by Jim Heffernan
There has been some criticism of the New York Times obituary for actress Bea Arthur because it said she was adept at portraying the archetype of the “battle-ax”. Arthur’s most famous role was as “Maude” on TV.
Battle-ax? Not exactly a description that seems to adhere to 21st century attitudes toward women, that’s for sure. Like “old maid” -- gone, and good riddance.
I hope that the younger generation has never even heard these terms.
But if you are not of the younger generation, you HAVE heard the terms, and if you are far removed from the younger generation, as I am, you recall the day when they were bandied about indiscriminately, tossed around like litter out the car window.
My generation has had to traverse many changes in our society – from racism to sexism to homophobia to “every litter bit hurts.” I hadn’t even thought of battle-axes in years, maybe decades, but the New York Times reference and the reaction to it has brought back the fondest of memories of battle-axes – at least that’s what they were called then – I have known and come to admire.
These were mostly teachers – stern, smart, unmarried woman teachers who knew their stuff and how to handle, for example, obstreperous junior high boys whose hormones had kicked in in ways that cold be disruptive to classrooms, interfering with what we were supposed to be doing – learning science or English or math.
Behind their backs, these teachers were often called battle-axes, just as our principal was called “Baldy,” but only behind his back -- and at quite a distance at that. A block or two from the school grounds you might be safe.
Ah, but those women we thought of as battle-axes. They could drive arithmetic and science into the most uninterested dunce, like me when it came to arithmetic and science. A science teacher I had in 8th grade was positively fearsome. Absolutely no nonsense from anyone. She might have been bitterly denounced as a battle-ax away from the classroom, but you learned what a vacuum was. And I’m not talking about cleaning a carpet.
And a pint-sized math teacher – maybe 4 foot 11 and perhaps more of a battle-hatchet than a battle-ax – could wrestle an adolescent male a good foot taller out the door and straight to the principal’s office (that would be the fearsome Baldy) at the slightest sign of rebelliousness. But you learned how to figure square roots, by golly. Well, I didn’t, but it wasn’t her fault.
At a parents’ open house, she took on my father, no slouch as a disciplinarian himself, warning him that if I didn’t start shaping up there would dire consequences for me. There were. He accepted her rebuke, and took it home to me, where changes in study habits were quickly wrought.
None of these women thought of themselves as battle-axes, of course, and there’s the rub. It was extremely unkind to refer to them that way, but I’m sure they could weather it. I would go into wartime battle alongside any one of them, ax or no ax.