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 mind-numbing, time-consuming 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’ve had it with this list. It turns out a lot of the great “difficult” women of the 20th century, with their glamorous, messy, exasperating and exciting lives had had it too. Indeed, part of the reason they became icons was their unwillingness to give too many fucks about too many things that didn’t make them happy. Or at least that was what I was betting when I landed a book contract for 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 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 be publicly pondering all this. And every week until the end of 2017, just for the fun of it, I’ll celebrating a favorite difficult women.

Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir: Iconoclast

Difficult Woman N°23 Simone de Beauvoir 1908 – 1986 Who: Glamorous French intellectual (is there any other kind?) and writer. Shaper of contemporary feminist ...
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Shirley Chisholm: Groundbreaker

Difficult Woman N°22   Shirley Chisholm (1924-2005) Who: Politician. Author. Educator. Presidential Medal of Honor Recipient. Bad ass. Signature Difficult Moves: First African American woman elected ...
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Katharine Hepburn: Irascible

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

Difficult Woman N°20   Dame Freya Stark (1893-1993) Who:  Explorer. "Poet of travel." Best-selling travel writer. Dame of the British Empire. Signature Difficult Moves: Taught ...
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Josephine in tux

Josephine Baker: Visionary

Difficult Woman N°19   Josephine Baker (1906-1975)   Who: American born dancer, singer, and actress, who fled racism in the US for France. French Resistance ...
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Janis Joplin

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 long before it ...
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Mary Shelley: Impetuous

Difficult Woman N°17   Mary Shelley (1797 – 1851) Who: English novelist, travel writer, and mother of science fiction. Daughter of noted feminist firebrand, ...
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Rosalind Franklin

Rosalind Franklin: Secretive

Difficult Woman N°16   Rosalind Franklin 1920 – 1958 Who: English chemist and x-ray crystallographer. Discovered DNA. Victim of research theft, when her colleagues James ...
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