Indomitable Women in Fiction

Herstory: Women Who Changed the World by Gloria Steinem
In the introduction to the book Herstory: Women Who Changed the World, Gloria Steinem states “Human history isn’t accurate or complete without women’s history. It’s for all year, and must be integrated into every course. But even reading one book that describes the world as if women mattered can change the rest of your life.” This nonfiction book contains brief biographical sketches about remarkable women, some famous and some not so well-known. From heroic warriors, brilliant scientists and mathematicians, to dedicated teachers and political leaders, this book is a catalog of women’s achievements throughout history. Herstory is a great book that invites shared reading, perhaps with your kids or grandkids; it lends itself to creating great memories and teachable moments. There are, of course, any number of terrific biographical books in our library about inspirational women who have made a difference—notable women who have made significant contributions in the sciences, music, literature, and social causes. But what about those amazing female protagonists in literature: steadfast women of great depth and humanity, who rise to the moral challenge to be good in ways, big and small, throughout their lives? They may be labeled feisty, uncompromising, and/or difficult, but these plucky women with their quiet strength of character resonate deeply and never fail to inspire me.

Jane Eyre; Middlemarch
Most of us are familiar with Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte’s resolute and self-reliant heroine who, despite her circumstances, achieves what she wants for herself. She is the epitome of a strong woman. But how many of us know Dorothea Brooke? The nineteen-year-old heroine in George Eliot’s book, Middlemarch, grows from an idealistic and self-righteous girl to a truly noble-minded and gracious woman with an admirable sense of self-discipline. As a youthful do-gooder, Dorothea marries a much older man believing him to be a genius. Dorothea envisions herself as his helpmate. She wants to educate herself in order to support her husband as he composes his magnum opus. Alas, her husband turns out to be a pompous, self-absorbed and narrow-minded scholar, who not only rebuffs Dorothea’s efforts to help him, but also thwarts Dorothea’s chances for her own self-improvement. A lesser woman would have been crushed, but not Dorothea. Though unhappy and lonely, Dorothea learns to be patient and to take the high road no matter how selfishly her husband behaves. Both of the above books were written in the 1800s—Jane Eyre in 1847 and Middlemarch in 1872—and both contain admirable female protagonists but Dorothea will always be my favorite. She is such a great role model in how she handles all the trials and tribulations of life and, “…an example of equanimity that comes hard-won, one that made good behavior seem not sappy and sentimental but fed by strength and understanding.” Note 1 Erens, P. (2016, February 23). "It Can Be Embarrassing to Love Dorothea." Paris Review. Retrieved February 25, 2017, from https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2013/08/08/it-can-be-embarrassing-to-love-dorothea/.

The Poisonwood Bible; Year of Wonders
Published much later, in 1998 and 2001 respectively, The Poisonwood Bible and Year of Wonders, both contain strong female protagonists who battle all odds and emerge victorious. An amazing book, The Poisonwood Bible showcases the courage and resourcefulness of Orleana Price, mother of four daughters, who accompanies her Baptist missionary husband to Belgian Congo in 1959. Initially passive and submissive, Orleana undergoes a dramatic change after a tragic incident. Ultimately, a heroic and inspirational female character in an epic saga, Orleana’s courage makes her leave her fanatical husband, and Africa, to return home with her daughters and dedicate her life to the cause of social justice. Similarly, in Year of Wonders, we see the courage and resourcefulness of Anna Firth when the dreadful bubonic plague descends on her remote village in England. Anna’s actions during this harrowing time demonstrate her calm presence of mind, commonsense, courage and resourcefulness.

Ahab’s Wife
Remember Herman Melville’s Moby Dick? I found that book extremely difficult but I remember plowing through it and then feeling immense relief when I finally got to the last page! It is such an intensely masculine book. The perfect antidote to that book is Sena Jeter Naslund’s Ahab’s Wife. The heroine is, of course, Ahab’s wife Una Spenser: a free spirit who, disguised as a boy, runs off to sea at 16, gets shipwrecked, survives, loves, marries, has children, loses a child, and lives out the rest of her life with a community of freethinkers in Nantucket. In Una, Naslund has created a smart, confident, brave and resilient woman. Compared to 660 pages of Moby Dick, Ahab’s Wife, at 668 pages, is an immensely enjoyable read which left me feeling wistful upon finishing it.

Marie Ndiaye’s Three Strong Women
Winner of the Prix Goncourt award, Marie Ndiaye’s Three Strong Women, contains stories about Norah, a lawyer, Fanta, a former school teacher and Khady, a maid. While at first glance these three women may seem helpless, a closer look reveals indomitable heroines with tremendous strength. Despite their difficult circumstances, the women emerge resilient and courageous. This book is a must read for March!

March is Women’s History Month so, in celebration of women, why not check out some of the books mentioned above? Or share with us, in the comment section below, the title of a book with an incredible female character that has left an indelible mark on you.


—Rina B.

Note 1 Erens, P. (2016, February 23). "It Can Be Embarrassing to Love Dorothea." Paris Review. Retrieved February 25, 2017, from https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2013/08/08/it-can-be-embarrassing-to-love-dorothea/

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