Some thoughts on the feminist movement and fictional women

So, those of you who just read my post on Betsy’s Wedding know that I have some strong views on the feminist movement.  I cannot appreciate a movement that tells me that my life of home-making, child-rearing, and gardening, is a complete waste, and that I am a dreadful women, perpetuating the enslavement of womanhood by my desire to let my husband be the  head of our household.

I’ve already discussed how the whole “Betsy/Lovelace were feminists” line is gibberish, as Betsy joyfully devotes her life, in the entire last book, to learning to be a good wife and a strong woman.  Here, I would like to take a moment to basically rant about how the writer of that foreword tries to use examples of two of my other favorite heroines to “contrast” with Betsy’s supposedly truly strong feminist spirit.

The foreword for Betsy’s Wedding (the new edition, not Lovelace’s original) was written by Anna Quindlen, a woman who very accurately portrays everything I hate about the feminist movement.  Her foreword insulted me as a woman and as a person, and, more importantly, it attacked two of my favorite heroines of all time.  She manages to belittle womanhood, woman authors, and realistic female heroines in a couple of paragraphs:

But attitude, truth to tell, is a surface, two-dimensional characteristic, attractive as it may be.  The stories of Betsy, Tacy, and Tib transcend attitude just as the simplistic drawings of the early books give way to the more realistic (albeit, to my mind, slightly oversweet) pictures.  They are ultimately books about character, and especially about the character of one girl whose greatest sin, throughout the books, is to undervalue herself.

Alright, so far, so good.  I’m not sure that I agree that Betsy’s greatest sin is “undervaluing herself” as much as simply learning to grow into herself, and I also don’t appreciate the slam on Vera Neville’s lovely illustrations (overly sweet because they portray what’s actually happening in the story…???)  But wait, there’s more!

For those are the mistakes Betsy finds she cannot forgive, when she sells herself short, when she is not all she can be.  As opposed to the shy, retiring, and respectful girl who became so valued in girl’s fiction, Betsy does best when she serves herself, when she is true to herself.  In this she most resembles two other fictional heroines who, not surprisingly, also long to be writers and take their work very seriously indeed.  One is Anne Shirley of the Anne of Green Gables books, and the other is Jo March of Little Women.

Wait just a second–first off, if a girl is “shy, retiring, and respectful” does that automatically mean that she is not “true to herself”?  Is “serving yourself” and “being true to yourself” actually the same thing?  I would venture to say that many girls are actually untrue to themselves when they are forced to be aggressive and demanding, not when they are allowed to be shy and retiring.  I would also venture to say that I don’t believe that being “respectful” could ever really be considered a negative character trait.  And finally, Betsy actually suffers most when she serves herself–by worrying about how she looks and putting her own needs about those around her.  When Betsy is “true to herself” she lets her hair be straight and reaches out, unafraid, to help and serve those around her.

Also, allow me to mention that I actually collect and read books from the 1850’s onward.  Many of those stories are about and written for girls.  They don’t necessarily encourage them to be shy and retiring, but they do encourage all young people, girls and boys both, to be respectful, industrious, honest, and selfless.  Sometimes, being a decent person means that you don’t insist that your own personal agenda in the most important thing in the world, although much of Quindlen’s writing elsewhere seems to say just that (as though being an actual mature adult who doesn’t insist on always getting her way makes me, not mature, but a weak and pathetic doormat).  But I digress.  Quindlen has yet more insight to share.  Did you think that she was actually going to say something nice about Anne and Jo?

But the key difference, I think, is a critical one.  Both Anne and Jo are implicitly made to pay in those books for the fact that they do not conform to feminine norms.  Anne begins life as an orphan and never is permitted to forget that she must work for a living …  Jo March of Little Women habitually reminds herself how unattractive she is and settles down, in one of the most unconvincing matches in fiction, with the older, most unromantic Professor Bhaer.  It is her beautiful sister Amy who gets the real guy, the rich and romantic Laurie.


