When I decided to make a list of kick-ass female characters from literature, I wanted to use only characters from adult fiction. This proved to be more difficult than I thought. It’s fairly easy to find awesome female characters aimed at making young girls believe they can grow up to do or be anything. Katniss, Hermione, Violet Baudelaire – all of them are awesome and smart and feisty. But they are also all teenagers. Every list I found of “The Best Female Characters in Books” was full of YA or children’s characters. Aren’t there any cool female characters who are all grown up? Answering that question proved a little harder than I hoped. It made me angry that every literary female cited was under twenty.
Unfortunately the adult world of literature favors men. MEN have adventures. MEN fight dragons. MEN go to war. And MEN live full lives. Perhaps it’s because girls are encouraged to be active, seek adventure, and be daring. Women are encouraged to make babies and seek a husband. How dull. How sad. But I managed to put together a list of thirteen of the most badass ladies in literature despite the stereotypes. The only criteria: 1. It must be a book that I have read. Personally. 2. Must be a book aimed at adults.
- Jo March (Little Women) – Smart, impulsive, argumentative, tomboyish, and hot-tempered. Jo March loves life and wants to participate. Much like the author Louisa May Alcott, Jo was a rebel. She is forced to live a life that doesn’t suit her and soon yearns for more. She is a writer, and her main focus is writing. Not romantic love. Although she does have romance in her life, it isn’t what defines her. I love Jo. My good fellow.
- Jane Eyre – She’s my favorite character of the Brontë universe. Throughout the novel Jane possesses a sense of self-worth and dignity. She’s only a mouse, but underneath she is a tiger. Her integrity is tested over the course of the novel, and Jane must learn to balance the frequently conflicting aspects of herself. She’s self-reliant and never expects to be “rescued” from her circumstances. Jane Eyre has always been a hero of mine. A woman trying to find balance between her need for freedom and her yearning for love, and often voicing radical opinions on sex, gender, religion and social class. Bad. Ass.
- Elphaba Thropp (Wicked) – Even before this book became a hit musical with songs that annoy karaoke participants to this very day, I was singing its praises. Long before TV and movies got on board with the “new twist on classic tales” idea, Gregory Maguire had it nailed. He created a Wicked Witch of the West that was vulnerable, kind and funny. A true hero. She’s tough, smart, sassy and green. And like the song says, it’s not easy being green.
- Marian McAlpin (The Edible Woman) – Margaret Atwood tells the story of a young single woman who works for a market research company. Unable to foresee a fulfilling career, she begins to worry about her future and about what she might become. She soon realizes that her relationship with her boyfriend Peter is more serious than she would like. Yet when Peter proposes marriage, Marian accepts. A story I whole heartedly related to when I read it. Marian has an affair and develops one of the best eating disorders I’ve ever seen in print. A woman, like Emma Bovary in some ways, has to determine her own worth and her place in her own life.
- Miss Jane Marple – She’s not what you think of when you think of detective, but she’s one of the best. Long before Jessica Fletcher was out solving crimes, Miss Jane Marple was doing it better. A shrewd observer and a natural genius, Miss Marple proves herself a match for every murder she meets. Sure, I’m more of a Poirot fan, but even I have to give props to Agatha Christie’s tour de force, Miss Marple. A cheerful person who always expects the worst. How can you not love her?
- Scarlet O’Hara – A dark-haired, green-eyed, spoiled brat of a beauty takes center stage in this novel of the south. She’s not nice. And that is exactly what I like about her. Scarlet gets shit done. And if you are in her way, good luck to you. She proved to be strong, smart, and even a shrewd business woman who always gets what she wants. She embodies the old and new south, and struggles with those ideas internally. She adapts to what life throws at her and doesn’t just survive. She thrives.
