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Wednesday, January 11, 2023

GUEST POST: White-Haired Warriors By Karen Heuler

 



What do old women want? We know young men have quests and rites of passage and sidekicks and all. They have ballads and movies and sequels and prequels even as they slowly age. But women?

Old women?

I mean, what can we do, we old women? Smack an alien with a cane? Give them a wrapped candy from the candy bowl? Tell them to sit up straight? Tell them to give us a hug?

Why not?

Women have always been background citizens, in fiction as well as in life. We are adjunct superheroes, failed presidential candidates, and as we age—well, we get divorced in favor of younger women, mocked because of disabilities, and mansplained to death. But what is fiction for, if not to discard our ordinary lives and posit a healthier body and a better place in society?

I’ve known (and hope to be one) old women who no longer give a crap about social posturing and ego and selfishness, about the way other people’s expectations are imposed on them. Old age can be freer than youth. We are, for the most part, no longer beholden to either hormones or the urge to conceive. As Ursula K. Le Guin points out in “The Space Crone,” women are the true representatives of the human race because men don’t give birth, men don’t go through the dramatic changes of menopause; a man’s life has less range. 

It's been an age-old complaint that aging makes men distinguished and women invisible because it is the men, not the women, who have historically determined the relevance of women. All women are expected to be mothers. Even “whores” are. Men can be fathers without knowing it and, frequently enough, without taking responsibility for it. Men can be fathers into old age. Without scientific and medical intervention, women can’t. Old-age paternity demonstrates how long and how diversely male potency can last.

But for the ordinary aging woman, what is life? Are we anything but grannies to be eaten by wolves, or fairy tale witches? In fairy tales, we do see old witches, but mostly as cackling wielders of curses. It’s only occasionally that we see someone as fun and metaphorical as Baba Yaga, riding her mortar and pestle, being a pain in the ass.

After the 1960s, a new wave of feminists emphasized not merely the inequalities in opportunities available to women, but also began to examine the historical failures in society. Women were second-class citizens, kept to a certain look and a certain opportunity, disapproved of as they took away opportunities that men were owed because they were breadwinners. And their roles were determined not only by hard reality but also by the stories we were told as children. We began to see the desire for newer fairy tales that allowed more opportunities for women. 

What opportunities?


Well, in the universe of The Verkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold, there have been  genetically modified female soldiers, bodyguards, strong women who refuse to marry because it would constrain them, and elite explorers and commanders, and I’m happy to watch them as they grow and age. The novels are also fun and fast.  N.K. Jemisen’s The Fifth Season centers around women with extraordinary powers to cause earthquakes and trap heat; they are not restricted due to their gender. They have powers that others fear, and the need to control that power is a compelling reason to read their stories.

But I think we always go back to the witches as a symbol for old women. By now they’ve dwindled, these old women, and become cartoonish. We have to remind ourselves of their power, that witches follow their own rules; they are outside the patriarchy. They represent the women’s world. They can wield curses, create their own transportation, and they don’t give a damn about being attractive to men. I think we have something here.

I came across The Crone Wars by Lydia M. Hawke recently. It’s a breezy read, somewhat familiar in its setups, but the thing that struck me was that a woman with witchly powers has to age into them. I have been wondering lately about rites of passage—we have a lot of them for the young, including puberty, marriage, having children, and for women childbirth, menarche, and menopause as well. The closest we can get to a rite of passage into old age is menopause, and that does indeed represent freedom, but it’s really a middle-age rite, not old age, and it causes a feeling of loss of worth in many women. But to approach old age as an acknowledgement of wisdom gained is rare, and this novel endowed a woman with powers that she had to learn to control at age 60, and they’re a new and unexpected force. It’s a lovely concept. 

A lifetime of observation has power. Wisdom freed from dominion has value. 

In “The Pathways of Desire” by Ursula K. Le Guin, scientists discover a world of horny young men and women, with some middle-aged and old women and some old men in the periphery. Anthropologists figure out that it’s actually a world created by a young man, Bill. It’s populated by the young man’s limited interests. The old women in the story are irrelevant to Bill so they go about actually creating a new culture because the young are too interested in well, young things.


I try hard to have older women in my stories and novels, and in my latest, The Splendid City, I have a coven of witches led by an elderly woman who is increasingly disabled, and we see her go from a cane to a wheelchair. In fact, she flies in a lawn chair. One thing you learn as you age is that practicality beats appearances every time. She still has power, and she has the added authority of experience and understanding.

I want to see women wield power without self-doubt. I read James Tiptree’s short-story collection, And the Smoke Rose Up Forever years ago, and I was struck by how little notice was taken of the amplitude of women scientists in the story. They were not remarkable for being women in the sciences because it was common in the world of that collection. I had never seen that before. It made the possibility real.  

I want to see women in power, witches or scientists, like the women warriors in the movie Black Panther, secure in their place. (These women warriors were a nod to the historical women warriors in pre-colonial Dahomey, who guarded the king and rose to the level of advisors as they aged.) Bujold’s Verkosigan Saga also has a range of women, from bodyguards to empresses, and though they’re not necessarily all old, I celebrate them, much like the African warriors, as an example of expanded self-determination. I want to see more of that, of women young and old answering to themselves and taking on the world with confidence. A lifetime of being a woman should not lead us to compromise but to triumph. To a better and different battle.

This is the time to demonstrate that not every story is about the young, just as life is not merely youth. We have to quit reinforcing the belief that old women have little to contribute; that we shuffle down the street, hunched over, clutching our shopping bags, and going home to our cats. We may do all these things, but we can do a lot more when we create our worlds; we can include old age not merely to provide a sad death when we need the young to learn from it—we can show that a lifetime of being human can be an achievement in itself. It can also be a weapon, a tool, a moral authority; it’s an untapped resource.

Write the stories of the old women, please.  Raise up your pen like a sword.

 
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Splendid City

Author Information:  Karen Heuler was born in Brooklyn, New York and attended Long Island University, where she got her Master's in English in 1976. She worked in various jobs in and out of publishing, including in crosswords, art books, on Wall Street and in retail. She's had over 100 stories published in literary and speculative journals and anthologies, plus four novels, three collections, and one novella. Her work focuses most on the perception of reality and very frequently features doubles and doppelgangers, from both a literary and speculative point of view. One of her stories has won an O. Henry award. She has been finalist for Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize, as well as a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award twice.


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