When I was a freshman in high school I knew nothing about feminism. I didn’t care to know and by no means was I reading books with strong female characters to give me a sense of how awesome women could be. No, most of what I read was either bad teen fiction or male-centered stories. Then my mother suggested I read Jean M. Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear.
The book is historical fiction set in pre-history and focuses on the evolution of the modern human species and the period where Neanderthals were living alongside Cro-Magnon Man before the Neanderthals went extinct. Ayla is a Cro-Magnum girl separated from her people at the age of five due to an earthquake. This same earthquake leveled the cave where one Neanderthal population, the Clan of the Cave Bear, had been living. Forced to leave their home the Clan travels looking for a new cave and comes across a nearly dead Ayla lying in their path. Ayla is adopted into the Clan’s sexist culture always aware that she is different in both looks and understanding from her Clan mates. As the story unfolds, it looks into Ayla’s role in contributing to the evolution of the modern human race.
Without realizing it at the time, I fell in love with a feminist character. When I first considered the idea that Ayla was perhaps a feminist, I thought about how difficult it must have been for Auel to write this character. How can you write feminism thousands and thousands of years before feminism was even a word and language was still in its crudest of stages? But then I realized, it must have actually be easy to write Ayla because she is a feminist simply by being a woman struggling for her rights and equality in a society that thrives off subjugating women.
Unfortunately, there are very few female characters in fiction I like, but Ayla is one of them. As a reader, you watch her grow up and see her understandings of sexism and how it affects her. The Clan is a misogynist society, where women exist to serve men, give birth, and gather food. Children are told stories about the power of womanhood that comes with the power to bring new life into the world and how this power has to be kept from the women lest they become omnipotent. In this way, Auel uses the sexist notion that women exist to make babies and turns it on its head to be the powerful force that it is. Hearing these stories, it is no wonder that Ayla is a feminist.
Women are not allowed to touch weapons, but Ayla masters the use of a sling. Women are not allowed to disobey men, but Ayla goes against both the male leader and his son, who is the antagonist of the story. I don’t want to give too much away because it is a phenomenal book, but Auel makes another perfect move by creating a balance where there are the deplorable sexist male characters and yet other male characters are righteous, upstanding moral leaders you can respect no matter your sex. The book is not meant to cater only to women and never perpetuates stereotypes of either hardcore feminists or chauvinistic men. Everything that is done is done with the purpose to prove a point about culture.
The book is the first of a series (though the first stands entirely on its own) and does contain pretty graphic sex and a graphic rape scene. I was not prepared for this when I read the book at age 14 and I bring it up because although I skipped over these when I first read the books, in later books when Ayla has sex because she wants it, sex isn’t treated as evil and heinous. Ayla’s sexuality is her own and her pleasure is nothing to scorn at.
If you get a chance, read the book. I have never found a more compelling, subtle, female character. I have never found another female character who inspires me as much as Ayla does. Pass along this feminist in fiction for a greater understanding of the complexity of women characters.