In which I am called *that word*.


Oh, don’t be coy with me. You know exactly which word I am talking about.

I called my husband right after it happened. I was in tears. “A man called me the baddest word,” I said, sniveling like a little child. Enraged at the outrage of it, and enraged at my own hurt as well.

It’s just a word, I fussed at myself.

No it isn’t, my hurt fussed back.

My husband paused. “Which bad word?” he asked carefully.

“The baddest one,” I said.


I amended. “The baddest one for a lady,” I said primly.

What came from my husband’s mouth next was a series of “Oh.”

“Oh,” he said, uttering the “Oh” of comprehension.

Oh,” he said next, uttering the “Oh” of disbelief.

“OH!” he said finally, uttering the “Oh” of rage.

“Do you want me punch him?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“I probably won’t punch him,” he said. “Plus, we don’t know who he is.”

This was true. It happened on the corner of 46th and Hiawatha, where I had walked through the wind and the cold to get medicine for my dog at the pharmacy. I had a green light and a walk sign. He nearly hit me as he tried to turn illegally through the crosswalk. I jumped backward, and he missed me by inches. I was too astonished to say anything, too terrified to register anything except relief that I wasn’t hurt. He rolled down his window, leaned across the passenger, his face was twisted and angry and hard.

“Get out of the way you stupid c***,” he said.

And then he sped away.

And I walked home, horrified.

I have been called bad names before. Sometimes deservedly so. Sometimes not. But I’ve never been as upset as I was this time around. Now, granted, I was having a rough day (my dog, my dog. everything returns to my dog). And there was the fact of my near-squishing as well. As a person of faith, I’m not particularly afraid of dying, but there is something gravely undignified in a Death By Squishing – by a horrible-looking van driven by a foul-mouthed man, no less. It wouldn’t be my preference is what I’m saying.

But why, though. Why insult the person you almost killed? I have been thinking about this for days, and I can’t figure it out. What is it about fear that makes it harder to be compassionate? What is it about doing something wrong that makes people have a harder time to show care? Why is it so damn hard to say “I’m sorry”?

It did not occur to the driver to check for pedestrians. I get that. It did not occur to the driver that there might be someone crossing in the crosswalk on so cold a day. It was very cold. And it was bright. I get it that mistakes can happen.

But why yell ‘stupid’. And why, why, why that other word. The baddest word. And why does that word hurt me so?

In the 30 Rock episode “The C-Word” Liz Lemon is called it by a petulant employee (the petulantest), and she tries to shake it off, but can’t. In the episode she says, “There isn’t an equivalent insult for a man,” and that isn’t entirely true – men get called “dicks” all the time, which feels like it should be the same, but strangely it is not. Perhaps it is the venom withheld from one word and piled in the other. Perhaps it is our culture’s misogynistic distain for the female body – Francis Grose, in his 1785 A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, defined it as “a nasty word for a nasty thing.” Indeed, even though the word was in popular usage since the 1300’s, it didn’t even show up in any regular English dictionary until 1961, when Webster’s finally decided to use it, helpfully calling it obscene. 

It is that, for sure.

Now, it wasn’t always so. Chaucer uses the word playfully in the Cantebury Tales. And Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”, plays with the word, substituting it with “quaint” and lets the reader fill in the blanks. So how did a playful turn on joyful sexuality become the ugliest of insults. Intention? Body hatred? Lady hatred? Maybe all of those things. Maybe we can blame the Puritans. Maybe we can blame mean men in vans.

And I know people who seek to reclaim that word. To use it powerfully, lovingly, playfully. To assert that the nastiness in the word is not emblematic of the thing described, but of the speaker himself. There is no part of me that is nasty, after all. Every part of me is a gift from my Creator, and has in it the spark of the Divine. And I can say that, and I can use that word in my own private conversations and it does not change the fact that the intention of that insult matters. And that ugly talk is ugly talk, no matter how we try to reframe the context of our vocabularies.

There are few words in our language with this much power to shock. And hurt.

Which brings me back to the near-squishing. There is no way this person could think he was in the right and I was in the wrong. There was no way that he could have thought that I actually was stupid for crossing the street. At a crosswalk. With a green light and a “walk” sign. So what is really going on?

He said that word to hurt me. He said that word to belittle me. He said that word to remove my humanity – to make me feel as though I did not have the right to occupy that space, to move across a street in safety in the winter. He said that word to make himself feel better. If my humanity is lessened than the potential harm is lessened too. He said that word to absolve himself. He said that word to remove me from the possibility of compassion. He said that word so as to relieve himself of the bother of caring. He said that word because his power of movement was more valuable to him than mine. He would not have said that word to a man. He likely would not have called him a d***, either. He likely would not have said anything at all. Men have the right to exist, right?

This all happened days ago. Friday, to be exact. And I’ve been stewing ever since. I have been thinking about the things I should have said, and the things I should have done.

“Did you get his license plate,” my mom asked. “Because that was illegal. You were on a crosswalk”

“No,” I said. “I didn’t even think of it. I could only be shocked.”

She shrugged. “I probably wouldn’t have either.”

And maybe that’s why. When words have the power to shock – they have more power than the word itself. They remove the impulse of action from the recipient. They pin us in place.

I hate that. I hate how powerless I felt. I hate that my instinct was to crumple up. I hate that my instinct was to flush and sputter. To feel less than. It is a crummy feeling. The crummiest.

I’m not sure what I want out of this post. Other than to pin this experience to the great bulletin board in the sky. “See,” I say. “This is what happened. This is how I felt. Make of it what you will.”

Happy Birthday Ada Lovelace, the Enchantress of Numbers


Oh, Ada! Poetical Scientist, Metaphysical Analyst and genius of Mathematical Arts. Mother of programmers. Midwife of computers everywhere. Daughter of a libertine poet and a self-centered socialite/ strict moralist (depending on the day), little Ada proved once and for all that a person can grow and thrive and wonder and create glittering futures despite the inconvenience of sub-standard parents.

After Lord Byron abandoned his family, and Annabella Millbanke abandoned little Ada into the arms of her doting grandmother and a squadron of tutors, Ada grew up curious and intellectually ravenous. Her mother, seeing the ravages of poetry (and laudanum) on her ex-husband, decreed that Ada’s mind would be unpoisoned by romantic excess, and would, instead, be guided by mathematics and science, and filled the halls of the old family home with the best tutors that money could buy.

