I was talking with some friends this week about favorite childhood books (we’re still not over Sheftu. True story.) and I realized that reading good stories with strong female characters built a lot of subconscious mental structure which helped me see women as equal to men, and drove me to be skeptical of the soft patriarchy in complementarianism and question other elements of privilege or inconsistent treatment of people in the church.

I just needed to have the lights flipped on in my head to bring these two parts of my mind together and see how they didn’t line up. But before I realized that I was a feminist, I was the girl who ate up stories about strong women and female warriors and brilliant females from history.

Maybe my first awareness of feminism came from my fierce, academic grandmother, who halted me mid-sentence one day when I was 6 or 7 (and probably prattling on about how “we” didn’t like something as a family because dad didn’t like it), and looked me in the eye and said, “well, you’re entitled to your own opinion.” That idea stuck with me — I remember yelling it in fights with my sister when I was in middle school. “I’m entitled to my own opinion! Shut up!” (Sorry, Heidi.)

That idea gave me permission to enjoy the host of strong female characters in YA historical fiction, in the books on the Sonlight reading list, in the literary classics I gobbled up, despite my mother’s concerns about attitudes in books like Ella Enchanted. (Was I the only one who had to write a book report about that one with the expectation that I’d be critical about the negative portrayal of obedience to parents?)

But books were my gateway to feminism. Before I even knew the term “slut-shaming” and what it meant, I read The Scarlet Letter and I realized how inappropriate it is for the church to treat a woman like Hester was treated.

I read fairy tales and I learned how hard life is and how it’s possible for a woman overcome terrible fates if she’s quick with her mind.

I read Till We Have Faces and I learned that the agony of a woman’s soul can be beautiful. That a woman’s spiritual journey is deep and intense and full of meaning.

I read biographies of Mary Slessor and Amy Carmichael, and I delighted in how fierce and true they were, and wanted to be like them.

I read The Scarlet Pimpernel and realized how destructive a marriage can be if there’s no intellectual equality, honesty, or companionship.

I read the Anne books and learned that making mistakes and learning by experience is a valid way to live (and not everything has to be dominated by principles and ideals), that women in the “olden days” went off to college and were the better for it.

I read Little Women and felt a kinship to Jo and her misfit spunk and how she embraces her own huge personality, and most of all, I related to her as she grew into her writerly self and took courage from her confidence.

I read the Little House books and every time Pa called Laura “strong as a little French horse,” I wanted to be like that, too.

I read the Brontës and Emily Dickinson and Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott, not so much for their stories and poems (though I adored them), but for their ability to do what they loved with their lives, despite gender norms.

I read The Ordinary Princess and loved Amy for her communion with nature and her spiteful attitude toward an arranged marriage.

I read Lord of the Rings and wanted to be Eowyn.

I read everything I could find by Madeleine L’Engle and coveted the intelligence and bravery of her heroines.

I read stories of women who disguised themselves as men and fought or spied or traveled. I read all the books I could find about female heads of state throughout history, and read Foxe’s Book of Martyrs for more stories of brave women who defied cultural standards. I wanted to be Joan of Arc, Hatsheput, Boadicea, Sacajawea, Margaret of Austria, etc., etc.

And I never wanted to be a feminist, because feminists hated men and were selfish.

But then I went to college and two things happened while this English major was just a baby English major.

1) My scary-wonderful-smart Brit Lit prof asked us: Could we name a book where a male author succeeded in creating an authentic and rich inner life for a female character?

And we couldn’t give her a single title. [She retorted that it was just as well, since the only one she knew of was Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis.]

2) I met feminist literary theory, in particular: I learned to read the absent female narrative in a text, starting with Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar on the madwoman in the attic (and damn, there was a lot of female silence in literature), and I became acquainted with the concept of semiotics and the works of Julia Kristeva and Hélène Cixous.

And I barely scratched the surface with those authors and theories before the light switch in my head flipped on after reading A Handmaid’s Tale.

I was a feminist. There were voices missing. Feminism wasn’t the feminism my parents had grown up with — it was much more mature, nuanced, thoughtful than the second wave feminists who scared them into complementarianism. This was a feminism that was intellectual and observant and, I began to realize, compatible with my Christianity in a way that didn’t just complement it, but reinforced it and made it more holistic and loving and thoughtful.

Then I went back and I reread the four gospels. And I sat on my bed and cried over how Jesus treated women, because it was so beautiful and tender and respectful. Because it was so very, very different from what I had seen presented for women in the church as I grew up.