There are so many errors in this paragraph that I hardly know where to begin.

While Anne never forgets her background and hard beginning to life, all seven of those books are devoted to the way that she is able to overcome (quite independently, I might add) those obstacles.  While Anne matures (for instance, she does learn to control her red-haired temper… usually), she still is always Anne.  Matthew and Marilla scrape and save and do everything they can to help her go to college, to get an education, and to pursue the life for which she yearns.  Everyone works for a living in the Anne books–it’s not as though she’s surrounded by lazy rich people with loads of servants or something.  Actually, she’s one of the few of her peers who actually goes to college rather than going straight to work.  Anne is actually a wonderful example of a strong woman who is intelligent, industrious, and yet still very glad to be a woman and to be womanly.

Anne, like both Betsy and Jo, does have to learn to write about things she actually knows and understands.  Anne is consistently encouraged in all of her aspirations, and the only person who ever looks down on for being a “penniless orphan” is the obvious enemy, the obnoxious Josie Pye.  And even if what Quindlen says is true “she never permitted to forget that she must work for a living”–how in the world does that mean that she’s paying for “not conforming to feminine norms”!?!?!?

As for Jo…!!!!!!  First off, Professor Bhaer is unromantic!??!  His first evening visiting her family, he invites her to sing with him, in one of my favorite lines of the book–

“You will sing with me?  We go excellently well together.”

A pleasing fiction, by the way; for Jo had no more idea of music than a grasshopper.

But true love overcomes these shortfalls; the Professor believes that Jo has a lovely voice.

Or how about this paragraph?

[Jo] wondered what the business was that had brought Mr. Bhaer to the city …  if she had seen his face when, safe in his own room, he looked at the picture of a severe and rigid young lady, with a good deal of hair, who appeared to be gazing darkly into futurity, it might have thrown some light upon the subject, especially when he turned off the gas, and kissed the picture in the dark.

Really now, having your lover kiss your picture when you’re not around is pretty romantic.

But if you’re still not convinced, Jo keeps “happening” to run into Professor Bhaer when she walks to her sister’s (little realizing that the man is haunting the footpaths for a glimpse of her), he calls her “heart’s dearest,” which is one of the most beautiful terms of endearment I’ve ever heard, and proposes to her by telling her that he “nothing but much love to give her.”  He consistently speaks to her using “thee” and “thou” because it’s a sign of intimacy and love in his translation to English.  Their whole relationship and romance is beautiful, and anyone who thinks that Jo is the loser because Amy ends up with Laurie (who are perfect for each other in every way) and she ends up with the Professor–well, they are simply fools.

And I do call it a bit much for a feminist to have the nerve to tell me that Jo was a poor example of a woman because she didn’t end up with the “real guy, the rich and romantic Laurie.”  I’m sorry, I would think that that a feminist would appreciate the fact that a woman doesn’t have to end up with a young, rich, good-looking guy in order to be a true a woman.

As for Jo’s writing, that, too is encouraged, when she is being true to herself.  What is not encouraged, is when she sells herself cheap, writing “sensational” stories just to make a buck, instead of writing something worth being written and being read.

In conclusion, Quindlen is wrong on every count.  Instead of being willing to admit that, sometimes, feminine heroines are actually feminine, instead of feminists, she insists that any woman who learns to bend, who puts the needs of other’s before her own, or who enjoys (or yearns to be) a housewife, is a betrayal to all of womanhood.  It’s an attitude that I don’t appreciate, like, or agree with.  I would much rather spend the afternoon visiting with Anne, Jo, or Betsy (or Montgomery, Alocott, or Lovelace, for that matter) than even a brief blip of time in the presence of someone who tells me that in order to truly “be myself” I must be exactly the woman she thinks I should be.

Betsy’s Wedding


by Maud Hart Lovelace

Published 1955

And here we have it–the long-awaited grand finale to the Betsy-Tacy books!  And while I was mildly disappointed in Betsy and the Great WorldBetsy’s Wedding fulfilled all of my desires for happy endings and brought everything together wonderfully.

