What do Margaret Cho, Laverne Cox, Frida Kahlo, Amy Poehler, and J.K. Rowling have in common? They’re all women who’ve led extraordinary lives, and they’re all profiled in Karen Karbo’s new collection of fun, funny, and fierce personal essays, In Praise of Difficult Women: Life Lessons from 29 Heroines Who Dared to Break the Rules. “I wanted to create a book,” Karbo says, “that would appeal to both women and men interested in how people can live more fully in accordance with who they are.”
But what, exactly, does she mean by difficult? Karbo’s understanding of the word dates to kindergarten, when her teacher told her parents that she had “behavior problems.” “When they came in for a conference,” Karbo says, “my teacher told them, ‘Karen insists on being difficult.’ The phrasing of her assessment has always intrigued me. She didn’t say I was difficult—that my mulishness was inborn, that being determined and stubborn was part of who I was—but that I chose to be difficult. Which meant I could also choose to be not difficult. I could choose to be agreeable, complacent, and obedient. I could choose to please others rather than please myself.”
Hence Karbo’s enduring admiration for women like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who, Karbo writes, “was difficult because she refused to be discouraged.” And Jane Goodall, who was “focused on her improbable life goal and presumed herself to be qualified and capable of doing things the world insisted she had no business doing.” And showrunner Shonda Rhimes, who, Karbo writes, “refers to herself matter-of-factly as a titan, as she should.”
These are all women whose stubborn belief in themselves led them to accomplish extraordinary things. Each of Karbo’s essays mixes a bit of biography with a lot of reflection on what we can learn from their lives with the goal of becoming more like ourselves.
Karbo, who also writes fiction, says, “Over the years, I’ve accrued dozens of files with reference material—links, downloads, clippings, bibliographies, notes—on women I’d like to one day write about.” Each of these figures abundantly met Karbo’s main criteria for this book: “I needed to be entranced by her life.”
Choosing the final 29 wasn’t easy. “I must have created a hundred possible rosters,” Karbo says. “I wanted the cast to be diverse in race, ethnicity, sexual preference, and socioeconomic status—and also personality. I didn’t want to write about 29 extroverts.” A few didn’t make the cut, such as Peggy Guggenheim and Dorothy Parker, though, Karbo says, student-activist Emma González is a very recent inspiration who lives in the spirit of this book.
Mostly, Karbo hopes In Praise of Difficult Women, which features an introduction by Cheryl Strayed and beautiful illustrations of the women by Kimberly Glyder, will “offer readers many paths to finding a way to be difficult in accordance to their own personalities and predilections, as well as provide a little companionship by identifying with and rejoicing in these amazing difficult women: we are not alone.”