Saturday, March 26, 2016

Tammy Kaehler: What Dolly Parton Taught Me About Being A Feminist

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Happy Friday, everyone! Today I'm thrilled to introduce novelist Tammy Kaehler, the author of the Kate Reilly Racing Mystery Series. I was lucky enough to meet Tammy in person at the Literary Guild of Orange County at Long Beach's Festival of Women authors last year, and we've been buddies every since.

I love Tammy's series, because her protagonist, Kate Reilly, is such a strong and brave heroine — and also because I know absolutely nothing about the world of car racing. It's such a fun glimpse into this specialized world.

Welcome, Tammy!

Tammy Kaehler: Let me start by saying that Dolly Parton was a fixture in my childhood, in that sort of “odd celebrity who’s always there” kind of way—not to mention as the woman with the biggest chest and the most fringe and rhinestones. I was a child of the 80s, so I watched the movie 9 to 5 over and over, knew all the words to Islands in the Stream, and knew her song “I Will Always Love You” long before Whitney Houston recorded it. I just didn’t know how much common sense lurked behind all of that big hair.

From a combination of factors, not the least of which was being raised (mostly) by a single mother who attended UC Berkeley in the 1960s, I grew up believing women should reach for anything they want and not be satisfied with the constraints of traditional female occupations. I attended a liberal arts college, and that’s when I became more aware of language use and gender roles, and all the stuff that “political correctness” (which I think is unfairly maligned) teaches you to recognize.

That’s when I excised the word “girl” from my vocabulary for any female over the age of 16. I learned to say “first-year student” instead of “freshman.” And I developed my habit of always carrying a whistle and never walking alone at night. (Yes, the awakening was the good with the bad.) By then, to me, feminism meant no stereotyping, eschewing historical societal expectations, and doing everything men could. I’d never been a particularly girly girl, and at that point in my life, you wouldn’t have caught me dead in ruffles, bows, pink, or hearts. Somehow, those were marks against feminism or symbols of a need to be protected that would then diminish my strength or power.

Ironically, it was when I went to work for a women’s college that I became more flexible in my idea of what women could be. As I think back, that’s when I started to realize—as I looked around every day at hundreds of women leading or following, excelling or goofing off, and generally filling every role, traditional or otherwise—that just being a woman and doing what I wanted to do was a form of feminism. It’s a sentiment that took a while to gel, and one that I finally articulated in Red Flags when Kate, the racecar driver, is questioned by the media about not doing enough as a role model: “I make a case for women every day I’m behind the wheel,” she says.

A large part of my interest in the racing world stems from meeting women in it who aren’t the beauty-queen trophy girls. The women who don’t trade on their looks for exposure or success. And then someone like Danica Patrick comes along. Whether or not you think she belongs in NASCAR’s highest tier or in Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Issue, she’s in both (or has been). She’s talked about the technical craft of racing, she’s led and won races, and she’s used her sexuality to promote her brand. For a long time I was really conflicted about my opinions of her actions.

And then I started writing Red Flags, creating a character who’s your typical Real Housewife of Beverly Hills, but with a twist: there’s a smart, strategic brain behind the glitz, glam, and pocket dogs. I came to understand that the best thing we as women can do today is be who the hell we want and own it. And who’s the patron saint of that? Dolly Parton.

Because, let me tell you, the woman is no dummy. The first quote of hers I heard and loved was about being called a “dumb blonde.” Her answer: “I’m not offended at all by dumb blonde jokes because I know I’m not dumb, and I also know I’m not blonde.” Another that stuck with me—talk about owning it—is one I let my character quote: “It costs a lot of money to look this cheap.” You be you, Dolly.

So while there’s still a part of me that’s still conflicted, I’ve embraced hearts, polka dots, full skirts, and pink. Even pink on a racecar, if it’s driven by a woman and is supporting the fight against breast cancer. (That, by the way, is true of Kate Reilly in my books and Pippa Mann in real life.)

And I’m going to embrace being who I am, on purpose. With kudos to Dolly.

What I want to know is am I the only one with this kind of confusion about what feminism means? Worried, like me, that you’re not doing it right? And be honest, who else out there is a secret Dolly fan?

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Love, love, love Dolly. But it wasn't until the film The Bodyguard and the Whiney Houson version of "I Will Always Love You" that I realized she was also a songwriter and producer. Talk about your triple threat!

