Friday, April 13, 2012

“Headstrong” or Just an Adult?

I didn't know Karen Boersma, who died recently at age 65 after a life of disability activism. Born with cerebral palsy, Boersma was later injured in a car accident that left her with the use of just one arm. She worked as an accountant, won a discrimination lawsuit, and testified at the State Capitol on health care fraud.

For all of that, she gets labeled a "headstrong disability rights activist" by the Star Tribune's obituary writer.

Is the word headstrong ever used to describe men? Boys, yes, but men? Or is it only children and women?

The definition of headstrong doesn't give any indication of this gendering. Its primary meaning is "not easily restrained: impatient of control, advice, or suggestion." The second is more judgmental: "Directed by ungovernable will syn see UNRULY."

The word I have in my head as a synonym is "obstinate." Try reading the Strib phrase with that word substituted: She was an "obstinate disability rights activist." Not exactly journalistic.

Both words have an underlying sense that the person so labeled is unreasonable. But Boersma wasn't unreasonable -- she just disagreed with the fact that the way things were didn't allow for her participation in society, or even her existence.

The mildest definition of headstrong was "impatient of control." So no wonder it's unlikely to be used to describe men -- only those who are supposed to be controlled, like children and women, can be called out for disobeying.

1 comment:

Ms Sparrow said...

I didn't read through the obit and didn't catch the word "headstrong".
Certainly the label "activist" is strong enough!