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When I was 11 years old, my favorite after-school pastime was to whip up some microwave nachos and get cozy in my family’s living room with either A) a book featuring a female heroine or B) a television show featuring a female lead. These stories were my refuge, both from the banality of childhood suburbia and the stream of marriage-focused media. (Cough-cough Disney!) Don’t get me wrong—I absolutely loved Beauty and the Beast… But that was because of Belle’s library, not her eventual nuptials to a former manticore.
In any case, the narratives I consumed as a child had a considerable impact on my creative pursuits. Like many of the heroines I read about, I yearned to write, explore, and play. And at 11 years old, a time when childhood feels dangerously close to being over, it was nice to escape into a fantasyland where other preteens could empathize with my yearning for magic, or “something more.”
But perhaps one of the best things I took away from these stories was the encouragement to write. Books and television expanded my vernacular—the gasoline for imagination—and proved to me that stories could be invented at any point in time. I appreciated these characters as a child and I appreciate them even more as an adult. The women characters below were the feminist icons I needed, and still need today.
1Laura Ingalls Wilder from Little House on the Prairie
Laura Ingalls Wilder had a way for making pioneer life (which in truth, was objectively very difficult) idealistic, sweet, and full of innocent merriment. Just thinking about the Little House on The Prairie series conjures up images of maple candy, corncob dolls, and making daisy chains along the banks of Plum Creek. Wilder captured simple pleasures and seemingly mundane moments with whimsy and specificity, and I longed to replicate these techniques in my own writing. Also, Wilder published her first book in 1932—a time where women authors were still annoyingly unheard of. She went from a barefoot prairie girl into an award-winning, and that’s inspirational AF.
2Mandy from Mandy
While not as well-known as the aforementioned heroines, Mandy was a lighthouse of imagination and possibility for my childhood self. Written by Julie Andrews (yes, that Julie Andrews), Mandy tells the story of a 10-year-old orphan who finds herself stuck in a pattern of boredom. Though facing no obvious hardships (other than the lack of parents) at her fancy boarding school, she feels restless, and longs for a place of her own, which she eventually finds in a seemingly abandoned cottage in the forest. Mandy may not have been a writer, but she still possessed a similar “there must be something more” attitude that leads any artists to their medium, and thus deserves a space on this list.
3 Harriet from Harriet the Spy
When I first saw Harriet the Spy in theaters (don’t worry, I eventually read the book), I was intoxicated with Michelle Trachtenberg’s journal, yellow raincoat, and New York City playground. I even tried to be a spy of my own—though carrying around a marble notebook and reporting on my suburban neighborhood felt far less interesting than romping around Manhattan as an unattended 12-year-old. In any case, Harriet encouraged curiosity, hard work, and creativity. Her one desire, as she audibly wishes one afternoon with her friends, was to “see the whole world and write about everything.” I feel ya, Harriet.
4Charlie from The Lottie Project
I was a fan of all of Jacqueline Wilson’s books (Double Act and Tracey Beaker, to name a few), but The Lottie Project holds a special place in my heart. The story features 11-year-old Charlie (short for Charlotte), a troublemaker (because, duh) whose initial disappointment in her class’s Victorian-Era project is quelled when she discovers a servant girl in a history book who shares similar features of her own. Charlie decides to write a diary from the perspective of the servant girl, who she names Lottie, also short for Charlotte. Charlie’s own life and struggles are paralleled in Lottie’s journal—which is a pretty sweet writing technique, if you were to ask me.
5Ginger from As Told by Ginger
Ginger Foutley was the thoughtful, journal-scribbling redhead of the underrated Nickelodeon show, As Told By Ginger. Foutley didn’t care about being popular or having the coolest things, but rather cared about being a good person, creating meaningful connections, and exploring the depths of her soul—pretty profound for a 12 year old. She also sang in a rock band, wrote poetry, played guitar, became student body president, and dealt with appendicitis amidst navigating a break-up—so yeah, she’s pretty badass. Foutley was one of the first female cartoon characters who made me feel like it was good to express myself. Also, the theme song was performed by Macy Gray, which was an awesome way to start a kid’s show.
6Grace from Amazing Grace
Grace is a little girl who is obsessed with stories, so much so that she’s constantly acting them out and adopting different roles and identities. She’s also a pillar for overcoming adversity; when her class announces a production of Peter Pan, Grace vows to play the titular role, but is quickly shot down by her classmates because she’s a girl with brown skin. Thankfully, Grace goes on to pursue her dream role, proving that you can’t let the haters hold you back.
7 Rory from Gilmore Girls
While Rory Gilmore might be one of the more derisive characters in YA media (especially after her infidelity antics in a Year in the Life), I think we can agree that the youngest Gilmore Girl possessed a thirst for knowledge that was well worth replicating. She was also incredibly well-rounded; not only did Gilmore exhibit an insane literary repertoire, she also managed to have strong female friendships, a good relationship with her mom, excellent taste in music, and a stream of handsome boyfriends. Finally, Gilmore reminded us that it was cool and possible to read multiple books at once, an activity that I often find myself needing to defend.
8Amelia from Amelia’s Notebook
If you weren’t reading Amelia’s notebook during recess, you were missing out. Amelia’s Notebook, a fictionalized depiction of a young girl’s marble notebook, was a combination of stream-of-consciousness thinking, reports on Amelia’s daily life, and vibrant doodles. This clever use of multimedia was inspirational in that it encourage me, and likely hundreds of other young writers, to experiment.
9Jo Marsh from Little Women
Okay, so I didn’t read Little Women until I found out Greta Gerwig was directing a remake, but I *did* watch the Winona Ryder/Kirsten Dunst version. Jo Marsh reminded me that it’s okay to be multi-faceted; she wrote plays, short stories, and novels, all of which contributed to her overall growth as a writer. She also challenged the idea that a woman is meant for marriage, and can opt to pursue creative and professional pursuits over romantic ones. She turned down Laurie even though he represented some degree of financial security and unconditional love in favor of pursuing something that felt authentic to her. And as an artist/writer/human being, watching Marsh make such mature decisions was pretty dang inspiring.
10Sara Crewe from A Little Princess
Sara Crewe may have never literally put pen to paper (probably because Miss Minchin took all of her possessions and made her a servant) but she was one of the best storytellers this list has known. Growing up as a wealthy little girl in India, Crewe’s early childhood was flooded with multicolored skies, elephant rides, and tales from the Hindu Itihasa. She recounted these stories to the other girls her age, vividly recalling the most vibrant details and reminding everyone that “all girls are princesses.” Now, that’s an attitude I can get behind.
11 Hermione from Harry Potter
How could I write this piece and not talk about Hermione Granger? Not only did she struggle with her hair (very relatable for teenage girls), she was an avid reader, the smartest one in her grade, and a witch, which is arguably the prime symbol of feminism. Granger’s never-ending thirst for knowledge provoked me to continue my own education, even if that meant something as simple as reading more books. Learning protects us from boredom, opens our minds, and ultimately, leads us to be more empathetic and prepared humans.
12Matilda from Matilda
Matilda read so much that it literally gave her MAGICAL POWERS. If that’s not a reason to dive headfirst into your books, then I don’t know what is. Furthermore, Matilda was a little bit of a stinker. She bleached Danny DeVito’s hair (from the movie), used her mind powers to throw carrots at her brother, and tricked the Trunchbull into thinking she was being attacked by ghosts. Also, her red ribbon was super chic. Good job, Matilda.