For a long time in literature, it seemed that readers had to dig deep to find female characters who weren’t just a damsel in distress or a cackling witch.
But women have been carrying stories since long before they had the right to vote, and they continue that work even more so today—you just have to know where to look.
The 12 ladies below aren’t here to just pretty up a page—they’re ready to crack cases, win wars, and fight for love—and they’re taking names.
1. Hermione Granger
While J.K. Rowling’s multibillion dollar franchise is named for its famous boy wizard, we all know it was really Hermione who stole the show. From the moment she was introduced in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Miss Granger showed girls everywhere that it’s okay (and even pretty badass) to be a bookworm.
Over the course of the series, readers saw Hermione transform from a studious 11-year-old to a brave heroine who’s also a fiercely loyal friend.
2. Elizabeth Bennet
Lizzie Bennett is the smart and fiercely stubborn protagonist of Jane Austen’s 1813 classic, Pride and Prejudice. She’s determined to defy the status quo of her time by refusing to marry for status or money. She’s even willing to (gasp!) remain single if she can’t marry for love.
This witty Bennet sister is never afraid to speak her mind, and always maintains her fiery wit in conversations with her male counterparts.
3. Katniss Everdeen
As our modern heroine in Suzanne Collins’s dystopian series The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen embodies true girl power as she uses her archery and hunting skills to lead a rebellion against the tyrannical Capitol.
She’s smart, resourceful, and fiercely loyal to her family, having provided for them since her father’s death. Even though the Games catapult her into celebrity status, she always remains focused on what’s best for her family and her District.
4. Scarlett O’Hara
As the fiery protagonist of Margaret Mitchell’s 1939 novel Gone With the Wind, Scarlett O’Hara rages on through war, famine, and heartbreak. Like many of the other badass beauties on this list, she was never afraid to speak her mind and didn’t care what society thought of her multiple marriages or other scandals.
She did what she had to do to survive, and always with dignity and style. Even war and poverty couldn’t stop her from looking fabulous—the resourceful Ms. Scarlett could even rock a curtain!
5. Jo March
Jo is a tomboyish, outspoken protagonist of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. She’s willing to do anything for her family, even if it means cutting off her hair to bring home some money.
Still, she never gives up her beliefs to please society, having rejected a marriage proposal that everyone had been waiting for. Jo’s rebelliousness and outspoken ways make her a refreshing contrast to nineteenth century norms.
6. Minny Johnson
In Kathryn Stockett’s widely acclaimed novel The Help, Minny Johnson is a black maid who works for white families during segregation in Jackson, Mississippi. Though she’s a fantastic cook, her outspoken personality often gets her fired, since she is expected to be quiet and submissive.
After developing an unexpected friendship with her employer, Celia, Minny finds the strength to leave her abusive husband and reclaim control of her life. She also encourages other maids to share their stories, as she shared hers with journalist Skeeter Phelan.
7. Jane Eyre
Though her integrity is repeatedly tested throughout the course of Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel, Jane Eyre always maintains her sense of self-worth and dignity.
Having grown up as an orphan with a loveless childhood, Jane goes on to become a governess and falls in love with the master of the house. But when she learns his dark secret, Jane flees, illustrating her strength even in the most difficult of circumstances.
8. Hester Prynne
After an affair with a priest leaves her pregnant, Hester Prynne is publicly shamed and cast out from her Puritan society in The Scarlet Letter. Yet, instead of hiding or fleeing, Hester boldly chooses to remain in her town and confront the hypocrisy and self-righteousness of its inhabitants.
The scarlet “A” for “adultery” that she is forced to wear for the rest of her life gradually becomes a symbol of courage and compassion, as Hester becomes a guide for other women facing Puritanical oppression.
9. Anna Karenina
In Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, the title character is a married noblewoman and socialite who is condemned for her affair with an affluent Count. She nevertheless remains determined to live her life on her own terms by boldly facing the St. Petersburg high society that sent her into exile.
Anna remains deeply devoted to her children, who are her only reason for refusing to divorce her husband. In a male-dominated society, Anna Karenina fights for her autonomy and never loses her passion, even up until her tragic end.
In Antony and Cleopatra, William Shakespeare offers us an unapologetically fierce version of Egypt’s queen. Having made Antony the “noble ruin of her magic,” Cleopatra is given many titles by the men in this play, including “gypsy,” “wrangling queen,” and “Egyptian dish”—names undoubtedly cast in fear of her beauty and open sexuality.
Her strength, charisma, and often volatile personality make her one of Shakespeare’s most loved and celebrated characters.
11. Eliza Doolittle
In George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 play Pygmalion, Eliza Doolittle defies pretty much all of the stereotypes traditionally associated with the romantic heroine. Although Audrey Hepburn would go on to immortalize the role in My Fair Lady decades later, it was here that readers were first introduced to Ms. Doolittle.
Though much of the plot revolves around Eliza’s transformation from a sassy, low-class “flower girl” to a regal, well-spoken lady, the real transformation for Eliza occurs when she stands up for her own dignity against Henry Higgins’s insensitive treatment. She shows us that it’s her independence, not fancy dresses, that makes her a woman.
12. Nancy Drew
First introduced to readers in the 1930s, Nancy Drew was a groundbreaking character because she wasn’t just serving as the pretty sidekick to a male detective—she was the smart, intuitive, and resourceful protagonist charged with solving mysteries and hunting criminals.
And no matter how many times Nancy was kidnapped or trapped in dangerous situations, she was always back for another adventure—175, to be exact.
Leading Ladies of Literature
The 12 women above are examples of some of the most beloved protagonists in literature, but this list is far from complete.
Thankfully, more and more authors have been giving women the strong, versatile roles that better reflect their real-life powers.
Who is your favorite female literary character? Let us know in the comments below!
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