“Ladylike,” imbued with all of its white glove, pearl and silk handkerchief meanings, has always been a corset of a term. One to be wiggled out of, like that stiff and scratchy Sunday best or those pinching patent leathers.
What if ladylike were something more encompassing, including the likes of Gertrude Bell (“Gertrude of Arabia”), whose archeological travels in full Victorian dress upon a camel ultimately landed her as chief officer to the transitional British government in Iraq? Or like novelist and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, who pressed forward through swamps and bogs on what she termed “collecting trips” gathering black folklore in the 1920s and ‘30s?
In late 1996, Pam Nelson, 33, was searching for books to give as Christmas gifts to her cousins, who had outgrown lushly illustrated bedtime storybooks--all language and promises. Many seemed one-dimensional for the women these spirited young girls were on the edge of becoming.
So Nelson, a former Wall Street analyst, wrote her own. “Cool Women” was published by Girl Press, Nelson’s own company, which she runs out of a small West Hollywood office. “I started working on a business plan and, before I knew it, I’d gone so far, I couldn’t go back.” In its first edition of 8,000 copies, the book is an electric mix of advice and rhetorical questions anchored by the life stories of 50 real and fictional female icons. Among those figures are Lucille Ball; Xena, the Warrior Princess; Rosie the Riveter; Scarlett O’Hara; black hair tycoon Madame C.J. Walker and Eva Peron. “Cool Women” is aimed at girls ages 10 to 14.
“I’m really into gender politics, and wanted to look at how young girls go from being outspoken achievers to shrinking violets who worry about their weight or how boys perceive them,” Nelson says. The environmental, emotional and hormonal changes that descend at puberty, Nelson figured, shouldn’t be inevitable barriers: “Those feelings of inadequacy come in early, and so I realized if you’re going to change it, you’ve got to change it early.”
Bursting with color, screaming type and vibrant graphics, dreamed up by local designer Amy Inouye, the book’s effect is that of a peer-friendly chat in the mode of youth-oriented ‘zines and Web sites.
“I’m blown away at how much further along young girls are today than even my generation. They know what they like and what they don’t like,” says Nelson, adding that they aren’t always given enough encouragement to speak their minds.
Though the book’s been out barely a month, people are already full of suggestions and questions: “Why isn’t Patti Smith or Bella Abzug or Rosa Parks in it? “Well, they’ll be in ‘Cool Women II.’ ” So how about that for a string of girl pearls?
For more information, call (213) 651-0880, or view the Web site at https://www.girlpress.com. A participatory reading will be held at Midnight Special Bookstore in Santa Monica, May 3 at 2 p.m. Bring your girls.