Women and the Global Imagination: Alaska Girls

by Eliana Osborn

Filed under: Blog, Women and the Global Imagination |

In hopes of continuing the dialog started by the poetry portfolio on Women and the Global Imagination, curated by Alicia Ostriker and included in our Winter 2014 Issue, we've collected a series of essays on this same theme. In her essay, Eliana Osborn reflects on one of the women who most shaped Osborn's understandings of womanhood and feminism. We hope you enjoy reading. If you like what you see, please become a subscriber to Prairie Schooner today. To take part in the dialog, follow and interact with us on Twitter.

Alaska Girls

‘Alaska: Where the men are men and women win the Iditarod’ proclaimed a popular t-shirt during my mid-eighties elementary school years.  Libby Riddles was the first woman to win the 1,049 mile dog sledding race.  Then followed Susan Butcher four out of the next five years.   The tough female racers of Alaska exerted just as much influence on my developing psyche as anyone who shared my blood.

My mom has four sisters, my dad six, and none of them demure by any measure.  I grew up without any doubt about opportunity and dreams, even a flair for feminist rhetoric.  The women of my church were real and available to me, showing a variety of paths to happiness.  Their faith didn’t seem to hold them back or teach Mosaic subservience.  Instead these ladies each Sunday and at family reunions questioned, learned, debated, while I not only watched but participated.  Nevertheless, Susan Butcher brought something else to the table for me.

Susan Butcher features a trademark mousy brown braid down her back.  Not a French braid, no fancy fishtail design—just pulled back and organized to eliminate fuss.  No bangs, no wispy bits, high forehead front and center.  We have bad hair in my family, universally thin and fine and hopeless.  My mom does the middle aged woman thing with too frequent perms, cut short and fluffed, highlights that don’t hide grey like she thinks they do.  Liz’s is super heavy, all one length, always pulled back with both a ponytail and elastic headband.  Me?  Change is the name of the hair survival game.  I constantly hate it.  I’ve gone from white to fire engine red and everywhere in between, a million different cuts to try to perk it up. A pink baseball cap is my most reliable look.

I’ve never seen Susan wear makeup and no one would mistake her for a beauty queen.  Life in the woods, raising and training a team of dogs in harsh conditions, lines the face.  But it also allows eyes to reflect strength, independence, confidence, depth.  I stare in the mirror infrequently except to obsess about my eyebrows.  The early aging wrinkles around my mouth don’t remind me of all the laughs that created them.  I don’t see the dark circles as a joyous sign of parenting my young children.  In fourth grade I won the school-wide Iditaread; read at least 1,049 pages to correspond to the miles raced by dogs and mushers.  I got free books.  To my everlasting shame, I selected a tome entitled How to Be a Teen Model.  A hundred pages weren’t enough to make me a starlet.  I knew it was shallow, just like I know it is ridiculous now that I feel better wearing purple eyeliner.    

Years later I was living in Arizona when my mom called me with the news: Susan Butcher had leukemia.  My mom had seen her in the Seattle airport with not a wisp of hair.  It was apparently serious, requiring out of state treatment.  Less than a year later, the woman who’d lived in the back of my mind as a bastion of womanhood with a capitol W, was dead.  She was 52.  She’d lived life hard in ways that most of the modern world couldn’t imagine.  She’d conquered the harshest terrain in America, not just once, but time and time again. 

I’d never cried over someone I didn’t know.  My face collapsed, my stomach hurt, my whole body just slumped. How can a legend be felled by cancer?  Susan Butcher had faced moose attacks, blinding snowstorms, prejudice, temperatures that make me cold just to think about. Not only did she survive but she ate these challenges up, seeming to thrive on the things that others shy away from.  And still, eventually her physical body betrayed her. 

My body isn’t strong to begin with; I certainly don’t use it to conquer the elements.  I may be from Alaska but I am a city girl through and through.  I bruise when a leaf blows into me, get migraines from sunlight, and struggle to survive without eight hours of sleep.  I left Alaska for college and only returned for vacations for the next fifteen years; too much cold and too much darkness had seeped into the very core of my being.  I’ve never slept in hay bales after trudging through a blizzard, and never wanted such a thing.  Susan, DeeDee Jonrow, and the other female mushers got me excited with their corporeal triumphs despite my never wanting to emulate them.  Their bodies pushed limits in ways different than I wanted, but the boundaries were broken nonetheless.

For Susan to be felled by cancer was a betrayal.  As a muse she may not have molded my physical persona but my heart is all Alaska girl warrior.  More than Betty Friedan or Gloria Steinem, Susan Butcher’s assault on the masculine status quo took place in real time.  Of the thousands of women who have made my modern day choices possible, Susan is the one to whom I can relate.  I know the men of the oil fields and have heard more than my share of their bravado.  I know the peace of the outdoors and the calm of a frozen morning.  Rather than fight for pay equality or legislate for maternity leave, Susan fought battles on a turf up close and personal. 

I want to strive not just for the big goals in life, the presidencies and titles.  I want to find the frontiers in my day to day existence.  Susan Butcher’s triumphs are all the more valuable to me because they are unusual.  Few will ever race sled dogs or confront environmental extremes.  Success has nothing to do with audience.  I appreciate those who confront great injustices and give voice to silent masses.  But the power of my life is most likely to be on a smaller scale.  What I can do is chart a course that is specific to me, where I bring my passions and experiences to bear on what is around me. 

I have a bumper sticker on my truck that reads ‘Alaska Girls Kick Butt’ ever since I had to give up my Last Frontier license plate.  If I could get a little Susan Butcher silhouette too I’d be pretty excited.  As it is, every freezing winter I think of her and all the others running and riding behind teams of huskies as they traverse the western Alaskan frontier.  I think of Susan when I am feeling out where my days will have value, where my hours can truly bring me fulfillment.  If I’m lucky I get a moment of bliss and I send a little thanks to Susan Butcher for making her own way.

Eliana Osborn is a part-time English professor, mom to budding male feminists, freelance writer, and even a wife. She's published work in a wide variety of literary and commercial magazines.