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May 24, 2007

Pioneer women and princesses

I'm reading Dr. Meg Meeker's excellent new book Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters (of which more later), and my attention was particularly caught by this passage about the kind of woman you don't want your daughter to become:

A girlfriend of mine quipped that there are two types of women in the world: princesses and pioneer women. Princesses believe they deserve a better life and expect others to serve them. Pioneer women expect that any improvement in their lives will come through their own hard work; they are in charge of their own happiness. To most of us, princesses are spoiled -- but whenever we teach our daughters that they deserve "all the best that life has to offer," we help to create princesses. But princesses are often depressed, because they might not ever get the best that life has to offer. Princesses are taught to be self-centered. Their lives are centered on their needs and wants, and they will expect others -- parents, teachers, friends, and eventually spouses -- to focus on meeting those needs and wants.

I couldn't help smiling over this, recalling the number of well-intentioned Christian ministries and authors who urge men to raise their daughters to be princesses. Judging by the antics of the "princesses" of our society (Paris Hilton, get an office and then call it), they might want to rethink that idea.

But in all fairness, I think I know what they're really trying to get at -- or what I hope they're really trying to get at -- because Meeker's words also brought back a vivid memory of one of the books I loved best when I was growing up, Frances Hodgson Burnett's classic A Little Princess, with its poverty-stricken but valiant young heroine who had a very different concept of what a princess should be.

"Whatever comes," [Sara] said, "cannot alter one thing. If I am a princess in rags and tatters, I can be a princess inside. It would be easy to be a princess if I were dressed in cloth of gold, but it is a great deal more of a triumph to be one all the time when no one knows it." . . .

While the thought held possession of her, she could not be made rude and malicious by the rudeness and malice of those about her.

"A princess must be polite," she said to herself.

And so when the servants, taking their tone from their mistress, were insolent and ordered her about, she would hold her head erect and reply to them with a quaint civility which often made them stare at her.

And later, when confronted with a beggar child even hungrier than she is, Sara gives away almost all the food she has.

Just to look at her made Sara more hungry and faint. But those queer little thoughts were at work in her brain, and she was talking to herself, though she was sick at heart.

"If I'm a princess," she was saying -- "if I'm a princess -- when they were poor and driven from their thrones -- they always shared -- with the populace -- if they met one poorer and hungrier than themselves. They always shared."

If more parents were raising this kind of princess, we'd all be a lot better off. I don't think the technical definition of princess has changed since 1905. But sadly, our culture, and the things it glorifies, have.

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