When she was twelve years old, she decided that she would learn how to fly. She constructed wings out of silk and paper and wire and feathers. She composed a book called Flyology, documenting her theories of human flight, her study of birds, her analysis of the tools she’d need to make a journey across the country by the most direct of routes.

When she was seventeen years old, she fell in love with her tutor, and attempted an elopement. This was thwarted by a cadre of her mother’s friends and relatives – women she referred to as “The Furies”.

When she was eighteen, she made her debut and dazzled society with her beauty, intellect and charm.

When she was twenty, she was married – though not without scandal. She enjoyed a relaxed enjoyment of her own sexuality, and had several lovers outside of her marriage, much to the shock of people around her. Their shock didn’t seemed to bother her much, and did nothing to dissuade her.

She loved the integration of mathematics with the imagination, and often saw science and poetry as being inextricably linked. She felt that differential calculus was, in its foundation, poetical in nature. She wrote:

I may remark that the curious transformations many formulae can undergo, the unsuspected and to a beginner apparently impossible identity of forms exceedingly dissimilar at first sight, is I think one of the chief difficulties in the early part of mathematical studies. I am often reminded of certain sprites and fairies one reads of, who are at one’s elbows in one shape now, and the next minute in a form most dissimilar.

She loved the world, both the seen and the unseen, and valued imagination and intuition as highly as she valued computation and analysis.

She loved to gamble – the challenge, the reward, the complex analytical and mathematical computations necessary to do well. She attempted to create a mathematical model that would allow her to reduce her risk in placing extremely large bets. Unfortunately, the model was not successful, and a shame-faced Ada was forced to admit to her husband the vast fortune that she had just lost.

When she was twenty-nine, thanks to her new interest in electricity, magnetism and phrenology, she attempted to create a mathematical model for the working of the emotional mind – “a calculous for the nervous system.”

In 1833, she met Charles Babbage and saw his Difference Engine – the world’s first automatic calculator, and saw his plans for the Analytical Engine – the world’s first computer.. The two became instant friends, and were both highly enamored of the other’s intellectual prowess. They spent hours and hours on long walks discussing mathematics, and even longer hours writing letters back and forth, discussing theory and ideas. In a letter, Mr. Babbage wrote of her:

“Forget this world and all its troubles and if possible its multitudinous Charlatans—every thing in short but the Enchantress of Numbers.”

Though the Analytical Engine was years away from production, Ada was deeply involved in the development of the design, and wrote extensive and sophisticated analyses of the potential applications of the invention. She wrote the programs to demonstrate what the machine could do, going beyond even Babbage’s limited ideas. Not only was she able to see the implications of the machine, she was able to postulate further modifications and advancement. She was, undeniably, the prophet of the computer age.

Happy Birthday, dear Ada. I write these words on a computer, and am sending it to a massive network of computers so it may be read on still other computers. We would not be here without you.


If you haven’t watched Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s talk on feminism, you should watch it now.

Seriously. I love this woman. I love her books, I love her articles, I love her presence in the world. I want her to narrate my brain. I love her clarity, her analysis, her compassion, her fire, her precision, her poise. If you have thirty minutes, give this a listen. I did so yesterday, while doing Very Womanly Tasks, like cleaning my oven and making soup and running after children and folding laundry. You know what makes folding laundry WAY more interesting? Listening to TED talks. On feminism, for example.

Specifically, as a mother of both girls and a boy, and a loving grown-up in relationship with lots and lots of boys, I particularly resonated with this: “Gender as it exists today is a grave injustice….I would like today to ask that we begin to dream about and plan for a different world, a fairer world. A world of happier men and happier women who are truer to themselves. And this is how to start: we must raise our daughters differently. We must also raise our sons differently. We do a great disservice to boys in how we raise them. We stifle the humanity of boys. We define masculinity in a very narrow way – masculinity becomes this hard, small cage, and we put boys inside that cage. We teach boys to be afraid of fear, weakness and vulnerability.  We teach boys to mask themselves. . . We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller.”

Seriously, it’s great. And worth the time out of your day.

It is still very cold in Minnesota, and I had the kids home for two days after the Governor closed down the schools due to extreme windchills. We are stir crazy. Cabin feverish. If you are living in a warm place, please tell me a warm story so that my bones may thaw and my eyeballs may un-crystallize and my soul may creep out of the freezer and bloom again.

On Feminism, Anti-Feminism, and the Things That Mystify Me

I am ten years old. I am riding a banana seat bike through the alleys. I am allowed to go as far as 31st Street, and then I have to turn back. Words cannot describe how much I love this bike. It is turquoise with sparkly flower decals and I ride back and forth through blocks of alleys singing the entire “Mary Poppins” soundtrack at the top of my lungs. My knees are scratched. My hair needs a comb. I probably haven’t brushed my teeth.

A man in a car pulls up. He opens the window. He asks my name. I have been well-trained. I have learned about good touches and bad touches in school. I know that good people don’t drive up to children on bikes. My teachers have been very clear. I take a good look at his face. I notice his red hair. I take off as fast as I can in the opposite direction, toward home.

He circles around. Meets me mid-way in the next block. Asks me what my hurry is. Tells me I might hurt myself. I do not make eye contact. I power through the next block. I see him again. I keep going.

I am in my driveway, at the edge. My bike is on the ground. I am blocking the way. I am breathing hard. I do not want him to know where I live. But I want to see if it was real – if he was real. I want to understand what is happening. I want to know if he will come snaking down the alley. If he is looking for me.

He does. He slows down. He grins at me. I realize that he is not wearing pants. I don’t see any – you know. Bits. Or, I’m pretty sure I don’t. What I do see is a thatch of red hair where his pants should be. I am horrified. I feel sick. And sweaty. I dry-heave. He laughs and speeds away. I leave my bike where it is. I go inside. I wash my hands. I wash my face. I will never be clean. I do not tell my parents.

Later, I get in trouble later for leaving my bike on the driveway.

It is the first time I am ever afraid of a man. It is the first time that it ever occurs to me to be afraid. It will not be the last.