- Mildred Pierce - At first glance, Mildred Pierce is a dumb woman who lets people manipulate her. But that’s not all Mildred Pierce is. The story takes place right after the depression in Southern California, and Mildred finds herself needing to work for the first time ever. Her spoiled daughter is embarrassed of her. Her best friend tells her to use her femininity to her advantage, use men for what she can get out of them. But Mildred instead chooses to start her own business, earn her own money and take control of her own life. Bad. Ass.
- Catherine Earnshaw (Wuthering Heights) – All that we know of Catherine is second-hand, filtered through diaries and memories. She is a literal ghost at the opening of the novel. She is a woman torn between two loves and two worlds – Edgar and Heathcliff. Her choice of husband is the turning point of the novel, and when the nastiness begins. She manages to become a “lady” – a snobby brat who gets her way – but underneath is still that strong, wild woman who wants love and freedom. She’s a ghost for the majority of the novel. That says something about the strength of her character.
- Hester Prynne (The Scarlet Letter) – A is for Adultery. The heroine of The Scarlet Letter is ostracised in 17th-century Boston for giving birth to a daughter out-of-wedlock. This story shines a bright light into the world of suffocating American puritanism that still exists today. Hester endures shame and scorn for a situation she could hardly control, and a situation she was not alone in. It takes two to tango, ya know. Hester was forced to marry an old man and while waiting for him in to come to Massachusetts, she meets a charismatic minister and has an affair with him. I wonder who gets punished for that one? I’ll give you a hint, it ain’t the minister. Hester is an independent woman, and a free-thinker in a time when none of that was okay to do. If you were a woman.
- Becky Sharp (Vanity Fair) – A poor orphan of low birth, Becky Sharp is a born hustler and social climber who manages to raise herself to the upper limits of high society and wealth. Evil doer or misunderstood woman ahead of her time? Thackeray never actually reveals whether she is guilty or innocent of the crimes that cause her reputation’s crash. Sure, she is constantly stealing from her creditors, allowing Rowden’s gambling to disrupt her friendships, and pulling con jobs, but somehow the narrator makes these sound comical rather than evil. I feel like Becky only committed crimes of circumstance or survival. Any woman in her place would do the same thing. Okay, she’s not the best mom in the world, but not every woman wants a child. And I don’t think Becky wanted to be a mother.
- Claire Fraser (Outlander series) – She’s a no-nonsense nurse and all around badass. Oh, and she also time travels. Cool, right? I read the Outlander series back in 1992, and I’ve been recommending them ever since. See, she’s married to a guy in the 20th century, but meets an even hotter guy when she is transported back to the 18th century. Claire has a quick tongue, a hot temper and she’s smart. Sure she gets into trouble, but watching her get out of trouble is half the fun. It was the first time I had read a book where a woman was having the adventure, time traveling, and making decisions that changed the course of the story. And history.
- Lisbeth Salander (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) – Okay, she might be a sociopath, but given the circumstances of the novel, I feel alright with that. She’s a feisty, world-class computer hacker with a photographic memory, and she’s also the survivor of an abusive childhood. That’s why she’s anti-social. And why she has just a teeny, tiny violent streak. If you fuck with Lisbeth Salander, you better be a fast runner.
- Auntie Mame (Auntie Mame) – This is the story of a ten year-old boy who is sent to live with his zany aunt. And before I go any further, I want to state that I think the world needs more zany aunts. Auntie Mame is a worldly, hilarious, irrepressible, adoring, easily distracted, and all around awesome guardian of her little nephew Patrick. Mame’s life is filled with parties, travel, bathtub gin, caviar, Broadway stars and Indian mystics. The perfect environment for raising a well-rounded kid. No. Seriously. Mame believes in trying things, thumbing your nose at convention, taking roads less traveled because they’re bound to be more interesting, and being yourself no matter what the assholes of the world think of you. These are valuable lessons to learn at any age. My life motto is from this book: “Life is a banquet” she says, “and most poor suckers are starving to death.” (The picture here is my vey own first edition of “Around the World with Auntie Mame”)