brass players about their day jobs when one of them said he'd spent the day being "the bad guy" in negotiations over a contract dispute. I said something about how sometimes being the bad guy can be fun and he gave me a character-assessing look. "Yeah," he said, "I can see you in that role." So I guess I'm a strong woman, too.

    Congratulations on the new series, Liz. May it find wings!

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    1. Thanks, Gigi!

      That's a good point. If you looking at working-class families, the women always worked in some capacity. It was only the upper classes where that wasn't so much of a "thing" until what? The mid 20th century?

      And how funny about you being the bad guy.

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  5. Loving these comments. Liz, I can't wait to dig into The Enemy We Don't Know. I pre-ordered and was so excited when Amazon told me it dropped to my Kindle.

    When I think of a strong woman, I think of my honorary mother. Jean was born in Australia, came to the US soon after WWII on the promise of a wedding to a Yank that never happened, pulled herself together and made a successful career, meet the love of her life, went back to work when he lost their nest egg, lost her only child, and as we were wheeling her into hospice in her final days, looked around her and said, "I love the color of these walls." Jean's life was filled with ups and downs, and she chose to pay attention only to the ups, and she did it all with grace and style.

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    1. Thank you so much Kait! Jean sounds like the kind of woman I'd have liked.

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  6. Loving these comments. Liz, I can't wait to dig into The Enemy We Don't Know. I pre-ordered and was so excited when Amazon told me it dropped to my Kindle.

    When I think of a strong woman, I think of my honorary mother. Jean was born in Australia, came to the US soon after WWII on the promise of a wedding to a Yank that never happened, pulled herself together and made a successful career, meet the love of her life, went back to work when he lost their nest egg, lost her only child, and as we were wheeling her into hospice in her final days, looked around her and said, "I love the color of these walls." Jean's life was filled with ups and downs, and she chose to pay attention only to the ups, and she did it all with grace and style.

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  7. Liz, I'm so excited for you! One series is sweet, but a second one? That must feel like you've won the lottery! Lots of Bettys in my life. As Gigi noted above, the women in my life were all strong. There was never a question of whether it was proper to work outside the home. Or not. Because of her health, my mom did not work outside the home--but she was definitely the hardest working woman I knew!

    And there was a real-life Betty who acquired agency over her life when she finally left an alcoholic, abusive husband in her 50s. I can still see her, dropping by on her motorcycle to visit my mom, before heading cross-country. May all the Bettys find their ride!

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  8. I think the ability to throw someone across the room is an underrated strength...for a woman or a guy. :D

    I've already ordered the book Liz after your guest blog on Wicked Authors.

    I've been toying with the idea of a character for my "probably never going to happen" story. She'd be a supporting but important character in the life of the main character. She'd be a bartender and she'd be VERY loosely based on the bartender at my favorite restaurant. This is a woman who, unsurprisingly since she has to deal with people who are drinking (not me), but she takes no guff from anyone. I always joke that if you mess with her, she's liable to gut you while at the same time cutting you off from the alcohol.

    I was there one time when a drunk started giving her crap. I just calmly moved a few more seats down from the guy because I knew if she went off on the guy, there'd be collateral damage.

    Rule #1B - Don't mess with the bartender!


    What's Rule 1A? Do not mess with my mom. She's gone now but she was a neighborhood "legend". When I was younger, she was on fire. She went at it with one of the nuns when the nun got on her to tell us kids that god protected everyone. My mom said, "I'm not telling my kids that, they see their father go to work with a gun."

    She stood up to the schools and the local selectman. And she played street football with the kids in the neighborhood in a wheelchair with a broken leg. Since my dad was a cop who did a lot of stuff outside of his patrolman duties, they'd always be calling in the middle of the night. There was one guy who called and was always rude to my mother. So one night, she got even with him. The phone rang, waking my parents up out of a dead sleep. My mom answered the phone and the cop just said "Yeah, let me talk to George." My mother quick-fire responded with "He's busy now, he'll call you back when we're through"...and hung up the phone!

    She never had a problem with the guy again.


    NEVER MESS WITH THE MOM!

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    1. You had such an interesting family Jay--waiting for your memoir or novel!

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    2. I love your mom, Jay! Wish I'd known her.

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    3. Thank you so much, Jay.

      I think I'd have liked to meet your mom. She sounds like my kind of woman.

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  9. I admire Liz for writing this fabulous book, which I was lucky enough to be able to read a few months ago and heartily endorse. And I agree about the term agency. It's an important thing for women (real or fictional) to have.

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    1. Aww, thanks, Edith! It was a great blurb. And yes, may we all have agency!