Every day, someone comes to my blog after googling “anti-feminist movies”. Every. Dang. Day.

(To be fair, people show up at my blog after googling a lot of things. “Taxidermy porn”, for example. And “how to turn my teacher into a toad”. And the ever-popular “mom butt”. The internets, man. It’s a mad country filled with mad people, and we are the maddest of all.)

Now, a while ago (quite a while, actually) I wrote a post about a children’s movie with some pretty gross lady-hating themes, and I’ve managed to catch heck for it. In the comments, in my email box. Whatever. There are people who are seriously mad at me for pointing out that the movie was, in addition to being a crappily-animated, source-text-destroying, dreckish disaster of a movie – it was also grossly antifeminist. Moreover, it fed into the baseless fears of the men’s-rights folks who seem to think that personal empowerment is a zero-sum game. That to empower women means to disempower men. And that the purpose of feminism is to throw men, collectively mind you, into the proverbial dust-bin of history.

These things make me tired.

And sad.

The most troubling statements, though, are the ones that suggest that I, as a children’s author, have no right to call myself a feminist. Or an anything-ist. I had similar hate-letters when I posted a piece railing against Michelle Bachman, or when I wrote in praise of my GLBT married friends.

But feminism, man. There is a special kind of venom for the feminism.

I am fifteen. I take the Lake Street bus every day after track practice. It takes an hour. I settle in, hoping that my prodigious post-running stinkiness will prevent anyone from sitting next to me.

I am wrong. A man in a suit boards the bus. He takes the empty seat next to me. I look out the window. He asks me my name. I pretend to be asleep. He asks me what grade I’m in. I say I have homework even though I don’t. He wants to know why I’m not friendly. He tells me that if I’m not friendly, no one will like me. His hand is on my knee. I leave it there. If I say something, people will look at me. And I don’t want them looking at me. I want to disappear.

The curious thing for me, though, is the sense of ownership. I write children’s books. I tweet. I keep this blog. I have a readership – a small one, sure. But a readership nonetheless. I get notes from readers – both men and women – saying “I come here to read about the writing process” or “I come here to get your insights on….” whatever. Books. Kids. Pretty things. “Please keep your feminism to yourself,” people say in comments I delete. “No one cares about your politics,” one woman wrote me. She wrote a lot of other sentences, mind, and I’ll repeat none of them here. She closed with, “the next time you want to air your grievances, just keep your yap shut.”

Apparently, for both children and children’s authors, silence is golden.

Or maybe it’s not authors. Maybe it’s women. Maybe women saying things online makes us itchy. Or maybe women saying things at all.

I am nineteen. I am on a date. He is much older than I am. Recently divorced. I am nursing a broken heart. He orders me a glass of wine. He’s already had several. I could smell it on his breath in the car. My heart is broken. I do not care. I don’t drink and I’m too young, but he winks at the waitress and says that both glasses are for him. I tell him about my classes. How General Chemistry is kicking my butt. I tell him about my seminar course on Medieval theologians and mystic poets. I tell him that I want to go to medical school.

“Sweetheart,” he says, “you are the sexiest girl to sit at my table in a long, long time. But you just don’t seem smart enough for medical school.” This devastates me. It is the thing I already fear. The thing that keeps me up at night. I want to cry. I want to yell. Instead, I am silent. And my silence is sharp, and hot, and heavy. It has mass and gravity and presence. I get up and leave. He calls me bad words – loudly. Slurring. People don’t stare at him. They stare at me. Their eyes narrow. Because I’m the bitch who’s walking out. I exit the door. It’s winter. It’s crazy cold. I walk back to my dorm. It is five miles. I do not have gloves. I am wearing stupid shoes. And thin tights.

It takes me a week to warm up.

The thing is though? My identity as a feminist informs every facet of my life. It informs my parenting. It informs my reading. It informs the way I listen to the news. It informs my interactions with others. It informs my understanding. It informs the questions that I ask. And it informs the writing that I do  – the novels for children, the short stories for grown ups, the stuff on this blog. I can’t take the feminism out. I don’t even know how.

And maybe this is the limitations of my world-view. Because I honestly can’t understand how we can be in this world and not be feminist. How can we just not notice inequality and injustice when it is staring us in the dang face? How can we not come up against the blindness of privilege and not want to change? How can we not desire to open our eyes? All social justice movements, in the end, work to remove shadows and blocks. We cannot see injustice if the limits of privilege block the view. If we remove the block we can see unfairness and we can change the world and make it better. Those blocks are removed through experience, through awareness-raising, and, probably most effectively, through story. Story matters.

I am thirty-four. I am at a Science Fiction convention. I am working on a book. I have finished another one. I am submitting short stories. I am hopeful about my future. The panel discussion is interesting and intense. I raise my hand. I contribute. I am seen. An editor –  a prominent guy – comes and chats with me afterward. I have met him before – another conference. I have met his wife. He asks me to join him at the Con Suite to continue chatting. I’m a chatty gal. I’m always up for a good conversation. We continue discussing whatever it is we’re talking about as we go up the elevator. I don’t know where the Con Suite actually is. “Don’t worry,” he says sunnily. “I’ll get us there.” He is standing very close. I don’t think too much of it. He is much older than me. I assume he is hard of hearing. We continue chatting. He opens a door. I follow in. It’s not the Con Suite. It’s his hotel room. And his shirt is off. “Where shall we start?” he says.

I am a feminist. Proudly so. Unabashedly so. It concerns me that I get unpleasant emails and comments just based on this blog. I have in the past. I will in the future. Ugly people will say ugly things, and that is just that. It concerns me that “Writing While Feminist” is offensive to people – that the fact of my world-view and the fact of my voice and the fact that I tell stories and think things and see the world in terms of changing and re-shaping and bettering things for everyone is somehow worthy of vitriol or anger or shaming words.

My books, because they were written by my hands and dreamed up in my brain, cannot be separated from my world-view. The world I live in is much better and more equal than the world in which my grandmothers came of age. But that ain’t saying much. We still put a premium on the male voice in this culture – in publishing, in media, in education, in the law, in medicine. Everywhere. We still discount the female voice. We still discount the female experience. We still discount women’s work. I wish it wasn’t so.