This book would probably be more appropriately titled Betsy’s Marriage, as the wedding takes place within the first couple of chapters.  The only slightly unbelievable part of the entire story is that Betsy and Joe have been estranged for three years, and yet decide to get married within two weeks of being reunited.  But still, more power to them!  They settle down in Minneapolis, near Betsy’s family, and begin their life together, and it’s adorable and sweet and profound, just like the rest of the books.

I touched on my review of Betsy was a Junior/Betsy and Joe on how incredibly annoying it has been to read the forewords of these beautiful editions of these books, as the forewords are invariably written by a rabid feminist who insists that Lovelace was a rabid feminist as well (apparently because she wrote about girls who were happy and not very good at cooking), so hopefully you will excuse me while I address a few of the issues raised on this topic.

First off, the foreword of this book insists that Betsy is a wonderful example of a feminist because she always wanted to be a writer, not a housewife.  And yet the entirety of Betsy’s Wedding is about Betsy being a housewife, and loving every moment of it.  In fact, Betsy actually bemoans, on multiple occasions, the fact that she didn’t devote more time growing up to learning housewifely skills.  At one point, Joe has been working for a lady named Mrs. Hawthorne, but has now been promoted to working for a major newspaper, owned by Mrs. Hawthorne’s husband.

After dinner, when Joe’s transfer to the Courier was being discussed, Mrs. Hawthorne turned to Betsy.

“It will be hard for me to fill Joe’s place,” she said.  “Would you like to try?  I know you write.  You might enjoy working in a publicity office.”

Betsy was very pleased but her answer came promptly.  “Oh, Mrs. Hawthorne, I know I’d love it!  Joe has told me how delightful your office is.  But, Mrs. Hawthorn, I already have a job.”

“You have?”  She sounded surprised.

“Yes.  And it’s important, and very hard.  It’s learning how to keep house.”

Ah yes, she definitely sounds like a career woman, doesn’t she?

Later in the book, Betsy and Joe have their first real trouble when Joe’s aunt (who raised Joe) wants to come and live with them.  Betsy is sad to see their happy honeymoon time broken up, and although she’s agreed, she knows that her heart is still in rebellion.  And so, she goes to church to pray.

Betsy dug her head into her arms.  “Help me, God!  Please help me!” she prayed.

This was the first real problem of their marriage.  Up to now, everything had been perfect.  Her struggles with cooking, Joe’s low moods hadn’t mattered, really.  This was different.  This was a real disagreement.

Joe had decided it.  “But I wanted him to.  one person in a family has to have the final word.  I want it to be Joe, always.”

Betsy’s prayers help her to realize that by asking Joe to tell his aunt no, she is actually asking Joe to be less than himself–to do something that his conscience tells him would be wrong.  But the point is, Betsy makes an important decision at this moment.  It’s more than agreeing that Joe’s aunt can come stay.  It’s acknowledging that she wants Joe to be the leader in their home.  Betsy will always tell her thoughts and opinions and share her insight, and Joe will always listen, but she has decided that when it comes down to it, she wants Joe to have the final say, because she knows that a harmonious home exists when each person fills the role they were meant to play.

All this to say–I think that Betsy is a beautiful example of true femininity.  She is intelligent, she has dreams, she is true to herself, she is independent, but she also embraces her role as a housewife, prioritizes her husband and household’s needs above her own, and in general tries to mature into a true woman–changing and shaping her character because that’s what maturity does: it changes us from selfish, self-absorbed, self-adulating children, into outward-focused, selfless adults.

The feminist of the foreword (Anne Quindlen, if you’re interested) insists that Betsy (and, consequently, Lovelace) was a feminist because she had dreams and aspirations.  But I believe that that simply makes her a person.  It is Betsy’s goodness and yearning to do what’s right that helps her to grow into a woman.  Betsy becomes content and happy with her life when she is filling the role of a help meet–for Joe, for her parents, for her friends–because Betsy has learned that dreams are good and beautiful, but that no shame is to be found in simple loving service.

