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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.

EXCUSE ME!?

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.

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2 thoughts on “Some thoughts on the feminist movement and fictional women

  1. Fabulous rant! Any feminist who tells women what they should be or how they should live is doing exactly what they complain about men supposedly doing! And I so agree about Professor Bhaer – a lovely, equal partnership built on mutual love and respect. She must also have forgotten that Amy only got the rich & gorgeous but, let’s be honest, somewhat weak and insipid Laurie after Jo had turned him down!

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    • Gah! That’s an excellent point; I didn’t even think about that. It just drives me crazy when everyone acts as though Amy stole Laurie away, when, in fact, Jo *chose* not to marry him. Actually, in the feminist world, Jo choice to remain independent instead of taking the easy route of a comfortable marriage, ought to be an example that they extol. That entire foreword was lacking in logic… I get frustrated because I feel as though new editions of some classic books, like the Betsy books, are purposefully given modern forewords, not just for the ‘umph’ of a famous person saying, “Yay! This book is awesome!” but also to set a new generation of readers up with a pre-generated idea of what ideology they should be bring away from the reading… e.g., “The foreword says that Betsy is obsessed with feminist ideals; I will read this book and see feminist ideals” rather than simply reading and interpreting on their own first. Anyway. I could rant about it all day. :-D Thanks for reading!! (I actually read your stuff all the time and really enjoy it, but since I read it on my phone, I usually forget to ‘like’ it!! I’m a bad subscriber!!)

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