Lit’s 10 Strongest Female Characters

Frederic Leighton, "Antigone"

Frederic Leighton, “Antigone”

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?

This entry was posted in Alcott (Louisa May), Austen (Jane), Bronte (Charlotte), Chaucer (Geoffrey), Defoe (Daniel), Hawthorne (Nathaniel), Ibsen (Henrik), James (Henry), Shakespeare (William), Sophocles and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.
  • Barbara

    I’ve always been especially fond of Susie (Mrs. Parkington), in Louis Bromfield’s novel, Mrs. Parkington. She’s a young girl working in a mining town who marries a future robber baron and stays true to herself in the midst of high society including the British royal family.

  • Carl Rosin

    I’m a big fan of Kaye Gibbons’s eponymous Ellen Foster, as you know, Robin. I’m finally reading David Copperfield, and enjoying Betsey Trotwod as I do, and I always want to put in a good word for Janie Crawford-Killicks-Starks-Woods from Their Eyes Were Watching God, at least in terms of how she ends up. I’ll throw in a local favorite of yours, too: the narratrix of Lucille Clifton’s “i am accused of tending to the past”! Lots of great characters on this thread — looking forward to checking back to see more suggestions….

  • Robin Bates

    I don’t know Susie, Barbara, but I want to. And Carl, I’m kicking myself for forgetting about Janie. Yes, she holds her own against suffocating and rabid husbands. And I’m as much in love with Betsey Trotwood as you are. (I’d think differently if I were a donkey.)

    I didn’t include poetic speakers but, if I had, Lucille would undoubtedly have topped them all. I’ve been in Clifton poetry readings where, at moments, every woman in the room spontaneously stood up and cheered (for instance, for “homage to my hips” and “wishes for sons”).

  • http://iamstillabookworm.blogspot.com/ Amanda

    How about Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath? She’s not glamorous, but I think she is terribly strong. She has self-respect, love of family, the ability to keep going when it seemed like giving up would be easier. I think my great grandmothers in Texas and Oklahoma were women like Ma Joad.

  • Robin Bates

    How could I forget Ma Joad, Amanda! I just taught that book last semester.

  • http://lilyoakbooks.blogspot.ca/ Lee-Anne

    Since my first reading of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South I have admired and drawn inspiration from the character of Margaret Hale. Everything of importance is slowly stripped away from Margaret, yet she perseveres and stoically endures with grace and determination. She meets all the criteria, to my mind, and teaches me so many lessons about facing challenges.

    [Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the passing of your father. My father passed away two years ago and I have found much comfort in your words. I appreciate your willingness to share such a personal journey. I, too, found that reading my own father's (unpublished) poetry was a pivotal stage of grieving and provided immeasurable comfort. Thank you.]

  • Robin Bates

    Thanks for telling me the story about your father’s poetry, Lee-Anne. As a member of “the greatest generation,” my father didn’t ever talk much about himself so his poetry gave me a special glimpse into him. And, as you say, helped with the healing process.

    North and South is on my “to read” list–the question is whether I can get to it before I retire. All I’ve read by Gaskell is her bio of Charlotte Bronte.

  • Whitney Allgood

    I enthusiastically second Janie from Their Eyes Were Watching God — “go there to know there”

  • Donna Raskin

    Countess Ellen Olenska, from The Age of Innocence, one of my favorite novels. She is particularly strong in opposition to Newland Archer, who is the illustration of weak.

  • http://thebriarfieldchronicles.blogspot.com Caroline

    Lucy Snowe from Villette is particularly powerful and realistic. Though less attractive than most famous literary heroines, the truth of her destitution and depression surely makes her an underrated heroine.

  • Betsy

    Robin, I’m so delighted you included Isabel Archer! Her decision to return to Osmond and fulfill the commitment she made both to herself and to Pansy definitely makes her strong in a way that many of us postmoderns have a hard time seeing. Another James heroine I would add to the list is Maisie, who tries with indefatigable persistence to understand what is going on with the adults in her life, and to make moral sense of it, and who makes a decision at the end that demonstrates, perhaps, even greater strength than that of Isabel, both because she is still a child and because she is facing life with only her own magnificent sense of integrity, and not much else.

    And I totally second the addition of Janie. I would love to teach that novel someday!

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