• Jenna Sauber
  • From Laura Ingalls and Alicia Florrick to Elizabeth II: literary and historical women as role models
From Laura Ingalls and Alicia Florrick to Elizabeth II: literary and historical women as role models
Written by
Jenna Sauber
April 2015
Written by
Jenna Sauber
April 2015

The more time I spend reading, writing, volunteering at the library, and exploring what I want to do with my life, the more I’ve learned that what I read and who I read about has influenced who I am and who I want to be. While I love Dickens, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, and Shakespeare, my heart is with Laura Ingalls Wilder, Louisa May Alcott, Lucy M Montgomery, and Jane Austen. Half Pint (Laura), Jo March, Anne Shirley, and Elizabeth Bennett are some of the strongest, imaginative, passionate, and soulful characters in literature – determining their place and path in life while remaining devoted to family, friends, and love. In history, I nerd out over the family wars and power struggles during the times of Henry VIII and Richard III, but it’s the reformations and revolutions and sea changes that Anne Boleyn, Katherine Woodville, and Elizabeth II brought about despite the opposition that really resonate with me.

Even when I think about the TV shows and movies I enjoy, it comes back to the women. Sure, Mad Men’s Don Draper is a fascinating look at the flawed man, but Peggy, Joan, and young Sally Draper are prime examples of women finding their way in a world dominated by the opposite sex. And while the Earl of Grantham may hold the keys to Downton Abbey, Ladies Cora, Mary, Edith (yes, even Edith!), Sybil, and Rose, and servants Mrs. Hughes, Mrs. Patmore, Daisy, and Anna set the stage for the changing role of women in the first half of the 20th century. On The Good Wife, Alicia Florrick adapts to and then owns her circumstances, making us question what “good” really means. And in Game of Thrones, perhaps the most exciting character development lies with Daenyrus Targaryen, Sansa and Arya Stark, and (begrudgingly) Cersei Lannister.

When I was younger, I may have thought that I just liked that Laura Ingalls got to help her Pa make hay and then go buggy-riding with Almanzo. I may have been jealous of Anne Shirley’s red hair and her smart and witty friend and future husband, Gilbert. But what I think was really going on was that I admired their fiery spirit, their continued desire to learn and explore, and their fierce loyalty to home, family, and self. One of my favorite book series is one that centers on how a young white woman and her (later freed) slave and best friend get through the Civil War and years afterward, both dealing with their own set of obstacles, but both also remaining adamant about who they are and how to fulfill their dreams. Dare I say that these are the very reasons I have had a lifelong love affair with The Sound of Music and The Wizard of Oz? Beyond the singing and the rainbows and ruby slippers, these are also the stories of women and girls who overcome their fears – of the unknown, of the world beyond their doorstep, of those who challenge their beliefs – and take a journey to find their calling, or to find what matters most, even if it is right in their own backyard.

There are many out there that have applauded the arrival of newer young female “heroines” and role models in literature, such as The Hunger Games’ Katniss or Divergent’s Tris. While I support new stories and inspiring characters, we weren’t lacking in the first place. Stories of females fighting back against societal pressures and life’s ups and downs and tragedies is nothing new – all you have to do is pick up the Little House series, The Diary of Anne Frank, or Little Women. A 16-year-old pioneer girl braving her first teaching assignment in the middle of nowhere sounds pretty brave to me. So does the story of a young girl hiding from the Nazis in an attic, and another of a young woman cutting off her hair and secretly writing stories under a pen name to provide for her family.

This is no great epiphany of course. We read what we like, and we read (and watch) what connects to us, intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, and psychologically. And as I continue to determine my next steps and explore who I am beneath the surface, I’ll keep in mind my heroines from the page, screen, and history, that I have loved from the first moment I met them.

Who are your heroines from books, tv or film, or history? Why?

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  • When I was in high school, I loved to sit under the oak tree in our side yard and read on a lawn chair, iced tea or lemonade by my side, for hours.   Read Dr. Seuss when I was younger, and remember reading The Secret Garden when I was young, too, but started reading the "coming of age" classics later on, in my 20's and 30's~The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, Earthsea, A Wrinkle in Time, Catcher in the Rye,Shakespeare, etc.  Didn't read the Chronicles of Narnia until I read it with my daughter in my 40's.  Often wonder what I'd be like now if I had read them sooner ~ but glad that I have taken the time to read them before I turned 50.

    Stopped watching TV for the most part, too.  Did love watching "Beauty and the Beast" with Ron Perlman and Linda Hamilton.  It's crossing of fairy tale with contemporary life was intriguing to me.  I admired Catherine because she recovered from being close to death because she was mistaken for someone else and then moved on to investigate the perpetrators so that they'd be brought to justice..  She channeled the love she shared with Vincent to become bolder and braver in her work than ever before. 

  • Jenna Sauber

    Thanks, Dera, for your comment. I love that Scout was a favorite of yours -- To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my favorite books. I am looking forward to reading Go Set a Watchman when it comes out this summer! I agree with your points on Janie; another excellent example. I haven't read Brown Girl Brownstone, but I will add it to my list!

    (Cate- I joined your group; thanks for letting me know about it!)

  • The girls and women of the stories I read as a young girl, teenager and college days didn't so much influence me, but resonated with me as they journeyed with me in my coming of age. Scout of To Kill a Mockingbird was innocent in her unconditional love for her family and community, so unaware of the seriousness around her in a time of our country, particularly the deep south was intolerant of everyone's civil rights.

    The little girl in Paule Marshall's Brown Girl Brownstone had to grow up fast in a short time while witnessing her family structure dissolve. I was both those girls, young teens in Coffee Will Make You Black and Breathing Room living a Black middle-class life with a teacher mother, ballet, and first kisses.

    But Janie of Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God was the bravest girl child turned woman by her actions to not be victimized by the man she loved. How she carried herself in a community and a world that could only acknowledged a woman's beauty but devalued her self-worth. I was empowered to write about strong women and the value of their worth.

  • Jenna Sauber

    Thank you, Cate and Sande, for chiming in!

    Cate, I have never watched Buffy or Star Trek, but it's never too late to start. I love that you have made such a connection with both of those shows and the female characters in them. A couple of other shows that stood out for me over the years with strong women forging their own path are Gilmore Girls and The West Wing. I wanted to be a smart and sassy single mother running an inn (Lorelai) and a smart and sassy press secretary cum chief of staff (CJ Cregg) all at once. 

    Sande, I can only imagine how learning about family history and secrets made your connection with Anne Frank all the more profound, if not painful. Now I'm inspired to reread Heidi and Gone With the Wind -- it's been years since I picked up both.

  • Sande Boritz Berger

    Thanks Jenna for sharing your literary influences with the SWP members/writers.

    For me, hands down, my first read that would influence my writing, how I would use the first person in so many essays and short stories was The Diary of Anne Frank, but I didn't know then ( I was 13) that my own family history was filled with family secrets and horrors I would not learn for decades. Another book I cherished was Heidi because of her kindness and care toward the paralyzed older girl , Clara. And then there was the grandfather...anything with grandparents for me had substance and the opportunity to learn a life lesson. Early reading presented a great deal of learning for which I am grateful. My grandmother gave me a copy of Gone With The Wind...I've been searching for it for years.