This article originally appeared in Catalogue Magazine in November 2017
You know when you’re vibing off a feminist discussion, say at an uber cool feminist bookclub, and people are discussing books that influenced their early feminist development, who do you put forward? Is it Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaids Tale? Or Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch? Did Roxanne Gay’s Bad Feminist change your perspective?
In these scenarios (actually TBH at any opportunity) I like to go back a little further, and highlight one that millions of readers love. In fact it’s not just one feminist icon, it’s a whole club. Say hello to your friends – The Baby Sitters Club.
First written by Ann M. Martin in 1986 (and first consumed by me at Springwood Public Library in the early nineties) The Babysitter’s Club (BSC) was a series of books for kids around the 9 – 12 age bracket. It’s about a group of 12 – 13 year old girls living in the fictional town of Stoneybrook, Connecticut. The girls identified a need in their community for a centralised resource of reliable babysitters, and formed an agency to capitalise on this demand. From the very beginning (or from Kirsty’s Great Idea to be exact) that is some heart-warming female entrepreneurship.
As the series developed the storylines encompassed cultural, family, and socio-economic diversity. Martin challenged stereotypes of gendered roles and gave her characters aspirations that hadn’t been depicted commercially before. Stacey loved maths, way before we started having conversations about getting girls into STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). Mary Anne ran a sewing group with several enthusiastic boy members.
These books were written by a woman, for girls, about girls. Every book in the series smashes the Bechdel test (are there at least two women/girls talking about something other than a man/boy?) and the DuVernay test (requiring minorities to have fully realised lives rather than serve as scenery in white stories).
For example, let’s look at Kristy and the Walking Disaster , a gem I recently picked up in a little second hand bookstore (old mate at the counter was a bit confused about my squeals of excitement, but when I explained it was a formation feminist text he understood, or at least he told me it was $3). Our fearless feminist leader and el Presidente of the BSC, Kristy, forms her own softball team, ‘Kristy’s Krushers’ because there isn’t a softball team in the area that welcomes all genders and abilities (funny enough girls didn’t feel comfortable joining the other local team – ‘Bart’s Bashers’). She and the other BSC members coach the kids together, encouraging them to work as a team, have fun, and be proud of their unique strengths.
In every book in the series I can find a concept or idea that remains relevant today. The importance of friendship without conditions or judgement (Kristy and Mary-Anne). Working towards your goals but keeping your own wellbeing in focus (Jesse). Knowing that no individual is perfect, but that learning through our mistakes ultimately strengthens us (Claudia and mean Janine). Values that I still strive for in my own writing and daily interactions.
The books were also commercial fiction, which despite sometimes being looked down on by literary devotees, is the genre of the people. The language is simple, the concepts are universal. Copies were cheap and they were everywhere, which meant if you couldn’t afford one of your own, you could hit up your local library. That’s where my pre-formation-future-feminist-self got them.
I used to run through the library doors trying to beat my BFF to the ‘new release’ shelf at the library, just in case there were fresh copies. We’d squabble over who got to read which ones first (I always got stuck with the Mary-Anne ones because of my name. Secretly I thought I was more of a Dawn, but my BFF was totally Kristy, so what she said went). Then, after we’d read them about fifty times, we’d act them out, scene by scene. Can you imagine? Two tiny girls, intently focused and fiercely accurate (‘No way did Kristy say that! Get out the book, I’m not even kidding, she would never say that’). We weren’t playing fairies, or princesses, or Sweet Valley High (another hit at the time, but way more 90210 in its style). We were play acting stories that my present feminist self can still get excited about.
So the next time you’re presented with an opportunity to share the first feminist manifesto you loved, I hope you’ll think broadly about your roots. Because way back there, in your childhood nostalgia feels, there is a feminist icon that you didn’t even realise was there. And they are so proud to see what you’ve become.