Karen Karbo


Karen Karbo is the author of fourteen award-winning novels, memoirs and works of non-fiction including the best-selling “Kick Ass Women” series: Julia Child Rules (October 2013); How Georgia Became O’Keeffe (2011); The Gospel According to Coco Chanel (2009), and How to Hepburn (2007). Her 2004 memoir, The Stuff of Life, about the last year she spent with her father before his death, was a New York Times Notable Book, a People Magazine Critics’ Choice, a Books for a Better Life Award finalist, and a winner of the Oregon Book Award for Creative Non-fiction. Her short stories, essays, articles and reviews have appeared in Elle, Vogue, Esquire, Outside, the New York Times, salon.com and other magazines. Recently, she was one of 24 writers awarded an Amtrak Residency.

In Praise of Difficult Women

“Elegance is refusal,” said Coco Chanel. This can be interpreted in many ways (refusal to eat that pain au chocolate, the better to fit into one of her chic pencil skirts is perhaps the most obvious), but I prefer to think she meant refusal to go along with what was expected of her as a woman — I was about to add “of her time,” but that phrase is unnecessary. No matter the era, there are always rules that women must at least pretend to obey, or else suffer the label “difficult.” The list is long and tedious. To put other people first. To be a good listener. To be willing to do more than your share of the boring, organizational chores at home, school, or work, without expecting to be thanked. To be assertive and effective at work, but without being thought a bitch. To bear the children and care for them without admitting you’re bored out of your skull. To look hot and desirable at all times. To never age. And above all, to be nice.

I’m bored with this list. And it turns out a lot of the great iconic “difficult” women of the 20th century, with their glamorous, messy, exasperating and exciting lives were too. Their unwillingness to give too many fucks about too many things that didn’t make them happy may be part of why they wound up being great, stylish, and iconic. Or at least that’s what I’m betting as I set out to write In Praise of Difficult Women: [Sub-title that All Nonfiction Titles Require To Come], an investigation and celebration of thirteen great women who weren’t afraid to be disagreeable.

But which thirteen? I’m still trying to figure that out. Because it turns out there are pretty much just as many difficult women as there are ways in which women can be difficult. Over the coming months, in my research and writing, and also here on my website which, until now, I’ve largely ignored unless I have a book coming out, like, tomorrow, I’m going to ponder all this. And every week or so, until I’m done with the book, I’m going to be tipping my hat to the lives and achievements of my favorites difficult ones.


Hillary Rodham Clinton: Unstoppable

Difficult Woman N°25 Hillary Rodham Clinton (born October 26, 1947) Who: First major party female presidential nominee. Secretary of State ...
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Ann Richards: Sassy

Difficult Woman N°24 Ann Richards (1933 – 2006) Who: 45th governor of Texas, and first women to be elected in ...
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Simone de Beauvoir: Iconoclast

Difficult Woman N°23 Simone de Beauvoir 1908 – 1986 Who: Glamorous intellectual and writer. Shaper of contemporary feminist theory and ...
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Shirley Chisholm

Shirley Chisholm: Groundbreaker

Difficult Woman N°22 Shirley Chisholm (1924-2005) Who: Politician. Author. Educator. Presidential Medal of Honor Recipient. Unbought and unbossed. Signature Difficult ...
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Katharine Hepburn

Katharine Hepburn: Irritable

Difficult Woman N°21 Katharine Hepburn (1907-2003) Who: Four-time Academy Award winner for Best Actress. Freckled Yankee bisexual firebrand who refused ...
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Freya Stark: Intrepid

Difficult Woman N°20 Freya Stark (1893-1993) Who: Explorer. "Poet of travel." Best-selling travel writer. Awarded Cross of the British Empire, ...
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Josephine Baker: Visionary

Difficult Woman N°19 Josephine Baker (1906-1975) Who: American born "erotic" dancer, singer, and actress. French Resistance Fighter. Civil Rights Activist ...
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Janis Joplin: Gutsy

Difficult Woman N°18 Janis Joplin (1943-1970) Who: American Blues singer/"Queen of Rock and Roll." Fashion icon. Southern Comfort aficionado. Tattoo-getter ...
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