Recently the writers group I belong to discussed the issue of creating strong female characters in atypical female roles. I have a character, a female police officer, that’s been giving me fits for years. She just feels like cardboard to me, and I know I’m missing something in the way I write about her. And of course that night our female members were not in attendance. Alas. Men talking about women can be a one-dimensional experience.
As a coincidence, though, this last week I came across a blog by Carey Lohrenz. Ms. Lohrenz was the second female naval aviator “accepted” into the F-14 fighter community. Here’s a chance to look into the issue, I thought, and for those of you who are interested, here’s the URL for the blog: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/carey-d-lohrenz/military-women-pilots-veterans_b_1516021.html#es_share_ended.
Thinking about Lt. Lohrenz’s career problems made me remember another excellent female pilot community, the WASPs of World War II. The RAF had a similar outfit that did the same job: ferrying aircraft from the factory to embarkation points or airbases, maintenance test flights, all the aviation drudge work that would free up male pilots for the “stress of combat” that supposedly women just can’t handle. Women, in both the US and England, were forbidden to go into combat; it was simply too tough for them, and they’d never stand up to it. In fact, in the US, male civilian pilots lobbied successfully to have the WASPs disbanded even before the end of World War II. Too much (successful) competition, I guess.
Mm. Wonder what a pioneer wife in the Arizona territory, say about 1870 during an Apache raid, would have said to women not being tough?
Thinking about the WASPs called up another memory. General Charles “Chuck” Yeager was a fighter pilot in World War II and had twelve kills. There were not that many male pilots who flew fighters that achieved even a single kill, much less the coveted five kills that made you an ace in the USAAF or the RAF. (The Luftwaffe required ten kills.) The tradition of five kills making an ace goes back to World War I, but that’s another story.
There was another pilot in World War II with twelve kills who deserves mention: Senior Lieutenant Lilya Litvyak of the V-VS, the Soviet Air Force. Litvyak was first a member of the all-female 73rd Guards Fighter Regiment and was later transferred to a male unit. She was wounded three times in the service of her country. She received numerous awards for valor, including the Order of the Red Banner. I’m no expert on Soviet military awards, but Wikipedia says it was the “highest award given by…the Soviet Union.” That makes it at least the equivalent of the Distinguished Service Cross in this country; our Medal of Honor seems more the equivalent of the accolade “Hero of the Soviet Union,” which Litvyak received posthumously, like so many of our own Medal of Honor winners. In Litvyak’s final fight, jumped by eight ME-109s, she was finally shot down and killed.
Litvyak’s best friend, Katya Budanova, was also an ace, with eleven kills, and like Litvyak was killed in action.
The Soviets had a number of female combat pilots. One, Olga Yamshchikova, was credited with 17 kills. Others flew the famed Il-2 Sturmovik attack aircraft. The Sturmovik was essentially a piston-engined A-10 and flew the same sort of incredibly dangerous mission, low-level ground support. One Soviet female pilot, Anna Yegorova, flew these missions in the Sturmovik throughout the war and was decorated three times for valor.
In World War II, the USAAF and the RAF decided that the effectiveness of aircrew decreased if they were required to simply keep going until the war ended or they were killed. That was the reason for limiting the number of missions or combat hours a pilot was required to fly. It was based on lessons learned by both air forces in World War One. In the US Eighth Air Force, when losses were heavy at the beginning of the war, crews were required to fly 25 missions, and the survivors were often in bad shape. Later, as the effective opposition of the Luftwaffe decreased, that mission total was increased to 35. I’ve spoken with some of the survivors of these missions. In their 80s, that experience is just as vivid and emotionally wrenching as it was in their 20s for many of them.
In the Soviet Air Force there wasn’t any such thing as a tour of duty. You were there for the duration. Surviving pilots, male and female, could have as many as 1000 missions in their logbooks. There were plenty of women in the Soviet Air Force who could claim that distinction. Those ladies must have been tough as hell.
What was it like, then, for those that were required to just keep flying? What kept them going? Because it would seem that we aren’t talking about male or female qualities here, but simply human qualities. Why, then, should it be so important to deny that women have those qualities?
Nothing here should be construed as saying that the Russians are tougher than the Americans, or that women are necessarily tougher than men, but it amazes me that easily available history like this is ignored. Facts, it would seem, are far less important than ideology. Lt. Lohrenz’s career came to an end due to political chicanery by those whose agenda required women to be “kept in their place.”
The point is that we have no cultural referents that aid us, as writers, when we depict strong female characters in non-traditional roles. Women who try to create such roles in real life and are too visible, like Lt. Lohrenz, become targets in no-holds-barred political dominance games.
History shows that our cultural stereotypes have nothing to do with truth or facts. This being said, why do those stereotypes continue to exist?
Are men actually afraid of women? That might be a question for all of us, male and female alike, to ponder.
As the title of this essay suggests, I believe women, potentially and often in fact, really are tough as hell. That’s the first thing to remember, but darned if I can figure out what the second thing should be, or the third, to come up with a better idea for female characters.