I know, I know. Where have I been? Life’s been pretty crazy, as I’ve finished my internship, moved back home and am leaving for France in TWO DAYS. But this is a topic I’ve been wanting to blog about for a long time, and I didn’t want to leave the country without sharing it with you.
This summer, I was on a “Pride and Prejudice” binge. I finally watched the critically acclaimed BBC adaptation, listened to the audiobook on repeat, and stayed up until 3 a.m. to finish reading “The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet” (based on the AWESOME web series.)
Then, all of a sudden, I got sick of it.
Yeah, I know, you’d think I would after the second go-through of a 10-hour audiobook. But it wasn’t the story or the characters or the writing that turned me off. It was Elizabeth Bennet: the strong, intelligent, and active female protagonist that all other strong, intelligent, and active female protagonists are measured against. She’s a fantastic character, but in the end, we all just want to see her and Darcy finally get together. I started wondering how Elizabeth might be different if Darcy wasn’t in the picture.
Then I thought of all of my other favorite strong, intelligent, and active female protagonists. No matter how independent they are, most of their journeys are ultimately defined by their romantic relationships. Emma Woodhouse. Hazel Grace Lancaster. Jane Eyre (my personal favorite). Even Katniss Everdeen, arguably one of the most kick-butt female protagonists of our time, is overshadowed by Peeta vs. Gale arguments. Why couldn’t any of these awesome ladies stand on their own? I thought about my favorite books from childhood: many of them had female protagonists, and almost none of them had a consistent love interest! You might think, “That’s cheating! They’re kids! They’re too young to be thinking about romance!” Precisely.
Remember that point in your life when it didn’t matter who liked whom, when you could just focus on being yourself? Guess what? You can and should still focus on you and your relationships with God, family, friends and the greater world.
In no particular order, here are my top 10 female protagonists who don’t need no man:
1. Sara Crewe from “A Little Princess” (Frances Hodgson Burnett)
Lesson: You have the dignity and worth of royalty, regardless of your past or your present situation.
The whole ‘princess’ image has gotten a lot of flack in the past few decades. But Burnett nailed the idea of a feminist princess way before Disney could mess it up. Sure, Sara Crewe is rich, pampered, and elegant at the beginning of the story, and when her clothes and possessions aren’t enough to win affection, she has her intelligence, kindness and knack for storytelling to speak for her. She’s likable enough. But what makes this novel so fascinating and well-loved is Sara’s inner transformation after her father’s death leaves her penniless. When her outward beauty and wealth is gone, Sara develops her inner wealth — the grace, compassion, and composure found in real royal figures like the Duchess of Cambridge. These qualities become her more than any pink silk dress ever could.
“‘Whatever comes,’ she said, ‘cannot alter one thing. If I am a princess in rags and tatters, I can be a princess inside. It would be easy to be a princess if I were dressed in cloth of gold, but it is a great deal more of a triumph to be one all the time when no one knows it.'”
2. Mary Lennox from “The Secret Garden” (Frances Hodgson Burnett)
Lesson: Friendship is healing, even if your friends are boys!
Mary Lennox is the antithesis of Sara Crewe at the beginning of her story. She is selfish, bitter, and angry, and shuns all affection. But as Mary spends more time reviving her late aunt’s garden, her cold, broken heart begins to heal. Her friendships with Dickon, a boy who lives on the moor, and Colin, her invalid cousin, are also instrumental in her healing process. There is never anything romantic about her relationships with them; she loves them as people. And their friendship — especially between Mary and Colin — is symbiotic. They help each other to heal and grow and change as they watch how Mistress Mary, Quite Contrary’s garden grows.
“And they both began to laugh over nothing as children will when they are happy together. And they laughed so that in the end they were making as much noise as if they had been two ordinary healthy natural ten-year-old creatures — instead of a hard, little, unloving girl and a sickly boy who believed that he was going to die.”
3. Matilda Wormwood from “Matilda” (Roald Dahl)
Lesson: Never settle. If something isn’t right, stand up for yourself and get out.
Brilliant, sensitive, and the best partner-in-crime on April Fool’s Day, Matilda deserved better than the horrible family she grew up in. Then again, no child deserves parents as awful as the Wormwoods, but we felt that our beloved Matilda especially didn’t deserve them. And we rejoiced when she finally realized that she deserved the best, stood up to her parents and Miss Trunchbull, and found a loving mother in Miss Honey. Like Matilda, if we don’t have the courage to get out of disastrous or “just OK” relationships, we may miss out on what we’ve been looking for all along.
“All the reading she had done had given her a view of life that they had never seen. If only they would read a little Dickens or Kipling they would soon discover there was more to life than cheating people and watching television.”
4. Anne Shirley from “Anne of Green Gables” (Lucy Maud Montgomery)
Lesson: Life doesn’t begin when you get married. It’s happening right now, so drink it all in and savor it.
OK, I’m kind of cheating on this one because *spoiler alert* Anne marries Gilbert Blythe later in the series. However, we fall in love with Anne and follow her story because of her imagination, her zest for life, her intelligence, and her penchant for getting into trouble — not because we’re waiting around worrying about her love life. Anne doesn’t think about romantic love at all for most of the series. In fact, if you look at the first book on its own, you’ll see that her and Gilbert’s story arc is more about forgiveness than flirtation. Anne is a happy, whole, peaceful, and distinctive person throughout the series. While her childhood schoolmates are worrying about love and marriage, Anne becomes the first girl from Avonlea to get her B.A. If she had stayed single throughout the books, that would have been fine with us. As it is, Gilbert does not define her nor complete her; he complements her.
