How I Became a Social Justice Warrior Princess: A Literary Review of Feminism

Guest Writer: Lorna Wood; Alabama, United States

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Growing up female in the 70s was confusing.  On the one hand, we were free to do anything men could do. I remember Weekly Reader, Scholastic’s news magazine for schools, featuring an article about women in male occupations, with photos of female truck drivers and such. On the other hand, I was constantly aware that we couldn’t really do anything men could. Years before the Weekly Readerarticle, I had learned what rape was from an article in the Cleveland Plain Dealermagazine section that I wasn’t supposed to read, and from painful experience I learned that the boys who sat behind me on the bus and pulled my hair or snatched my lunch could hit me harder than I could hit them.

So along with the liberating aspects of 70s feminist messaging came encouragement to aspire to ideals of masculine physical strength and independence. These were not only out of reach for many women, the very fact that they were set up as ideals reinforced the idea that maleness was better. I felt as if women were playing a losing game of catch-up.

I began to pretend I was a boy a lot, and to read stories about “tomboys,” mostly strong, active girls in the nineteenth century who rebelled against restrictive clothing and strictures on feminine behavior. Three of my favorites were Laura Ingalls Wilder, of the Little House books, Jo March of Louisa May Alcott’s biographical Little Women, and Caddie Woodlawn of Carol Ryrie Brink’s eponymous children’s book. Laura envies the copper-toed boots of a male playmate and gradually comes to terms with her inability to attain the golden hair or ladylike behavior of her irritating sister Mary. Laura is active and brave and, on occasion, satisfyingly vengeful. Jo won my heart by selling her hair to help her family and not caring that her newly short hair made her look like a boy. As a scholarship student at a private school, I also liked that Jo stands up for her poor but smart and goodhearted family against the rich and snooty society around them. And Caddie, like Laura, is active and passionate, rejecting ladylike sewing to keep up with her brothers in their rough and tumble adventures. 

But I was disappointed to notice that a strange and similar fate befalls all three heroines as they leave childhood. Laura never quite loses her spark, but she stops rebelling against her restrictive society and becomes less interesting. Jo cruelly and inexplicably turns down Laurie, who seemed like her soul mate, practically throwing him into the arms of her vain, ultra-feminine sister, Amy. To cap it all off, Jo ends up marrying an old professor who tells her her professional writing is immoral and gets her to give it up. Worst of all is Caddie, who simply realizes in the end that she needs to act more ladylike because she is growing up. Incorporating the logic of these books into my nascent understanding of feminism, I suspected that, after failing to attain the strength and freedom boys had, I would be further handicapped by menstruation and babies. 

Only one book from this time stands out as delivering a different message about female strength, which is perhaps why I read it religiously at least once a year. In Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess, poor little rich girl Sara Crewe is left at an English girls’ boarding school in London by her father, a British colonial officer serving in India. When he dies, Sara is destitute and at the mercy of the school’s greedy, vulgar proprietor, Miss Minchin. It is a Cinderella story, so I am not spoiling too much by telling you that Sara is eventually rescued by a friend of her father’s and restored to all her wealth and more. 

This novel might seem an unlikely source of empowerment. A work of its late- Victorian times when it comes to imperialism, the book is racist, classist, and apparently ignorant of the horrific conditions and practices in diamond mining, the source of Sara’s restored wealth. Sara’s principal oppressors are female students and staff at her school, and, of course, Miss Minchin, so female solidarity is not consistently modeled. Finally, many may find the story’s emphasis on self-control old-fashioned and anti-feminist.

Nevertheless, I remain attracted to Sara, who draws her strength from imagination, courage, intelligence, and kindness, and who never tones down her powers the way her literary peers do theirs. Sara’s good qualities not only help her endure misfortune and mistreatment but allow her to help others, which draws friends and allies to her even when things are at their worst. Were she not rescued, the book suggests, Miss Minchin would keep her on as a teacher because she is so smart and good with children, so she is strong enough to survive, and perhaps eventually thrive, on her own. Moreover, she brings about her own rescue when her endurance, imagination, kindness, and knowledge of India captivate her father’s friend long before he learns who she is.

Sara Crewe showed me that qualities I too possessed—courage, intelligence and imagination—could be a source of strength as potent as physical prowess, if not more so. I was not always as kind and polite as Sara, but at least I had something going for me. Heading toward puberty I had a feeling I was going to need it.

Although I am straight and cisgender, I was confused about myself as a sexual being, and this confusion was considerably exacerbated by media. On the one hand, the hedonistic slogan of the 70s, “If it feels good, do it,” was still very much with us. On the other, the AIDS epidemic, the possibility of pregnancy or being raped, and plain old double-standard sexism all suggested that ladylike responsibility and restraint were wiser and morally superior. Once again I felt that the 70s idea that I could be as free and strong as a man was pushing me into a kind of contest I could never win. But it seemed unthinkable to “wait,” suppressing strong drives for pleasure and intimacy. Unfortunately, A Little Princesswas silent as a tomb on the subject of sex.