(Also, note that I started to really rant about Quindlen’s foreword specifically, but it didn’t really fit this post.  So it will be appearing as its own post very shortly.  Feel free to ignore it if you like, but you will not believe what that woman had to say about Anne Shirley and Jo March!)


Right Ho, Jeeves



by P.G. Wodehouse

Published 1934

So, in Thank You, Jeeves, which I recently read but somehow forgot to review, Wodehouse lifts Bertie and Jeeves from their short-story status and places them in their first full-length novel.  Personally, I prefer Wodehouse’s novels to his short stories, especially when Jeeves is involved.  In both of these  books, the story-line is so much richer due to the length of the story.  There is much more time for plot lines to scramble off on bunny trails and to run into old friends.

Still, the short stories are almost essential to really getting the full enjoyment from the novels, as we have met the majority of the characters elsewhere, thus making their reappearance (and actions) that much more entertaining.

Wodehouse is virtually always a win.  He is witty and brilliantly descriptive.  This was one of my favorite quotes from Thank You, Jeeves–

Outwardly [my new valet] was all respectfulness, but inwardly you could see that he was a man who was musing on the coming Social Revolution and looked on Bertram as a tyrant and an oppressor.

“Yes, Brinkley, I shall dine out,” I said.

He said nothing, merely looking at me as if he were measuring me for my lamppost.

And now you can see Brinkley’s precise glare.  Wodehouse could have brushed off this moment with a mere, “Brinkley said nothing,” or the slightly more descriptive, “Brinkley said nothing; he merely glared.”  But instead, he takes the time–and the words–to give us the exact way in which Brinkley glares, and thus brings a secondary character to life, and providing me with even more fodder to prove my claim that Wodehouse is one of the best writers of all-time.

The Forgotten War



by Stan Cohen


So, who can tell me about what was going on in Alaska during World War II?  Anyone?  Anyone at all?  And so, The Forgotten War turns out to be an appropriate title after all.  had never read anything about what was going on in the northwest part of our continent in the 1940’s.  And yet, at the time, the government was quite concerned that Japan would invade North America by jumping off from the Aleutian Islands–they really aren’t that far away from Japan.  Because history took the war to the Southern Pacific instead, we tend to forget the brief but intense focus of Alaska just after Pearl Harbor.

This book was, in fact, a pictorial history, so while the text was informative and interesting, the majority of the book was full of black-and-white photos of the region.  All in all, an interesting book, and a not-difficult read, about a piece of World War II history that is often neglected.

An Excellent Mystery


by Ellis Peters

Published 1985

This is actually one of my favorite Cadfael books, and I’m not sure that I can exactly describe why.  I won’t try to describe the entire story, but towards the beginning of the book, a monk, Brother Humilis, comes to stay at the Abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul.  While not an old man, he fought in the Crusades and was terribly injured there.  And though he was somewhat recovered, he is still dying, slowly.  Traveling with him is another brother, Brother Fidelis.  Though mute, Fidelis shows his devotion to Humilis through his constant, tender service.

There is just something so very beautiful about this friendship, about the care that Fidelis gives, and the gracious and humble way in which Humilis receives it.  This man who was once a great and famous soldier, now reduced to a shadow of his former self, who laid aside even his name (for Humilis was not his name in the world) and accepted the burdens he was given–this man is a profound example of one who is willing to receive, even with thankfulness and praise, God’s will.  And Fidelis–simple, quiet, constant service, the every-day laying aside of himself to give to one he loves.

The other stories that are woven throughout this book are thoughtful as well, exploring love and loss and lust and courage and sacrifice and forgiveness.  I have a bit more to say about this, but cannot do so without spoilers, so the rest will be below the line.  :-)

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