The concept of a strong female character might seem like a new thing, but if you look through out the history of writing, you will see that it is not. Strong women have graced the pages (and stone tablets) of literature since the dawn of the written word. Strong women are not a novelty. Don’t believe me? Here’s my list.
You knew this was coming right? Jane is humble, quiet and, at times, very unsure of herself, but her strength of character is unyielding. She stands up to the headmaster at her school. She refuses to be a mistress to Mr. Rochester and refuses to marry Mr. St. John, despite her affection for him and his family, because she doesn’t love him. She is willing to live penniless as long as it is on her own terms.
In early Welsh mythology, the Mabinogi, Rhiannon is a heroine. She chooses her husband. She saves him several times. She speaks her mind. When she is set up to have murdered (or possibly eaten her own child) she accepts a punishment while she waits for him to be found. Later, after her husband’s death, she marries the friend of her son and unravels a mystery of her son’s disappearance. She is mostly highly regarded in British mythology as a human manifestation of a goddess.
3. Jo March
The second of the March sisters of “Little Women” and most notably the strongest, although each sister possesses a strength needed to get by in relative poverty during the Civil War. Jo is stubborn, tenacious and, at times, more than a little proud, but she lives on her own terms, moving to New York to be a writer, arguing for women’s suffrage, and establishing a school in the home she inherits from her wealthy aunt. She marries a man who loves her and respects her great mind as much as she him.
The heroine of The Lord of the Rings, Eowyn is a dutiful niece to the King, even as he fades under the influence of Wormtounge, but she is not satisfied with waiting on the sidelines while the men go off to war. Disguised in armor, she joins the march to war and kills the Nazgul who is about to eat her uncle.
5. Hester Prynne
The fallen women of “The Scarlet Letter” is unable to conform to her Puritan society. Forever shamed for the adultery that resulted in a child. While some may see the story as a warning, Hester’s endurance, grace, and courage, living with her crime forever apparent on her, makes her a quiet hero of the 1850 novel.
6. Hua Mulan
Far more fierce than the Disney version, “The Ballad Mulan” follows a warrior woman in the 6th century. Skilled in martial arts, she takes the place of her ailing father and young brother to defend China from invasion. She battles for twelve years, before returning home to her happy family and shocking her comrades with her true gender.
7. Grendel’s Mother
While she didn’t rank enough to have her own name, and she wasn’t altogether human, Grendel’s mother proved to be a more dangerous and intelligent foe than her son. If it weren’t for a well placed swore, she would have succeeded in killing the semi-divine king Beowulf.
The collection of Middle Eastern and South Asian folktales “1001 Arabian Nights” centers around the daughter of the royal vizier. The king, heartbroken and women hating, has executed every one of his wives after their wedding night, since he learned his first wife was unfaithful. Scheherazade offers herself as his bride when her father comes under trouble for running out of virgins for the king to marry. On their wedding night, she tells the king a cliffhanger story and he refrains from killing her as her stories continue for 1001 nights. She is clever, noble, humorous, and ultimately earns the highest respect of the king who hated women.
9. Elizabeth Bennet
Jane Austen’s classic heroine for the ages, Lizzie stands a stark contrast against her frivolous mother and sisters, holding Mr. Darcy accountable for his insult to her and her family, refusing the marital proposal of her hopelessly dull cousin and standing up to the Lady Catherine when she realizes the true quality of Mr. Darcy. Lizzie lives on her own terms and, for it, has the uncommon (at the time) privilege of her father’s pride.
10. The Women of “The Color Purple”
While it wasn’t written all that long ago, “The Color Purple” needs a place on this list. It was one of the first books I read that spoke to my heart about what it meant to be a woman. It is a tale of perseverance. A story of unflinching strength. Of finding yourself and your pride. Celie, Netti, Shug, Sofia and even Squeak are women kept down by their race and kept down by their gender who all find ways to regain their power and claim their happiness.
Who did I miss on this list? Please give me some of the strong women in fiction who have inspired you!