05/16/2014 02:23 pm ET Updated Jul 16, 2014

In Defense of Plucky Heroines

Recently, a writer friend on Facebook posted a wrathful comment about female characters in contemporary fiction. "Spare me the plucky heroine," she raged. "The girl who manages to get by, no matter her circumstances!"

Her anger was unmistakable. Obviously, the here and now was getting on her nerves, for to rail against heroines who demonstrate any sort of agency is to willfully choose blindness to one's own circumstances. But I could not blame her. One does not wish to be reminded that women must struggle to get by, no matter their situations. One does not wish to be advised that a certain amount of pluck is necessary if one wishes to manage the world on her own. In fact, most women wish to live their lives in tranquility, with self-determined benchmarks of their own success, no matter that the world conspires against them.

But what should we do as readers? Avoid the female character who fights for herself because she reminds us of uncomfortable truths? Or should we turn to fiction to escape our fears? And what of the woman who writes fiction? Should she avoid writing the story that turns a blinding light on the things she sees as true because someone will dismiss her protagonist as plucky?

I grew up reading books, novels especially, and mine is an old story, especially by now, when we've been talking about whether or not women can or should be counted among serious writers for several hundred years now. Each generation thinks that it has discovered the subject but really, all we do is replicate the arguments of the past. Check the work of Mary Wollstonecraft, Charlotte Brontë, Virginia Woolf. Each in her own way decried the same things: Women's interests are not viewed as serious. Women find it hard to fight back because those who do will be castigated as complainers and scolds. Men control everything and so a woman who writes is helpless to stem the tide against her.

But even as they cataloged their demands, each writer, in her own way, also excelled at presenting the plucky heroine. Each excelled at the narrative of perseverance, exactly as if each one needed to say: "Take it on faith. This is what you're going to need."

My first models of what it meant to be active in the world, to take charge of one's own destiny, to achieve and succeed, were male characters. Huck Finn. Pip. David Copperfield. When my sister and I played a game we called "frontier," I always chose the role of Daniel Boone. Books had already taught me that those who moved in the world were male. And when I asked at the school library for good books, the librarian handed me novels with male protagonists. Old Yeller. The Red Pony. Lad: A Dog.

I liked these books. I liked imagining myself as strong and true. But I also knew that I was not like the male leads in the novels I read. I wore dresses to school. I had to act like a lady, which made it hard to fight wars or follow sled dogs through the snow.

When I was 11, the woman who lived next door cleaned out her daughter's room--the daughter had moved away--and a box of books appeared on my desk. Most were advice manuals dispensing counsel about make-up and hair-styles, the provenance of the good girl, the girl who did as she was told. But tucked underneath were a couple of novels. These had heavy cardboard covers and thick yellowing pages. They smelled of age and promise. The first one I opened began with a line that told me this book was going to be different. First off, the narrator was a woman. Second, and even more important, was the way she saw the world, with herself at the center and the story her own.

That was how I met Jane Eyre. She was a revelation to my 11-year-old self--the self who had already been taught that good books were written by men about courageous guys and noble, thoughtful boys. Jane was not like any girl character a man had written. She thought for herself. She took terrifying action, often at great risk, and did things that were unthinkable.

Unimaginable. Almost unbelievable. And yet I believed she could do them. And although I would not have said so when I first read her story, she made me believe that I could do things too.
From Jane I moved on to Tess (of the D'Urbervilles) and then to the confessional poets--Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. My mother worried that I had fallen into a pit of despair. I had not. I was searching for a story that felt like my own. I knew I could not be Tom Sawyer. I could not follow Jack London into the wild. I could not prove myself on the battlefields of the Western front. In short, I could have none of the experiences described by writers from Hemingway to Faulkner--male writers all--that defined the world to readers or the place of the individual within it, as if war and hunting and the gain or loss of money were the formative experiences of every person who walked America.

Later, as I tried to write fiction, I struggled to find my way. Having had books by men presented to me as the best books in the world, I felt as if the stories I wanted to tell existed outside the things that it might be permissible to write about--and the things that were permissible to write about did not belong to me. I had the experience common to so many women who write: I could not lay claim to the universals of human experience because in literature human experience is always defined as male. We know we are reading "good" fiction when the interests described are understood through the male point of view--when his viewpoint is the validated lens through which we see. Fiction written by men is never called "men's fiction," in the way that fiction written by women--no matter the subject--is invariably called "women's fiction." Fiction written by men is only ever called "fiction." That's how you can tell it's the serious kind. That's how you know that it must be good.

I can hear you now. You will say that women who write no longer face a world as bleak as the one I describe. Plenty of women publish, even if no one has ever heard of them. You can rattle off names, those who have broken through, been vetted, won prizes. But in the "Year of Reading Women," I keep finding lists on social media telling us whom to read. Even though we have women writing good and serious fiction, women's names do not immediately come to mind when we wonder what to read next. We are far more likely to think of the boy-geniuses and the anointed males, the brotherhood of the world of fiction-writing men, fed to us in a steady stream by publications that review men and discuss men and proclaim literary victories--the vast majority for men.

But because we live in a world where the White House needs to speak out against sexual assault on campus and in the military, where a couple hundred school girls can be stolen from their boarding school, where women still don't earn equal pay, I say: Give me the plucky heroine every time. Give me the woman who struggles and wins. Or, if she does not win--thus avoiding being dismissed as part of a redemptive fiction, a narrative strategy maligned ever since Oprah first noticed it--at least makes small gains. Who inch by inch gains a toehold in her own life. Who reminds us that we are out there, women all, doing what it takes to live our lives and push ahead. Our victories may be local and particular. But they are ours. And they make up the world.

Randi Davenport is the author of the new book The End of Always.