Two very unhelpful sources of advice I turned to were pornography and self-help books. Porn, mainly in the form of softcore late-night cable after the kids I babysat for were asleep, suggested that men liked women who were eager to please them. Oddly enough, self-help books had the same message, though the pleasing was more emotional with self-help, and its practitioners took a dim view of women like the female porn characters, who seemed to be suffering from sex addiction. Both types of media also cloaked their anti-feminist agendas in the idea that by pleasing men I would realize and strengthen my true self, whereas in real life I found that continual pressure to please men sapped me of any sense of who I was.

Both the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, which I listened to at length on the radio, and Susan Faludi’s Backlashconfirmed me in the view that society deployed a wide array of forces to ensure women stayed focused on pleasing men. I firmly believed Anita Hill when she testified, mostly because she had a story with quirky details like the infamous question Thomas allegedly asked, “Who has put pubic hair on my Coke?”—whereas he had only vague denials and angry accusations, for instance when he claimed the proceedings were “a high-tech lynching.” The odd things Thomas had allegedly said and done corresponded to odd things men I had encountered had said and done, such as when a man on the street asked me if I would put my breasts on his pizza in return for a slice. Arguing that society underwent periods of undermining social and economic gains women had made, and that the eighties were one such period,Backlashput the porn, the self-help, and Anita Hill’s situation in context, demonstrating convincingly that many elements in society were threatened by strong women pursuing their goals, and many forces were arrayed against such efforts. 

But while all this strengthened my determination to become a strong, independent woman, it illuminated not so much a way forward as the obstacles besetting women on every side. What good were my imagination, courage, intelligence, and kindness (such as it was) if they would inevitably be redirected and suppressed? Why did the patriarchy always win out?

No one could answer these questions. They are part of a larger, ongoing quest for justice. But several works have helped me in my personal struggle. 

First, Gloria Steinem’s 1978 essay, “If Men Could Menstruate,” which I discovered in the early 90s, showed me decisively that power is the problem, not the biological attributes of maleness, and that some forms of oppression may be amusing symptoms of underlying weakness and insecurity. To make her point that women’s ideas of their bodies as inferior are a product of patriarchal propaganda, Steinem imagines what would happen if men menstruated. Many hilarious and oppressively patriarchal things, it turns out, but the line that has stuck with me is, “Men would brag about how long and how much.”

Second, Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbos is enuf (1975) helped convince me that I did not have to change myself for anyone. Although I am white and privileged, I have considered suicide, and when I read Shange’s work in the late 80s, I realized that, in all my years of expensive education, no one had ever conveyed to me that I had just as much right to exist as a rainbow or any other thing in creation, that I was fine the way I was made and did not have to constantly prove myself worthy of respect and love.

Third, in the early 2000s Primo Levi’s Survival at Auschwitz (published in 1947 as If This Is a Man) brought home to me how misguided my envy of patriarchal power was. According to Levi, one way to survive in the concentration camps was to exploit and betray one’s own people, by accepting some position of power from the Nazis, or by cheating people, for instance by eating the bits of potato out of portions of gruel and trading them to starving suckers for their bread. Even though I understood how, in these circumstances, some people would be desperate enough to survive by any means necessary, I was shocked. That their behavior helped the cheaters survive at the expense of the helpless and unwary was a terrible indictment of human nature. While none of us can know what we might be capable of under such pressure, I hope I would die rather than resort to such measures. Through Levi’s work, I suddenly saw all such power in its true, ugly light, not as a strength to strive for, but as a monstrousness to struggle against, and not so much to promote one’s own thriving as to avoid increasing the sufferings of the weak and oppressed.

Most recently I explored similar issues in a feminist context through Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, in which two women use their talents to fight corruption. Since it is two women against the world, and often against each other too, I doubt I am spoiling things for anybody when I tell you they fail. Yet they remain undefeated in spirit, and their epic struggles are a testament to all the great, unsuccessful attempts to rid the world of injustice that have been and are to come.

While none of this later reading alters my belief that women continue to be oppressed, in building on the strength that Sara Crewe helped me discover in myself, I have come to see patriarchal oppression less as a personal threat to my self-realization and more as a social problem that I have a responsibility to oppose. Nothing about men’s power affects my worthiness, and much betrays underlying insecurity. Nor is oppressive power desirable, even if it ensures one’s survival. By definition, such power is destructive and must be resisted. In the end, the object must be not to win, but to lift up others in their struggle.  

About Lorna Wood:

Lorna Wood is a violinist and writer in Auburn, Alabama, with a Ph.D. in English from Yale. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in Wiki Lit and Scarlet Leaf. She has also published fiction, poetry, and scholarly essays, and she is Associate Editor of Gemini Magazine.