I’ve always been a bookworm and thanks to a childhood spent in Africa where we didn’t have much TV, I probably spent more time than the average kid with my nose in a book. And it was in the pages of these stories that I encountered some incredibly inspiring characters with attitudes and attributes that definitely turned me into a mini-feminist, before I'd ever heard of the word.
Even now when I’m dealing with a rude person or a particularly frustrating problem, I sometimes find myself thinking: “What would Ramona do?” Here’s a whistle-stop tour of some of the literary heroines who influenced my life – and I would love to hear about yours!
Messy, impulsive and outspoken, but also brave, intelligent and funny, Ramona was always a well-rounded character and it’s to author Beverly Cleary’s credit that her books about the adventurous little girl still mean as much to children today as when they were first published in the ‘60s.
Ramona has a love/hate relationship with her big sister Beezus and her neighbour Howie, but she matures through the books and even though she can be really quite annoying, despite that – or because of that – she always feels real. And she won’t let anyone push her around – a good lesson for little girls to absorb, I feel.
Anne of Green Gables
Remember the bit when Anne (always with an E, never plain old ‘Ann’) smashes her slate over the head of Gilbert Blythe when he dares to teasingly call her ‘carrots’? Whatta dame! Anne is as clever as Gilbert, who’s been used to being the top of the class, and he’s intrigued by this girl who’s both dreamy and fiercely intelligent.
She loves escaping into romantic novels and fantasising about clothes – she begs her adoptive mother Marilla to make her a dress with puffed sleeves and dyes her hair black (it turns out green) – but she also understands the power and freedom that can come with a proper education and career. Anne had a hard start to her life and through the LM Montgomery’s books she has to deal with her fair share of loss and tragedy, but her imagination, good humour and common sense always carry her through.
And so from one freckle-faced redhead to another – the legendary Pippi Longstocking. There was always something ever so slightly unnerving about ol’ Pippi – who was this supremely self-assured kid, who lives alone in a house with her monkey and horse, has superhuman strength that allows her to lift the horse with one hand (like a proto-Buffy) and makes a point of pricking the pomposity of adults? That aura of mystery made Pippi part real-life little girl, part fairy to me when I was young.
Having grown up on her buccaneer father’s ship, Pippi hasn’t had much of a conventional education but she probably has more life skills than I do now. She’s fearless, cares little for society’s stuffy conventions, has a wild, adventurous spirit and a tendency to telling tall tales, but she’s also generous and kind, sticking up for victims of bullies. I can’t think of a better role model.
Rebecca In New Blue Shoes
OK, maybe this one seems to fit more into the spoilt brat Carrie Bradshaw “I want I want” category, but I prefer to see the little girl who demands BLUE (not brown) shoes as an independent, strong minded young woman who knows her own mind and won’t be swayed by pressurising sales techniques. Well that’s my story and I’m sticking to it anyway.
Rose Campbell in Eight Cousins
I think Rose, the heroine of Louisa May Alcott’s 1875 novel Eight Cousins is probably the most interesting of the lot, because the narrative contains many of Alcott’s own feminist principles. Rose is an orphaned heiress who is sent to live with her uncle and seven boy cousins in their home in Boston. Because she is a sweet-natured child without the independent spirit of my other heroines, her evolution is even more interesting.
As the story unfolds, she makes typical teenage mistakes (getting a friend to pierce her ears with a needle – aiee!) but also is shown by her progressive uncle and his unorthodox approach to childrearing that she has as much right to an independent life as her cousins. She throws off her corsets, is taught physiology so she can understand her own body and shown how to be responsible for her fortune – unusual in a time where women didn’t have much control over their money.
These characters taught me not to be afraid to use my brain and my voice, to have opinions and principles, to stand up to bullies. Their adventures proved that girls are just as good (if not better!) than boys and that while the unconventional path may not be the easiest one to take, but it’ll always be more interesting than playing it safe. Ultimately, the miniature feminist icons of my childhood reading show that being different is something to be celebrated, not ashamed of.