I am at the park. I am wearing a tee-shirt that says “Radical Feminist”. I am with my three kids and my dog. My son is in a sling, his face pressed against my breast, fast asleep.

“Is that shirt a joke?” a woman asks me.

“No,” I say.

“Are you divorced?” she says.

“No,” I say.

“Does your husband know you’re wearing it?”

“My husband bought it for me.”

“Hmph. I would be offended if my husband bought me something like that. It’s like saying ‘I think you’re ugly.’ No offense.”

My books have strong women in them. And unpleasant women. And broken women. My books have strong men in them. And unpleasant men. And broken men. Because all of us are strong, and unpleasant, and broken. Sometimes we are all of these things at once.

I am a feminist because I love men, and I believe that they are capable and strong and wise. I am a feminist because I love women, and I believe that they too are capable and strong and wise. And I am a feminist because I fiercely love my kids. And your kids. And the kids that aren’t born yet. And I think the world that we are giving them can be so much better, so much kinder, and so much more just than the one we got right now.

I am on the bus. I am sitting next to a man who is reading the newspaper. He snorts. He grunts. He shakes his head.

“The feminists are taking over,” he says.

“Yup,” I say, nodding emphatically. “Thank god.”

When my son grows up, I hope he is like his dad. If not, I hope he is like this guy.


There’s an article you should read. I’ll tell you about it in a minute. First I have to tell you this story:

The other day, while at the train station, my sister-in-law saw a bunch of college age dudes checking out the posterior-region of my thirteen-year-old child. “I just didn’t know what to do,” she told me. “It was so galling and so totally out of the realm of what I expected. I felt torn between wanting to tell them off and wanting to usher my beautiful niece as quickly as possible out of the vicinity so that she wouldn’t ever know what happened, and wanting to kick them all in their respective groins. I chose the middle thing.”

(I told her about a similar instance where I ducked behind my innocent child, looked the offending onlookers straight in the eye, gave them my laser-beam stare, and gave them the ole double-middle-fingers. These men were my age. They, suddenly realizing how young the girl at my side actually was, turned beet-red and skedaddled.

We didn’t know, their faces said.

Fuck you, said mine.)

Here’s the thing. In my younger years – on the 21 bus on Lake Street in Minneapolis during high school, at parties and on the job and once even during a professor’s office hours during college, on airplanes and in bars and walking home late at night and again on the job in my twenties, and even at professional conventions in my thirties – I have been subjected to groping, oggling, propositioning, butt-grabbing, space-invading, unwanted pick-upping, cat-calling and even scary and gross insistence (You know you want this, he said. No I do not, I said. Then why are you – OUCH! he said. And then I didn’t need to say anything at all.). It happens. We all know it happens.

To cope with these things I have used a variety of tactics – my fists (twice), my feet (a lot – I am fast), my sharp tongue (in both English and halting Spanish! And once in very bad French! Hooray for lingualism!), my clever maneuvers and quick thinking, and once, the very lucky appearance of a bus.

In my teens and twenties, my body was a liability. A vulnerability. I was not my mind. I was not my accomplishments. I was not my life. I was not my friends or my ideas or my care or my love. I was flesh and breast; I was lips and hair. And nothing else. The world that I loved was full of threats. And it made me angry. This has been true in my thirties as well, though less so, primarily due to circumstance. I live with a good man who is wildly in love with his wife, and associate primarily with good people of both genders with whom we collectively care for our children and trade stories and share food and love our respective spouses. It’s a good life, and I don’t venture away from it all that often. There’s a benefit to not getting out much. I had one horrible experience with an editor at a SFF convention (there was luring, there was a conversation that I thought was platonic but apparently was not, there was a sudden shirt removal and a lot of explosive chest hair and a proposition and a very astonished mother-of-three who had no idea how to respond. Of course I didn’t. I was out of practice), and it makes me reluctant to leave the safety of my neighborhood, to be honest.

But my safety is no longer my main concern. Now I have daughters. And I have to warn them.

We train our daughters to be street smart and tough. We train our daughters to be aware, to know the escape routes of any room, to have a buddy, to protect and protect and protect. We tell our daughters that this is the world we live in. It sucks sometimes. Be tough and be tougher. Find your allies. Make a battle plan. Know the weak spots. Fight. 

My oldest left earlier this summer for a three week summer camp. She was going to be in a dorm, in a college. I’ve been to college. I know what goes on there. So we had to have Conversations. The first one was called “Why You Should Never Leave Your Drink Unattended”. The second one was called “The Buddy System – Not Just For the Beach!” The third was called “How to Know When to Knee a Boy in the Gonads: A Primer”.

And it breaks us to tell our girls these things. It breaks us in half.

Lately, my beloved SFF community has been in some intense conversations about harassment and autonomy and the rights of any individual to feel safe in their environment. Since I have been limiting my time online, I have missed much of these conversations, but they continue, and they deepen and they are important. Folks have been talking about  respect and consent and have been outing serial harassers. A bright light now shines on bad behavior – which is good because bad behavior can only be addressed when it is named, clarified and known. People can learn. They can become aware of their privilege. They can change. I truly believe this.

There was the ugliness at Wiscon and then the attacks on N.K. Jemison after she (rightly) called Theodore Beale a sexist and racist a-hole, and then of course this little brouhaha. It makes me tired, is what.

Then, my darling Genevieve Valentine wrote a piece called “Dealing With It”, which I would urge all mothers to read, and to give it to their daughters. If my daughters are as tough as Genevieve, I will have succeeded beyond my wildest imaginings. And the overwhelmingly positive feedback she’s gotten from the piece is telling, I think. We’re all of us dealing with it. And sometimes we have to push back with all our might just to stand still. And sometimes that’s a colossal success.

But then I look at my son, and I wonder what kind of man he will be. How aware is he of his privileged status in our culture? How can I, as his mother, train him to be conscientious and kind, generous and brave, to use his strengthened position to do good in the world and to stand up for others? How does he resist being the guy who takes up more space, who uses more resources, who operates with impunity just because he can? Because we have all met that guy. And nobody likes that guy.

