When one searches for great proto-feminist and feminist writers of the past, certain illustrious names appear again and again: George Sand, George Eliot, Aphra Behn, Mary Wollstonecraft, Virginia Woolf, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Kate Chopin. But when we look back at writers like Louisa May Alcott, L. M. Montgomery, Gene Stratton Porter, and Jean Webster, they are usually dismissed as writers of juvenilia and it can be hard to see how revolutionary their feminist politics were and how fiercely they were expressed in their novels and stories. In many ways, these authors, who wrote primarily for audiences of young women, did as much if not more for feminist progress than the more aggressive and overtly political feminist writers, writing for an adult public.
Take Montgomery for example. Her heroines have professional ambitions, they crave independence and they work to get it, their romantic interests are secondary to goals central to their identities, and they strive to be self-determining social entities. Montgomery doesn't preach or discuss politics. Her characters express their politics through their decisions and choices. This is more radical than it first appears. Most young women protagonists in books of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had no professional ambitions. Work was born of necessity, not ambition, and women were not expected to have a vocation, a calling. Montgomery was one of the writers who blew that idea to pieces. While some of her heroines have success and others do not, their professional ambitions were unusual in and of themselves. Anne Shirley (from Anne of Green Gables and its sequels) and Emily Byrd Starr (from Emily of New Moon and its sequels) both become published authors and cherish this accomplishment far above all others and both delay romantic attachments so that they can have a chance at a career.
Today, the have-it-all generation takes issue with that kind of decision, but Montgomery understood all too well what it meant to mix marriage and a career and she also understood that young women needed heroines who were brave enough to follow a career, even at the risk of remaining an "old maid." These young women have their romantic entanglements, but they are never willing to give up their own identities in the process. Anne Shirley never thinks of herself as Gilbert Blythe's girlfriend - she thinks of herself as a writer and a teacher. Emily Byrd Starr, like Jo March in Little Women, is beloved by a man jealous of her writing and unable to countenance a relationship in which he is not supreme - both young women ultimately reject these suitors. They cannot give up their occupation for the sake of a man.
Not that romance is inherently anti-feminist. What is so remarkable about these heroines is the way they exercise choice when it comes to romance. They experience great loves, but they don't lose sight of themselves in the midst of it. Most of these loves develop out of friendships; that is, the relationships are reciprocal from the start. Anne and Gilbert, Emily and Teddy, Valancy and Barney - all these couples come together with mutual interests, shared confidences, and the recognition of individual goals and desires. In The Blue Castle, it is Valancy who proposes to Barney and not the other way around - an extremely radical step in the right direction, flouting tradition and giving Valancy as much agency as Barney. The romantic and marital choices of these heroines are made freely and purposely and this is precisely because they are not afraid of saying no and staying single. They have other, more important irons in the fire.
Montgomery and other writers similarly ignored should be recognized for their contributions to the feminist struggle. Their work remains relevant today, even more so in the economic conditions under which we've been living since 2008. It remains extremely difficult for women to balance careers with families and there is an alarming paucity of heroines in literature and film who are more focused on their professional and personal ambitions than their romantic lives, but L. M. Montgomery and so many of her compatriots provided us, a hundred years ago or more, with feminist heroines that have been the companions of young women and lodestars guiding the way to a more equitable future.