Fictional and Historical Heroines Who Inspire Us to Be Our Best Selves

These women show us how to live with strength and grace.
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These women show us how to live with strength and grace.

I read a lot growing up, sometimes juggling three or four books at once so that I could switch story lines according to my mood. As my personal library grew, I mentally began to file away the characters and real-life women I wanted to emulate. Some of the women were brave and fierce, while others were indelibly vulnerable and gracious. They all armed me with the inspiration I needed to be the best woman I could be.

If you’re looking for a road map on how to handle life’s difficulties with strength and grace despite restrictions or difficulties, start with these powerful protagonists, both fictional and historical. Warning: plot spoilers ahead!

The Independent Lady: Anne Shirley in Anne of Green Gables

L. M. Montgomery’s women throughout the Anne of Green Gables series are powerhouses. Anne Shirley is flawed, earnest, and refreshingly ambitious. She unabashedly yearns to be loved, yet she also possesses a strong sense of self-worth. While much of literature is littered with women who pine for their love interests, playing an uncomfortably messianic role for their men, Anne is a heroine who can stand on her own. Anne’s years-long grudge over Gilbert’s “carrots” insult is more than just an amusing story line to showcase her stubbornness. It shows a girl who refuses to bend to the irritating foibles of an immature, smitten boy. Anne must be won over, and both Anne and Gilbert are better for it.

Also, far too rare in literature, Anne’s life goals are not shaped by her love interest. Her ambition takes her to college and a teaching job far from home while her romance develops alongside her ambitions. (Another standout character in the series worth mentioning is Leslie Moore, a battered wife in Anne’s House of Dreams. Leslie poignantly struggles with bitterness and despair due to her unhappy, abusive marriage, an unusually raw depiction of a difficult subject matter.) In a world where it is far too easy to be cowed into fulfilling male expectations, Anne is a reminder that it is far more important to be a woman of integrity.

The Pure Heart: Sonia in Crime and Punishment

In Crime and Punishment, Sonia’s life is the reverse of the protagonist’s. Raskolnikov has literally gotten away with murder—at least legally and socially. Driven by intellectual arrogance, bad philosophy, and what was likely mental illness, he commits murder to act out his theory of radical moral exceptionalism. After the brutal murder, Raskolnikov’s social position and respectability remain unchanged, though he is internally ravaged with guilt. Sonia, on the other hand, has been forced into prostitution by her drunken father’s reckless living and must live her public shame daily.

Despite her status as a “ruined” woman, Sonia remains as compassionate and kind as ever. Raskolnikov is drawn to her innocence and strength, and Sonia eventually inspires Raskolnikov to confess his hidden crime and seek atonement. He is sent to a prison camp, and Sonia follows. To modern sensibilities, Sonia exchanging one harsh livelihood for another might seem like a lateral move. But Dostoyevsky was exploring redemption for even the most socially hopeless cases, and it is Sonia, the ruined woman, who is the strongest in the novel. Sonia’s simplicity and gentle power propels the plot. As Sonia reclaims her worth, she shows that no one is beyond saving.

The Strong-Willed: Cathy Linton in Wuthering Heights

Cathy Linton in Wuthering Heights—the daughter of the willful and unpredictable Catherine Earnshaw—is an unusual heroine in classical literature. Caught in the middle of Heathcliff’s decades-long revenge plot, the teenage Cathy is subjected to Heathcliff’s ruthless psychological and physical abuse—a brutal portrayal of abuse that made the Victorian novel intensely controversial at its publication. Too stubborn and strong-willed to cower under Heathcliff’s cruelty, Cathy instead becomes hardened and abusive toward others. Cathy’s imitation of her abuser is a chilling portrayal of the reality that a culture of violence begets violence.

Throughout most of the novel, Cathy seems crushed by the abuse and beyond help. And then, unexpectedly, empathy and love break Heathcliff’s stranglehold on his victims. There are no dramatic escapes or uprisings. The transformation is brought about by Cathy’s powerful choice to stop participating in hatred and abuse and instead to love.

The Idealist: Anne Frank

The twentieth and twenty-first centuries have been disfigured by large-scale violence and wars. Such extensive violence is often too large for people to comprehend, particularly when it is happening to people who are obscured from our own perception by physical distance or cultural differences.

Anne Frank remains a profound reminder of the individuals who are affected by genocide and persecution. The house in Amsterdam where Anne and her family lived until they were captured has become something of a pilgrimage site, a reminder of humanity in the midst of horror. Anne’s accounts of normal teenage irritations, self-consciousness, and hopes alongside the constant terror of discovery brought the stark reality of the Holocaust to the world. And through this crushing evil, Anne’s hope recorded in The Diary of a Young Girl echoes: “It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals; they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.”

