Sunday, July 17, 2011

Tough Girls I Have Known

I've been a reader from the time that my aunt first introduced me to the mystery and wonder of words and letters.  Some of my best friends growing up were literary characters.  Recently, I read a quote from Al Franken about the lack of feminist literary characters and while I agree with him that the world of words hasn't had the literary equililant of Gloria Steinem or Helen Gurley Brown but I think it's both premature and downright unfair to dismiss women in fiction out of hand.

Maybe it's because, to me, feminism is more about women taking control of their own bodies and their own minds more than it's about anything militant.  For whatever reason I feel like I grew up with many positive female role models starting with Ramona Quimby.

I remember clearly being in second grade and being introduced to this little girl from Klitiklatt Street who gleefully pulled another girl's hair to hear if her curls when "boing" when them came back up.  Who's best friend was a boy named Howie and who's favorite book was Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel.  Written first during the 50's and 60's I'm sure that it wasn't Beverly Cleary's intent to write a female character who defies gender stereotypes.  But the fact is that Ramona, in her rubber rain boots, taught me that I didn't have to be a girlie girl to still be a girl.

Thank you Beverly Cleary.

Next came Laura.  My love for Laura Ingalls and the Little House books was deep and enduring.  I learned from her that it's okay to be jealous sometimes, it doesn't make you a bad person.  That staying true to yourself and your beliefs is the most important thing you can do.  That sticking up for someone weaker than you are is well worth the trouble that might follow.  Her pioneer spirit infected me and affected me.  She told me that it was okay to be smart even if the world didn't want you to be.  And she taught me the value of loyalty.  The fact that Laura Ingalls Wilder made herself what she was and raised her daughter Rose to be just as smart and strong as she was is something that I feel like everyone should look to.

Thank you Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Then came the gentle influence of Ann M Martin.  No one would probably think that I would see her on this list.  Ms Martin who freely admits to feminine pursuits being her favored hobbies doesn't seem like the type who would set the world on fire with their feminist characters.  Until you look at the girls in the Baby Sitter's Club.  Each girl has their own strength and by all rights should have a place on my list but since this is my list I'm sticking with the two who I related best to.  Dawn I loved because we shared a name.  But more than that we shared a world vision.  Dawn was the first character I read who cared passionately about environmental issues and her views echoed my own growing environmental concerns.  I loved her because she spoke her mind and didn't try to pretend to be someone else just to fit in.  I wished that I could be more like her.  But the truth was, I was always a Mary Anne.  And Mary Anne's quiet strength I think might have just been Ann M Martin's BSC masterpiece.  Here is this girl who seems to be timid and easy to walk all over but when the chips are down and you need someone she's the one who's there and she's the one who will stand up when you least expect it.  I learned a lot about accepting myself as I am from Ann M Martin.

Thank you Ann M Martin.

Then came my first great literary love, Anne Shirley.  I don't think I've ever loved a character quite like I loved Anne.  I don't think a literary character has affected me in quite the same way that Anne did.  My road to Avonlea was different than my usual trip.  It didn't start with me finding the book.  No, the first Anne I loved was the Meagan Followes Anne from Kevin Sullivan's Anne of Green Gables mini-series.  But I did find a way to her books eventually and once there for the first time I fell in love with prose itself and not just the characters.  The way that LM Montgomery wrote amazed me and beguiled me.  From Anne I learned to love words passionately.  To care deeply and without judgement.  Anne herself was a heroine far ahead of her time.  LM Montgomery published the first Anne book in 1908.  Anne worked, she got a college education and she never stopped learning.  She might have also been the first girl to dye her hair green (even if it wasn't on purpose).  I read these books until they fell apart then I taped them together and read them again (and again).  I never cried harder than when Anne's son Walter was killed in Rilla of Ingleside.  And I don't think that I've felt like I've known a character bone deep in my soul before or after.

Thank you LM Montgomery.

Next came Meg Murray.  Meg's one who I don't know if I ever really connected to on a bone deep level.  Of Madeline L'Engle's female creations I think that Vicky Austin is far more loveable.  But Meg's anger and determination and frustration are important in their own ways.  Sure, maybe I didn't love Meg but goodness knows I respected her.  I think that she's a girl that all girls should know just for her strength of character alone because you can't read A Wrinkle in Time and not be affected by Meg.  In many ways Meg (who everyone should remember was from a book written in 1963) is the precurser to many strong girls that we would know later on. 

Thank you Madeline L'Engle

And the last strong girl (woman actually) who was part of my childhood is Lissa from Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern.  Again, Lissa is a character born of the 1960's whose stubborn strength and lack of faith in anyone else but herself to get things done is significant.  By the time Lissa came into my life I was already pretty well set in the personality department but she was a reassuring character for me.  Here she was tiny and fragil and fierce.  Everyone with any sense feared her, as they well should have.  So Lissa's on this list for that reason.  Her fierce spirit encouraged me to stand up when the time was right.

Thank you Anne McCaffrey.

Sure, none of these girls (and women) are strictly what one would define as a feminist character but I do think that their influences ran deep enough and strong enough to teach me all that is good about being a woman and, at it's core, I think that's what feminism should be.  Faith in the strength of women to do their own work and know their own minds and their own selves. 

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