Confusion about being a feminist? Reds and lovely readers, what do you think? Do you ever feel like you're "not doing it right"? What about this "lean in" stuff? (And why so much judgment, both from others and our own inner critics?) Please tell us (and meet Tammy) in the comments. 

(And now I can't get "I Will Always Love You" out of my head. THANKS, TAMMY!)

Tammy Kaehler discovered the racing world via a stint in corporate marketing, and she was hooked by the contrast between its top-dollar, high-drama competition and friendly, family atmosphere. Mystery fans and racing insiders alike have praised her award-winning Kate Reilly Racing Mystery Series (Dead Man’s Switch, Braking Points, and Avoidable Contact), and Tammy takes readers back behind the wheel in her fourth entry, Red Flags. She works as a freelance writer in the Los Angeles area, where she lives with her husband and many cars.


  1. Most definitely a Dolly Parton fan, both as a singer/songwriter/producer and as a person . . . .
    Although I don’t necessarily think I’m particularly confused, I often feel like I’m not doing it right.

  2. Waving hi to Tammy! I love this post. Had go look up Danica Patrick, though. I had similar experience "turning feminist" as you, Tammy, except in the early seventies. Best of luck with your new book - the series has a great premise.

  3. Hi to Tammy--I was never confused about being a feminist--long before there was such a word--a bit confused about Dolly--all that outrageousness--but I did learn to appreciate her after she did 9-5 and heard her talk about herself, saw what she was capable of doing--and above all, saw that she didn't take her image seriously. The one thing that did confuse me--women attacking women--that whole 'stay-at-home moms' vs. working women thing. I grew up with strong women--who worked their butts off at home and in the workplace!

    Thanks for the introduction to Tammy, Susan--now I've got more books to add to my pile!

  4. Terrific post, Tammy - and I am a huge Dolly Parton fan. I am too old to be confused about being a feminist. I've seen how far we've come to take any of it for granted.

  5. Love the post Tammy--thanks! And love Dolly too. My ex-brother-in-law went to high school with her in a small town in eastern Tennessee, so I was steeped in Dolly. Such fun to get insights for your own character from her...

    Hallie, I wouldn't say you're too old for anything, but I know what you mean. You remember the days when none of this was possible. Hate like mad to think we could backslide...

  6. Waving to Tammy! Hope to see you at Malice this year.

    Far too many are confused, repelled, and intimidated by the term "feminist". My own mother would be horrified to be thought of in such a way, but she truly was, and has been, my entire life. She started working full-time as the main breadwinner in my family when she realized, belatedly, that my dad was an alcoholic and would never bring home a whole paycheck. She didn't make a big deal out of it, not even to chafe at teaching bosses making living wages their jobs while she, supporting four kids, made less than $3,000 a year. Mother quietly handled nearly every issue in our family, and she taught us that women can be soft and strong simultaneously.

    Dolly would admire my mother, I think. And I know Mother admires her.

  7. Thanks to my mother, I always assumed I could do whatever I set my mind to. It helped that I've always been slightly oblivious to the real world, and that, as I learned later, I was in the high school class noted for having all those "smart girls" (nine of the top ten in the class of 1965 were female). I've never thought of myself as a feminist, because early on that didn't seem to be about choosing to do anything but have a career as well as a family. I chose not to have children. I also thought it was fine that two of my cousins chose to have twelve children each. Now, at 68, it terrifies me that some legislators, not all of them men, want to take women's rights back to the 1950s. I was not an activist back in the 60s but I may just have to become one now.

  8. I loved your post, Tammy, and I will definitely check out your books. I love Dolly Parton too, and in the last few years I have become a fan of Formula 1 racing.

    Growing up, I never felt that I could not do anything I wanted to. I have always been very motivated. What bothers me these days is not only the men who feel threatened by empowered women and who believe that by giving women their equal place at the table that men will lose their rights but also as others have said the women who speak out against other women who are striving for equality. It makes me sad.

    Good luck with your new book and the series.

  9. Dolly is a giant among women and a great role model. She's a strong, intelligent, incredibly talented woman. I love her. Nice post!

  10. Welcome Tammy and thanks for a great post! Never confused about being a feminist, mostly because I found Buffalo, NY, where I grew up to be so sexist. And LOVE Dolly -- want to go to Dollywood someday! Off to play some Dolly and Dixie Chicks....

