I Am So Over Writing About Strong Girls*

From this day forward, I am never going to write about strong female characters again.

Even though I consider myself a feminist, a dear friend recently pointed out an insidiously subtle social value I’ve been perpetuating. In my defense, I think I might be forgiven for it: I am a baby boomer, after all. Raised in a time when girls were trained to be deferential, to be content with a limited number of traditional career paths, discouraged from concerning themselves with such silly things as pay equity. There were some warped old 8-tracks playing in my head, so familiar that I scarcely thought to question them.

Thanks to my friend, I’ve seen the light. Every time I write the words, “strong girl” or “strong woman,” I am implying that the default state of the female of the species is weakness. And I, of all people, know first hand that nothing could be further from the truth.

The real Hattie with her niece and nephew - Version 2

Hattie Inez Brooks Wright




Consider my great-grandmother, Hattie Inez Brooks Wright, who as a young woman left Iowa to work a homestead claim near Vida, Montana in about 1914. Hattie had to build a cabin in which to live, set 480 rods of fence (picture 500 VW Beetles nose-to-nose), and plow/plant/harvest 40 acres of crops. Oh, and haul water from the nearby crick. Survive 65-degree-below winters. And grasshopper infestations. And lack of rain. And wild horses. And wild wolves. And stick it out on that harsh prairie for three long years. Which she did. All. On. Her. Own. I have a copy of her homestead affidavit to prove it.


Lois Thomas Wright Brown


Or consider my grandmother, Lois Thomas Wright Brown, who ran away from home at 14 to marry her 17-year-old sweetheart. A sweetheart who thought he found his true love in a bottle. By the time the Great Depression rolled around, my grandma was a divorced mother of four. She worked two jobs to keep her girls fed and safe. But my grandmother did not let a lack of education or single parenthood stop her from anything. Dance lessons for the girls? She traded her masterful sewing skills–creating elaborate costumes– in exchange for ballet and tap classes. The old house needed remodeling? She grabbed hammer or wallpaper brush or saw and got to work. And when her own heart could no longer deny its passion to be an artist, she converted her garage to a studio and taught herself, becoming a successful painter.

Mom's high school grad photo

Donna Marie Brown Miltenberger


Or consider my mother, Donna Marie Brown Miltenberger, who, in addition to having four kids, worked a full-time job as long as I can remember. Because she didn’t have a college degree, she could not move up the managerial ranks, despite being one sharp cookie. However, she was so good at what she did that she was required to train each of the young men who became her boss. And, thirty-five years ago, when a botched operation caused her to lose her sight in one eye, she didn’t whine or complain. No, she set herself to cross-stitching Christmas ornaments for each of her grandchildren. Ponder that: Legally blind. Cross-stitching itty-bitty ornaments. If you met my mother, you would never know of her “limitations.” Because she refuses to be limited by them.

I come from a long, long line of such women. Amazing women are the status quo in my family. They’re likely the status quo in yours, as well. So I profoundly regret ever having written such dangerously sexist phrases as “strong girls,” or “strong women.” From this day forward, when I am asked to describe my female characters, I will say they are as complex and fascinating as the real girls and women I know or that I’ve met in history.

And who wouldn’t want to read about people like that?

 *This essay is dedicated to M.B.

No Responses to “I Am So Over Writing About Strong Girls*”

    • Nancy PCCWW

      Rosi, yes, it’s perfecto! (Nice to “see” you here!) This is so inspiring. BTW, I grew up in Iowa. This all resonates for me. <3

    • kl-admin

      Thanks, Rosi. As always, I appreciate your support and encouragement.

  1. Dori

    amen, Kirby! I come from a long line of capable women myself, so that’s always been the norm for me. I’ll think of better ways to say this in the future!

  2. Nancy Herman

    As another “baby boomer feminist” I agree it’s time to stop using the “strong girl” label the way we have in the past. As you say, amazing women are most likely the status quo in each of our families. Actually, amazing women are the status quo everywhere!

    Thank you for the stories and photographs of the women in your family.

    • kl-admin

      You’re welcome for sharing the photos, Nancy. And thank you for taking time to comment and share your thoughts. I agree: amazing women are everywhere. That’s why I so love writing historical fiction. Many of those stories are hidden away and I am so gratified when I can share them with contemporary readers.

  3. Lynn Lovegreen

    Beautiful post, Kirby. Well said.
    Like you, I’ve been writing about strong women whiteout noticing the inherent bias. And I have great role models in my family too, so I can relate to that, too.

    • kl-admin

      It’s all about helping one another farther down the path on our individual journeys, isn’t it? So glad I helped you take a little step.