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  10. Oh, I'm intrigued by your new series, Liz, and will be adding it to my TBR pile. As for strong women, I agree with you that it's about agency -- no matter the work they do, the person/people they love, or where they live: when women have control of their lives, their strength of character and capacity will take them where they need and want to go. Let's hear it for strong women!

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    1. Thanks, Amanda. Yes. It's all about making your own choices - no matter what you do in life.

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  11. I love the definition of agency rather than strong. The female characters I tend to like best in books, especially mysteries, are those who aren’t afraid to ask for help and who do have friends and family around. The “lone wolf” detective is also fun to read, but going it alone doesn’t necessarily make you strong.

    In my life, both of my grandmothers worked outside the home, both in retail. While they worked more from economic necessity than a desire to have a career, they both took charge of their jobs and at least one of them loved it. They were very different personalities, but neither had a problem stating their opinion! My mother is also this type of strong woman, as were most of my aunts. In thinking about it, I guess all of my female relatives had or have this kind of strength. I can’t think of one who fit the stereotype of “the little woman.”

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    1. Thanks, Cindy. My mother and grandmothers all had opinions and none of them had any problems stating them. Mom and her mother were very vocal. My other grandmother, the one who inspired Betty (and was also named Betty), was very quiet. But when she got that set to her lips and a fire in her eye--watch out!

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  12. Yay Liz—what a terrific idea and homage to your wonderful relative!!on vacation but had to put in a standing ovation for you !!xxxx

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  13. Love the idea of having agency, Liz. Because vulnerabilities are more interesting than "tough guy" characters, and present more obstacles to overcome, more challenges to rise to, and more plot possibilities.

    My mother-in-law had a friend who either took over or started a New York ad agency in the mid-60's. When I met her she was in her early 80's, but still an elegant, self-possessed and dare I say, sassy, woman in total charge. Mae had strong opinions about everything, and not a bit of compunction about sharing them.

    Betty sounds like someone on the path to many amazing adventures. Congratulations, and good luck for her future.

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    1. Speaking of motorcycles, my middle daughter is buying a house in Portland, Oregon. The woman who lived there since 1966 has to negotiate through her son, because she is recovering from a motorcycle accident.

      She is 87.

      Thereby hangs a tale, eh?

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    2. Thanks, Karen! Yes, characters are much more appealing, at least to me, for their vulnerabilities.

      Mae sounds like a lovely woman.

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  14. Liz, I am loving the idea of this book and can't wait to read it! As one of the very first baby boomers I grew up in a time when hardly any mother worked outside the home. At least as far as I know. But my mother did and to be honest I did not like it at all. I'm sure she thought she was helping provide for our family, help we did need. But I'm sure she would have done it anyway because that was just who she was. In her mid 80s she was still driving to work and volunteer at a local museum and I'm sure she would still be doing that today if she hadn't died in a car accident. She had agency!

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    1. Thanks, Judi! It's tough on kids, who might not understand why a mom needs, or wants, to work outside the home. When you look back, you realize, "Of course, that's who she was." Kudos to her for staying true to herself.

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  15. Hey, girlfriend! I'm so darned proud of you and this book. AND of Betty. She's awesome! And if I was to pick out a woman I know who exhibits "agency" (cool word, by the way), it would be YOU.

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    1. Annette, you're making me blush. Thank you - I couldn't do it without you. You've got more than a little agency yourself!

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  16. What a great post, Liz! Agency is the perfect word for a female lead who...wait for it...leads the way! I feel that my generation (mostly) takes this agency for granted. When I look for a "strong" female in my lie, it's definitely my mom, who was born in one generation but forged her own path, scraped off (aka pissed off) the patriarchy, and carved out an amazing life for herself - she ran a local TV studio, traveled all over the world, and now in her golden years, enjoys living a life of her own determination. We should all be as bold as Sue McKinlay! Looking forward to following wherever your Betty takes us!

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    1. Thanks, Jenn. Yes, for all the work there is still to do, I wonder sometimes if girls like my daughter take agency for granted. They see inequality, but they can't imagine a world where a woman doesn't make her own choices and where that was considered "normal." My girl wants to be a lawyer and the phrase "women don't do that" simply does not compute.

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  17. Congratulations! This book is a treasure which I would cherish, read and read again since it is important and profound. My mother and grandmothers had lives filled with trials and tribulations but they were strong and managed to raise productive families and never complained.

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  18. Liz, congratulations on your new book! I remember you wrote about travelling around the country with your family for a year in a van or a camper?