Which brought me to this gentleman, who wrote this piece: “Changing the Creepy Guy Narrative.” Stop what you’re doing and read that piece. I have printed it out and made a file called “Things To Show my Son”.  This is not to say that we should all start sexually harassing the sexual harassers (though it does make for good blog posts), but it is to say that we have a voice. And our voices matter. And my son has a voice too. And I hope he uses it.

How can we, as thoughtful citizens, shine a light on obnoxious behavior? How can we call wrongdoers to task, identify and clarify bad behavior, and insist on change?

We can’t force change. But we can insist. There’s a difference. John Scalzi is insisting. So is Tobias Buckell. So are a lot of people. And so am I.

Butt-Kicking Princesses in History: Arachidamia of Sparta

Okay, I have to admit it: I am having MORE FUN THAN SHOULD BE ALLOWED researching these powerful princesses. I’m also becoming more and more deeply convinced that Disney – and even the Brothers Grimm and Andrew Lang and Perrault and Calvino and the rest of my beloved (and doubly beloved!) fairy tale compilers, whose words I treasured when I was a child and whose vision shapes the writer I am today – are pretty much full of crap. Because history is lousy with ladies whose ambitions, talents, schemes, vision, fortitude, and force-of-being have left deep and indelible grooves in the world around them.

Take Arachidamia, for example.

Now, despite the fact that the Greeks weren’t all that keen into things like women’s rights during ancient times, the Spartans were a bit different. A war-like, austere culture (spartan, if you will), both athleticism and battle-prowess were recognized as being both possible in the fairer sex, as well as admired.

 And to hear Plutarch tell of it, those ladies from Sparta were forces to be reckoned with.

Queen Arachidamia of Sparta was a woman of wealth and power and status. When King Pyrrhus, feeling his advanced age and the numb recognition that his long career of warmaking had landed him with empty coffers and more dead friends than he could count, decided to make one last foray into war with Sparta, Arachidamia smiled to herself, and began to get ready.

Now, at this point, Sparta was in the middle of a war with Crete, and while things were at this moment going their way, the King and most of the army were far away across the ocean, and impossible to reach in time. And the armies of Pyrrhus were…..extraordinary. Difficult to fight in the best of circumstances. The Spartan Senate, seeing the approach of the armies of Pyrrhus, knowing that they were out-manned and out-armed, made the wrenching decision to gather the women together and send them to Crete where they’d be safe. “Oh, no,” said Arachidamia. She gathered the women and approached the Senate. Arachidamia walked into the Senate chamber, according to Plutarch, “with a sword in her hand, in the name of them all, and asked if they expected the women to survive in the ruins of Sparta.” They would defend their homeland, the women snarled. And the men in the Senate felt their knees start to shake.

The matter was settled, so the Spartans – both men and women – began digging a huge trench, running parallel to Pyrrhus’s camp. And then the battle began.


Pyrrhus attacked with twenty thousand troops, and five thousand elephants. Have you ever seen an elephant at war? They fight like tanks. They leave a trail of destruction in their path. No matter, said the women of Sparta. And they fought like wolves.

Pyrrhus was astonished. This was supposed to be easy. He didn’t even want to engage in this war in the first place – and only did so at the behest of an old friend who held a grudge against Sparta for refusing to make him King. No one has ever made me King, but you don’t see me going to war about it, now do you?

Pyrrhus fled, ended up in Argos where he was struck by a falling statue while walking under a bridge and then beheaded. Serves him right.

History, strangely, is mute as to the fate of the fighting elephants. But, given that elephants typically live in matriarchal societies, unhindered by the bother of warmongering, I like to think that they gave up their warlike ways and retreated into the forest, munching on mulch for the rest of their days.


You know, it’s funny: in most of the descriptions that I’ve read about IRON HEARTED VIOLET, Violet is usually described as “an unconventional princess”, but I’m starting to think that such a descriptor is incorrect. There’s no such thing. Women and girls change history every day – and always have done so. Be they princess or soldier or scholar or artist or spy. Or preacher. Or writer. Or activist. Or friend. Sometimes, it just feels good to know that.



Butt-Kicking Princesses in History: Khutulun, the Wrestler Princess

Gentle Readers:

I’m still on princesses currently. Bear with me.

Sometimes, it’s good to be honest with oneself. There are a few things that I feel very sure about in regards to the general trajectory of my life.

Number one: I deeply doubt that I will ever be considered as an expert or consultant or Person Who Generally Knows Things, in military matters. Or in matters that are even vaguely military-ish. Not gonna happen.

Number two: if I am ever in a wrestling match, I will never, ever win. Not ever. Not for money. Not for horses. Not for my freedom. Just not. This is not to say I’m a weakling – I’m actually pretty strong. I do twenty to thirty pushups a day (though, not all at once) and and can lift heavy children and carry heavy Duluth packs and balance a canoe on my shoulders while hiking a mile-long portage and can shovel dirt in the garden til the cows come home. But wrestling requires a certain know-how and a certain willingness to knock a person on their back and hold them motionless for some given amount of time. I cannot do this.

Number three: No one will ever, ever, write an opera about yours truly. And I am not saying this to guilt any of you into whipping one out, mind you. It’s just that there’s nothing about my life that is particularly opera-ish. And I say this as an opera lover.

And so you might understand, then, my current obsession with the Khutulun, Wrestler Princess of the Mongol Empire. Because the words “wrestler” and “princess” should always go together. Always.

Now here is her story. Khutulun was the great-granddaughter of the great Genghis Khan (and if you want to read an amazing book about Mr. Genghis – the guy who ruled the world from atop his horse, and whose footprints were so heavy and so indelible that they still are seen today, you should stop what you’re doing right now and read Jack Weatherford’s book Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern WorldAnd then you should read The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued His EmpireIn fact, you should probably read those books right now. Go ahead. I’ll wait.) She was also the niece of Khublai Khan and the daughter of Khaidu. Khaidu had other daughters as well, but only Khutulun made the history books. And story books. And operas. But that was later.

Anyway, Khutulun (whose name means moonlight) was the youngest of fourteen brothers, so the story goes, and, being a self-respecting little sister in the face of a pack of rowdy ruffian brothers, did what any of us would have done. She learned to fight. And she was dang good at it too.

(You see! It is an accident of birth order. This is why I will never be a wrestler, not because of any kind of endemic flaw. Man! I am so glad I’m writing this post right now!)

