My father, a good ’70s feminist type, was always very conscious about providing me with examples of fierce women protagonists. He wanted me to see role models who were strong and courageous. He took me to see Sigourney Weaver in Alien (Of course I was traumatized; I was eight.) He gave me a copy of Robert A Heinlein’s Friday. He made sure I knew that girls can change the world, and that I should plan on it myself. I was a bookworm, not an activist, so I ended up bonding with some brave literary characters in my reading life. Here are a few of my favorites in chronological order:
Rosalind: As You Like It, Shakespeare
Elizabeth I was on the throne, and Shakespeare wanted to impress her — who didn’t? — so he wrote one independent female character after another. One of the most audacious is Rosalind, a young woman banished from court after the exile of her father. She flees with two others to the Forest of Arden and disguises herself as a man to provide protection for them. While fending off country strangers, she meets the man of her dreams and manages to train and cajole him into wooing her as if she were a woman. The end? Wedding bells.
Hester Prynne: The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne (Ticknor, Reed & Fields)
Hester’s story is familiar to every English student across the country. (Unless, of course, it was banned in your school. For shame.) She births a daughter from an adulterous relationship but refuses to name the father, even after being branded with the scarlet letter “A” for adultery and forced to stand exposed on a scaffold. It takes some cojones to fight public humiliation with quiet dignity.
Pippi Longstocking: Pippi Longstocking, Astrid Lindgren (Raben and Sjogren)
It’s a tween’s dream: Mom and Dad are gone, and you live alone in a big house with a horse and a monkey named Mr Nilsson. Plus a suitcase full of gold coins. Plus your best friends, Tommy and Annika, live next door. Plus no school. In real life, this would be a ticket to poverty, abuse and a visit from Children’s Protective Services; in this Swedish series, it’s kickass.
Scout: To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee (J.B. Lippincott & Co)
My daughter turned six this month, and if she has half the integrity, empathy and daring that Scout has, I’ll consider my work done. This little girl is willing to fistfight to defend her father’s honor, she helps disperse a crowd of would-be lynchers and she stands up to her own fear of Boo Radley, the neighborhood boogeyman. She can see what the grown-ups can’t in her small, Depression-era, Alabama town.
Sofia: The Color Purple by Alice Walker (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich)
Celie, the protagonist and narrator of The Color Purple, is an incredible example of strength and endurance, but for pure chutzpah, Sofia is the game. She expects her husband, Harpo, to help with the chores. When he punishes her, she beats him right back. (Sometimes it’s good to be a big girl). Her defining moment comes when the mayor’s wife asks her to work as a maid. Sophia replies, “Hell no!” She gets slapped for being uppity, then knocks the mayor to the ground. 1930s rural Georgia is not a fair place; Sofia leveled the playing ground as much as she could.
Beatrice Prior: Divergent by Veronica Roth (Katherine Tegen Books/HarperCollins)
The Divergent trilogy is a completely thrilling story of dystopian Chicago and the five factions who comprise a new society. Beatrice chooses to leave the safety and modesty of her family and faction and to live amongst the Dauntless, a community of people who are literally fearless. There she becomes “Tris” and learns about the unusual abilities of her mind. She also trains, Matrix-style, to save humanity.