“Dear old world’, she murmured, ‘you are very lovely, and I am glad to be alive in you.”
5. Molly from “Molly’s Pilgrim” (Barbara Cohen)
Lesson: Never underestimate the power of your testimony.
Molly is a Russian Jewish immigrant, and she faces ridicule and prejudice at her new American school. She often tries to hide her heritage in order to fit in. But in the end, with the help of her teacher, Miss Stickley, she owns her identity and takes pride in it. Even if you don’t have a Miss Stickley, God sees your worth and dignity and wants to use your testimony for the glory of His Kingdom and to draw others closer to Him.
“It takes all kinds of pilgrims to make a Thanksgiving.”
6. Annemarie Johansen from “Number the Stars” (Lois Lowry)
Lesson: The world is a scary place, but you CAN learn how to navigate and thrive in it.
Imagine being 10 years old and having your best friend’s life in your hands. And not just her life, but her family’s, your family’s, your own life, and those of several strangers! Annemarie is a Lutheran girl from Denmark who becomes involved in a plan to help her Jewish best friend, Ellen, escape the Nazis. Annemarie never says she isn’t afraid; in fact, she readily admits that she’s scared to death. But she does what she has to do to save Ellen and her family. Like Eleanor Roosevelt said, “A woman is like a tea bag; you can’t tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water.”
“I think you are like your mama, and like your papa, and like me. Frightened, but determined, and if the time came to be brave, I am quite sure you would be very, very brave.”
7. Margaret “Meg” Murry from “A Wrinkle in Time” (Madeleine L’Engle)
Lesson: You have to be independent, but you are never alone.
Though Meg is intelligent, she constantly looks to others in times of trouble: her brother Charles Wallace; her long-absent father; her intergalactic friends; and even popular athlete Calvin. Meg thinks that she’s too stupid, too ugly, and too ill-tempered to solve her own problems. Though it’s easy to roll your eyes at her, how many of us have felt worthless or doubted our own abilities? When Meg learns that she is the only one who can save Charles Wallace from the powers of IT, she’s terrified. But with the love of her family and friends behind her, Meg summons her strength and finds her self-worth. Yes, I know Calvin kisses her and it’s cute, but THAT’S NOT THE POINT OF THE STORY. Meg’s internal conflict isn’t resolved when she and Calvin get together (They never really do; it’s just inferred that they like each other.) Her story arc only comes to a close when she accepts the very adult responsibility of her brother’s life and her own, and emerges victorious. WOOHOO!
“‘Father saved me then. There’s nobody here to save me now. I have to do it myself. I have to resist IT by myself.'”
8. Luna Lovegood from the “Harry Potter” series (J.K. Rowling)
Lesson: Embrace your uniqueness, and you will attract the right kind of people for you.
I know what you’re thinking — no Hermione? Let me put it this way: The Potter fandom wasn’t in an uproar because Rowling second-guessed Luna’s love life. I’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who didn’t respect Luna. Yeah, she was weird, but she was a talented, intuitive, and compassionate ally in the fight against Voldemort. She never changed for anyone, and everyone grew to love her for it.
“‘People expect you to have cooler friends than us,’ said Luna, once again displaying her knack for embarrassing honesty. ‘You are cool,’ said Harry shortly. ‘None of them was at the Ministry. They didn’t fight with me.” – “Half-Blood Prince”
9. Jean Louise “Scout” Finch from “To Kill a Mockingbird” (Harper Lee)
Lesson: Spend time with people who are different than you. Don’t try to change them, but learn from them.
This book is just chock full of life lessons, but many of them point to the themes of empathy and of judging people based on what they are, rather than what you hear about them. At the beginning of the novel, Scout Finch, like many children, accepts any opinion that comes her way: the Cunninghams are stubbornly poor, Mrs. Dubose is a grouchy old witch, Aunt Alexandra is a nosy busybody, and Boo Radley has no good reason to stay in his house forever. But through her interactions with these and many other characters in Maycomb, she begins to understand that each person is complex, with flaws and virtues alike. Her final interaction with Boo is so moving because she has learned to love — not the same love she feels for Atticus and Jem, but an active choice to love another human being.
“’I think there’s just one kind of folks, Jem. Folks.’”
10. Margaret Ann Simon from “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” (Judy Blume)
Lesson: Find your well of living water — where you are nourished spiritually.
Margaret is the 12-year-old daughter of a Jewish father and a Christian mother. Religious identity is a prominent theme in the novel, as Margaret faces pressure from her grandparents, friends and classmates to pick a side. In John’s gospel, in the story of the woman at the well, Jesus talks about the “living water” which becomes “a spring of water welling up to eternal life” in those who believe (John 4: 10-14). Without realizing it, Margaret develops a profound prayer life that sustains and feeds her spirit. The best part of it is that she doesn’t choose a religion at the end of the story; she realizes that her walk of faith, like ours, is a lifelong journey. So, in your singlehood, find your “well of living water,” whether it’s daily Mass, bible study, the Rosary, long solitary walks, or being in community with other people of faith. And don’t be afraid to try other forms of prayer and worship.
“Are you there, God? It’s me, Margaret. I want you to know I’m giving a lot of thought to Christmas and Hanukkah this year. I’m trying to decide if one might be special for me. I’m really thinking hard, God. But so far, I haven’t come up with any answers.”
FRANCE IN TWO DAYS! Stay tuned for more adventures in the coming months.
Question of the Week: Who would you add to this list and why? Please tell me in the comments! I’ll have to add them to my reading list.