One of the first books I fell in love with has a female protagonist (of sorts). Miss Suzy written by Miriam Young and beautifully illustrated by Arnold Lobel tells the story of Suzy a little gray squirrel who lives alone in the top of a perfect oak tree. She makes things for her home from items she finds and she sings as she works. Suzy’s happy life is interrupted when a band of red squirrels invade her home. Suzy takes refuge in a beautiful doll house inhabited by a friendly band of toy soldiers. She cares for them and settles into her fancy new home, but she misses her oak tree. Spoiler alert - the toy soldiers kick the naughty red squirrels out of her house, so Miss Suzy can return home. Suzy is the squirrel equivalent of Snow White minus the prince and the poison apple. I loved Miss Suzy for her gentle caring spirit and it never occurred to me that she should have fought her own battle. Inspiring others to be brave can be as important as being the hero.
As I grew older, I moved on to Pippi Longstocking. What Pippi lacked in manners, she made up for in imagination. She lived alone in a big old house with bags of gold. She could lift a horse while entertaining her friends with wild tales about pirate kings and cannibals.
Next, I imagined running along the banks of Plum Creek with the Ingalls sisters before I discovered Nancy Drew. Nancy was smart and independent, but with better manners than Pippi. Nancy solved the most complex mysteries while juggling school, an active social life, and a boy friend.
In middle school, I discovered Jo March and her sisters from Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. I also went through a biography phase reading books and short stories about real life heroes such as Amelia Earhart, Clara Barton, Florence Nightingale, Marie Curie, Babe Didrikson Zaharias and Wilma Rudolph.
As I became more adept at reading critically, I started to appreciate authors who create memorable female protagonists instead of relegating all women to the background.
In high school and college, my love of reading brought a veritable who’s who of literature into my life. From the works of Jane Austen, I was introduced to the independent Elizabeth Bennett, Fanny Price, Catherine Moreland, Anne Elliot, Elinor Dashwood and Emma Woodhouse. I saw the heavily romanticized and superficial view of the world through the eyes of Gustave Flaubert’s foolish Emma Bovary. I learned about tragedy from Thomas Hardy’s Tess and the eccentric Miss Haversham in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations.
I’m still an avid reader. I review books, and I also read for pleasure. I read different genres and probably read works by male and female authors with equal frequency. I tend to favor strong female characters like Lisbeth Salander (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsen), Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone or Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter series by JK Rowling.
In honor of Women’s History Month, I hope you’ll take the time to discover a new female protagonist or reconnect with one of your favorites.