A friend recently sent me a Sophia McDougall article in The New Statesman explaining why she “hates strong female characters.” The phrase, she says, sets her teeth on edge, and she then describes media characters that fit the bill. These are generally figures that cultural critics label “chicks who kick butt” and include Angelina Jolie, Buffy, and various Disney princesses (although McDougall admits that she likes Buffy). McDougall wonders why women characters have to be strong to be of interest whereas male characters like Sherlock Holmes get to be fascinating by being complex.
McDougall admits that she doesn’t dislike all strong female characters and mentions one of my favorites: Jane Eyre, for asserting, “I care for myself.” But this is a obviously a different kind of strength than most of those McDougall mentions. After all, in the novel it’s Bertha Mason, not Jane, who kicks butt.
McDougall calls for a different kind of strength for her heroines:
I want her to be free to express herself
I want her to have meaningful, emotional relationships with other women
I want her to be weak sometimes
I want her to be strong in a way that isn’t about physical dominance or power
I want her to cry if she feels like crying
I want her to ask for help
I want her to be who she is
The criteria got me wondering who are the strongest female characters in literature. I came up with my top ten, which I list in no particular order. Feel free to send me your own.
Jane Eyre – Jane stands up for justice when she’s just a little girl, she has the courage to leave a secure job to go out into the world, she determines to leave Rochester even though she has no money and no prospects, and she stands up to St. John Rivers to follow her heart.
Fanny Price—Of all Jane Austen’s characters (including Elizabeth Bennet), none faces such formidable obstacles, both economic and psychological, as the heroine of Mansfield Park. Against men who think she is pliable and can be molded according to their desires, Fanny stands firm and carries the day.
The Wife of Bath – Operating in a misogynist society, the Wife somehow holds her own in the face of 28 male pilgrims, all of whom are laughing at her. Her philosophy is that the best defense is to go on the attack and she manages to leave vaunted male superiority in shambles.
Moll Flanders – The resilience of Defoe’s heroine is absolutely remarkable—suffering one reversal after another (including at one point discovering that she is married to her brother), she never gives up. Her energy is astounding.
Nora Helmer—The heroine of The Doll’s House leaves her husband when she realizes that she must learn who she is. Ibsen was similarly courageous for having created such a character.
Isabel Archer—In her pride, the protagonist of Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady sets herself up to be manipulated by scoundrels, who trick her into a loveless marriage. But she then shows herself to have the strength to live with the consequences of her actions, especially in taking care of her step-daughter Pansy rather than taking the easy way out.
Antigone – The Sophocles heroine is the model for those modern day activists, say the mothers of the Argentine Disappeared, whose principled stands change political discourse.
Rosalind—The heroine in As You Like It is strong in the way she dresses as a man and heads out for the Forest of Arden and strong in the way she allows herself to be vulnerable and to fall in love.
Hester Prynne—Like Isabel Archer, Hester shows herself willing to live with the consequences of her actions. She transcends her society as a result.
Joe March – Passionate, opinionated, prepared to make her own way in the world, Louisa Mae Alcott’s heroine has given generations of women a vision of what it means to stand up for yourself.
And as a bonus, even though most people don’t know her:
Helena –Aphra Behn’s cross-dressing heroine in The Rover sees the man she wants and goes for him. On her terms.
Not all great women protagonists are necessarily strong, which is McDougall’s point. Among those who are not, Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and Maggie Tulliver are particularly interesting.
But as far as the strong ones go, whom have I left out?