One often hears the statement these days that science fiction needs more strong female characters. When pressed for examples, those pushing for these new characters are almost without exception meaning without saying it “women who act like men.”
Why do these people hate women so? Yes, put strong women in your writing, but make these women feminine! Whether you view the world through creation, intelligent design, or evolution, the differences in men and women are present and accounted for. Think of the men and women you know. They’re different from each other. That’s exactly how it should be. It’s a good thing that men focus one way and women another. It allows the civilization to thrive. Neither is better than the other.
As men and women are different biologically and mentally, one would (rightly) conclude that a woman acting like a man would throw a person out of their suspension of disbelief. It happens so often, though, these days we’re becoming desensitized to it. No one questions how the Black Widow lays out a room full of armed guards. Sure, she’s a trained assassin but it seems like at least one of them should have at least landed a punch.
But how would one show a strong, feminine character (truly feminine)? Well, older fiction is full of them. Let’s explore the traits of the strongest feminine character I can think of. Since much of my science fiction reading was modern pulp (media tie in novels), I turn to a beloved television show and its main female character: Little House on the Prairie’s Caroline Ingalls.
What makes her strong and feminine? She’s a farm wife, so we know she has physical strength. We’ve seen this in episodes when Pa was injured and Ma took control of the oxen and horses to harrow a field (“Harvest of Friends”). When most of the men had to leave town for work after a hailstorm took out their crops, she led a group of women in harvesting the fields by hand (“100 Mile Walk”). Another time, she realized a cut on her leg had become dangerously infected and cauterized it. So, she’s not short of physical strength, but she’s a much deeper character than that.
Caroline Ingalls is a woman who sacrifices for her family but makes sure her husband understands her opinion [Last episode before leaving Dakota]. You can see her exhibit the four cardinal virtues, long recognized by Christians and those who came before as foundational to good living: prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. She also exemplifies the three heavenly graces: faith, hope, and love.
Now, one of my favorite examples from her story where she acts strong in a womanly way comes in the eighth season. In “Faraway Cry” she receives a letter from Louisa, a friend she hasn’t seen in at least two decades. The woman is married to a miner, and their camp as an outbreak of influenza. Louisa is also pregnant with her third child, the other two being miscarried. Thinking only of her friend, Caroline shows true love and loyalty by talking Doc Baker into going to the camp and taking her. Caroline becomes a nurse and tends her friend and those in the camp.
I don’t know how many men would have done that. But even more striking were Caroline’s actions in the end. There were two pregnant women in the camp. They went into labor only minutes apart. Doc took care of Helen while Caroline performed midwifery for her friend. The friend died, but the baby lived. Louisa’s husband was a brute of a man who didn’t care about his wife’s pregnancy; he didn’t even want the baby. Caroline took the baby to Doc Baker, whose patient was unconscious after her baby breached and Doc couldn’t save the baby. Helen and her husband were loving people, anxious for the baby. Doing what few men would do (but an action that came instinctively to Caroline), she proposed to the doctor that they switch the infants. Let the brute think his unwanted child had died with his “useless” wife who “used to be pretty,” and give the living baby to the loving couple. Doc was against it, honest man that he is, but the good husband entered the tent, saw the baby, and literally took the decision out of Caroline’s hands. Doc held his peace, and Caroline eagerly handed the baby to a loving father.
In the final Little House special movie (though aired next to last), we see Caroline being a strong feminine character yet again. The town of Walnut Grove had been taken over, and the men were ready to fight for their land and property. Caroline and Laura wanted nothing to do with that (Laura even gave Almonzo a tongue lashing for cleaning his rifle before the new owner arrived). They could always go and rebuild elsewhere. There was no reason to shed blood over something as silly as property.
However, there was a good reason to fight later. When the new owner gave Laura and Almonzo 48 hours to clear out, Almonzo attacked him and his crew (their English boarder jumped into the fray also on Almonzo’s side). Caroline came out of the house when her granddaughter started crying. Acting completely feminine, Caroline checked the baby first! Only once she was sure the baby had not been bitten or stung did she pick up the rifle and fire a warning shot. The men stopped beating Almonzo and the boarder to see Caroline steadily aiming a rifle at them.
None of them questioned her iron-willed resolve. The barrel didn’t move a centimeter as they waited for her to make demands. When she said, “Leave or I’ll shoot,” they did. No one questioned Mama Bear. No, land was abstract and not worth dying for, but her family was concrete. She would and did defend it.
Caroline also passed that love and loyalty to her daughter Laura. Laura’s stubbornness aggravated me many times in the final seasons (especially when she, in her second trimester gave herself heat stroke). But she showed how that vice could be virtue in [Second Chances?]. When Pa drove away Mr. Edwards for drinking and endangering Albert’s life, Laura went after him, brought him back to her home, and told him he had to dry out.
Loyalty and legacy easily make Caroline Ingalls the strongest feminine character I know. Who is the strongest feminine character you know?