Recently, we compiled a list of ten of the most powerful female characters in literature, and asked you to pitch in with your own suggestions in the comments. And boy, did you oblige us! As one commenter wrote, “This should be the 50 Most Powerful Female Characters. 10 just isn’t enough.” Indeed — even 50 probably wouldn’t cut it. We were excited to see the number of different characters you came up with, and even more excited to see a shining reminder of how many incredibly strong women exist in literature, so we decided to publish a second list with some of the most often (and most fervently) recommended female characters. The beauty about the vast world of literature is that different people are inspired by different things, so everyone gets to have a list of their own, and some of these aren’t necessarily characters we would have picked (though some totally are), but hey — the people have spoken. Click through to see which female characters our readers picked as the most powerful women in literature, and if we still haven’t hit on your favorite, make a case for her in the comments!
Our commenters are big fans of the classic Austen heroine — she was suggested a total of 14 times! As Grace wrote, she is a woman “who doesn’t rebel against the conventions of her time, but uses them to get what she wants. The author is also one of the more remarkable women in literature: several decades before the Brontes (who published their work under make pseudonyms), she was brave enough to publish using her real name.”
Toni Morrison’s writing is full of powerful female characters — we also heard some votes for Beloved’s Sethe, who could have easily made the list as well, but the rebellious Sula seems to be the favorite. In her eponymous novel, Sula bucks every social convention she has grown up with: she eschews a “normal” family life, goes to college, becomes a practiced seductress, and spends ten years out in the world, away from her small town. Her best friend since childhood, Nel, does the opposite, settling into what her family expects of her, but the two have a bond that can never be completely broken. When Sula returns, the town views her as their common enemy, a “devil in their midst,” but she refuses to give up her independence, whatever cost that choice might bear.
Margaret Mitchell’s conniving protagonist also won a lot of votes in the comments (though she had a few detractors as well), but commenter Alex was her most eloquent supporter, writing “Scarlett defied every convention of her time and restricted social circles. She survived poverty and near-starvation. She went into business for herself (well, pretending that she was just helping her husband). She refused to wear mourning for as long as she was supposed to. She drank. She was selfish and conceited, an indifferent mother, and a bad judge of lovers. And, according to the first line of the book, ‘Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it…’ Mitchell’s protagonist had the starring role in one of the 20th centuries most popular and acclaimed books, and she (Scarlett) is compelling because she is so gritty, scheming, and ambitious. And she gets the power in the end, only (perhaps because this was the only acceptable way to end such a book at the time) to find out she really wanted love.” Well said.
We’re glad that so many commenters suggested Scheherazade — it’s not too often that a character from a framing narrative gets any kind of recognition. Scheherazade, the storyteller of One Thousand and One Nights, manages to save her kingdom and her own life by her wit, creativity, and love of reading. When married to a king who beheads his wives after one night, she begins to tell him a story, but stops in the middle. So the king spares her until the next night, when he can hear the end of the story — and the beginning of a new, even more exciting one, which she will again break off in the middle. In this way, Scheherazade lives for one thousand and one nights, and has three songs by the king, who has, of course, fallen in love with his storyteller.
Readers also cried out for Shakespearean ladies, especially two of our favorites, the sharp-tongued, sharp-witted Beatrice, of Much Ado About Nothing, and the fierce Paulina, of A Winter’s Tale. Shona hit them both, writing “Beatrice has not just badass speeches about wanting to have the freedom of a man, but also a strange/completely amazing obsession with cannibalism. And Paulina wins my heart forever with her response to being told by the King that he’ll have her burnt: ‘I care not: It is an heretic that makes the fire, Not she which burns in’t.’ Quite rightly he’s pretty damn scared of her and she can just order him about by the end of the play. Compared to the usually limp Elizabethan women characters, they’re both mind-blowing.” (We know that’s Hero pictured above with Beatrice, and not Paulina — but hey, she’s another strong one, if a bit lovestruck.)
At the beginning of The Color Purple, Celie is a victim, and has been all of her life. Her father beats and rapes her, her children are taken from her, her husband is equally abusive. But the light in her life is her sister Nettie, and Celie will raise herself up to protect her, and the few other people she loves. Throughout the novel, Celie begins to realize her own self-worth and her own strength, and by the end, spurred by the stunning realization that her husband has been keeping her sister from her, finds the power to free herself.
Harriet the Spy
Amymay writes, “Harriet had such an impact on me because she was quirky, an individual, followed her passion (even if this was spying on people). She’s a bit selfish, judgmental & thoughtless – as we all can be. And ultimately, when she is called to task for something she has done (no spoiler from me – children’s book or no, I urge you to read it!) a thing which turns her friends against her (a horrible thing for any of us but particularly traumatic in childhood, most of us think we shall never survive the losing of friendships at this age) she is big enough and brave enough to admit her mistakes, apologize and take responsibility for them – something many adults struggle to do it seems without justifying and pointing the finger of blame elsewhere. All this and if I remember correctly she is 12!” In fact, she’s 11 — even more impressive.
We also heard some votes for the protagonist of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Commenter Jessica described Dagny Taggart as “the invisible hand of finance and strength in Taggart Transcontinental, martyred by her brother and his board of misogynists for her risks that only lead to the survival of their company. She struggles with her passion with the three most powerful men in the world and what they symbolize to her: hope, defiance, and self-authority.”
Morgan le Fay
Now, this woman has some power in her. Literally — Morgan le Fay, as one commenter pointed out, bested Merlin, which is seriously saying something. The most powerful sorceress in Arthurian legend, Morgan le Fay is often — especially in earlier texts — a villain, an adversary to King Arthur, but increasingly she has been picked up as a feminist icon, and portrayed as a healer and important figure for good, as she is portrayed in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon. Villain or healer, there’s no doubting the woman has abilities past our wildest dreams.
The women of A Song of Ice and Fire
Our readers are right — almost all the prominent female characters in George R.R. Martin’s popular series are totally bad-ass. Jim Scott champions Arya, pointing out that “unlike her sister Sansa, who took 4000 pages to finally grow a backbone, Arya has been the picture of strength and resolve since the moment she watched her betrayed father be executed.” Others suggested Catelyn Stark, Brienne Tarth, Cersei Lannister and — probably our pick for the strongest lady in the books — the Mother of Dragons, Daenerys Targaryen.