It has been long been prophesied that girls just want to have fun. What that age-old wisdom neglects to mention is that girls have the most fun when they’re running the world. Literature carries the point, offering up a fair few femmes who fatally smashed the glass ceiling. These ladies don’t just elevate the stories they appear in. They’ve elevated themselves to the tops of their careers, to the heights of their powers, and to places no woman ever went before. Here are just a few leading ladies of note.
Hermione Granger (Harry Potter series, by J.K. Rowling)
For seven books, we heard everyone and their magical mother extol Hermione as the brightest witch of her age. We all knew this to be true, and recognized how futile Harry and Ron’s efforts against Voldemort would have been without her. But it wasn’t until the epilogue that we learned just how thoroughly she made good on all that schooling excellence. After returning to finish her N.E.W.T.’s—after saving the danged world—she worked her way up the ladder in the Ministry of Magic. She wound up (so far) as Deputy Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, and, really, right-hand woman to Minister for Magic Kingsley Shacklebolt.
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When it comes to groundbreaking women, this Chinese folktale takes the cake on longevity. From the sixth century to Disney’s studio, Mulan’s tale has had many retellings through the years. Though some of the details shift, the thrust of who Mulan is remains the same: a badass who dons her father’s armor and answers the emperor’s call to war. Whether you read the story or have Donny Osmond sing it to you, Mulan’s heroics in battle are well-documented. She’s not just a heroine for our time, but for all time.
Beryl Markham (Circling the Sun, by Paula McLain)
Maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s May—no, she’s definitely born with it. McLain’s proven the go-to scribe for fictionalized accounts of real, bold, complicated women. Her latest novel follows pioneering female aviator Beryl Markham, who breaks hearts with the same ferocity she uses to break records. In the early 20th century, the air belonged largely to men. That didn’t stop Beryl from flying solo across the Atlantic. She was just as unflinchingly fascinating and independent in every other aspect in her life, including in love.
Sabriel (Sabriel, by Garth Nix)
I remember what I was doing at 18. It involved experiments in ideal heating temperatures of ramen noodles and Pop-Tarts. Sabriel, the star of the first novel in Nix’s Abhorsen trilogy, leads a slightly different life, which is why someone wrote about her and not me. Sabriel’s father is the Abhorsen, a necromancer with the unique job of putting the living dead back to eternal rest. But when he runs into trouble, Sabriel is plucked from her more modern life to take up his role. Before she has even left her teens, Sabriel amasses so much power legions of evil are stalking her every move. Try living up to that.
Daenerys Targaryen (A Song of Ice and Fire series, by George R.R. Martin)
Remember when people (ahem, Jorah) thought Daenerys would be through after her warlord husband’s demise? And remember when, instead of curling up into the fetal position and accepting her diminished position, she lit a fire, hatched some dragons, and emerged as the khaleesi of awe and wonder? Yeah, me too. Man, the dragon egg on everyone else’s faces was worth it. Since then, she’s done nothing but gather more forces, gain more strength, and amass more followers. She’s also proven to be one of the most level-headed potential rulers in (or around) Westeros. Granted, that’s a low bar, but it’s still worthy of note.
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Miss Marple (Miss Marple series, by Agatha Christie)
When you name some of the most memorable, lauded detectives in fiction, you can reel off a list of names: Marlowe, Spade, Holmes, Poirot…Marple. Jane Marple may look like the grandmother you always wished you had, but don’t think for a minute that you can slip something by her and still get tea and cookies. There’s a reason Miss Marple is one of the lone female figures to rise to the top of literature’s sleuthing ranks: she’s sharp as a tack, able to pick up on any slip of the tongue, and solves murders that stump the experts, whether they occur at the library, the vicarage, or some other unseemly place.