Anyway, as she grew she became skilled in the arts of war. This was unusual for the time, but not altogether unheard of. After all, there are several Medieval accounts of Mongol hordes (because this is how Medieval Europeans were able to keep the moral high ground, you see. If you swap “horde” with “persons who are different from us” it’s much easier to hate them) that indicate that the sight of women fighting along side of men was a fairly regular occurrence.

Still, Khutulun was a wonder. Her wrestling prowess – in a culture that prized wrestling so much that it was one of their most popular sports and pastimes – was known throughout the empire, and no man could beat her. Big men, little men, men with blood on the brain and men with love in their hearts, she beat them all. She also excelled in the Mongol sports of competitive horse riding (apparently that was a thing) and archery. In her culture, athletic ability was so highly prized that it bore a spiritual component. That she was so physically adept and so skilled with her body, there was an aura of blessedness about her. This carried over to her prowess on the battlefield, and her presence among the warriors was not only an asset (because she was just that good) but she was like a talisman as well. Her presence made her co-warriors assured of their own victory. And they were victorious.

This was problematic for poor Khublai who was trying tame the Mongol’s nomadic way of life and their warmongering ways. He had already decided that China should be the main base and the central seat of the empire of the Golden Horde, and was trying to enforce the strict courtly manners of the Chinese upon his Mongol brethren. This did not go over well, and there were conflicts between the armies of Khublai and the armies of Khaidu. Which meant that Khaidu and his daughter Khutulu were often at war.

Remember that poem by Coolridge?

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree
Through caverns measureless to man
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills
Where blossom’d many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

I know. It’s off-topic. But I like it, and this is my blog. And anyway, it’s not really off-topic, because it highlights the difference in attitude between the sedentary Khublai and the nomadic Mongol tribes. So there.

Now, Khutulu was a skilled warrior, and a keen strategist. Warfare was big with the Mongols – as it was for pretty much everyone in the Medieval era – and Khutulun was the best. She was so good, that people wrote her prowess down – something not often done. Because most of the writers were men, and they didn’t feel the need to write about women. Not to get all….. well anyway, it was true. Marco Polo, however, was amazed by her – not only her valor and cool-headedness amidst the chaos of the battlefield, but of her unorthodox way of fighting as well. She’d ride into the battle at her father’s side and scan the enemy. Then, before anyone could react, she would “make a dash at the host of the enemy, and seize some man thereout, as deftly as a hawk pounces on a bird, and carry him to her father; and this she did many a time.” This would freak the other side so much – just at the sheer scope of her speed, how she’d magically insert herself into their midst and grab some poor slouch by the throat and carry him off, that they’d panic. How can you fight a warrior like that? Answer: you can’t.

Lots of men wanted to marry Khutulun, but she would have none of them. Her parents begged her to choose someone, but she waved them off. Finally, she said that she’d offer a wager. Any man who wanted to marry her had to put up one hundred horses. And then they had to try to beat her in wrestling. No one could, and our Khutulun amassed over 10,000 horses. Which gave her both power and status among the Mongol tribes, so good on her.

She remained undefeated, but she did end up marrying a fellow warrior. A man of her choice, not a marriage of submission. And she continued her war-making even after her marriage, which meant that she remained unconventional.

Now, she likely would have faded way. While she’s mentioned by Marco Polo as well as a few Muslim writers who happened to be travelling with traders and who wrote about the Mongols as a curiosity, rather than documenting their own culture, Khutulun was rejected by the scribes in Khublai’s courts and generally was removed from any historical documents from the Mongols themselves. She remained in the oral history and folklore, and if it weren’t for the Marco Polo mention, she might have disappeared from the annals of history altogether.

However, there is the opera bit.

In 1710, the French historian François Petit la Croix came across her story while researching a book on Genghis Khan, and included it in a separate book of Asian themed fables and folklore. He changed her name, though, to Turnandot, which means “Turkish Daughter”, which isn’t quite right, but what can we expect from a Frenchman, really? He changed the story a bit, too. In his story, she wouldn’t marry a man who wasn’t her equal – not as a wrestler, but as a riddle-solver. Which is awesome, but slightly less awesome than wrestling. He also, instead of paying her in horses, her thwarted lovers were put to death.

And then Puccini turned it into an opera.

And as much as I love Puccini, and as much as I love opera – this one in particular – and as much as I am deeply jealous of anyone whose life – or fake life – or frenchified version of their life – or whatever, is so very very awesome that it is deemed opera-worthy? As much as that, I still like the original story better. And I still want Khutulun to be my spirit guide and guardian angel and imaginary best friend. Because holy heck does that lady rule. She rules.

Butt-Kicking Princesses In History: Isabella of France (aka The She-Wolf)

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I have decided to start writing a series of posts about real-life princesses who didn’t fit the stereotype of the delicate princess attached to their husbands or fathers or brothers like roses on the vine. My new book, IRON HEARTED VIOLET, features a princess who, like these, does not fit a lot of stereotypes: she is not  beautiful; she is not delicate. She does not wilt in corners or suffer in silence. She is crafty and cunning and full of wiles. And that’s how I like it. I like to write about princesses who make noise, whose actions have consequences – both good and bad.

So I’ve been looking into some princesses who made a little noise. And it’s been fun. First off: Isabella, the She-Wolf of France.

If I had ever been given the power to choose my own moniker, I would for sure choose “she-wolf”. Because wolves rule. And she-wolves are powerful and wily and cunning and strong and I love them. They are excellent mothers, they are good communicators, they back up their sister-wolves always, and they can go from snuggles to throat-ripping to home-building to gonna-stand-my-ground-and-don’t-even-THINK-about-attacking-my-young-you-big-jerkface, to snuggly mama and cubs time again. She-wolves rock.

I, alas, am far from wolfy, so I fear it is a long shot. Instead of Kelly “The She-Wolf” Barnhill, I’m more like Kelly “The Inconsistant Door Mouse” Barnhil. Or Kelly “The Perpetually Late Robin” Barnhill. Or something.

