A Brand New Novel
Josephine Baker, the early-20th-century African-American dancer, comic, and singer–hugely famous in Paris. Did you know that she was also a spy for the French Resistance during WWII?
At last night’s screening of “Coco Before Chanel,” I had to swallow my tears more than once — not because of the tragedy that occurs in the film (no spoilers here!) but because of the sheer courage and determination of Gabrielle (Coco Chanel, played by Audrey Tatou), the impoverished woman who, abandoned by her parents to an orphanage as a child, uses her wits to find personal success in a world — chauvinistic France, in the early 20th century — where men rule and women submit.
I was so overcome with admiration for her strength and resourcefulness that tears filled my eyes several times. She reminded me so much of A’isha, who inspired me so much with her own strength and courage that I wrote two books about her. Given in marriage at the tender age of nine to her father’s best friend, the Prophet Muhammad, A’isha relied on her intelligence and her wit many times to overcome the obstacles women faced in 7th-century Arabia. “Coco Before Chanel” shows us how, 13 centuries later, women still had to scheme and fight to achieve their fullest potential. This remains true for many women throughout the world today.
Why does this topic resonate with me? I need the examples of powerful women to help me in my own times of personal and professional struggle. Raised in an impoverished home by two abusive parents, I relied on my own wits to survive at home and thrive without, working as a newspaper reporter and magazine writer while slowly finishing college; enduring sexual advances from colleagues, news sources, and even one of my publishers during my long journalism career; struggling to make work the bad marriages I entered — being ill-equipped, given my past, to choose well for myself; taking the plunge into fiction writing to fulfill an ambition I’d developed in the second grade.
From an early age, I found refuge in books. My favorites always featured girls, then women, who persevered in spite of all to realize their dreams and attain their goals — as Coco Chanel did, as A’isha did, and as the women in my forthcoming novel did. As “Coco Before Chanel” demonstrates, Chanel, by daring to be different and by believing in her own abilities and intuition, helped liberate women from, among other restrictions, corsets (now will someone please do the same for brassieres, which I wear with all the comfort of a horse in a harness?). Likewise, A’isha, who became the most famous and influential woman in Islam, serves as a role model for women, Muslim and non-Muslim, around the world.
I was glad to see so many members of Spokane’s Shrinking Violet Society, bright young women, enjoying the film, and I was very pleased to have brought my teenage daughter and her best friend along. I hope they all left the theater, as I did, brimming with plans for the future, renewed in a commitment to work and professional success. Therein lies the true way to empowerment, and it’s not just for men anymore, thanks to A’isha and Coco Chanel and thousands of other women like them.