The Female Leads of Literature

Written by guest contributor Alice Saldanha

Photo by Rawpixel on envato

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:

Jane Eyre

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.

Jo March

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.