Not so for this lady:

 I mean, look at her. She is holding that rose so dangerously. I half expect it to be hiding a poison dart. And her lovely, calm expression belies her intention to raise an army of mercenaries and kick the royal butt of her philandering royal husband.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Isabella of France. Betrothed at seven. Married at twelve. A pawn for peace between two nations hell-bent for generations on kicking the spit out of one another. As an act of good will, King Phillip (usually called Phillip the Fair) and Queen Joan of Navarre, sent their only daughter to marry King Edward II of England – by all accounts an unserious, incurious and selfish King, more interested in pleasures and parties than the tedious work of running a kingdom. What’s worse is that he was famous for his long line of lovers – both male and female – and it pleased him to use his special-friend-of-the-week as a tool to insult and humiliate his young bride.

A jerk, right? I mean look at that guy:

He’s got “jerk-face” written all over him. I would never invite him over for dinner. And if I did, it would be something that I only mostly reheated from the freezer.

Of course, I am not a she-wolf.

Isabella was young and inexperienced, but she knew an insult when she saw one. And she was not about to take it lying down.

Now, at this time, the control that the King had over England was shaky at best. Like that old adage “all politics is local”, the real power lay in the local authority, and the local Barons were not all that happy with Edward. He had a nasty tendency to pick favorites (typically handsome favorites that he considered dating-material), lavishing favors on the  favored few while ignoring or insulting everyone else. Sabers rattled; battle cries yawped in the enraged throats of the jilted barons. And everyone polished their armor.

The King had a lover named Piers Gaveston, and despite the natural discomfort that one would have in dealing with the lover of one’s husband, Isabella forged a working relationship with Piers, even building strong diplomatic ties between his house and France – and the house of Edward and France, solidifying everyone’s position across the board. Though mostly, to be fair, her own. Isabella gained control over an impressive amount of land – all of which was hers outright – and her own militia and her own treasury. She was a force to be reckoned with. While Edward hardly bothered himself with Matters of State, Isabella was figuring out how to run a country – and how increase her adopted country’s status in the world.

Good on her.

But then Piers was murdered. And things got tricky.

This was, of course, a politically-motivated murder, though, to be fair, most accounts say that Piers was intensely annoying. And insufferable. And the fact that the Crown lavished everything possible on him I’m sure was too much to bear. The barons didn’t like Piers’ favored status, so they slaughtered the poor sod. But King Edward was, well, a man with needs, so he found himself a new boyfriend – Hugh Dispenser the Younger (a guy who tried his hand at piracy for a while. PIRATES!) – and England got bloody. Again.

First, there was the Dispenser War. (Side note to feudal despots everywhere: wars waged in the name of love or lovers typically do not go well. See: Helen of Troy). Then, there was the fact that Isabella and Hugh could barely stand to be in the same room as one another. So the working relationship was out. Add to that, the growing discontentment among Britain’s feudal lords – even those who stayed on Edward’s side during the war. It seemed that few people could tolerate Edward, and NO ONE could stand Dispenser. Things were not looking good for anyone.

So Isabella did what any self-respecting She-Wolf would do.

First, she went to France under false pretenses (and she brought her lover with her. Because why should Edward have all the fun?). Second, she asked the King of France (her brother) for an army. He refused (his own grip on power was tenuous), but Isabella didn’t let that stop her. She used her impressive treasury and land holdings to purchase herself an army of mercenaries. And they all went to England.

At first Edward and Hugh didn’t see her 1,500-strong army as much of a threat. They probably laughed about it over a good bottle of Bordeaux. But once she crossed the channel into England, the barons – all still pretty sore at the King – got wind of it, and they joined the party.

Isabella dispensed with Dispenser, jailed the king (and probably murdered him) (reportedly with hot pokers) (ouch)and put her son – Edward III – on the throne, with herself as regent, as the boy was too young to rule.

What’s the lesson here? Don’t mess with She-Wolves. They will turn your armies against you, humiliate you in public, put you in prison, put your lovers to death, and possibly murder you with hot pokers. You have all been warned.

Sometimes, we realize that every teenager-type movie from the Eighties is totally spot-on

Full disclosure: This story contains me ruining things for other people. Because I am a kill-joy. Also, a ruiner.

Second full disclosure: There are some f-words in this piece. Three of them. FYI.

For the last two weeks, I’ve been taking my kids to the west-side beach at Lake Nokomis for swimming lessons. (Side-note: the swimming program at the Minneapolis lakes through the Park system is a fantastic idea: it’s every day; it’s cheap; it’s crazy fun; and the kids stick around for an hour or two afterwards, practicing everything that they learned in lessons, thereby increasing their skills and strength in the water. Side benefit: my wild-child son, at seven, has started napping again. A miracle!)

My kids have done swimming lessons at the Southwest High School pool through community ed for the last few years, which is all fine and good, but there is something completely awesome about the sand and the mobs of kids and the fish swimming by and the regular appearances of visiting waterfowl, that is just spectacularly summery and wildly fun. A magnificent time has been had by all.

Each day, we arrive about an hour early, swim and play, then they are packed off to their teachers for an hour, and then remain in the water for another hour or two. Or, to clarify, they are in the water for an hour or two. I am sitting under an umbrella, chatting with my brother-in-law and some of the other parents, and watching the beach. Specifically, tuning my ears to the kids on the beach – teenager-type kids, specifically – and trying to hook the cadence of their voices into my brain.

The other day, I had this experience, watching these kids, that was so ludicrously cliche, I don’t think I would have believed it if I read it in a book. I would have assumed that the writer had lifted it out of some gloriously cheesy John-Hughes-knockoff movie (of which there are…..many.) But I swear it’s the truth.

Here’s what happened:

On my way down to the edge of the water, where I was staking my claim on the beach territory, I passed a ridiculously pretty girl who was propped up on her elbows on her beach blanket and holding a phone. She was a young thing – fifteen at the very oldest – with long hair and overly large pink sunglasses, like the sort that Jackie Kennedy would have worn, had she ever gone to the municipal beaches in South Minneapolis.

Just as I was sitting down, I heard a voice calling from the other side of the beach. “Julie,” the voice called, a tiny creak in the edge of the voice, like the squeal of a gear as it sticks in its teeth, and then breaks free. “W. T. F.?” He said this deliberately, a noticeable pause in the gaps between the letters, as if he was thinking each period before going on.

