I could write about current pop culture role models for young girls, and whether I think they are good ones or terrible ones. I could write about the rampant objectification of the female body in media. I could easily write about the double standards between genders in our society.
But I’m not going to do that.
Don’t get me wrong, I have strong opinions about vacuous vampires and busty princesses. But I tend to think – if anything – the world needs one less Internet rant.
What I am going to do is to write about a few female literary heroines I had as a child that helped shape my own sense of imagination, personality and confidence. These characters, and the female authors that created them, still speak truth to us even today: to possess a vibrant soul is to possess something truly beautiful.
I hope that girls still read books, and I hope that they still pick up these kinds of books. If they do, I hope that they are able to discover within themselves a unique sense of imagination, hope and truth about who they are as women. May a fire be lit within their hearts that no one is able to put out.
Anne Shirley of Anne of Green Gables by Lucy M. Montgomery
I discovered red-haired Anne (with an “e”) at a young age. The books were a bit hard to read at the age of ten – there were many old-fashioned words that I hadn’t seen before. But I made my way through it, for love of Anne.
Anne Shirley is a strange, wild and passionate girl who lives inside her own imagination. She is an orphan when she comes to her new home on Prince Edward Island, but she sees the world as full of possibility, and her dreams are big. Anne seems to find a way to admire the beauty in all sorts of things that other people find somewhat odd. As one of the smartest children in her school, she is driven to win competitions and be the best she can be – but she often learns the hard way about how to be a gracious winner and loser. Anne is often emotional, dramatic and hot tempered, and she can sometimes lack tact, talk too much, or say things that no one understands.
As Anne grows up, she eventually learns to harness and refine her passions, but she never, ever loses them. She is confidently and decidedly herself in every situation.
Through Anne, we learn that it is incredibly exciting to be smart, exciting to be different, and exciting to occasionally let your imagination run away with you. The way that she experiences life and sees the world is simply contagious. It is as if you want to be there with her when she declares that the people she loves are kindred spirits, when she dramatically reenacts the death of Opheila at the banks of the river with flowers in her hair, when she angrily breaks a school-room slate over Gilbert’s head, and when she descends to the depths of despair due to the sorry lack of puffed sleeves on her party dress. It’s no surprise that Gilbert eventually falls in love with her. Anne is highly intelligent, passionate and unpredictable – her intensity of emotion and love of life make her simply irresistible.
Meg Murry of A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle
God bless Madeline L’Engle for opening up the world of fantasy, science fiction and creative writing to me. Many of the fictional short stories I first wrote as a kid were influenced, if not inspired, by L’Engle. I was fascinated by the way that she infused her stories with a dash of everything that she was interested in – from fantasy, to philosophy, to science, to math, to history, to religion.
In A Wrinkle in Time, we meet Meg Murray, our unlikely heroine. She doesn’t believe herself to be remarkable or interesting in any way. When she looks in the mirror, all she sees is a plain and awkward teenager – especially when compared to her beautiful scientist mother.
Through a series of incredible circumstances, however, she is thrust into a cosmic battle where she is the only person who can save both her father and her brother… and the earth. She comes face to face with “IT” – an evil force that regulates a kind of trance-like “sameness” among all beings. For a moment, Meg wonders what it would be like if she were to join IT, instead of remaining who she is. She knows that she would not feel pain, sadness or awkwardness with IT, but she also realizes that she would lose the ability to feel and know true friendship and love. In the end, love gives her the strength to fight back, save her family, and find herself in the process.
Through Meg’s journey, we learn that our differences, quirks, and even the things we hate about ourselves are the things that we should celebrate – for they make us gloriously unique and beautiful in the face of a world that wants to conform us into a kind of heartless, mass-produced “sameness.”
I had the pleasure of meeting Ms. L’Engle in person in the early nineties. After I had been introduced to her books by A Wrinkle in Time, I proceeded to check out every book she had written that was available through my library system. It was announced that she was coming to speak one evening at the Central Library in Tulsa, and that each branch of the library system was allowed to nominate a young person to attend. The librarians in my town knew me well, I guess, because they sent me. Although I don’t remember a lot about what she said during that talk, I remember that all of the kids in attendance, including myself, got to walk onto the stage to give her a rose to thank her for her work.
Jo March of Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
My great great grandmother’s name was Josephine, and she lived during Civil War times, just like Jo March. I’m not sure if they had anything in common, but one thing is for sure – Jo March, and Louisa May Alcott for that matter, were ahead of their time.
Among the four March sisters, Jo is the most exciting and unpredictable. She seems to be drawn to the outdoors, and enjoys getting into trouble with her best friend, a boy named Laurie. She relishes adventure and danger. Jo is also not afraid to speak her mind, and she doesn’t care if she is judged by others for her unladylike behavior.
