Written by guest contributor Alice Saldanha
As a child, I was restless.
A squirming, chattering, tumble of a girl, I could never sit quietly and play with toys, the television I was impatient with, and I hated dolls.
According to my parents, I refused to 'play' in the conventional sense of the word, opting instead to talk to everyone and anyone. The one problem? My talk was utter gibberish.
By the age of three, exhausted by the perpetual chatter of their highly energetic three-year-old, my parents began to realise something: the strange patterns of words and sounds I was stringing together were in fact a toddler’s shaky attempt at telling a story. So tentatively, they began to read to me, and suddenly I became quiet.
Engrossed in worlds of adventure and captivated by each new book’s cast of fictional characters, reading channelled my energy. For me, as is the case for avid readers worldwide, books became potent capsules through which I travelled, explored, and most importantly learnt. In the company of the characters populating the pages in front of me, I gained a greater understanding of the world and people around me – their stories are both intrinsic to my upbringing and my sense of self.
As a young girl, it was often the female characters who I felt I could identify with most. Journeying through childhood and adolescence, the experiences of the girls and women I was reading about often articulated my own. But more importantly, the host of female fictional characters I have encountered along the way have taught me powerful life-lessons, lessons that I may not have learnt without them. In the same way I am inspired by the women and girls that exist in my 'real' life, these fictional women remain some of the most dynamic educators and powerful role models I have come across.
Teaching literature to young women now, I am encouraged by the way my students actively identify with and learn from the characters we read about. The warmth, compassion, and insight with which the girls approach these characters is testament to how fictional characters can significantly and positively impact our personal and professional development.
So, who are the powerful female leads of literature? And more importantly, what can we learn from them to become successful female leaders ourselves?
Here’s a small selection of some of my favourite heroines:
from Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë
‘I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will.’
Fierce yet deeply kind, Jane’s spirit of independence, insatiable curiosity, and quiet but powerful voice, makes her one of the most popular characters in literature. Throughout the novel, Jane is a forceful advocate for female rights and teaches us to use our voice, no matter the circumstance, but to do so kindly, never compromising our individuality, self-worth, and dignity.
from Girl, Woman, Other, Bernadine Evaristo
‘..what girl doesn’t want to be told how lovely she is, how special?
except it felt wrong, even at a young age, something in her realised that her prettiness was supposed to make her compliant, and when she wasn’t, when she rebelled, she was letting down all those invested in her being adorable….’
Megan who becomes Morgan identifies as gender-free in Evaristo’s 2019 Booker Prize Winning novel: Girl, Woman, Other. Throughout their upbringing Megan/Morgan feels othered, but their commitment to discovering both their individuality and a community that welcomes and celebrates them, alongside becoming a social media activist for underrepresented communities, is inspiring on all accounts. Megan/Morgan is a powerful presence in the novel; teaching us how to lead our life freely and authentically, while giving back in a way that is meaningful to us.
from Little Women, Louisa May Alcott
‘I don't like to doze by the fire. I like adventures, and I'm going to find some.’
Rebellious and headstrong, Jo teaches us what it means to be a flawed human being. Normalising anger - a trait girls are so often taught to suppress - Jo’s humanity and refusal to suppress her feelings makes her a character so well-loved. Jo is a role model for being unapologetically yourself – a powerful message to remember in the insta-filtered world of the 21st century.
from Much Ado About Nothing, William Shakespeare
‘I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me.’
Witty and wonderful, Beatrice has captivated audiences throughout the centuries. Arguably one of the most intelligent characters in the literary canon, Beatrice stands out because her sharp cynicism has taught her a valuable lesson: never sign over your independence to a partner who is not your equal. Beatrice rebels against the patriarchy throughout Shakespeare’s play, teaching us to question social stereotypes and speak out against injustice.
from Min Jin Lee, Pachinko
‘Living everyday in the presence of those who refuse to acknowledge your humanity takes great courage.’
The family matriarch, Sunja, personifies what it means to lead with grit, grace, and love. Lasting commitment to family values are at the heart of Sunja’s story and her quiet strength pulsates throughout the novel as she knits the narrative threads together. Sunja reminds us what it means to be kind, to be generous and to live small in a world so preoccupied with the pursuit of capital.
The Greek Goddesses
from Nikita Gill, Life Lessons from Myths and Monsters
‘You are not made from paper
Paper is easy to crush,
And you were not made for that.
You were made flame first.’
Nikita Gill’s poetry collection is a feminist reimagining of the Goddesses of Greek Mythology. Brimming with powerful female leads, the cast of female characters in this poetry collection embodies different traits of indomitable female strength. From them, we learn that those who are wrongly oppressed, ignored or maligned can always rise up, fight back and make a change.
from Circe, Madeline Miller
‘I stepped into those woods and my life began.’
Bold and brave, Circe’s narrative gives voice to a character vilified in Classical literature. A witch, notoriously known in Homer’s Odyssey for transforming Odysseus’ crew into swine, Circe has traditionally been demonised. But in Miller’s account, Circe’s tale becomes a new-age epic that gives voice to a marginalised enchantress who uses her discerning intelligence to survive in the hyper masculine world of Greek Mythology. Circe is heroic in the way she stays true to herself, willingly throwing off her godly status, and neglecting those who neglected her in the journey to forge a life that is uncompromisingly her own.
Professor McGonagall and Hermione Granger
from JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series
“Is it true you shouted at Professor Umbridge?”
“Yes,” said Harry.
“You called her a liar?”
“You told her He Who Must Not Be Named is back?”
Professor McGonagall sat down behind her desk, frowning at Harry. Then she said, “Have a biscuit, Potter.”
I’ve learned all the course books by heart of course. I just hope it will be enough— I’m Hermione Granger, by the way, who are you?
I couldn’t finish this article without mentioning these two. While McGonagall’s stern exterior and fierce intelligence is intimidating to say the least, she symbolises what it means to be an outstanding teacher - principled, kind and fair.
And Hermione... well, honestly, how would Harry and Ron have survived without her sharp logic, stellar research skills and relentless courage?
About the author
Alice Saldanha is a teacher and writer based in Edinburgh.
Alice particularly interested in girls’ education, exploring and writing about feminist issues, and telling women’s stories.
You can read more of her work at www.tellmeatale.org
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