  11. You guys, Tammy's in California, but she'll be with us soon.

  12. I'm here! Good morning from the West Coast! Thanks everyone for your reactions and kudos. And really, Susa, are we supposed to be "leaning in" or meditating and letting it all be?!

    Let me start by saying thanks to Susan and all of the Reds for making me welcome here. I love this joint.

    Susan, it's an interesting comment you made that you weren't ever confused because where you grew up was sexist. I guess that was part of the benefit of growing up in the place and way I did. And I feel I should clarify, I never doubted I *was* a feminist, just doubted what I could wear or act like to be taken for one.

    Joan, isn't it frustrating to rarely feel like we're doing anything right? I wonder if men feel that too--if that's societal or built by advertisers to sell us stuff or if it's aimed at women in particular. I suspect that vibe is widespread.

    FChurch, Kathy, and Angela, I agree with you all. There's just no need for any of us to tear each other down, especially these days with so many of our rights under fire (as Kathy points out) and so many lashing out because they feel attacked by empowered women. Of course, I'm frustrated in general by the idea that if I have something, you think you can't. Just because we have some seats at the table now, doesn't diminish men's power.

    Karen, I, too, am mystified about why people find "feminist" to be such a threatening term. I can't fathom in this day and age that any woman *isn't* a feminist, yet some of them don't agree. Of course, then we have the lovely PM of Canada proudly labeling himself as such. (Anyone else want to elect him for President?)

    And Angela, cheers to another F1 fan!

    Thanks to everyone for making me feel not quite so alone in my admiration for Dolly and my inner struggles to live up to everything gained for me in the name of feminism!

  13. *Susan

    Clearly, I need my coffee yet...

  14. Count me as a Dolly Parton fan, and it's as much for who she is as a person, not just a woman, as it is for her amazing talent. I do think she sets the best example for women in just being herself and having a magnificent sense of humor. I'm all for serious speeches and demeanor where women's rights are concerned, but Dolly's charm and humor go a long way to let people know that she's comfortable in her own skin and you should be, too. And, I was familiar with her song "I Will Always Love You" and her singing of it long before Whitney got to it, too.

    Confusion about being a feminist? I'm pretty well ensconced in my attitudes and philosophies of women being able to conquer the world if they want. But, if they don't want to, that's okay, too. The trouble I have with books like Leaning In is the idea that there's a right way to be a woman and that is to step up, step up, step up. I'm not against anybody working themselves into the ground if they want, but I am against them trying to make me feel bad/guilty if I don't. Please, please read this article I found concerning "leaning in." It's entertaining as well as informative. One of the things mentioned in this article, in a light tone, is the woman read novels before she started leaning in so much, and then there was no time for novels. Why must we constantly be "on" and driven to prove our feminism. As the article states, we should be able to lean back, too, and encourage the men to do so, too. My goal a a feminist and a person is to, like a physician, first do no harm and then, live a life with passion and belief in my abilities and rights.

    Tammy, I like books that take me outside of my comfort zone, and your series would do that. I'm not a racing fan and know little about the sport, but I find a series about a woman racer a fascinating prospect, as expanding the horizons of women in all areas is important. When I was in college, there were basically two areas encouraged for women, teacher and nurse. That my beautiful, smart six-year-old granddaughter has so many choices now is so great. A while back, I asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up. She ticked off the things that she could do and was interested in--singing, dancing, working with her nature and bug collection, artist, writer... I couldn't have been happier that she sees the world as her oyster. And isn't that what feminism is really all about, seeing the world as your oyster.

  15. I have loved Dolly Parton since the beginning of time, and just for the reasons you cite, Tammy. Your revelation about the absolute truth of embracing your womanhood no matter what is just what happened to me when I decided to write a series about an unapologetic traditional woman. Talk about outside your comfort zone!

  16. Kathy, yes yes yes to everything you said. Like the other Kathy (Lynn Emerson), I've chosen not to have children, and I can see even through the last 20 years (my "childbearing years" as they might say), how attitudes have changed. I no longer feel like people expect me to apologize for that. Be what we want.

    Donis, what you do with your books, of course, is show us that women in "traditional" roles are every bit as butt-kicking as those in non-traditional ones!

  17. Kathy, I'm so with you on "leaning in"! The way I made my peace with motherhood and career (not to mention just making a living) was to "lean out" altogether and work for myself. Some of the "lean-in" stuff I find classist.

