Saturday, February 2, 2013

Notable women in the two of the male-oriented books I've read somewhat recently

I am extremely impressed by the ways in which the works I have read, while ostensibly about men, treat the female characters with which they deal. I've already written about In the Heart of the Sea, which devotes a whole chapter towards a group of the population that won't even leave shore with the focal group, the crew of the whaleship Essex. The Limits of Glory and Mornings on Horseback were similarly impressive and made concerted efforts to examine, in a complimentary way, the female characters of the stories.
Anyway, here are a few strong female characters I've come across in books, movies, and tv shows ostensibly about men. I recommend checking these out. They're not, in most cases, why I read the books or watched the movies/tv shows. But I give credit to the creators of these works for squeezing in strong female characters not to make a point or pat themselves on the back but simply because in their minds these women were people of substance, like the male characters covered, whose stories deserved to be heard.
Magdalene De Lancey in The Limits of Glory: In a book about a famous battle and the men who fought in it, author James McDonough devotes a considerable amount of attention to Chief of Staff William De Lancey's young bride. And, as the author makes clear in the introduction, he considers her bravery and sacrifice to be no less great than the men on the battlefield. This is a novel, and De Lancey writes that she "Played a part as meaningful as any in the drama" (McDonough x). That part was not in killing men but in taking care of people, specifically, her husband. Because McDononough writes of war "In the end it was just killing and dying" (can't find page yet...), it is clear that he finds her restorative caretaker role to be as noble as those in the battlefield. Now I didn't read this book for Magdalene De Lancey, I read it for Wellington, Bl├╝cher, Macdonell, Napoleon, Ney, and the rest of the military leaders. That is, I imagine, why most people would choose to read this book (it's like the Killer Angels, also an outstanding book as evidenced by the fact that I read it 10 years ago and still rave about it).
Anna "Bamie" Roosevelt and Mittie Bulloch Roosevelt in Mornings on Horseback: David McCullough's book isn't just a celebration of Teddy Roosevelt as an individual. It's also a look at the family and background that created such a remarkable man and President (I am an unabashed Teddy fan, which likely colored my interpretation of this book). Mittie Bulloch is an interesting character because she grew up in the slavery era South in a high society family and dealt with the unsurprising amount of drama that accompanies marrying a man from the slave-free North who disapproves of the practice. While you, like I, may have some trouble sympathizing with rich slaveowners, McCullough also makes sure to note that it was Mittie, not Theodore Sr., who inspired Roosevelt with thrilling stories at bed. These piqued his curiosity and inspired his imagination. I would also like to take this moment to register a complaint with Sports Illustrated for writing an entire article about how Kobe Bryant didn't get his fire from his father and throwing in briefly that oh by the way Kobe gets his fire--his defining personality trait--from his mom. And they had the nerve to publish it the week of Mother's Day! Moving on... Mittie Bulloch Roosevelt is clearly an interesting character, but I found Teddy's sister Bamie to be even more so. While the book is a biography of Teddy, known as "Teedie" when he was little, and the medical struggles he endured, McCullough also makes clear that Bamie endured trials of her own because of spine curvature issues (it's in the first chapter), but writes of these with admiration, rather than pity: "Bamie was strength. Bamie was good sense, the one to lean on, to turn for help" (35).
To say that these women were the reasons I read or enjoyed the books would be disingenuous. But I did appreciate the way these works paid close attention to their characters and I can out with a great appreciation for all of them (though again, admiration is a bit strong for a former slave owner like Mittie, though I recognize the conflict the war brought to her). I wonder if this attention derives from the historical nature of these works. (Technically The Limits of Glory is a novel, but McDonough makes clear that he keeps to historical facts and only fictionalizes feelings.) We make a big deal about the need for strong, interesting female characters in the media, and I agree with this push, but in our own lives perhaps we should be looking not to imaginary worlds but to the worlds of the past. For the most part, the girls and women we read about in history books may not have had the career opportunities we would hope for ourselves and for our friends, but they do demonstrate strength of character, uniqueness, and complexity--exactly the kinds of things you would expect from real, interesting people. Perhaps, rather than focusing so intently on how the media portrays us (us human beings, not members of a given gender), perhaps we should look at the ways nominally powerless individuals were able to be influential in their worlds and use it as inspiration for how we might use the qualities we possess in a world in which we do have real, tangible opportunities. To quote Teddy himself, "Do what you can with what you have where you are."
And yes, you really should read Mornings on Horseback and The Limits of Glory.

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