Where would I be without a controversial topic? Of course men can write women. I just finished Daniel Woodrell's Winter's Bone, as dramatic a portrayal of a young woman's struggle within a nightmare reality of life in extreme poverty as has ever been written. And Woodrell doesn't pretend that all women are good, or right, or without flaw. Some of the women in this book are 100% evil.
There's a problem men have writing women. A trap, and Woodrell falls into it. He's not alone. Almost every writer, male and female, falls into it:
Q: Who is Driving the Story?
A: Not the Woman.
In Winter's Bone, Ree Dolly is looking for her father. That's the only big spoiler I'll give you. When she tries things on her own, they go wrong. When the events that move the story happen, someone else is driving. And I mean literally. Someone comes to her house (this happens more than once) and tells her what she needs to know or where she needs to go or actually drives her there.
I'll confess when the story started I was wondering how Ree Dolly would conduct this search. A young woman with no resources, in the middle of the winter, with no vehicle, in a remote area, searching for a man who does not want to be found. How would she go out into this world and make it happen? At first, all the help she got didn't bother me. But past the halfway point structure starts to nag. The main character has got to take charge. Unless, it seems all too often, the main character is a she rather than a he. When the main character is a woman, she gets help. She becomes passive. This is story death.
There are exceptions. Think of Ripley in Alien(s). Now there's a woman who knew how to take charge. What you probably don't know is that when the script was written and sold, Ripley was a man. What changed along the way? Someone realized that Ripley was literally the last man standing. When there is only one man standing, it's okay for that man to be a woman. If there is still a man standing, common structure and audience expectation are for the man to lead and the woman to be his help-meet. Don't shoot the messenger.
Here are the problems you have to solve as a writer:
1. How does a female main character run the show, especially in the second half of the book? She doesn't have to be right in every decision, that would be artificial and boring. But she has to figure out what's going on, develop a plan, and execute that plan. No, she does not have to do it alone. But she does have to do it.
2. Figure out if you are going to include love/sex/whatever in your story. If you can create a male character that can stay strong in a relationship with a woman, help her, disagree with her, and remain his own man, then you will really have something. Heck, even with the romantic element removed, how does a woman lead men and have it feel natural? Figure that one out.
A last note on Winter's Bone. I loved this book. I listened to it on audiobook, and the narrator was perfect for the very chilling words. This story, this dark heart of America, was as chilling as anything I've ever read. I wanted more. Because it was short. Five hours, and I expect closer to ten hours at a minimum. There's another half of this story to be told, maybe the half where Ree Dolly runs the show. I hope Woodrell writes it.