We feed young girls princess stories from Day 1. They are dreamy and infectious, with the predictable happy ending to follow. Sadly, talking about Disney Princesses and feminism is like opening a can of worms, having it shot by a BB gun, and then trying to jam the contents back into the jar whole: it’s not pretty, and rarely does it ever go well. Having said that, there are a few childhood book series that follow girls and young women of nobility who smashed societal expectations, respected feminist themes, and explored strength in tandem with happy endings.
My two personal favorites were by Tamora Pierce and Martha Finley, in particular because both series began with an eleven-year-old girl and followed her to womanhood. I witnessed their growth in body, mind, and spirit. As opposed to the static (and sometimes terrifyingly young) age of Disney princesses, these girls aged with me. We grew up together.
Tamora Pierce’s The Song of the Lioness introduces Alanna as a spit-fire daughter of nobility who staunchly refuses to be trained as a Lady of Court. She swaps places with her twin and goes to the City of the Gods to train as a knight. Alanna’s servant helps hide her identity until it can be hidden no more, and against everyone’s expectations, she survives the Ordeal of Knighthood. Not only that, but this societal rule-breaker becomes the best friend of the future king and rejects his advances? Alanna is smart at some subjects but has trouble with others, has a wild temper, and has a pack of pals who love her. Moreover, this gal has premarital sex with absolutely no guilt or reprimand, practices regular birth control, and experiences her period in a relatable way. Oh, and she’s a total badass that the Goddess has blessed. But her story doesn’t end there – in other series she goes on to be a role-model to Protector of the Small’s serial heroine, Kel.
Tamora Pierce’s books breathe life into relatable characters that encourage young girls and older women alike to embrace their distinct personalities, to welcome their flaws as well as their strengths, and to march to the beat of their own drum. She is a powerhouse author who writes about powerhouse women for readers of any gender who want to see strong and capable characters – of any gender, race, or sexuality.
In a seemingly 180-degree turnaround, my other favorite is Martha Finley’s series, A Life of Faith, which follows a young heiress of the society elite in pre-Civil War North Carolina. Across eight books Elsie Dinsmore grows from a powerless eleven-year-old to forty-something wealthy abolitionist. Throughout the series, Elsie is driven and guided by her unshakeable faith in God; not even her father’s harsh consequences can make her renounce it. She endures hardship and sacrifice but is presented with great rewards. In the stuffy and bigoted atmosphere of 19th century Southern aristocracy Elsie “rules” with a cool head and a kind heart. In the meantime, she breaks societal norms by encountering scandal, disobeys her father regularly to achieve greater good, marries an older man for love, stands up to the Ku Klux Klan, and teaches her loved ones about God’s love.
Martha Finley wrote boldly during the time of her character, and did so with clear Christian voice and purpose. Little Elsie was fierce and unapologetic, but her actions were full of grace and mercy. She became a businesswoman who refused to defer to men who tried to dictate her actions. Finley’s characters saw slavery as wrong and goodness as supreme. And they did it all as unusually devout, intelligent blue-blooded Southerners within the corrupt cotton trade of the mid-1800s. The books show a non-hypocritical Christian whose devoutness is perhaps somewhat outdated, but beautifully inspiring.
While Disney princess stories grew in diversity and feminist frequency between 1950 and 2000, the core of my feminist role models came from and Pierce and Finley’s novels. They showed me intelligent, capable, and gorgeous women—inside and out—of the noble elite who triumphed against patriarchal and immoral values for the independence of all. These characters made me want to wear an elegant dress and carry a sword simultaneously. They inspired me to become a complete character, not a caricature.
While Jasmine, Mulan, and Belle inspired my affection for travel, loyalty, and books, it was Alanna and Elsie who made me believe I could be more than just a princess – I could be my own queen.