In anticipation of my cousin’s transition to secondary school next year, I sat and asked her that typical question, dreaded at any age, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ Instead of the usual reply, I was shocked to hear she’d convinced herself that she can’t have children when she grows up because she wants to work in an ‘intellectual’ and ‘sophisticated’ job as women are restricted to motherhood OR business, with no compromise. Expressing this view at just 10 years old, without having experienced sexism in the workplace, been catcalled on the street, or been told to ‘smile’ by a passing male stranger, really emphasises just how ever-present gender-based inequality is.
However, as we are becoming more and more impatient for change, we are lucky that our society is filled with narratives - of fiction, memoir, theory and criticism - all revolving around strong female protagonists, which are empowering women of all ages across the globe. In light of this, here is my top ten list of books featuring some pretty great gals.
One Day - David Nicholls
‘I suppose the important thing is to make some sort of difference,’ she said. ‘You know, actually change something.’ - Emma Morely
Emma very recently became one of my very favourite characters. Why? Emma is a true to life heroine; her narrative is charted by the familiar ups and downs of working life, financial issues, dreams that feel unreachable, and the turmoil of relationships. Nicholls creates a female character who is not overly glamorous or unrelatable, but a kind, thoughtful, clever woman who does in fact make ‘some sort of difference’. Common to a lot of the women on this list, Emma achieves fantastic things as a teacher and writer on her own. Her journey is reflective of a woman confident in her own abilities who however, has to battle hard against the challenges that life throws. It makes the heartbreaking end to her story all the more painful.
Small Great Things - Jodi Picoult
Cleverly written from multiple points of view, Picoult showcases two incredibly strong fighting females in Small Great Things. This novel beautifully portrays the tackling of racism by two women, African-American labour and delivery nurse Ruth Jefferson and a white public defender Kennedy McQuarrie, after a white baby dies in Ruth’s care. A lawsuit against the baby’s father, a white supremacist, who sees himself as superior, leads to the women confronting the realities of racial inequality and the stark difference between their two experiences of life. Through Kennedy and Ruth’s separate narration we realise that we are not perhaps all as racially or socially aware as we might think. Picoult shows that although society has come a long way, it is still far from equal, there is still a huge amount to learn and a huge amount to listen to.
Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen
It’s undeniable that Jane Austen brought to life several inspiring female characters, but Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice is of the utmost importance and is perhaps the epitome of female empowerment throughout Austen’s writing. Stubborn and outspoken, Elizabeth refuses to give into her role as a woman expected to marry for status and money, not for love. Opinionated and bold, she completely defies the expectations of women in the early 1800’s. Fighting the patriarchy since day one... well, the 19th Century!
I Heart New York - Lindsey Kelk
Angela Clark, another of my favourite fictional characters, is a bit of a muddle, completely brought to life by Kelk’s witty and true to life humour. After finding her boyfriend cheating, Angela flees England hopping on a plane to NYC. She manages to find both friends and a job over in New York, and before she knows it, is dating two guys. But what is important is Angela’s inspirational strength and, albeit shaky, confidence to move from everything she knows - her home country, family and friends - and is able to start a new life, with new friends and achieve her dream job. She’s the epitome of the saying ‘grab life with both hands and do it’.
Matilda - Roald Dahl
Despite being written for children, this will forever be a favourite book of mine. The eponymous heroine of the novel, Matilda, is a self-taught feminist without even realising, and was the first female character to show me that reading is cool. She overcomes her enemies and obstacles by reading books and delivers karma to those who deserve it in hilariously clever ways.
To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee
Told predominantly from the point of view of Scout Finch, an intelligent and unconventional girl, this coming-of-age story is based around hypocrisy and prejudice. She challenges gender norms through her ‘tomboy’ behaviour and appearance, wearing overalls, climbing trees, and fighting boys. To Kill a Mockingbird follows Scout’s growing awareness of society: hers is still a story of hope, however. She battles with the social and racial injustices of the world around but isn’t broken by it. Her outlook on life grows into an understanding of the need for empathy and kindness.
Bossypants - Tina Fey
Another non-fiction text is the memoir Bossypants, autobiography of Tina Fey. Actress, writer and comedian Fey shares her journey to her current success, from amateur improv to Saturday Night Live and her show 30 Rock. Fey is both funny and poignant throughout, with her writing guaranteed to brighten your day and remind you that with resilience and determination, the only way is up.
Harry Potter series - J.K. Rowling
No list of literary heroines would be complete without Hermione Granger, one of the most intelligent, compassionate and determined characters of Young Adult fiction. But Hermione is not the only strong female in Rowling’s writing. You can’t deny the likes of Luna Lovegood, Lily Potter, Ginny and Molly Weasley or Minerva McGonagall a mention. Students, teachers, mothers and friends alike, Rowling portrays multiple female characters with impeccable intelligence, loyalty and fearlessness, who, despite not being protagonists or villains, are pivotal to the novel and to Voldemort’s defeat. Let’s be honest, without Hermione, Harry would’ve died in book one. Female characters carry Harry through his journey of the Potter series - behind every strong man is a whole girl gang of strong women.