Earth Needs Women a blast from the past of November 2010
No, this is not the obligatory ecological post. Today, in the car on the way from dinner (not cooking at Thanksgiving is logical when you have only four people – five with our friend/honorary uncle to the kids) I was talking to the kids about a book I read when I was maybe 12/13.
This book – whose name I (unfortunately) can’t remember – came amid a trio of “fairytale books.” At twelve or so, I decided that I hadn’t read enough fairytales and was trying to round out my education. This one looked like a nineteenth century book with woodcuts, was written by some unknown Portuguese author and the title was something like “the foundling.”
It started with a baby girl found abandoned in a forest. She’s taken in by an older woman who gathers wood and who makes a good – if unloving – foster mother.
Half-bored, I felt I knew where this was going, but continued reading, expecting the more or less obligatory hidden princess story.
I was wrong. Though I no longer remember the details of the book – yes, I read it a good hundred times, as it became one of my favorites, but it was a long time ago and memory gets blunted – I know that the parentage of the girl is never revealed. The old woman dies, the girl is turned out of the house, she ends up working as a maid and some other menial jobs. Her work ethic and (what my friend Dave Freer calls) battler spirit get her through. She helps an old lady who is dying and whom no one looks after and, in return, is given an old book of recipes.
She starts her own little business selling cakes and pastries at fairs and meets a young man of very good family who – however – does not marry her because of course, she’s a foundling of unknown parentage. Eventually her little business becomes a successful pastry shop and later she meets another young man, a pastry chef, and this time it all works out and they marry and have a happy family and a successful business.
If you’d asked me at twelve, I’d have told you I had no idea why the story charmed me as it did. I only knew I liked re-reading it and it became one of my favorite books. It felt good and somehow “right” in a way that fairytales and romances didn’t.
Today, when I telling the kids about it, I realized why. It was because the character was a strong woman. Born with the ultimate disadvantage, the ultimate lack of support, she doesn’t – like fairytale princesses – either get rescued by a strong knight nor even by fate that reveals her to be a hidden princess. Also, she never complains; she never repines – she takes the situation she finds herself in and makes the best out of it, all the while looking out for those who are weaker or in more need than her. This last characteristic nets her the all-important recipe book (supposedly created by a medieval convent, which rings true for Portugal, and lost for centuries.) When her romance doesn’t work because her very conventional suitor wants a girl of suitable family, she doesn’t go into a decline, she just goes on with life.
She is, in fact, what editors so often say they want “a strong woman heroine, self sufficient, a good role model for growing girls.” Only, from my observation and reading, by this they usually mean mouthy, aggressive, foolhardy and complains a lot about men till one wonders if said character has an issue with being born female. There are exceptions, of course, but complaining about fate and men and being bitter seems to be obligatory.
And yet, it is true that this type of character is not only a great role model for young women, she is the type of role model we do need. Earth needs women (yes, and men, but we’re talking women here) who take care of the weak and helpless. Earth needs women who don’t whine. Earth needs women who cheerfully shoulder the burden of what needs to be done.
Earth does not need women who complain about men all the while neurotically obsessing on clothes and jewelry to attract said men and pursuing the highest-status males they can possibly get. There is nothing wrong with these activities, in moderation, but when they become the focus of existence they create a generation of infantile harpies. Now, I don’t think any women in real life are as bad as that, but almost all women characters in books and movies are just like that.
Young women who read/watch these characters end up feeling they must APPEAR like them or they’ll be thought weak. And this is wrong. Strength in women – and men – can be defined not as throwing weight around but in doing what must be done for oneself and those who depend on one.
Earth needs grown up women.
I very much hate to tell people what to do, much less what to be, but I wish we could set about writing – and living – role models for the women Earth needs.