The Trailblazer: Portia in The Merchant of Venice

William Shakespeare’s women are varied, fierce, and often highly influential within the plays. The men in The Merchant of Venice manage to create a tangled mess at the beginning of the play. Antonio offers to undersign a loan for his best friend . . . by offering a “pound of flesh” as collateral to a business rival, Shylock. When the loan cannot be paid back, Shylock—angry about prior mistreatment from Antonio—demands that the pound of flesh literally be cut from Antonio’s heart. None of the men can think of a way out of the legal trouble. Into this mess of prejudice, anger, foolishness, and revenge, Portia disguises herself as a man and defends the case. Portia delivers a moving speech begging that Shylock extend mercy, despite the fact that Antonio does not deserve it. When Shylock demands that the contract be read with the strictest justice, Portia uses Shylock’s argument to save Antonio’s life. The bond stipulated flesh but not blood, so if Shylock sheds any blood, he can be prosecuted for murder.

Even in a time of equal opportunity, it can be incredibly difficult for a woman to take a leadership role among men. Portia recognizes that she is truly the best person for the job, despite the gender restrictions of the time, and does what she needs to do.

The Lioness: Joan of Arc

Even the notorious cynic Mark Twain fell under the spell of the Maid of Orleans, devoting years of extensive historical research to write his Personal Reflections of Joan of Arc. By the time the teenage Joan offered her service to the French prince, France had been almost completely defeated by the British in the Hundred Years’ War. The French army rallied around Joan’s courage and confidence. France began to win ground for the first time in years. Her physical courage is a matter of historical record. Struck by an arrow between the neck and shoulder during a battle, she returned wounded to the fight to encourage the troops in their final charge. After her capture, she leapt from a seventy-foot tower in a failed escape attempt. So popular was she among the French, that in the attempt to discredit her completely, the British court tried her for heresy and cross-dressing.

Recognizing that the tribunal was blatantly biased against her, she cited her right to a partisan tribunal. Her request was denied—illegally—but this marked the first of many times throughout the trial that she outwitted her prosecutors and proved herself well-deserving of her nation’s devotion. She was so effective in evading the blatant traps set for her by the court throughout the trial that the court prosecutors resorted to outright falsification of court records and denied her legal appeals in order to condemn her. Her case was retried after her execution at her mother’s request. She was declared innocent, and the man responsible for her condemnation was posthumously found guilty.

Joan, an uneducated, young peasant woman, remains one of the most studied and admired figures of medieval history.

The Realist: Alejandra in All the Pretty Horses

All the Pretty Horses is a dark tale of frustrated ambition, loss, and the pain of disappointing family dynamics, with a small ribbon of romanticism cutting through it. Alejandra, the refined daughter of an influential Mexican family, is a ghostly promise of love for the main character, John, as he struggles to survive other men’s cruelty and bitterness. She was the indirect cause of his brutal imprisonment and the reason for his release.

The dark realism of the story refuses to make Alejandra the payment for John’s successful survival, however. Whereas most stories would hold up a romantic happily ever after, her integrity is more important than romanticism. Despite her feelings, she stands by her word. Her choice may be frustrating, but it is a reminder that without integrity, life would only be half-lived.

The Girl Next Door: Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice

It’s a joke among many Jane Austen fans that we secretly hope that, were we a character in literature, we’d be Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice. The essence of her charm, for me at least, is her genuineness—that and her skill of having the perfect witty retort in every situation. All of Austen’s characters are dynamic and relatable, but what makes Elizabeth stand out is her social courage and authenticity. She is always herself. She maintains her dignity without being haughty, and she expresses blunt honesty without being crass.

The blatant heroism of sweeping gothic romances and grim tragedies can be inspiring, but most of us will not have our courage tried in such dramatic moments. Elizabeth deals with far more common trials: difficult and careless parents, embarrassments caused by siblings, frustrating social expectations, and mean-girl bullying.

Elizabeth naively falls for Wickham, a charming liar, while trying to avoid Darcy, who is unbearably rude—even if he is a handsome, wealthy, and influential man. Her initial rejection turns out to be the tough love Darcy needs to realize that his shyness is no excuse for his arrogant aloofness; Elizabeth, proved incorrect about his character, develops enough humility to acknowledge that she’s wrong. Elizabeth is the ultimate heroine of ordinary life.

Illustration by Samantha Hahn