Many readers are commenting about Norah, the heroine/protagonist in my novel, Norah: The Making of an Irish-American Woman in 19th-Century New York. “Norah is one strong and brave woman,” they say. And some add, “Just like you.” I don’t feel like I’m strong and brave like Norah! Au Contraire! I’m a bit of a wimp who can easily hyperventilate getting on a plane (even prior to 9/11). Sure, I’ve learned how to do deep breathing and think beautiful thoughts so I don’t give in to my fears, but I’m unlike my character, Norah, in that regard. I don’t think as a child I would have been able to climb into a dresser and travel across the sea in the hold of a ship, nor do I think I could travel with my man on a ship to fight for a rebel cause (as Norah did in my novel). So I’ve been pondering what makes a woman strong and brave. I came to the conclusion that most, if not all, women have certain strength and have had to be brave sometime in their lives (even birthing and raising a child or facing an illness such as cancer). And perhaps not giving into my fear of flying is a sort of strength and bravery I exhibit each time I board a plane. One woman’s strength and bravery might seem miniscule compared to another woman’s strength and bravery. And until we’re faced with what we deem an unfathomable situation, we don’t know how we’ll respond. But surprisingly, grace can arrive and attach wings to us so we become brave and strong enough to fly through, over, under, and within.
This is a vast subject and I can only comment briefly about strength and bravery in specific women. Women whom I am intimate with who have lost children, especially one woman who lost three children even before she was middle-aged. This woman long ago removed her garments of grieving, and although there is a sacred room within her for her sorrow and loss, her life is lived with joy, peace, and empathy. This indeed is bravery and strength. And my friend, diagnosed as a quadrapalegic after being a successful flamenco dancer, is full of strength and bravery. And women made public by their bravery and strength, such as Aung San Suu Kyi, who fights for democracy in Myanmar and has suffered house arrest and imprisonment for numerous years. And Lara Logan, a journalist, who was sexually attacked in Egypt. Brave enough to have this career and brave enough to tell, knowing what was at risk. I, as a woman, know this well.
Off the top of my head, I think of women who lived long ago, such as Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman, former slaves who were part of the Anti-Slavery Movement in this country. And the women I’ve recently been introduced to in The Tin Ticket, who were exiled from the British Isles and forced into slavery in Australia (written by Deborah J. Swiss). And Anne Hutchinson, a Puritan woman who defied the male-dominated Massachusetts Bay Colony and after banishment helped settle Rhode Island and New York. The list is endless!
As a writer of historical fiction, I think of women such as my Norah, who is a composite of Irish women who left Ireland for America during The Great Hunger in the mid-1800s (and who haunted me so much with her story, I actually believe she could have lived; and later I indeed learned there was a Norah McCabe who left Ireland in 1847 and traveled to New York City). Women, such as Queen Catharine, an Iroquois with French blood, who led her people to safety and away from the town she loved to flee General John Sullivan’s troops in 1779. Her land was the body of the Great Spirit and it was as if she was being torn from a lover to have to leave it. There are scant historical records, but it is said she returned and lived out her days (and I have reason to believe this is so). Two very different women, one fictional (or perhaps not) and the other real, but little known because as an Indian woman with a culture of oral history, not much has been recorded.
I have some bravery and strength because I have had grace give me broad wings to soar through and over some tragedies in my life. But I am not Norah, nor Queen Catharine, and I am cognizant of the fact that I am also not of the strength of the women I’ve mentioned above. What makes them unique? Mostly, I perceive that they have been cloaked with a mantle of bravery and strength that represents all women who cannot resist, shout, write, stand, or be counted for in their suffering.
And so as not to end this writing with true, but heavy, knowledge, I leave you with one of my favorite Winnie the Pooh quotes:
You’re braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.