Feminist heroines are hard to find in fiction. It’s pretty rare to open up a modern novel and find a heroine who uses the f-word to describe herself, and of course, that never happens in fiction written before the term “feminist” existed (although I do sometimes imagine Pride and Prejudice’s Lizzie Bennet showing up to the ball at Netherfield wearing a “This is what a feminist looks like t-shirt” over her ball gown. Doesn’t everyone?). So when I’m reading fiction, and particularly old fiction, I have to hunt a little harder for feminist characters. And I have to decide whether or not a character is a feminist based on her ideas and actions, rather than on the label she applies to herself.
Anne of Green Gables was published in 1908, with the subsequent books, in which Anne matures into a young woman, being published between 1909 and 1936. The term “feminist” was not in use, nor were people who advocated for equal rights and opportunities for women given a great deal of credence or respect. And yet, I feel fairly comfortable classifying Anne Shirley as a feminist.
It might seem odd to classify as a feminist a young woman who is as obsessed with her appearance as Anne is. When we first meet her, she is fixated on how she looks. She hates her red hair and her freckles and, in culture in which plumpness is prized, wishes she weren’t so skinny. Anne’s vanity and insecurity about her looks get her into a lot of trouble when she’s 11 or 12, because nothing aggravates her fiery temper quite so much as a criticism of her appearance. When Rachel Lynde, the town gossip, points out that Anne’s hair is very red and that she’s freckly, skinny and “homely,” Anne flies into a rage. When Gilbert Blythe calls her “carrots,” she breaks her writing slate over his head and doesn’t forgive him for about five years. When she’s thirteen or fourteen, she has to cut off all her hair, because she tries to dye it black, but it winds up green. In time, Anne becomes less sensitive about her looks – in part because her hair darkens to an attractive auburn colour, and in part because her nose is considered by many people to be a very pretty one.
That said, while Anne is indeed a feminist, she isn’t born one. When we first meet her, she has a rather traditional view of the world. She has firm ideas about what is appropriately feminine and what isn’t, and she tries her best to adhere to that feminine ideal. As she gets older, those ideas start to change. Her ideal of womanhood is no longer the romantic heroine trapped away in a castle, waiting to be rescued by a handsome knight. She stops worrying about the colour of her hair and starts worrying instead about being top of her class at school. She develops a strong sense of justice – something she has had from a young age – and is committed throughout the series to treating people with compassion and empathy.
Anne Shirley is what I like to call a stealth feminist. On the surface, she adheres to all the requirements of turn early twentieth century Canadian womanhood. She’s domestic, as is expected. She’s feminine and elegant, as is expected. She’s polite and courteous, as is expected, except for those occasions on which her temper gets the better of her. But underneath all that, she’s quite a rebellious young woman. She’s determined to be as educated as she possibly can – as educated as a woman was permitted to be in those days. Anne is an opinionated young lady, and she isn’t afraid to voice her opinions out loud when so many of her girl friends defer to men and to tradition. And when she falls in love, it is with a man who respects her intellect, who spends years competing with her for top scholastic honours and who only wins about half the time.
Ah yes, when she falls in love. Anne rejects Gilbert Blythe’s romantic overtures numerous times, telling him – and herself – that she only cares for him as a friend. It isn’t until he nearly dies of typhoid that she finally realizes what the narrator and the reader have known for a whole book, which is that she loves him. One of the greatest passages in the whole series, I think, is when L.M. Montgomery explains what it is about Anne that endears her to Gilbert:
… he meant to keep himself worthy of Anne’s friendship and perhaps some distant day her love; and he watched over word and thought and deed as jealously as if her clear eyes were to pass in judgment on it. She held over him the unconscious influence that every girl, whose ideals are high and pure, wields over her friends; an influence which would endure as long as she was faithful to those ideals and which she would certainly lose if she were ever false to them.
In Gilbert’s eyes Anne’s greatest charm was the fact that she never stooped to the petty practices of so many of the other Avonlea girls – the small jealousies, the little deceits and rivalries, the palpable bids for favor. Anne held herself apart from all this, not consciously or of design, but simply because anything of the sort was utterly foreign to her transparent, impulsive nature, crystal clear in its motives and aspirations.
It’s this passage that seals the deal for me on whether or not Anne is a feminist heroine. Gilbert doesn’t love her for her elegant figure, or for her baking, or even because she loves him back. He loves and admires and her mind and her spirit, and respects the standards she sets for herself enough to know that he must live up to them too, if he wants her to love him back. Love, admiration and respect between men and women: isn’t that what feminism is all about?
Well, that, and realizing that there are more important things in life than having too many freckles.