by Carol Muske-Dukes

Can it be true that the age of the Outspoken Woman, the age of the Female Trouble Maker is over? I miss that Annie Oakley, I miss that Joan of Arc, that Tough Girl.

I miss a good Wild Woman. And I’m sorry that the only (and very creepy) manifestations of "wildness" occur now on the Right, where we have our Ann Coulters and our Nancy Graces — pop-up media caricatures.
And yes, hooray for Maureen Dowd, but how many of us realize that Maureen has many predecessors? Kick-ass journalists who were proponents of the "I" word, that long-lost standard, Independence. Tough-guy female reporters and writers who let the world know where they stood.

There was Martha Gellhorn, for example, an intrepid journalist, more fearless and cool when it came to dangerous assignments than her famously macho hubby, Mr. Ernest Hemingway.

And there was Oriana Fallaci, whose recent death in September has occasioned numerous articles eulogizing her, with both respect and a kind of fear.

Fallaci was a powerhouse interviewer, absolutely unafraid to ask the toughest questions of her intimidating subjects, including the Ayatollah Khomeini, Muammar el-Qaddafi, Golda Meir, Henry Kissinger and Indira Ghandi. She brought the events of her day into tough-minded focus. She never let an interviewee off the hook.

As for our potentially reportable world: How about an article from December in The New York Times, about young women with no advocates, no protection against rape and harassment? More articles about AIDS being spread because men refuse to wear condoms, and about women being sold into prostitution to support families? What about female circumcision and kidnap and prostitution bondage in Asia and elsewhere? 

What about certain sects of Islam who beat and torture and kill women who attempt to live a life outside of the veil? What about Christian fundamentalists who believe that their God makes women by nature second class citizens? Why are we reticent to speak out about these violations of women’s human rights?

I thought when "Reading Lolita in Teheran" was published that Western women would acknowledge (not just in terms of sales) what our "sisters" (can we use that word anymore?) in Iran were going through. In this book’s careful reportage, housewives and university professors met to read forbidden books — the act of reading itself considered a crime, the act of meeting to talk about books grounds for extreme punishment.

What about what recently happened in South Dakota? Where are our fearless, outspoken journalists, reporting on the Right’s attempt to use that state as an experiment in attacking Roe v. Wade? Why didn’t we hear more from those women who have the print space, the podium, the camera trained on them, about this profound rejection of government and religious control over women’s bodies and their right to choose?

Why is it repeated that our daughters don’t want to hear about feminism, as if the strength and courage it took to launch the movement were something to be embarrassed about?

The only way Oriana Fallaci was able to secure an interview with the Ayatollah Khomeini was to arrive in his presence fully-covered, in a chador, and barefoot. After several minutes of uncompromising questions (which he answered, in fact; often with bemusement, sometimes with cold anger), Khomeini said, "If you do not like Islamic dress you are not obliged to wear it. Because Islamic dress is for good and proper young women."

Fallaci flung off the heavy veil and threw it away, shouting, "That’s very kind of you, Imam. And since you said so, I’m going to take off this stupid, medieval rag right now." 

It was not reported what the ruler said in response to her outburst, but Fallaci made herself clear, as she had in every question she posed throughout the interview. She wanted the Ayatollah to know exactly what it felt like to be a woman smothered and censored by fundamentalism. 

Can you think of any living woman — journalist, politician, "spokeswoman" — with the courage and chutzpah to take that kind of stand?

So here’s to the Trouble Makers, the Tough Cookies. Here’s to speaking our minds and making sure we’re heard. Here’s to Oriana Fallaci; may her legacy NOT rest in peace.

Carol Muske-Dukes is a professor of English and creative writing and founding director of the graduate program in literature and creative writing at the University of Southern California. "Sparrow" (2003), her seventh book of poetry, was a National Book Award finalist. Her fourth novel, "Channeling Mark Twain," will be released in summer of 2007.

Join the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  • Janice J. January 12, 2007 at 6:40 am

    Thanks to Carol Muske-Dukes for reminding us all what we once had and still need.