Why Anne Shirley Was My First Feminist Icon

I was thinking recently on one of my all time heroines, and contemplating how Anne Shirley has influenced my life.

I first learned of Anne of Green Gables because my mother borrowed the VHS of the two movies starring Megan Fellows. You know the one. And then, I checked the books out of the library and proceeded to read them over and over and over and over. All of them. For years. I can even re-read them now and still enjoy them, and get new insights from them (for instance, I recently re-read Anne’s House of Dreams, which chronicles her first few years of married life with Gilbert, and as a married woman as well, I gained a new perspective.) Yes, the stories are sentimental, dramatic and very romanticized, but Anne remains for me, as Mark Twain put it, “the dearest and most lovable child in fiction since the immortal Alice.”

When it comes to boys she might have done me a little disservice. I now have a tendency to over-romanticize boys and not see when they are actually just being normal boys. And I will never be as beautiful or as good. It has been a little disappointing to realize that no matter what, I will never be the mother she was to the Ingleside crew. But in general, Anne Shirley Blythe has taught me so much about being a strong, smart, creative girl that I never really stop to think about the influence she’s had until I am doing something and realize there’s an Anne quote that fits perfectly into the moment. Sadly, I know so few other Anne-obsessives that I can’t say the quote aloud without feeling slightly ridiculous (also happens with Lorelei Gilmore quotes). But, I do it anyway, because Anne would too.

So, here are my top lessons in being a feminist from Anne Shirley Blythe:

1. She is ambitious, and doesn’t let society’s expectations get in her way:

“Oh, it’s delightful to have ambitions. I’m so glad I have such a lot. And there never seems to be any end to them– that’s the best of it. Just as soon as you attain to one ambition you see another one glittering higher up still. It does make life so interesting.”

“We pay a price for everything we get or take in this world; and although ambitions are well worth having, they are not to be cheaply won, but exact their dues of work and self denial, anxiety and discouragement.”

“I’ve done my best, and I begin to understand what is meant by ‘the joy of strife’. Next to trying and winning, the best thing is trying and failing.”

As any good fan knows, Anne was top in her class, except when Gilbert took that honor. She worked hard to learn geometry, and all of her other lessons to keep her place. She was so ambitious that she went to high school and college, earning a B.A. in English. But she also understands what it means to fail, and what we can learn from our mistakes.

When I was in college I used to remind myself of Anne’s study habits and this inspired me to work a little harder. I wouldn’t want to disappoint her.

2. She is smart, and isn’t afraid to admit it

“Isn’t it splendid to think of all the things there are to find out about? It just makes me feel glad to be alive–it’s such an interesting world. It wouldn’t be half so interesting if we know all about everything, would it? There’d be no scope for imagination then, would there?”

Anne is a reader, and an imaginative thinker. She isn’t afraid of being perceived as “too smart”. She accepts her love of literature, poetry and writing, and even though it makes her seem odd to others, she refuses to apologize for it. She says that she needs her big words because she has big ideas. Her example made me proud of loving books and being smart as well. The fact that she never hid this made me more courageous too.

3. She doesn’t let boys or romance distract her from her goals. 

“Young men are all very well in their place, but it doesn’t do to drag them into everything, does it?”

Not only is she smart, she’s not afraid to let boys know it. Anne uses her competition with Gilbert to become the best in their class. She refuses to accept any disrespect and refuses to be swayed by a pretty face, even when that pretty face is trying to apologize for wounding her pride and calling her “Carrots”. Of course, later on, when they’ve grown up she becomes friends with Gilbert, but even then, their feelings for each other don’t keep her from working. She earns her degree in a time when co-education is rare and not well accepted, then becomes an English teacher and also a high school principal in Kingstown while Gilbert goes to medical school.

4. She is a good friend, who won’t let others talk badly of those she cares about.

“We ought always to try to influence others for good.”

Too often we tend to disparage or insult our friends, or other women in general.  But Anne Shirley isn’t standing for it. Anne tells Phillippa Gordon that she won’t hear anyone talk badly about her friends, even if it’s self-disparaging talk. She encourages positive thinking, and friendship above all else. When I hear myself saying something negative about a woman in my head I remember her example and repent.

5. She knows herself and accepts herself.

 “Well, I don’t want to be anyone but myself, even if I go uncomforted by diamonds all my life,” declared Anne. “I’m quite content to be Anne of Green Gables, with my string of pearl beads.”

When Anne and Gilbert finally get engaged she wants a circle of pearls, even though Gilbert says that diamonds are traditional (actually this tradition didn’t start until the 1920s, well after Anne and Gilbert were married, but L.M. was writing in the 20th century, so we’ll excuse her. Besides, without the error we wouldn’t have this great quote). Anne learns to accept herself over the years and knows what she does and doesn’t want. And what she doesn’t want is a bunch of diamonds that don’t fit her, even if everyone else is doing it. I remember this lesson sometimes when I’m feeling discouraged because my path differs from the people around me. I remind myself to choose what works for me, not what others think I should be doing. I might not have monetary goods, but I still get to be me.

6. She understands the power of clothes.

“It is ever so much easier to be good if your clothes are fashionable.”

“All I want is a dress with puffed sleeves”

Some might say that feminists shouldn’t worry about clothes, but to paraphrase Anne, it’s easier to be good if you look good too. When I like my appearance, and my clothes I find it makes me more confident and happier. When I take care of myself, I’m loving myself.

7. When she does have children she doesn’t play the mommy wars

Anne is ambitious, and loves teaching. But the social expectations of her day require her to devote herself to her family. But that doesn’t mean everyone agrees with her choices. Anne has five children, and little time to do the writing that she so loved. But when someone calls her out on it at a dinner party, trying to make her feel badly for having so many children! she responds gracefully, and tells the busybody that she is writing “living epistles now,” meaning that she is focusing on creating living, breathing letters to the world in the form of her children. She doesn’t feel guilty for her choices, and refuses to downplay her role as a mother. She might not have the same choices I have today to be married, work and have children, but she’s not about to let someone insult the choice she does make.

8. She’s human and makes mistakes too.

When she was a child, Anne once told Marilla that she never repeats the same mistake. Marilla replies by saying something like, “but there are plenty more out there for you to discover.” And it’s true. Anne is constantly learning more about herself, and growing from the experience. Whether it’s her hair dye fiasco, her red currant cordial mix-up, lashing out when people insult her red hair, her almost engagement with Royal Gardner in college, her poor love advice to Janet while she’s substitute teaching, or her jealousy over Christine Stuart (both during college and later, when she and Gilbert are married) Anne isn’t perfect, and she sometimes makes a mistake, driven by vanity, pride or jealousy. But she takes it all with the spirit of one who is optimistic, and wants to learn from her mistakes. And that’s some great advice.

There you have it, my top 8 reasons why Anne Shirley is a feminist icon. Who are your early fictional icons? Or, if Anne is one of yours, what lessons did you learn from her?

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