In Praise of Quiet Empowerment (or, Why Female Protagonists Don't HAVE To Be Rebels)

When I was 7 years old or so, I remember getting into a snarling battle with my 10-year-old brother over who was smarter, girls or boys.

"Marie Curie!" I shouted.

"Ha, she was just one scientist. I can name a hundred male scientists."

"Louisa May Alcott!"

"Her books are dumb. Besides: Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien..."

These aren't exact quotes. I can't remember any precise wording of the entire argument, only that I fled from it crying (my brother said I proved his point) and knocked desperately on my parents' bedroom door.

"Dad," I sobbed, "Nick says boys are smarter than girls."

My dad snorted and shrugged. "Well," he said, "if he really thinks that, he just proved you're right."

Another time, I asked my dad if I could be president when I grew up. "Sure, if that's what God wants," he answered, after some consideration. "But it isn't a job I'd wish on any of my children."

He didn't mention the fact that a woman had never been president or go into what the world might think about a girl having such aspirations. He didn't bring up the fight I'd have to put up if I did think God called me to that.

When I was older, my parents expected every bit as much academic excellence from me and my sisters as from my brother. They assumed we would go to college or otherwise pursue our academic and artistic goals.

With the exception of one professor in college, I never encountered a teacher who implied I was any less because I was a girl (thank you, homeschooling).

In other words, I had a weird, weird childhood. Not many girls were or are as lucky as I was.

What made me even luckier was that, as a reader, my favorite book characters had the same kind of gentle support I did. Now, this is kind of weird when you think about it. How was it that Matthew and Marilla, paragons of 19th century virtue, never mention to Anne Shirley that she can't hope to compete academically with Gilbert Blythe? Why don't they mention how crazy and unusual it would be for a woman to pursue a career as a writer? Or take Betsy Ray, from turn-of-the-century America. No one ever tells her she can't write, can't compete, can't travel the world. Her parents are always supportive of her dreams; again, it's never implied that there's anything strange about her having them. Meg Murry is raised by her scientist mother and father to believe she's not only capable of greatness, but responsible to try for it.

When it comes to empowering literature for my daughters, these are the titles I jump to. It's not that I have a problem with stories of girls overcoming obvious prejudice and societal norms--there are some wonderful, beautiful books that fit into that category. What's more, they reflect a truth about the world that would be dangerous to ignore. Yet I think the balance is absolutely necessary. If girls are constantly presented with the idea that girls have to fight to succeed, they might begin to wonder if they'll be able to fight as hard. I think girls--and boys--need to also see life as it should be and can be, so they can take that to heart and let it form the world they're in the process of making.

What do you think? For you ladies, what books inspired the way you live your life now? Can you think of current titles that will quietly empower young women?

Note: Just in case you didn't recognize them, the books I referenced earlier were Anne of Green Gables (series), Betsy-Tacy (series), and A Wrinkle in Time (also a series, but I liked the first book best). And for the record, The Penderwicks is a great example of a contemporary book that fits right in with those classics.


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  2. I, too, had a weird and wonderful childhood like yours. (Actually, the first time I *really* felt silenced or threatened because of my gender was in academia, in the name of woman's rights ... but that's another story.)

    I can't name many current titles that do this off the top of my head, but I'm definitely going to start thinking about it.

  3. Well said! I also had supportive parents who never told me I couldn’t do things a boy could. I loved wearing dresses and also loved climbing trees, and was never told I was acting unlady-like. I grew up in a Christian home also, and the most important thing was to do things that honored God. I learned to play guitar because of my dad, and I was the first college graduate in the family.

    Little Women showed me some of the truths you mentioned. Four girls with their mother, while father was at war. Jo did things that were less “ladylike” for the time, but her mother loved her. Lucy was the central character of The Chronicles of Narnia, and I never had a thought about her being a girl doing those things. It just seemed normal to me.

    Maybe Finding Serendipity (Tuesday McGillycuddy series) would be a good fit for this? The story is that the main character’s mom is a famous author who writes under a pseudonym and wears a disguise to protect their private life. She has to find her mom when she goes missing in a fantasy book-writing land, and becomes a writer herself.


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