Two boys approached, their bodies recoiling each time their bare feet made contact with the hot sand. They winced and persevered. One had a mop of brown hair that flopped over a moon-round face, still squishy with baby fat. He grinned, open-mouthed, like a muppet, and held his hands open at his side (the universal gesture to show that one means no harm). He moved his hands back and forth – jauntily or jazzily? I couldn’t really tell what he was going for. His feet and head were too large for his body and his hands were too broad for his wrists. He was short and thick, his body the color and texture of bread dough. And he was so happy to see this girl, he could hardly believe his luck. His friend, also in possession of the same wide-open muppet-grin, stood a good foot and a half taller. He was brown and reedy – so thin that when he passed the trunks of trees he seemed to vanish. I could tell, just by the way he walked, that he was either midway, or just finishing, a massive growth spurt. His skin stretched over his joints like tissue paper over barbed wire. He swayed this way and that and tripped over his own feet – not once, but four different times on the short walk from one end of the beach to the other.

The girl looked over, slid her hand under her sunglasses and rubbed her eyes. She sighed audibly, tilted her face to the sky, and then returned to her phone. She gave a brief wave at the boys. She said hey without looking. She turned toward her phone, and started thumbing the buttons and swiping the screen, over and over and over again.

“It’s us!” the short boy said. “Nate and Hugo. From Health class.”

She gave a small nod without looking up.

“Front row,” the tall boy added helpfully.

They made it across and planted themselves – at great personal risk, I might add – on the hot sand next to her beach blanket. They gritted their teeth as the plopped their bottoms onto the searing heat.

(I wanted to tell them that they just had to brush away the top half inch of sand, and it was cool underneath, but that would have outed me as an eavesdropper. And eavesdropping is fun.)

The muppet-grins returned. The girl didn’t notice.

“So?” the short boy said. “Wassup?” he waggled his head when he talked. He was having the best day.

The girl raised one finger and thumbed a few more lines into her phone.

“Isn’t it weird,”  the tall boy said. “That we’d just be here? On this beach? At the same time as you? Don’t you think that’s weird?”

“Yup,” the girl said. She scanned the beach; she scanned the sky; she scanned her fingers and toes. She didn’t look at the boys.

“So,” the short boy said. “Whatcha been doing? All summer? Did you see I put my phone number in your yearbook? Maybe you didn’t see.”

“Nope,” the girl said. “And I’ve been doing pretty much nothing. Texting.” She held up her phone. She didn’t look at the boys.

“Oh,” the short boy grunted. “I know how that goes. Me too.”

The tall boy rounded on his friend. “You don’t have a cell phone.”

“Well….” the short boy said.

“Your mom won’t let you have one.”

“I know, but….” the short boy said.

“So how can you be texting?” the tall boy said. The girl lifted herself a little higher, pulling herself off of her elbows and onto her hands. She looked at the boys and grinned. She really was – honest to god – astonishingly pretty.

“Good question,” she said.

“Well,” the short boy said. “Not texting, like in the flesh. Mostly it’s, you know, the theory of the thing.”

“There’s a theory of texting?” the girl said.

“Well, yeah,” the short boy said, his doughy face starting to grow an adorable shade of pink. “Well no. Well sorta. It’s yes and no. It’s just, you know, texting, vis a vis doing nothing. If I had the capability of texting while I was doing nothing, then I’d be texting as part of my doing nothing. As it stands, I am doing nothing without texting  – sans texting  – if you will, but it’s still doing nothing.” He spoke fast, as if he had to yank all of his words out at once, like a bandaid that was stuck to his arm hair.

(I wanted to get up right then, walk over, and put my arm around his shoulders. I wanted to explain, in the kindest way that I knew how, that boys who said things like vis a vis and sans, typically don’t date in high school. And often not in college either.)

The girl pressed her lips into a thin line.

“I’m not ‘doing nothing’ when I’m texting.”

“Oh!” the short boy said. “I don’t mean -”

“I’m doing the opposite of nothing. I’m talking to people. Other people. Other than you, I mean.”

“It’s just -”

“That’s not nothing. That’s something.”

“Of course,” he said. “You’re right.” And he shot the tall boy a poisonous look.

“I have a cell phone,” the tall boy said.

“I know,” the girl said, returning to her phone. “You’ve texted me. Frequently.”

“I told my mom about that,” the short boy said. “I mean, if you have a phone and you haven’t turned into a drug addicted zombie, then surely I won’t either.”

“That’s what she thinks?” the girl said.

“She’s crazy,” the boy said, moving his open hands back and forth so fast they looked like a blur. “And she’s – fuckin – I mean, I’m like, ‘fuck, mom. I mean fuck.”

This boy – this boy! Clearly is unaccustomed to swearing. He said each f-word as though he was spitting a tack into his hand and hoping it would stick into his skin. Each one was foreign. His friend stared at him, open mouthed.

And then I stepped in.

I stood out of my chair, looked straight at him, and said, “Young man!”

The boy froze. His friend elbowed him in the gut. All three of them stared at me in shock.

Language!” I said. “This beach is crawling with kids. Watch your words.”

(side-note: I do this a lot. I’m the person who tells the guy to watch his mouth on the bus because we’re sitting right there and he’s shouting obscenities into his cellphone, oblivious to the wide eyed children on my lap.)

(second side-note: I have a big, broad, booming voice. I’m pretty sure that people across the lake stopped swearing too.)

The girl turned. “Oooooooooo!” she said. “Look what you did. You made the nice mom mad. Nice work.” She looked thrilled.

The short boy hung his head. His face paled to the color of spoiled milk. “Sorry ma’am,” he mumbled. “I’m really, really sorry. It won’t happen again.”

“See that it doesn’t,” I said. And I returned to watching my kids follow their swimming instructors around like little baby ducks.

Shortly after, the boys went back to their towels on the other side of the beach. They kept looking back over at the pretty girl, trying to catch her eye, but she kept her gaze on her phone, her thumb continuing to press and press and press.

And then, just before she left, she looked over at me, and smiled. She held up her phone. “It’s not even on,” she said. “It ran out of battery power like an hour ago. Do you think they noticed?”

“No, honey,” I said. “I don’t believe they did.”

She slipped on her flip-flops and trekked up the hot sands, toward home.