I first read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird around the age of 10 or 11. As a voracious reader, the book was destined to cross my path long before any high school teacher assigned it to me. To this day, one of my most prized possessions remains a 1960 first-edition print that I occasionally bring out and leaf through with reverence.
When Lee died last week at the age of 89, I did what felt most natural. I picked up my treasured first-edition copy and gingerly paged through it, silently mouthing sections of it to myself. And as I read it for the umpteenth time, it dawned on me that Scout Finch—the strong-headed, spunky, routinely barefoot, utterly “unladylike” heroine in overalls at the center of the book—was the badass feminist role model a young tomboy like me once needed to tell her it was OK to just be herself.
By opting for 6-year-old Scout as the book’s narrator and main protagonist, the deliberate choice is made to place the focus on a young girl’s perspective and thoughts. She’s not the sidekick, she has the leading role—just the kind of message I needed growing up.
It’s also probably not an accident that, although Scout’s real name is a very prim and feminine Jean Louise, everyone refers to her by a rather—and quite fittingly—unisex name (nor is it an accident that Lee uses Finch as her characters’ family name. It was her mother’s maiden name and perhaps a way for her to reassert a matriarchal lineage most women are denied when they take their father’s and husband’s last names).
Nothing about Scout’s conduct is what was expected of girls at the time the novel was written. She manages to escape the boundaries of societal expectations by avoiding dresses and prancing around barefoot, throwing punches like a typical boy, climbing trees and swinging from tires, being as outspoken and opinionated as most men, and routinely rebelling against her aunt’s expectations and “the starched walls of a pink cotton penitentiary”.
“Aunt Alexandra was fanatical on the subject of my attire. I could not possibly hope to be a lady if I wore breeches; when I said I could do nothing in a dress, she said I wasn’t supposed to be doing things that required pants,” Scout complains, as she tries to navigate the tricky waters of self-actualization and societal pressure.
“Furthermore, [she said] I should be a ray of sunshine in my father’s lonely life. I suggested that one could be a ray of sunshine in pants just as well.” There is a delightful sense of tongue-in-cheek humor in Scout’s responses, but also the stubbornness of a person intent on remaining who they are.
Thankfully, her father, Atticus Finch, responds by telling her that “there are already enough sunbeams in the family and to go on about my business, he didn’t mind me much the way I was.”
In similar fashion, when her Uncle Jack, upset that she’s asking too many questions, asks her if she wants to grow up to be a lady, Scout nonchalantly replies, “Not particularly.”
Later on, when Scout’s brother, Jem, asks why Miss Maudie can’t serve on a jury, their dad informs them of the law prohibiting women from doing so.
“For one thing, Miss Maudie can’t serve on a jury because she’s a woman –
“You mean woman in Alabama can’t – ?” Scout angrily interrupts him.
“I guess it’s to protect our frail ladies from sordid cases like Tom’s,” replies Atticus. You can taste the sarcasm in that sentence.
Much of what still defines womanhood today continues to be centered on how women dress, behave, think, talk and interact. Almost 60 years later, Mockingbird’s messages are still ringing loud and clear—occasionally subtler, but equally limiting: Deviate from the norm and you will get reprimanded or cast aside.
But Scout Finch wasn’t having any of it. She was inquisitive, precocious, determined, cool and collected in a Halloween Ham costume, and she wasn’t afraid to be who she was and stick up for what’s right. She showed me I didn’t have to be pretty and perfect and pliant for people to like me.
Lee may have passed on, but Scout will continue to inspire countless generations of young women to be who they want to be and to be brave while doing it.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Kristin licensed under Creative Commons 2.0