Joanie Conwell has a BA in Cultural Anthropology from Barnard College, Columbia University and an MA in Literature from East Carolina University. Founder of RTP Global, LLC, she is a writer, editor, artist, cultural trainer and yogini living in North Carolina.
We delight in the thrill of dangerous women, but only if they are redeemable, only if they are dangerous for the “right” reasons, and only if they are not dangerous to us. A noir femme fatale is shivery, exciting; a mother who murders her children, not so much.
Anna Akhmatova, the 20th-century Russian poet who taunted Joseph Stalin with her words until the end of his life was “good” dangerous. We celebrate (as The Dangerous Woman Project does) her witnessing atrocity, cementing the horrors of Stalinist terror into poetry, and standing up to someone responsible for millions of deaths with no weapon sharper than a pen.
On the other hand, if we have heard of her, we might consider Jiang Qing, aka Madame Mao, aka The White-Boned Demon “bad” dangerous. She ordered purges, the violent suppression of dissent, and had enemies murdered during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. It doesn’t hurt this division between “good” and “bad” that Akhmatova, a prod in the then stalwart side of Soviet communism, was immortalized in paint through the adoring male gaze of artists Nathan Altman and Amedeo Modigliani, while Madame Mao—though she began her career as an actress who charmed Chairman Mao—was a communist with a bad haircut and shrill voice who sported a very unflattering look at her televised show trial.
I couldn’t choose just one dangerous woman to write about, so I made a list. The mind seeks out duality and my list divided itself. I was drawn to write about the ones I agreed with ideologically, those I saw at least in part as role models, or found, dare I whisper, beautiful, feminine and glamorous. My preferences revealed more than a hint of heteronormativity but the bottom line was, the “bad” dangerous women were the ones I disagreed with, saw as mean-spirited, sociopathic, or homely.
As DWP has proven, the operative question is always “dangerous to whom?” so one more example. American pastor Rick Joyner called the January 21, 2017 Women’s March in DC and hundreds of sister marches around the world, “one of the most blatant manifestations of the Jezebel Spirit ever.” He was not alone. The claim that the Satanic spirit of a “foreign” biblical queen (Jezebel) infected millions of peaceful marchers wearing knitted pink hats and waging spiritual holy war for the very soul of the United States is widespread on evangelical circuits and alt-right websites, accompanied by overt racism, antisemitism, grotesque depictions of marchers, and a bizarre belief that Donald Trump himself is rooting out the evil.
Not only evangelical men but some women express the view that the women marchers were possessed by the devil-inspired Jezebel (with scant mention of the thousands and thousands of men who also marched). As the condescending dismissal of disenfranchisement in the American Rust Belt and elsewhere was one factor leading to the present political moment in the United States, laughing off such claims while tempting, would be a mistake. The women who espouse it see themselves as devoted servants to a biblical interpretation of God which prizes female obedience and sexual purity above all else, women, it should be noted, exercising their own personal agency to quickly distance themselves from the marchers, adamant that the activists do not represent them as women. The pastors and apologists alike use imagery to depict the marchers as physically repulsive: “rough,” overweight, ugly, etc. To evangelicals, the marchers are dangerous. To progressives, the apologists and the indifferent are the dangerous ones. By demonizing and dehumanizing women working for social change, or saying nothing at all, they condone the violence perpetuated for thousands of years in the name of silencing and domesticating women, violence advocated today by extremists who claim new legitimacy under the current U.S. administration.
Sylvia Plath wrote in The Bell Jar about paralysis resulting from the unbearable burden of limitless choice. She used a fig tree as a metaphor. In the face of inertia, all options, like rotting figs, die. The collection of lines below is an attempt to avoid that death, not a poem. It is part of a longer, eclectic and discursive list, one that grows verdant and chaotic as current events birth new feminist rallying cries, or at least new catchy memes. I refer here to the work of many poets and novelists: Gloria Anzaldúa, Marina Tsvetaeva, Virginia Woolf, Mirabai, Anne Sexton, Jean Rhys, Edwidge Danticat, Margaret Atwood, and Anna Akhmatova. A nod goes, too, to translators the world over who risk their lives to interpret forbidden texts in places where doing so is a punishable offense. They deserve more, they deserve to have their names known and I do not know their names.
Themes of madness, mysticism and female warriors emerge. The medieval Tantric yoginis who flipped monastic Buddhist practice of renunciation, and, in breaking all the rules beyond impossibility, found enlightenment through transformation. Indigenous Guatemalan activist Rigoberta Menchú gets a line, as do Joan of Arc, Billie Holiday, the ancient Greek monster, Lamia, Vodou Queen Marie Laveau (as unkindly fetishized in a country music song), and Wahida Mohammed, the Iraqi grandmother who claims to cook the heads of ISIS fighters.
I couldn’t choose just one dangerous woman. Every woman is dangerous to someone, even if it is just herself. If only we understood that power.
A Dangerous Woman
Doesn’t lighten the fuck up
or calm the fuck down
or chill the fuck out
She bears witness
Lingers on the margins
Reads shadows like tea leaves
Dances on gravestones
Asks too many questions
Knows all of your secrets
Is always alone
Don’t tell her what to wear
Injustice chisels bone
Up to her boobies and
Her answer, “I can.”
Akhmatova, Anna. The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova. Translated by Judith Hemschemeyer. Zephyr, 1997.
Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera. Aunt Lute Books, 1999.
Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. Ballantine, 1985.
Danticat, Edwidge. Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work. Princeton, 2010.
Menchú, Rigoberta. I, Rogoberrta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala. Translated by Ann Wright. Verso, 1984.
Min, Anchee. Becoming Madame Mao. Houghton, 2000.
Stephen Mitchel, ed. The Enlightened Heart: An Anthology of Sacred Poetry. HarperPerennial, 1989.
Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. Bantam, 1988.
Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea. Norton, 1966.
Shaw, Miranda. Passionate Enlightenment: Women in Tantric Buddhism. Princeton, 1994.
Sexton, Anne. The Complete Poems by Anne Sexton, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1981.
Terrill, Ross. Madame Mao: The White-Boned Demon. Stanford, 1999.
Tsvetaeva, Marina. My Poems. Translated by Andrey Kneller. 2011.
Woolf, Virginia. Three Guineas. Harvest, 1963.