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"Already a Butterfly": Powerful Women Characters -- Today

I search almost desperately for powerful female characters in whom to find strength. I need them as I need mentors. I want them for my own daughter so she won’t undermine herself and her own power (as I look back and recognize I did for so many years). I thirst to be empowered by these images, to focus on them the way laboring women are sometimes guided by midwives to meditate on ancient images representing women’s power. I need the energy of uplifting and life-giving women.

I’m encouraged by efforts in children’s literature toward featuring more strong females. I’m comforted that the next generation will have more heroines to look up to, whose success isn’t dependent on men, and whose worth isn’t measured by superficial qualities. We now have Rosie Revere, Engineer, Drum Dream Girl, Grace for President, She Persisted, to name just a few [and see these three by and about our VP nominee]. But there are still not enough, especially books featuring authentic girls and women from underrepresented race and class backgrounds. And how many books feature females who are strong and inspiring but also complex and imperfect, like us, laboring daily with the reality of structural barriers that continue to hold us back?

Rachel Simmons, in her book Enough as She Is (2017), illustrates how our culture has pushed girls and women toward perfection that is destroying us. Feminism ought to enable us with the freedom to pursue our dreams and find our own deep purpose and self-worth, but Simmons pinpoints how our achievement-driven culture convinces too many girls and women they will never be good enough as they are. Many girls are socialized in what Simmons calls the “College Application Industrial Machine”: to perform for everyone else, trying to be “amazing at everything,” undermining their own selves through “role overload.” For teens this often means making perfect grades, having a perfect body, achieving popularity, participating in numerous sports and extracurricular activities, etc. For many adult women, this translates into having the perfect family, being the perfect wife, raising the perfect kids, keeping house perfectly, all the while pursuing an amazing “perfect” career outside the home.

Although family quarantines during the COVID-19 crisis have led some people to slow down and focus on things that truly matter, for many women and mothers it has unhealthily heightened the pressures we feel to perform in all the “perfect” mother categories. Many of us are expected to “do it all” while at home with children -- hosting an important virtual meeting in the kitchen by the piles of dirty dishes while coddling a screaming toddler who doesn’t understand why she can’t go to the playground; putting out a stovetop fire set off by a pot of burnt mac and cheese while trying to explain algebra to a teen who needs to wash his hands. And then there is my friend who is forced to do the physically impossible: going out to work at all day at an essential job while “homeschooling” several children in the house. The “perfect mother”/superwoman skills of multitasking have taken a uniquely challenging turn in these times. No wonder our psychological and physical health is suffering! No wonder anxiety levels are skyrocketing and imposter syndrome is so prevalent!

This is why I find so much delight in Julia Alvarez’s new picture book Already a Butterfly, illustrated by Raúl Colón. Inspired by mindfulness work in girls’ leadership camps in the Dominican Republic, Alverez presents Mari, a butterfly who enters the scene so busy, so productive, so focused on her to-do list, that she fails to notice the beauty around her (in the flowers she pollinates) or the beauty within her: she does not yet “feel” like a butterfly. She yearns for that peaceful time in her chrysalis, when all she had to do was “be.” Her parents are too busy to know how to help, but she finds a mentor in a bud, itself on the verge of bursting into bloom, who teaches her to meditate, to breathe, to go back to that peaceful place of her early years. The meditation brings her back to herself, and she feels like a butterfly (she becomes “Mari-Posa”) for the first time, recognizing the glory of her wings, basking in the fragrances, music, and art of the meadow that she had previously missed.

All women deserve the right to experience the holistic peace Mariposa illustrates in her meditation. For some of us, this means learning not to feel guilty allowing ourselves space to breathe, letting go of the unrealistic expectations we feel from society, and taking the time to care for ourselves. It means accepting ourselves as imperfect and relieving ourselves of pressures that destroy us; it means prioritizing what gives us life-affirming energy and being okay if we don’t do everything.

But how many women are actually free to realign these priorities? Although some of us have the privilege of working from home and accepting a certain amount of help from others, many essential workers, single mothers, and others do not have these privileges. Especially today, many women are being denied the gift of time to slow down. The inequity is striking. The unequal expectations placed on women is robbing many of us of our basic well-being, and stratifying our opportunities. Society is not just asking, but forcing women to be even more than ever before; it is demanding mothers to be more than superhuman, and it is destroying us, with unequal consequences.

It is time to reignite the movement so that all women and girls, not just some, can experience the development Alvarez portrays. So that all can have the opportunity to find inner peace, we need others to recognize the injustice to working mothers in this new age of virtual schooling. Women need advocacy that we aren’t getting. We should stop expecting ourselves to be everything to everyone, but society also must stop demanding it of us. Until society realizes this, many women will have to continue to attempt the impossible just to keep food on the table, and many will nourish themselves last — which too often means never.

We need images of strong women who inspire us into unknown possibilities and help us recognize that our dreams can be larger than we ever knew. Reminders like Alvarez’s short book can nudge us to slow down and enjoy the beauty of a sunset, to delight in the joy of our own dreams, to celebrate our own small moments, to be mindful of the miracle of each and every moment. We also need images of imperfect women and girls who mess up and embrace their imperfections, who show us it is okay to struggle, women like us who grapple with structural barriers, and women who learn ways to take care of themselves and prioritize self-care.

But central to claiming our power and following our dreams is shedding light on and addressing the injustices that stand in the way. We need images of females in literature that give us strength, and we also need images of girls and women in literature that expose, name, and illuminate to others, that call out — not just to be heard by women — the current injustices. We need voices that demand change. It is time for a new wave of feminism that can be fueled in part by the power of stories of real women and girls struggling in real ways against the unfair societal forces -- happening right now -- that threaten our well-being. We need feminist protagonists who teach us to follow our dreams but not to lose ourselves in the process.

Summer Clark
Summer Clark

Summer Clark is associate professor of literacy education at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She teaches courses on literacy, diversity, and education for social justice. Her writing has appeared in The Reading Teacher and The Routledge Handbook of Research on Teaching the English Language Arts (3rd edition).

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Rose Kent

Fantastic review, Summer Clark! You make me want to stop, drop and go buy Already A Butterfly this moment!

Posted : Sep 18, 2020 02:35


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