    I don't know the answer to being a woman "having it all" but one thing I do know is having a family and a career pretty much precludes everything/anything else. Someone asked me recently if I had any hobbies and I was like, "Um, napping?"

  18. Recently, a married female friend of mine with one kid was promoted to a high level at a Silicon Valley job. Her older female mentor advised her to "stop exercising -- you won't have time -- and buy preprepared meals."

  19. We talked about it and although the advice works for the short term, in the long term it leads to weight gain, health problems, and probably earlier death. So -- who wins? How far are you supposed to lean?

  20. Kathy, I just read the article, and I adore it. Even without kids, I could barely manage a full-time job and writing books and being pleasant to my husband. I became a lousy friend and family member. Now that I'm *just* building a freelance business, instead of the day job, I finally have the energy to be a pleasant person to one and all again. I found my limits of leaning in, and I don't like being near them.

    Let's all take an hour today to just recline with a good book!

  21. Tammy, I had had a hi-tech career when I left it for five years to stay home with my babies (now in their late twenties). Boy, did that challenge my faminist self-image! It was the hardest and most worthwhile job I've ever done - but the way society still calls at-home moms "non-working" really burned. I wanted to identify myself at parties as "Home Services Manager" or something. A feminist who raises her sons pretty much full time - whew.

  22. Um, Tammy, about Justin Trudeau.... No, you can't have him. He's ours. (Sorry.) And anyway, he was born in Canada, so you know how that would go over. :^))

  23. Hi Tammy--waving at you from Texas! Before I get to feminism, just want to say that (of course you know) the pub date of Red Flags is APRIL 5, and I can't wait to read it! LOVE this series! (Have pre-ordered, too!)

    So, Dolly Parton--I adore her. In fact, am going to put on one of my Dolly CDs for the afternoon... Her style is certainly not mine, but she's smart and funny and incredibly talented, and I've always loved that she found a way to do what she wants to do.

    I hate labels and categories and people who try to make other people fit into them. My mother would not have called herself a feminist, but she worked full time with my dad in their business for more than forty years, and did all the so-called "wifely" things as well, taking care of a home and children. Interesting now to look back on it, for those decades (40s through 60s) she did none of the things that were expected of middle class women, like "lunches" and ladies' bridge parties. She had neither the time nor the interest.

    I grew up thinking that I could do anything, and I never felt any pressure from my parents to get married or to have children. I did both because I wanted to. So I was not what you'd call an active feminist although I've always agree with most of the official feminist tenets.

    I don't even know what "leaning in" is. Going to go look it up while listening to Dolly...

  24. Love Dolly Parton and hope she comes to where I live on her new concert tour.

    As far as feminism and if I am doing it right, I don't care. I don't live my life to please others.

  25. Edith, when I was at home with Kiddo as a baby, I called myself, "Domestic Goddess."

  26. FInally at a computer!

    Yeah, this is fascinating. I got my first job in broadcasting in 1970--ONLY because I was a woman, no question. And that was very pivotal. The news director asked me=--remember I was applying for the reporter job--whether I could TYPE, in case he might want me also to type his letters. I lied, and said I couldn't type.

    SO you all know me, and what I'm like--but still, in meetings, there are times when the men ignore me. I men, I am INVISIBLE. I'll say "xxxx" and no one acknowledges it. Then, ten minutes later, a man will say the SAME THING, and everyone says what a fabulous idea. This happens ALL THE TIME. It also happens at parties.

    I think the stubble for balance is incredibly difficult.

    ANd I agree, Tammy, with your approach-avoidance about Danica. But I finally decided she can do whatever she wants.

  27. Debs, thanks for the reminder about RED FLAGS! And for all the support. I certainly understand (and embrace sometimes) the utility of labels, but you're right, where those go sideways is when we try to make people fit into them. That's my whole issue, I thought the label meant something in particular, but I've learned it mostly just means "being female and not apologizing."

    So hooray for The Gold Digger and all of the rest of us--and Dolly--for living our lives to please ourselves!

    Edith, I give all kudos in the world to you who are Domestic Goddesses, but I've never come up with a good way to ask "What do you do... for a living? with your time? as a day job?" that doesn't seem biased toward a workplace-career response.

    And Hank (hi!!), I cannot BELIEVE there are still men who ignore you in meetings. Don't they know who you are?!?!?!? I'd be glad to go with you and tell them.

    At least we all have our tribe here.

  28. I've always loved Miss Dolly. That woman has always known who she is and what she wants.