From Jane Eyre to Janie Crawford, strong female characters make literature go round. All of the best authors seem to concur on their importance. They elevate and add more resonance to dystopian tales like The Handmaid’s Tale and The Hunger Games, and make novels like the Song of Ice and Fire series even more worth reading.
Picking favorite fictional feminists then presents a challenge. This list is composed of people who do not merely take charge of their own destinies and care about society’s treatment of women, but who would probably agree that they were feminists if you asked them (and, if necessary, explained the term). Clarissa Dalloway would probably smile politely at you and then excuse herself to find the ladies’ room; Miss Jean Brodie would laugh and blow cigarette smoke at you; and Scarlett O’Hara, though she is a successful, independent businesswoman and professional problem solver, would probably throw a drink in your face.
The women of this list pass the Bechdel test, too: they have another female character around to talk to about subjects beyond men. That helps.
Favorite Fictional Feminist—Western Division
Clara Allen (Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurty)
Virtually all of the women in Larry McMurtry’s fabulously entertaining historical epic about the American West are tough, canny, assertive, even the tertiary ones like the dissatisfied wife Elmira (“’Nobody run off with her,’ Roscoe said. ‘She just run off with herself, I guess’”). Like Lorena, the prostitute powered by the determination to get to San Francisco, they are limited sometimes by circumstance, but not by the inherent frailty of gender. Gus’s old flame, Clara, the tough-minded, practical mother with a Nebraska ranch she runs herself, takes the proto-feminist cake. The cake is red velvet, of course, as befits a queen.
Beatrice (Much Ado About Nothing, by William Shakespeare)
How powerful is Kate in Shakespeare’s comedy The Taming of the Shrew? So powerful that he has to insert a monologue at the end in which she supposedly repudiates everything she once thought. Yet, for all her anger, there doesn’t seem to be as much depth in her as there is in Beatrice, who mixes humor in with her candor and so gets a happier ending. One gets the sense though that she remains the same person from start to finish: intelligent and wry, with a gift for understatement (“I have a good eye, uncle; I can see a church by daylight”).
Classic British Lit Division
Margaret and Helen Schlegel, (Howards End, by E.M. Forster)
The earnestly intellectual Schlegel sisters don’t merely believe in progressive causes, they act accordingly, even when their activism makes their lives more difficult. Though their commitments to morality strain their relationship, ultimately they strengthen their bond as sisters and as friends. They’re even rewarded at the end, as though they have been playing The Price Is Right all along. (A new house!)
Dr. Maud Bailey (Possession, by A. S. Byatt)
Overlook, if you would, the fact that Gwyneth Paltrow played her in the movie version, and Maud becomes much easier to identify with. A passionate scholar and keen literary detective, Maud finds love without letting that goal displace her desire to be successful and taken seriously.
YA Sci Fi Division
Meg Murry (A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle)
Mathlete Meg Murry uses every resource at her disposal—including her awkward but fierce individualism—to save both her father and her younger brother from imprisonment on a distant planet. Yay, Meg!
YA Survivalist Division
Karana (Island of the Blue Dolphins, by Scott O’Dell)
Could you hold your own against ravenous wolves that killed your brother, ultimately mastering both your fear and the hostile environment in which you have been stranded? Yeah, I didn’t think so.
YA Historical Fiction Division
Cassie (Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, by Mildred D. Taylor)
Could you hold your own against the joint forces of The Great Depression and the White Supremacy in power in the Deep South? Yeah, I didn’t think so, either. Cassie comes to understand the grim realities of sharecropper life, but she never lets them dampen her spirit or her resolve.
Harriet Vane (The Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries, by Dorothy L. Sayers)
A middle class, Oxford-educated country doctor’s daughter, Harriet has only her stubbornness to help her when she finds herself locked up for a sensational crime she didn’t commit. From the depths of Old Bailey, she wins over the sensitive, self-mocking aristocratic detective who saves her life; but how can she marry him when she fears he will sap her independence? Over four hilariously unromantic books, they argue in Latin and simmer sexual tension at each other while solving, and writing, mysteries, and, without sacrificing their individuality, become one of the best couples in British literature. Harriet, especially, earns her happy ending.
Mildred Pierce (Mildred Pierce, by James M. Cain)
Care for a pie, or some chicken? The no-nonsense housewife at the center of this small, midcentury masterpiece, tired of being subject to various men, launches her own entrepreneurial enterprise. It goes great! Until, at least, she is undermined by her conniving daughter, who represents Traditional Femininity and a patriarchal society’s desire to keep women in their place. Ultimately, though, we have no doubt that Mildred, like the other feminists in this list, will rise from her own ashes. She is too tough and resourceful to do otherwise.
Who are your favorite fictional feminists?