When I think of inspiring, against the grain girls in classic children’s literature, I think of characters like Laura Ingalls, Caddie Woodlawn, Anne Shirley, Jo March, Arrietty Clock of The Borrowers series, and Pippi Longstocking. Yet in the foreword to the reissue of Betsy Was a Junior, the seventh book in the Betsy-Tacy series, Anna Quindlen argues that the rather conformist Betsy is a feminist icon.
And why might that be?
Because Betsy always wants to be a writer, and no one ever tells her she can’t. Oh, and she’s not a fairytale princess or presented as perfect.
Is the bar really set that low these days?
For historical perspective, the books are set from 1897–1917, during the First Wave of feminism. Many women in the First Wave did tend to be rather conservative in their aims; e.g., they didn’t think to question the Mrs. Husband’s Full Name convention, and frequently argued against African–Americans (men or women) getting the vote before white women.
But they lived in a much different world than we do today. Merely working for women’s suffrage, higher education, and employment was seen as radical in their era. Successful, longterm changes happen gradually, not overnight.
Ms. Quindlen claims Anne Shirley and Jo March “are implicitly made to pay in those books for the fact that they do not conform to feminine norms.” That implies their respective authors wanted to punish them and teach them a lesson for not being girly-girls and aspiring to a life beyond housewifery. When does that happen in either Little Women or the Anne series?
It smacks of classism to say Anne “never is permitted to forget that she must work for a living.” As compared to upper-middle-class Betsy, whose parents can afford to send on a freaking Grand Tour to inspire her writing, and who doesn’t have to attend university on scholarship or through her own earnings?
And if you subscribe to Third Wave “choosey-choice feminism,” why bewail how Jo March chooses to marry an unromantic, much-older man instead of the young, hot, rich guy who instead goes to her sister? Prof. Bhaer supports and encourages Jo in her writing, and not all strong marriages begin with nonstop fireworks and a superficial attraction.
From what I’ve read so far, Betsy is a lot more interesting in the first four books than she is in the high school books. Once she hits the teen years, she becomes very boring and shallow, caring more about a constant whirlwind of social life, parties, sports matches, boys, clothes, and hair than schoolwork. I’ll eat my hat if the fourth and final high school book goes down a totally different trajectory than the first three, wherein Betsy resolves to change herself to be more popular and get male attention, suffers in school, doesn’t get the outcome she wants, has everything blow up in her face in a big way near the end, and resolves to be truer to herself.
It obviously takes all types to fill our world, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with being a social butterfly with more passion for fashion, parties, and dating than intellectual pursuits, but that’s not the kind of character who strikes me as a feminist icon!
Also, while some people in Betsy’s era still didn’t take women’s writing seriously, it was nevertheless usually seen as a respectable profession. Would everyone have encouraged Betsy the same way if she’d always wanted to be a doctor, lawyer, politician, or professor?
To date, I’ve yet to see anything that could remotely be construed as First Wave feminist inclinations in these books—women’s suffrage, focusing on studies instead of social life and clothes, thinking about entering the workforce in addition to writing, the birth control movement, nothing. In fact, in the last book, Betsy and Tacy try to pressure Tib into marrying ASAP so she won’t be a pathetic spinster! At all of 25 years old!
Have I mostly enjoyed this series so far? Yes, despite my continued frustration with how everyone’s lives are just too idyllic and charmed. I also mostly like these characters. But to claim the protagonist is some kind of unsung feminist icon? I hope you stretched before that reach.