As a female book lover, there is nothing quite like being able to effectively identify with a female protagonist. This is especially true when the heroine of the book isn’t reduced to a simpering mess without a romantic driving force, or when the author is able to use that trope as a way to balance the strength of their protagonist. Some books are able to do this well, and some, not so much. But, it just so happens that sometimes the strongest female characters are created by writers who also are strong, independent women. Below is a list of books starring female characters that are able to overcome anything life throws at them. These women are real, flawed characters that are more than a pretty face or pining heart—they are mothers, sisters, wives, and lovers—fulfilling these roles in a way that represents strength, class, and perseverance. In turn, these books are written by female authors that also fulfill these roles: talented women that give a voice to women of all ages through their novels, empowering current and future generations through their work.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë—Let’s start this list off with a classic. Jane Eyre is the timeless story of a young girl’s life from the time she is passed into the care of her cruel aunt, to living in poverty at a derelict boarding school, to finally finding her purpose as a governess for an arrogant, but alluring gentleman. What makes Jane’s story iconic isn’t her romance with Mr. Rochester, but her tenacity through all the trials and tribulations that plague her throughout her story. She overcomes and remains true to herself throughout. The same can be said of the writer, the eldest Brontë sister. Despite having to don masculine pseudonyms to have their work published, the sisters have gone down in literary history for their role as women writers.
Ezperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan—Set during the Great Depression, Ezperanza’s story begins with the death of her father in Mexico, her family forced to flee to the United States to start a new life. To go from a position of wealth to one of hard work and toil is difficult for 13-year old Ezperanza to come to terms with, but, throughout the novel she grows as a young woman and learns to adapt and have hope. Writer Pam Munoz Ryan has won numerous awards for Esperanza Rising and other works, representing strong role models for young girls and her own Mexican heritage.
The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd—Lily Owens is haunted by the memory of her mother’s death and the abuse she sustains from her father T. Ray. Her only ally is their maid, Rosaleen. After an incident that sets them on the run, Lily attempts to track down the truth about her mother’s life and in the process, comes to terms with her role in her death, finding her own inner strength. Sue Monk Kidd continues to honor her role as a feminist after the immense success of The Secret Life of Bees and its important message not only for feminism, but for its depictions of the civil rights era and the relationship of a little white girl with strong women of color.
Untwine by Edwidge Danticat—Untwine is the story of 16-year-old Giselle and her twin sister Isabelle. This novel explores the bonds of family, especially those between sisters, as a horrific accident forces Giselle to look back on her past and come to terms with change, garnered by the love for her sister. Edwidge Danticat has become a driving force as a female Haitian-American writer. Her work continues to be praised for shedding light on historical and current issues ongoing in Haiti.
The Awakening by Kate Chopin—The Awakening has earned its place as a literary classic most commonly associated with female independence, a concept that is discussed and symbolized greatly throughout the novel. Edna Pontellier is a wife and a mother, but she takes on that role only because that is what society has deemed appropriate for a woman to do. When she falls in love with a younger man, for the first time in her life she starts to consider what it would be like to break free of societal constraints. While her thoughts might be tied to her romance, Edna still represents a woman struggling to break free, and that lack of freedom is what drives her. Kate Chopin also was able to cement herself among the great female writers of history, alongside Flannery O’Connor and Edith Wharton.
White Oleander by Janet Fitch—Astrid Magnussen is only 12 when her mother poisons her cheating boyfriend and is sent to jail. Astrid then begins a long journey between foster homes; dealing with addiction, abuse, and trying to grow up without her mother in her life and reconciling with who she is. This is a powerful novel about growing up and becoming your own person, and an equally important novel exploring the concepts of motherhood. Janet Fitch gained notoriety with this bestselling book after transitioning from her love of history to writing fiction.
Cavedweller by Dorothy Allison—Another novel that explores the complex feminine role of motherhood, Cavedweller follows Delia Byrd and her daughter Cissy. Delia has two other daughters that are estranged, working throughout the novel to establish a relationship with them. Dorothy Allison became a household name with her novel, Bastard Out of Carolina, another novel with a strong female protagonist, and often explores complex relationships in a brutally honest fashion. She champions her own fearless brand of feminist lesbian representation in her work.
The Color Purple by Alice Walker—Celie’s story is as iconic as it is tragic. A poverty-stricken African American girl, she suffers rape and abuse at the hands of her father. The two children she mothers in her youth are taken from her, and the only bond she can rely on in the world is the one she shares with her sister Nettie. Once she loses her, she must learn to find strength in herself. Celie finds this through relationships with other strong women throughout her life, until she is finally reunited with her loved ones. The Color Purple is an incredibly moving account of the bonds of sisterhood and motherhood. Alice Walker is a household name in the literary community, through this masterpiece and her work championing African American women writers.
The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah—In another story that explores the bonds of sisterhood, The Nightingale tells a tale of two sisters, Vianne and Isabelle, surviving through the Nazi occupation of France. With both sisters exhibiting their own unique display of strength during a time of violence and war, this book is a poignant and powerful tale of perseverance. Kristin Hannah used real women who resisted the Nazi occupation and rescued allied soldiers to inspire her bestselling novel.
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott—Last but not least, we return to another classic. Little Women has been inspiring young girls and breaking hearts for many years—still remaining a testament to the roles of mothers and sisters to create independent women. The main character, Jo, defies many gender norms and remains true to herself in her journey to become a writer and was a source of inspiration for me as a young girl. It is a powerful novel of women supporting other women, and one that has stood the test of time. Louisa May Alcott based the character of Jo on herself, and was an abolitionist who was active in women’s suffrage throughout her life.
The artwork featured on our blog post above was provided by female local artist Kelly Seifert.