  4. Heather

    Kirby I just love this article! This is so true. I cannot wait to share with the fabulous young ladies I work with each and every day! Thank you for this clarification!

    • kl-admin

      Thanks, Heather. I would love to know what the young women you share it with think.

  5. tracy bryan

    This is brilliant! I consider myself to be a “strong” woman too and come from inherited strength of women (and men.) Just shared it with my daughter too. Interesting to see this strength has followed us through the years so I guess that’s all that matters and to keep aspiring to it:)

    • kl-admin

      “Keep aspiring to strength”: love that thought.

  6. Deb Dunn

    Your post couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. I am in the middle of polishing a query letter for one of my picture book manuscripts about a “take charge” girl. I was struggling to find comp titles and when I put in “strong girl” “bossy girl” “confident girl” I got a lot of stereotypical stuff. So I’m going without the comp titles, and now that I’ve read your awesome post I am going to rethink how I describe her. Feisty comes to mind!

    • kl-admin

      So glad I was able to help in some small way with your query letter. Keep me posted on what happens with the book! Would love to host you for Friend Friday.

  7. Betsy Ickes

    What a great tribute to your women ancestors!

  8. Jane Heitman Healy

    “they are as complex and fascinating as the real girls and women I know or that I’ve met in history.” Yes, who wouldn’t want to read about that? I do hope your foremothers are main characters in upcoming novels!

    • kl-admin

      My foremothers are ALWAYS part of the characters I write about!

  9. nancy foulke

    To coin very true phrase…never underestimate the power of a womam.
    Thanks Kirby.

  10. Laurie Theurer

    Beautifully written, Kirby! You’ve left some people out though… your complex and fascinating daughter, as well as her complex and fascinating mother!

    • kl-admin

      My daughter is one amazing, powerful person; she has dealt with so much and perseveres with grace in spite of it all. I can’t say I feel that complex or fascinating, but appreciate your thinking so.

    • kl-admin

      Hardly a hero; the hero is the dear friend who was caring enough to help me move a little further down the road in my thinking.

  11. Jo Knowles

    This is wonderful, Kirby!!!! Thank you for sharing these inspiring stories. I want more more more! 🙂

    • kl-admin

      Love having a cheerleader like you, Jo!I’m trying to get better about sharing what I think. All part of the learning curve.

    • kl-admin

      Thanks, Jeannine. I’m pleased that my thoughts have resonated with so many readers!

    • kl-admin

      We have a mutual admiration society, Donna. Thanks for your kind words and support.

  12. Heather Richard

    YES! This is terrific! And it is no surprise to me that you ended up writing about complex, fascinating young women…because you come from a long line of them. Thank you for sharing them with us.

    Boy or girl, fascinating, brave characters are the kind of characters every reader (adult or child) wants to know.

    • kl-admin

      Good point, Heather! Complex characters = diverse characters, right?

    • kl-admin

      Thanks for taking time to comment, Susan. I appreciate it.

    • kl-admin

      Half as eloquent as you dear friend, but so glad something I said resonated.

    • kl-admin

      Thanks for your support, Diane. Onward and upward, right?!

    • kl-admin

      Thanks, Rachel. I appreciate your thoughts and support!

  13. Philip Martin

    I thought I’d pitch in a note, as a guy and an editor/indie-publisher. I’m interested in this post, and am thinking about it & listening to the good thoughts here. I’m just not 100% convinced, though, that every use of “strong girl” or “strong woman” is so dangerously sexist that it should automatically be avoided.

    My press has published a few middle-grade novels, for instance, that I feel are about strong-willed girls, and I think there’s a quality about heroes/heroines in fiction that embody strength of character.
    FYI, here’s a list of them:

    When I look at the text and reviews for, for instance, Odin’s Promise, I see reviews that say things like: “Readers will root for Mari as she discovers her inner strength” or a recommendation from A Mighty Girl website of it as a “Best Girl-Empowering Books of 2014.”

    Especially in historical-era fiction, the notion of strength in women seems worth noting and perhaps celebrating.

    And I don’t object to the idea of a website called A Mighty Girl . . . I think it’s doing a service that is helpful to the cause of equality, throwing some extra weight on one end of the scales.

    I do agree that it shouldn’t be a stereotype; that complex characters are more realistic and interesting. We all have strengths and weaknesses.

    Curiously, the one book we published (a pick-up reprint) featuring a boy protagonist has him described as large and soft, a casting against type for a central character.

    So this post is making me think, but I’m not totally ready to toss the strong female character concept, and feel it’s legitimate to describe it as such, so long as it’s not a thoughtless stereotype, so long as there’s a balance and purpose to it that’s not demeaning. “A Mighty Girl” isn’t the only way to look at books, but it’s a perspective and seems a way to bring a good set of books into the limelight.