    Regarding strong women, I never thought of that until you explained why you are not a big fan of that term. I feel the same way when I see that term "nasty woman', which gets my back up. I remember being surprised that a female relative was buried at the Arlington National Cemetry (sp?) My father said that there are many strong women in his family. When I see "strong women", I think of women who had the strength to deal with trials and tribulations. My mom, my grandmother, aunts and female relatives are all strong women in different ways.

    Agency in that definition is new to me.

    Diana

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    1. Thanks, Diana! But that wasn't me traveling. Perhaps you're thinking of Jenny Milchmann and her "world's longest book tour"? My kids are teenagers. I think they'd revolt if I proposed taking them away from their social lives for a year! LOL (And if you haven't, check out Jenny's books. They are fabulous.)

      As you might expect, I'm not fond of the phrase "nasty woman" when used to describe a woman who is standing up for herself and others. Now, if she is not a nice person, that's a different story. :)

      Yep, Arlington. That means she was either a service member or the wife of one. Do you remember which? Either requires a great deal of strength.

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    2. Liz, thanks! I think she was the wife of a service member.

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  19. This book resonates with me since I grew up when women were taking charge and managed their families and lives with strength and understood deprivation. My grandmothers were very young widows who raised families because they had to work in order to survive. My mother and aunt were depression era children who had nothing but values and principles with which to live by. Many thanks for this wonderful introduction to a captivating and memorable series.

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    1. Thank you and you're welcome! Both my grandmothers were Depression-era kids. I have no doubt that contributed a lot to the women they were as adults.

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  20. The new book sounds great, Liz. I look forward to reading it!

    Your comments came at a perfect time for me. My book club just read Elizabeth Gilbert's "City of Girls," and I felt pretty strongly about how I didn't actually LIKE the protagonist until she was about midlife. And the reason I didn't like her was that up until then, she took no agency for her own life. That is exactly the word I used at book group -- agency! So I feel very affirmed by your comments.

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    1. Thank you, Susan!

      Yes, it's very hard to like a character when they don't make choices for themselves, isn't it? Male or female, but it seems it happens so much more with women. And so many times, women (at least of previous generations) don't realize they CAN make their own choices until middle-age and they learn something of life. Fortunately, that doesn't describe the younger generations at all. Well, not much.

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  21. I am going to buy this book! It sounds wonderful. I grew up with a woman who had great strength. She survived the Depression and it marked her with a fear of poverty. She identified greatly with Scarlett O'Hara's "I will never be hungry again." She wasn't and neither were we. She was competent, hard working, trustworthy and loyal. She was much happier working outside the home than staying in and she took some gruff for that. By example, she taught us that we could be whatever we had the ambition to be. We didn't need to be mothers if we didn't want. She was raised by her widowed mother and a widowed aunt who supported themselves as telephone operators in a Colorado mining town in the 1930s and '40s. My grandmother was a tough irreverent broad who swore and smoked and gambled and loved us like there was no tomorrow. She was quite the role model.

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  22. Thank you so much!

    My grandmother was a Depression child and I think she had the same "I"ll never be hungry again" thing. She would not have Caro corn syrup in her house, because so many meals were spaghetti and Caro when she was growing up. She always had plenty of food in the house and she never told us "no" when we asked for some.

    Your grandmother sounds like a hoot!

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    1. Oops, this comment belongs above to "edmoulton."

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  23. Hi Liz, and huge congrats on your book! I just bought it on Kindle and can't wait to read it. I've been thinking a lot lately about female fictional characters and how they fit into stories, and "agency" is the perfect word to describe what I would like to see in my female characters. Here's a fascinating piece I read the other day by Brit Marling in the NYT about women's roles in film. I've been mulling over it ever since as I think it applies to novels as well.

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    1. Thanks, Deb!

      Are you talking about this one? https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/07/opinion/sunday/brit-marling-women-movies.html

      Powerful article. And very on point.

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    2. Yes, and I thought it was fascinating.

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  24. Congratulations on your new book and series, Liz! I'm a big fan of stories with women being the main character in WWI and WWII settings. Betty sounds like great, and I'm predicting this series will be a popular one.

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  25. My grandmother was widowed in her twenties and was a housekeeper to support my mother and her sister. When they were teenagers, she remarried. My mother worked about ten years before she got married at 30. She was church secretary during some of our childhood and went back to work to put my brother and me through college. Your book sounds interesting.

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    1. Thanks, Sally! I love hearing all these stories.

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  26. I like your word "agency." Superheroes may be entertaining, but the heroines and heroes that truly move us are those who effect positive change in the face of adversity. Congratulations on the new series!

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