And then I realized: I’m entitled to an opinion of my own. I’m a feminist.

[linking up for FemFest here!]


  • Emily_Maynard

    AWESOME.

    I love this attachment to books and stories and how they raised us, in a way. I read Ella Enchanted every year, usually in an afternoon, and I enjoy it.

    You’ve just made me realize that maybe my tears at the are related to my own inability to say no growing up, and how I’m finding my voice and omg I am reading it this weekend.

  • http://www.facebook.com/TaraLMacLaren Tara Wagner MacLaren

    Beautiful post Hannah!

  • http://charityjilldenmark.wordpress.com/ Charity Jill Erickson

    When I saw your tweet about this piece, I was all like, “I need to go comment and talk about ‘Till We Have Faces.’” Ha! I adore that book.
    BUT — Lewis’s short fiction and science fiction is pretty bad when it comes to depicting women (especially “liberated” women) in a charitable way. I think that Joy Davidman, his wife, had a lot to do with the nuanced female character we find in “Till We Have Faces.”

    I haven’t read the book yet but the TV miniseries of “The Crimson Petal and the White” left me shocked that the author of the book was male.

    • http://www.wineandmarble.com/ Hännah

      Ha! Excellent. And I totally agree–I don’t think he nails it until after his marriage and he finally got close to a woman.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=68110455 Julianne Christie

    Did you also read the Elsie Dinsmore (sp?) series and throw the books across the room at the wall? Or was that just me…

    • http://www.wineandmarble.com/ Hännah

      I read them and loved them for a little while. And then I reread them and went, “wait, what?”

    • http://www.shaneyirene.com/ Shaney Irene

      OH MY GOSH ELSIE DINSMORE. Even when my mom read them aloud to us during…when I was in high school, I think?…I felt something was off, although I did love Elsie so. But there’s so much danger in the message of unconditional obedience set forth in those books.

  • Guest

    I just want to sit down over tea (or wine) and talk books with you. I love the books you’ve cited. However, having been married to the dreamer, I can hardly stand either Pa Ingalls or Mr. March — I just want to smack them both.

  • http://twitter.com/AccidentalDevo Abby Norman

    I think Katniss Everdeen has paved some serious feminist roads into hearts I know.

  • http://loveiswhatyoudo.wordpress.com/ J.R. Goudeau

    I’m geeking out about some of these delicious literary references–I’ve had a post in my head for awhile about how strong female YA characters shaped me and how I cannot wait to introduce my daughters to them. I’m not worried about the pre-school princess set so much because when they meet Eilonwy and Anne and Amy (of the Ordinary Princess! Seriously, loved that one!) and Ramona and Lucy, Rapunzel and Cinderella and Snow White are going to fade. Beautifully put today. Thank you.

  • http://www.shaneyirene.com/ Shaney Irene

    Love this post! And maybe you mentioned it and I missed it, but did you read Caddie Woodlawn? I found myself connecting both to her AND to her uptight cousin. I was a tomboy who loved pretty things. :)

    • http://www.wineandmarble.com/ Hännah

      Yes! Loved Caddie.

  • http://lauralucille.wordpress.com/ Laura Young

    My attachment to books has influenced me in a very similar way, especially because I was encouraged to read biographies of strong Christian women as well. Thank you so much for articulating this experience so well. It is a gift I am only now realizing.

  • http://twitter.com/EstherEmery Esther Emery

    I love this list. I love that Helene Cixous is on it. I love that I am just very little beginning to get to know you.

  • mamawest777

    oh my goodness the same girls raised me! This is just wonderful!

  • http://www.wideopenground.com/ Lana

    wow, amazing. I didn’t read much as a kid. Maybe that’s why I never connected the dots. Ironically, I majored in English.

  • http://www.seeprestonblog.com Preston Yancey

    Brilliant.

  • http://www.facebook.com/debra.baker.79677 Debra Baker

    I have read and like most of the mentioned books in this post but two I must mention namely Till we Have Faces and The Handmaid’s Tale (swoon-swoon)! OMG, Till We Have Faces is, in my opinion, one of the very nay, the very best book C.S. Lewis wrote and I happen to love the Narnia books.
    The Handmaid’s Tale is so profound, my daughter read it and gave it to me and oh, I was well out of the pseudo-christian patriarchy but that book helped me to identify as a Christian feminist egalitarian.
    Thank you for putting pen to paper and writing this, I enjoyed your notes on the strong dynamic women in literature.

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