When I was in highschool, and mind you this was a very small school, or what I say next would never have been possible, I narrowly missed winning the Presidential medal for fitness. Because I could not for the life of me do three pull-ups. I could do one, and did meet all the other requirements for what I dimly recall after this passage of time, but my upper body strength was inadequate to a test regime designed mostly for guys. Do I want to go back and redesign the test to give myself the kudos I wanted then? Heck no. It’s just that even then I knew if it meant using my arms alone, I’d never make it. A year later while learning rock climbing I knew not to try to hang or pull myself up by arms alone. But give me a toeholds to employ the leg muscles, and…
That was a long intro to something else. In a group I’m part of, someone asked for help in finding books with strong women characters, because a woman had dismissed all SFF as having women who had to be rescued or just wanted to get married. I got tagged into the conversation because they wanted a list of books like that, and I’m known for making lists. Two days and several hundred comments later, the list was taking shape, and it was pointed out that perhaps it would be shorter to make a list of ‘weak’ females in SFF. This is not a genre where the women are commonly wimps. In fact, you’re more likely to find, as someone vulgarly put it, ‘men with boobs on’ in a book. Because women are different from men, an undeniable biological fact, if you choose to write a woman who can do pull-ups all day long and fight off gangs barehand and so forth, you need to hang a lantern on *why* she isn’t normal. In SF this is simple enough – genetic engineering makes great handwavium. But you also need to keep in mind that if similarly engineered, her male peers will be stronger than she. I’m not saying there are no exceptions. I’m saying that for them to be exceptional, we have to populate our books with averages as well.
I put the call out for self-rescuing space princesses, damsels who can’t be bothered to be distressed, and boy, did I get nominations! But it also got me thinking. What’s wrong with needing rescue once in a while? If I wrote a male character, cast into Durance vile, who had to be rescued by the woman in his life, that plot would get all sorts of happy responses, yes? But if I flip the role I’m a misogynistic sexist.
I like in fiction, as in life, a complementary pair. She has weaknesses, but so does he, and their weaknesses aren’t in the same place, so together they are stronger than alone. Which is much like real life. What I don’t like to see is a strong female character surrounded by milksops she needs to constantly belittle and drag out of
truffle-flavored (damn you autocorrect! I meant trouble, but I have to admit that’s funny) so the author can show how smart and awesome she is. People like that are not fun to hang around with, and as characters they make me stop reading. Instead of writing the five-foot nothing waif who can toss grown men around the room (side-note: this can actually be done, but the girl has to be very high on PCP and it will wreck her body later. Source: my dad, the paramedic) all day long, why not do some research into bad ass women of history and see how they did what they did?
Women like Virginia Hall, who spied on the Germans from occupied France for years. Not so big a deal? She was also missing a leg from a hunting accident, and hiked through waist-deep snow in her wooden leg to escape capture at one point. She was definitely an amazing woman. Women have held down the fort for time immemorial while the men were out to war, or hunting, or just gallivanting. That doesn’t make them weak, because it wasn’t always an easy job. Women have also been portrayed as mere pawns, historically, but the simple truth is that far from always needing to be rescued, including seeing marriage as a form of ‘rescue’ from uncertain fate, women have been a force to be reckoned with. It’s just that they are different from men, so other than the rare exception who took up a sword (usually under great duress) a woman’s way was more subtle and hidden. She might not have the strength of arms, but she did have ways to influence those who were doing the hacking and bashing.
So write strong females into your stories. But keep in mind that ‘strong’ isn’t always about the muscles in your arms. Sometimes it’s the bit between the ears.