It’s International Women’s Day: Bring on the Strong Female Protagonists

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“I’m glad we’ve begun to raise our daughters more like our sons, but it will never work until we raise ours sons more like our daughters.”

-Gloria Steinem

This week I discovered a new tool in my quest to raise feminist sons — books with strong female protagonists.

Raising Feminist Sons

First let me back up.

In earlier years, when I dreamed of becoming a mom, I pictured little girls. I was ready to raise strong, smart, feminist daughters who’d fight for equality and do it all with humor and kindness.

Instead, here I am with three boys. And I’ve realized that as a boy mom, the imperative to raise feminists is even stronger.

Think about it: in this era, we encourage our girls to become engineers, pilots, and brain surgeons. But are we as vocal in urging our boys to consider careers as preschool teachers or nurses?

We celebrate when a little girl wants to dress up as a firefighter for Halloween. But do we equally applaud the little boy who wants to wear a butterfly costume?

We love when a little girl wants to get the dinosaur hoodie she discovered in the boys’ section; we cringe when a little boy adores the sequined unicorn t-shirt.

These reactions aren’t universally true, of course, and I do believe we’re making progress.

However, it still sucks to realize just how entrenched gender norms are, even for those of us who identify as feminists. I’ve had to wrestle with my own biases quite a bit since becoming a mom to boys, and one of the areas that’s surprised me the most has been books.

Embracing Female Protagonists

I love books and always have. We’re at the library on a weekly basis and have a somewhat ridiculous number of items checked out at any given time.

The Princess in Black

With the boys now reading chapter books, I’ve done a lot of Googling and asking around to find books they’ll love. And I’m surprised how hard it’s been for me to give equal consideration to books with female protagonists.

The Princess in Black (The Princess in Black, #1)

Take the series Princess in Black. It appears with rave reviews in so many lists of recommended chapter books.

But it took an article with commentary from a mom whose “son loves these books!” for me to finally request a couple from the library. Thank heavens for that mom who nudged me to remember, yep, it’s possible for a boy to love a book that stars a girl, much as we’ve been informed otherwise.

The boys and I haven’t read any Princess in Blacks books yet, but we have the first two sitting on the shelf; I think International Women’s Day is the perfect day to crack open the first one.

Zoe and Sassafrass

I already have evidence my boys can indeed love books with girl protagonists.

One of my writing friends, Molly, has a daughter about the same age as Evan. When I recently asked her for book recommendations, one of the series she suggested was Zoey and Sassafrass.

The premise is that Zoey, like her scientist mom, can see and communicate with magical animals from the forest. These animals come to the family’s barn suffering from various ailments.

Zoey, along with her sidekick cat, Sassafras, uses her science journal to make hypotheses, determine her controlled variables, and find ways to heal them.

The stories, which star a smart, independent girl, are upbeat and engaging. Most importantly, the boys LOVE them.

When we went to the library last week to pick up the next books in the series, Evan begged to stay for a few minutes longer so we could start reading Zoey’s next adventure.

We’re through the first four books and not a single boy character has appeared (Zoey’s dad and some male animals, yes, but no human boys of elementary school age). Neither Nate nor Evan has said a word about that. I honestly don’t even think they’ve noticed.

Zoey & Sassafras Book 1 Cover.jpg

And isn’t that the goal?

For centuries we’ve read stories with all-male casts going on adventures, making discoveries, solving big problems. These stories have been accepted and loved by female readers without a second thought.

Isn’t it time we expect the same from male readers, starting with the youngest ones?

Let’s normalize strong, independent girls and women doing interesting things in the world, then get these stories into the hands of girls and boys alike.

Raising Feminist Boys Starts at Home

I want to end on a positive note. Last night, during Evan’s independent reading time, this was the scene I came upon:

Of his own volition, Evan had chosen a picture book about a little girl who’s outraged to learn the U.S. has never had a female president. It would be one thing if he’d selected that title since there were only a few books to choose from. But here were his options, not even including the books we own:

I told you it’s somewhat ridiculous! I’m happy we have three different library cards each with its own 50-item limit…

Yep, Grace for President won out over sharks, dinosaurs, and even Elephant & Piggie. Seeing Evan with that book sparked a moment of pride and happiness. I’m far from done wrestling with my own biases, but something is going right.

Looking for books about strong women and girls? Check out these lists from A Mighty Girl and the Oregon Association for the Education of Young Children. International Women’s Day is today, but it’s Women’s History Month all March long.

Happy reading!

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  1. Love this – thank you! We are accumulating too many books at home – this inspires me to start using the dang library!

  2. The asymmetry you point out in the first section is one I have felt myself, and it is disturbing in the biases it reveals in myself.

    As I was reading this, I was trying to think of the most recent book I read with a female protagonist. I am (slowly) reading Beloved by Toni Morrison, and it is a hard read. Before that, I listed to the audiobook version of A Wrinkle in Time. I would recommend it!

    1. It says a lot (in a good way!) that you’re willing to acknowledge the bias and actively challenge yourself. I’ve never read A Wrinkle in Time but bought a copy last fall with the intention of doing so – thanks for the reminder!

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