These five famous female protagonists by Jane Austen and others will inspire you – and not just in the months surrounding the International Woman’s Day.
Selma Lagerlöf, Grazia Deledda, Sigrid Undset, Pearl S. Buck, Gabriela Mistral, Nelly Sachs, Nadine Gordimer, Toni Morrison, Wislawa Szymborska, Elfriede Jelinek, Doris Lessing, Herta Müller, Alice Munro, Svetlana Alexievich, Olga Tokarczuk, and Louise Glück – thus ends the relatively short list of female Nobel Prize laureates in Literature. The coveted prize has been awarded since 1901. 101 men have been gifted this greatest of honors – compared to just 16 women. These 16 women are forced to share a relatively small patch of land on the highest Olympus of literary achievement.
Hopefully it’s clear to all that this inequality in representation is not born out of an unequal distribution of talent. Just think: Female authors, practically inconsequential until the 19th century, had a lot of ground to make up in the time since. All who wanted to publish before that period either needed a male benefactor, a nom de plume, or simply a lot of perseverance. Without courage it was an entirely hopeless endeavor. While Olympe de Gouges paid with her life for the fight for equality, Mary Wollstonecraft was socially shunned. Her daughter, Mary Shelley, the genius behind “Frankenstein”, would face her own battles, when well into the 20th century scholars disregarded her achievement, supposing that her husband was the actual author behind her great literary feat. Even the great Jane Austen herself hid behind a pseudonym to publish her debut novel, although it has to be acknowledged that she did not attempt to hide her sex. “By a lady”was the proud, almost defiant moniker she put on the cover of Sense and Sensibility. At first women’s literature was confined to the field of romance. With time the female protagonists did become more ferocious, however. Authors began to make their mark and fight for their beliefs – through the mouths of their heroines. Suddenly their characters were driven by the ideals of self-affirmation and emancipation, against the ever-present backdrop of a patriarchal society. Especially the literary heroines of the 20th century managed to fulfill a cathartic role for their female authors and readers. This month, after having celebrated International Woman’s Day, novum publishing presents you an overview of five strong and famous female protagonists who continue to inspire readers – women and men alike – around the world.
Five strong heroines
Virginia Woolf’s oeuvre was and remains to this day essential in the fight for emancipation. A Room of One’s Own is a bedrock text of feminist literature. Even in her celebrated novel Mrs. Dalloway we encounter feminist themes. Readers are presented with a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, a well-off member of the British bourgeoisie at the beginning of the 20th century. The novel is dominated by the ever-present question of what if. What if Clarissa had not married Richard Dalloway, but had instead pursued her inner ambitions? Would she have become the woman she had always envisioned she could be? Her increasingly desperate thoughts offer a stark contrast to her sleek everyday life and force Woolf’s readers to confront their own (secret) aspirations.
We know Anna Karenina mainly as a tragic heroine. While it’s true that she almost completely shackles herself to her lover Alexei Vronsky, her unconventional drift away from hearth and home is in itself an emancipatory act. Moreover, Tolstoy’s masterpiece challenges the uneven power structures between the sexes in 19th century Russia. Whereas infidelity for a man at worst would lead to some marital difficulties, for a woman it meant to jump in front of the – in this case at least – not only proverbial train.
Vicky Baum, a Jewish immigrant from Austria, managed to establish herself as a successful novelist and screenwriter in 1930s Hollywood. Helene Willfüer, the protagonist of her 9th novel, was an inspiration to many young women of that time. A student of chemistry, who pursued her degree even while living with the stigma of being an unwed mother, all the while fighting for a career in a male-dominated field, Helene became a character whose persistence towards a self-sufficient life offered a guiding light to many of Baum’s readers.
A suitor tells Esther Greenwood early on that she would feel differently about writing poetry as soon as she had children of her own. For the women of 1950s America the defiant Esther, protagonist of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, quickly became a feminist role model. The heroine of Plath’s largely autobiographical novel was a battle cry against the toxically misogynist environment of the time. Like her fiercely independent protagonist, Plath wanted to be more than simply a wife and mother. That wish tragically would only be granted posthumously. Dying of suicide after the dissolution of her marriage to noted poet Ted Hughes, Plath would manage to eventually surpass him after her death, being seen not only as a feminist icon but also as a revolutionary poetic voice.
A list of strong female protagonists is not complete without Jane Eyre, the heroine of Charlotte Brontë’s eponymous novel. Jane’s story is – unlike any other at that time – one of single-minded emancipation. Her will, her determination and her strong, unwavering character allow her to not only transcend the boundaries of her station in life, but also those of her sex. Jane takes responsibility for her fate and forges a path forward, establishing herself as an enduring role model for women of all generations.
Do you know of other strong female protagonists? Inspire us with your literary heroines and she-roes in the comment section below!
Let your words flow freely!
13. April 2021 at 15:11
While Jane Eyre offered inspiration for Victorian women, she does so at the expense of the ‘other’ woman in the attic, as Jean Rhys’s “Wide Sargasso Sea” pointed out more than a century later. I think the protagonist of Anne Bronte’s “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall”, Helen Graham, is more representative of women’s true position. This novel exposed patriarchal convention in 19th c. Britain, but rarely makes the list, while the work of Anne’s sister, Charlotte, is always a prominent narrative.
10. January 2022 at 23:48
Strong heroines: don’t forget Antigone!