Girls Who Talk Back: Why Anne Shirley is My Feminist Role Model

by | July 6, 2015
filed under Books, Can-Con, Feminism, Pop Culture

anne-of-green-gablesAs a die-hard, twenty-something who runs a feminist website, it’s funny to look back and think that I didn’t even hear of feminism until I was 18 years old.

Don’t get me wrong—I have been a feminist since I was born, but I didn’t have the word or the concept until my first year of university. I think this ignorance can be attributed to two things. First, I was born and raised in Abbotsford, which, like most rural communities in Canada, isn’t exactly a hotbed of feminist awareness and activism.

Second, while I was a voracious reader (which lead me to my role model as you’ll see below), none of the books ever planted the flag and declared, “this character, this action, is feminist,” which is why today I make sure to say and use “feminism” as often as possible in my own work. Reading between the lines is great and all, but I think I would have been much happier if had known there was an entire philosophy/movement around the narratives I preferred.

All this being said, if I look back and think about who my first feminist role model was, I would definitely say it is the fictional character Anne Shirley, of L. M. Montgomery’s classic Canadian series of novels, Anne of Green Gables.

Who on earth knew that a fictional, red-headed orphan from the East Coast would be so inspiring to me, a mixed-race gal growing up on the West Coast?

Here are four reasons why Anne Shirley is my first feminist role model.

1. She was unapologetically wild and took up space

As a child, I was often described as high-spirited, having a strong personality, and, of course, with the dreaded label “precocious.” Anne Shirley was definitely all of these things—it may have gotten her into trouble, but she was herself and did her thing. It always helps to have a woman who has gone before you, lighting the way, and Anne with an “e” was that woman for me.

2. She made no attempts to hide her issues with authority

There’s no denying that Miss Shirley took sh*t from no one. Whether it was her arrogant teacher, Mr. Phillips, or Rachel Lynde, or slamming chalkboard slates over Gilbert Blythe’s head, that girl was in there throwing punches at anyone who rubbed her the wrong way. I loved that she wasn’t “seen and not heard,” and wasn’t a passive wallflower. I loved that she knew she was worth the fight, and that she stood up for herself. She spoke her truth, stuck to her guns, and if that meant having it out with a grown adult, she did.

3. She was a complex, nuanced woman

Anne was sharp, smart, imaginative, and resourceful. Her relationship with her BFF Diana is considered by many to have queer overtones. Anne was a scholarship winner, and also spent a lot of time shamelessly pondering her vanity and beauty. She seriously thought about religion, life, death, love, family, and community. She didn’t settle. She knew how to hustle. She was fierce and vulnerable, and when she grew up, she was a good role model for other young women where she taught. She did what she wanted—she was off writing stories and wandering about the woods alone while her friends were off dating, but she didn’t shame them for their pursuits.

4. She was aware of her class and gender, and what that meant for her growing up in the Maritimes

Women and girls have been oppressed throughout history, and the time period in which Anne’s story took place was no exception. Despite this, Anne was always doing things typically reserved for those who enjoy male privilege. She was active, taking dares and walking on rooftops,and chasing after animals in her care. She knew the value of her education, consistently achieving high academic standing. She spoke her mind with people of all genders and ages—very taboo for a young woman. She worked hard to help Marilla and Matthew run their farm and earn their livelihood. If she was being punished for something that a boy wouldn’t be punished for, she would sharply challenge her persecutor and demand dignity and equal treatment.

I have gone back and re-read the Anne of Green Gables series many times since I first read it. I definitely have my criticisms of the series both more serious, and shallow (honestly, no one cares about the damn twins Marilla ended up adopting; they were the worst). Still, nothing makes a mark like your first feminist role model—to this day I still desperately wish I was a redhead, and traveling to Prince Edward Island is near the top of my bucket list.

Image: Cover of the Vintage Children’s Classics printing of Anne of Green Gables.


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  • Chloe

    It’s so cool to read an article on on Gender Focus by you Emily! :D I remember in elementary school when you would give me piggyback rides! I totally looked up to you around kindergarten age. And know you’re writing for Gender Focus, 15 years later and you’re a role model again :)