There’s been a lot of palaver in the last couple of weeks about “nasty” women. Well, actually, one so-called “nasty woman.” I was in New York the night of the last Clinton-Trump debate. My friend and I hived it back to our hotel room after dinner, changed into our jammies, and settled down with a glass of wine in front of the TV. We didn’t want to miss any of the drama. Sorry if that sounds flippant. But to us Canadians, the election drama south of the border is pure theatre. I do realize that it’s serious business if you are American. Probably more serious for us than we realize, too. But I don’t want to talk about that here.
I do want to talk about “nasty” women. That word has been on my mind ever since I came home from New York. How it seems to have become a rallying cry for some women. How society has historically tended to demonize strong women or women with power. And I’ve been thinking about all the nasty women I know. And have known.
|Ian Holm as Lear. Victoria Hamilton, Amanda Redmond, and Barbara Flynn as Cordelia, Regan, and Goneril.|
I’m sure you know the story, but in case you don’t. Lear, the king of England, is an old man who, wanting to divest himself of his kingly responsibilities, decides to divide his kingdom, giving each of his three daughters a share, the size of which is based on how fulsomely they profess their love for him. The two eldest play along, lay the flattery on with a trowel, and each get a big share. The youngest is flabbergasted, and says the idea is silly, of course she loves her father, as a daughter should. He goes ballistic, and disinherits and banishes her, his previous favourite, and divides her share between the other two, who are of course gobsmacked that he’d kick out the baby sister. Then the two eldest play a lot of dirty tricks on Lear to make sure he stays weak, with no power. Because, for one thing, they feel that it’s high time he let them have a go at power, but also because they don’t trust him. He’s always been erratic, one sister says. How do they know he won’t turn on them like he did the baby sister? How indeed? I won’t go into what happens in the end besides the fact that most of characters end up dead. It is a tragedy after all.
The classic interpretation of King Lear depicts the older daughters (plus the illegitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester) as the villains. But I’ve always felt sympathy for Goneril and Regan. And when I was still teaching, we used to have a lot of fun in my classes looking at the play from the point of view of family dynamics. Imagine growing up in the Lear household. I mean, those girls were nasty and manipulative because that’s exactly the behaviour they learned from a self-centered, manipulative father. We used to have some rousing discussions about how daughters ‘should’ behave, about good parenting, about power and how to wield it judiciously. About strength and competency, and if society viewed strong, competent women differently from strong, competent men.
I’d sometimes relate the story from my first year as a department head when an angry student told me that the work I had just assigned was “ridiculously hard” (his words) and he was going to have a word with my department head. “Go ahead,” I said, “I am the department head.” Afterward, his buddy told me confidentially that the boy thought a male colleague of mine was the head because “he always wears a suit.” Hmmm. I wore suits. But even though the school had a female principal, I didn’t match his idea of someone in a position of authority.
I learned a lot about how to wield authority from that female principal whom I admired very much. She was smart, very smart. And not afraid to tell us when we had messed up, or when we had done something fabulous. I loved that about her. That plus the fact that we could have a giggle every now and then… about shoes. Unlike other bosses for whom I had worked, she could effortlessly draw a line between me the competent teacher and head, and me the shopper and shoe-lover. Like the time we interviewed K, a fabulous young teacher whom we really wanted to hire. And when K had left the interview room, and we both agreed that we’d be lucky to have her on “our team,” I leaned closer to my principal and whispered, “And did you see her gorgeous shoes?” And my boss whispered back, “And the bag to match.” Ha. Love that moment. That’s how the rumour began in my school that you had to have good shoes to work in the English department. Not sure I didn’t start that myself, actually.
I will say that this principal whom I admired was not universally liked. She really knew her stuff, followed board policy and expected her staff to do likewise. But she did not have the gift of bonhomie, was a bit reserved in large groups, generally in meetings got down to business instead of shooting the breeze. She was not a game player. And thus was not liked by those who saw these as admirable, even necessary, qualities in a boss. What a nasty, nasty woman! Ha.
Yep. I’ve known a lot of nasty women in my life. And learned a lot from each of them. But the original nasty woman in my life was my grandmother Sullivan. Five feet tall, red-haired with the cliché temper to go with it. She was smart, very smart in fact, sharp witted, and sharp tongued. We all loved her, but we also knew that you did not mess with Grammy. That’s her below with my grandfather. He was a big man. But he didn’t mess with Grammy either.
|My grandparents outside their North Devon home|
Yep. I think very highly of nasty women. The nasty women I’ve known have taught me a lot. How to be strong. Competent. Organized and efficient. Unapologetic for doing a good job, my own way. Somehow, I absorbed, from the nasty women I’ve known, when to hold my ground, and when to give way. In particular, I learned from my grandmother and from her daughter, my mum, to value books, and education, and all kinds of learning. And although I was a long time feeling comfortable about doing it… how not to back down in a fight. Actually… if I’m truthful… I learned from my mum how to fight to begin with… literally. Ha. But, I’ll save that story for another day.
How about you, dear readers? Have you been influenced by so-called nasty women in your life? You know mothers, teachers, colleagues, or bosses who were unapologetically smart and strong and helped you learn to be strong too?