    Am I missing the boat entirely?

    • kl-admin

      Hi, Philip! Please forgive my delay in responding. Life! I am so grateful that you took time to read my post and to share your thoughts. I would hardly say you are missing the boat; your points are very well taken. I do have to say that I rarely hear the term “strong boy” character and that is what has been influencing my own thinking. As you point out, you had a male character who “went against type” and that generated comment. I think that means the assumption is generally that boys/boy characters are strong. And when the word “strong” is added as a qualifier to girl characters, I’m now worried that the implication is that the default is that girls are not strong. And boy do we know that is not the case! I am not saying everyone has to make the choice I’ve made. But, for me and where I’ve been, it now seems a more open way to approach female characters to avoid the term “strong girl/woman.”

  14. Kristiana Gregory

    Kirby, this is terrific, and a beautiful tribute to your mother and grandmothers. I hadn’t thought of this before, but of course we can assume women are strong without having to use the adjective. It’s a bit maddening to realize that men in history haven’t needed such clarification. Thanks for a great post.

  15. Liz

    My business is Literary Masters, book clubs and salons where we ‘dig deep’ into literary treasures. I run several Mother/Daughter book clubs, which is how I’ve come to know your writing; we’ve thoroughly enjoyed The Friendship Doll and this season everyone loved Duke. I selected both books because they are so well written in every way and because they provided so much to discuss. The girls are in fourth and fifth grades, and we almost always talk about gender bias and how girls and women are being portrayed in the stories. I generally come away amazed at how aware the girls are of how stereotypes are created and perpetuated.

    So, clearly, I understand the spirit of your blog post. However, I, like Philip Martin above, feel a bit…undecided about whether I agree with doing away with the phrase “strong girl” altogether. Whether we like it or not, not all girls (especially in literature) are strong, and thus isn’t it important to create, illuminate, and celebrate ones who are? That way they become exemplars for young girls who realize that they have a choice to be the kind of girl they want to be. We can’t all be above average, right? And if all girls are assumed to be strong, then doesn’t that diminish the meaning of strength and what it means to be strong?

    Of course we all want to read about complicated characters, not stereotypes, and your books are filled with wonderful examples of the former. I don’t think describing a character as a “strong girl” implies she is different from the quintessential girl, or that all other girls are not strong. It is simply one facet of her character. Maybe the point is that this “quintessential girl” is something that used to be defined by our culture in a way that perpetuated deferential, passive, and even weak stereotypes and role models, but thanks to authors like you, this is no longer the case. Indeed, there really isn’t a “quintessential girl”–we are all rather complicated, and isn’t that great?

    So, I am open to others’ opinions, but I think I am still okay with saying “strong girl.” I am definitely going to ask my Literary Masters members, both young and old, what they think about this!

    • kl-admin

      Thank you, Liz for your thoughts. I apologize for the delay in responding. I think what I’m most struggling with is that we rarely talk about “strong boy” characters. Mainly when I hear that expression, it’s been used to describe girl characters. So I’m trying to talk about my girl characters in different ways. Some will be shy, some insecure, some little dynamos. But I’m trying to use language that doesn’t in any way indicate that the default for girls is not strong. I’m so grateful for your taking time to share your thoughts. It’s going to be a continuing education for me, I have no doubt!

  16. Vijaya

    Kirby, a voice from my WA past. I came over from Cynsations link and thank goodness! What a lovely, lovely post. You nailed the difference what’s been bothering me too … For some time now, it seems that “strong” = acting like a man. Just because women have a different role than men doesn’t make them weak. You come from a line of beautiful and strong women! Love the photos and memories.

    • kl-admin

      Thanks, Vijaya, for your thoughts. This is not the end of this conversation, I’m sure; only the beginning!

  17. Chris Eboch

    One reason I wrote my middle grade fantasy The Genie’s Gift was because I wanted a shy, introverted heroine. It always seemed to be the outgoing tomboys who star in books and get praised for being “strong girls.” But introverts and shy kids can be heroes too! There are many ways to be strong. Thanks for getting this conversation going.

    • kl-admin

      Thanks, Chris, for adding to the conversation. I think you’re absolutely speaking to the hope behind #WeNeedDiverseBooks — we want ALL kids to see themselves somewhere in children’s literature.

  18. Deborah Lucas

    Kirby, at first I was confused about your intent, but now I get it. Wow! I think I’ve been doing the same thing (maybe because I am also a baby boomer). Thanks for the heads up, and keep writing about all those fabulous women and girls. No matter what our challenges, we find a way to stand tall and move forward, sometimes with a little help from a friend, sometimes a generous stranger. Keep inspiring.