Along with her boyish love of action and adventure, she is also highly creative and interested in drama and literature. She and her three sisters often write, choreograph, and perform their own plays and dramas at home. Jo usually plays the hero. She discovers that she likes to write her own stories as well, and as she gets older she finds the courage to submit her manuscripts to newspapers and potential publishers.
Jo swore as a girl that she would never marry. Later in life she rejects a marriage proposal from her childhood friend Laurie, choosing instead to fall in love with an older German professor. To many, it seemed a strange match, but Jo knew that the professor was a far more compatible equal to herself in both interests and intelligence.
Although it may be easy to get wound up in considering the gender roles and stereotypes of the era that can be found within Little Women, Jo remains timeless in her desire to be her own person. She is passionate about her interests and has a strong sense of purpose; she is a woman who knows what she wants. Despite the social norms for women at the time, Jo has the guts to pursue her own path in life and love – however unusual or unconventional it may be.
Jane Eyre of Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Jane Eyre is one of my all time favorite characters in literature. At the beginning of the story, we find her as a penniless orphan, self-described as “poor, plain and little.” Although she is mistreated in a harsh boarding school as a child, the experience does not break her- it only builds her character and makes her stronger in her resolve. She discovers a passion for drawing and reading. She draws not only from reality but also from what she sees in her minds eye – her art and her view of the world is imaginative, unusual and unique.
When she leaves the boarding school at age twenty and gets her first job as a governess at a remote country estate, she has had little to no exposure to men. Her new employer is a gentleman twice her age named Mr. Rochester, a brooding and intense man who has been jaded by the world and it’s disappointments.
But Jane shows what she is made of; she does not shake or run when he growls. Instead, she calmly meets him face to face in every spar of words. Rochester discovers that she is not the reserved, frail, plain girl that she appeared to be on the outside. He is surprised to find something strong, bright and pure in her – a kind of hope that he has not found before. Jane begins to unknowingly unravel, revitalize, and rehabilitate his life, simply by being herself.
The story is essentially one of redemption and salvation through love… but instead of the classic knight in shining armor saving a fair maiden, Jane Eyre is the one who is quietly saving her knight instead.
One of the things I admire most about Jane is that she shows such a firm resolve to seek the truth, and to carry out what she believes to be right. When her moral character is tested to the extreme, her sense of right and wrong is found to be even stronger than her love for Mr. Rochester. She chooses a road that is both difficult and painful – because it is the right road. Through her tough choices, she shows us just how far she is willing to go in order to respect and love herself – as well as the man she loves.
Elizabeth Bennett of Pride and Predjudice by Jane Austen
It’s difficult to describe Elizabeth Bennett in only a few sentences. I suppose what I like most about her is her strong sense of self-awareness and tact in social situations. Although she knows that she believes different things than most about life and love, she doesn’t go around shouting about it. She is able to hold her own beliefs while still interacting gracefully and lovingly with other people who don’t share her opinions. I think that this, in many ways, makes her one of the more mature female characters in literature.
There is no angst or frenzied emotion in her character, especially when compared to her mother and sisters. The drama that is played out between she and Mr. Darcy is a kind of long-burning simmer of a story, and not a flash flame.
Elizabeth is able to walk a fine line between conforming to acceptable social norms and also doing what she enjoys most – like wandering through fields and mud puddles for the exercise. She remains above reproach in society, but she is not demure and reserved. She skillfully dismisses disdainful comments from high born ladies, matches wits with Mr. Darcy, and does not mince words. Mr. Darcy ultimately falls in love with her because of her confidence and her sharp mind, even though she is truthfully far below him in social class.
Elizabeth does the unthinkable, however, by rejecting not one, but two marriage proposals without having any sort of back-up plan. Mr. Darcy in particular was unbelievably wealthy, and people at the time would have called her downright foolish for rejecting him. Without any other prospects of marriage, and without any male heirs in her family, she could have caused her family to face bankruptcy or homelessness. She knew this, and did not make her decisions lightly or selfishly, but made them instead on what she believed were very important moral grounds. Austen tells us what Elizabeth would have become if she had accepted a loveless marriage by showing us what her friend Charlotte went through when she married the minister that everyone despised, a man who Elizabeth herself had rejected. Elizabeth believes that it would be much better to risk it all than to enter into marriage with someone she could not respect. She is willing to remain unmarried rather than to settle for the sake of security and income.
So between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, who had the pride, and who had the prejudice? The beauty of the story is that they were both in the wrong, in one way or another. But thankfully, the truth finally comes out, and they finally approach one other as equals, friends, and lovers.
By the way, please feel free to comment about your own favorite literary heroines! I know I’ve missed some good ones.