Women who hold high-powered jobs even after becoming mothers, women who race fast cars and sleep around and swear — these are the current examples of “strong” women. But all these women have done is seek to emulate traditionally masculine traits. And that’s all well and good if that’s truly what they want, but it comes at the expense of something beautiful, powerful, and necessary: feminine strength.
Women are strong in so many ways, and many of them are uniquely female. It takes strength and courage to give birth to a baby. It takes fortitude and steely-eyed patience to care for a child. It takes endurance, empathy, and selflessness to be there smiling when a husband comes home from work. It isn’t required that women do these things, it’s only that, when they want to do them, these things ought to be acknowledged for what they are: displays of strength.
Literature is full of strong women. Women who don’t need to wield a sword, or don a business suit to test their mettle. Women whose strength resides in their patient hearts, their moral cores, and their quick and agile minds.
Women whose strength resides in their patient hearts, their moral cores, and their quick and agile minds.
The best examples of this kind of heroine come from the classics. Books we maybe read in high school or skipped entirely because they looked too dull. I am not the kind of person to tell you that you haven’t lived until you’ve read the complete works of Dostoyevsky or someone like that. But I promise you won’t regret getting to meet the women in the books below. They’re some of the strongest gals I know.
(Mild spoilers ahead.)
1. Jane Eyre (from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë)
Jane Eyre is arguably the most influential female character in all of literature. Her strength resides in her complete and unwavering ability to always be completely herself. Jane may be “poor, obscure, plain and little,” but she never loses sight of her worth as a human being. Though she is a penniless orphan, Jane is able to stand in front of a wealthy and powerful man and tell him “I have as much soul as you, — and full as much heart!”
Jane shows her strength by forgiving him, instead of berating him for having flaws.
But Jane also possesses great depths of emotion, patience, and love. Rochester’s transgressions don’t dampen Jane’s love for him — she is strong because, even in her love, she must not succumb to his advances when he isn’t free to give them. But when he is free, Jane shows her strength by forgiving him, instead of berating him for having flaws. Knowing who you are, and never letting anyone else deter you from it — if that’s not strength, I don’t know what is.
2. Agnes Wickfield (from David Copperfield by Charles Dickens)
Agnes loves a man who doesn’t (at least at first) love her. Her strength is in her dignity, her patience, and her generous heart. When Agnes sees that David views her more as a sister and friend than a lover, she doesn’t throw herself at him, or try to seduce him, or manipulate him in any way. She keeps her own counsel — and her dignity. She wins his heart by being the kind, compassionate, wise, loving woman that she is — and always had been. She shows no jealousy when David marries someone else. She continues to offer him help, support, and counsel when he needs it, and is always a friend to him — and his wife.
She wins his heart by being the kind, compassionate, wise, loving woman that she is — and always had been.
It is this — more than anything she might have done to try to win his heart — that makes David realize (after his first wife’s death) that he’s been blind to the chance of happiness that was there all along. Agnes’ strength comes from her unwillingness to compromise herself to win David’s love, and her ability to continue to be his friend — bearing him no ill will — when he doesn’t see right away that he loves her too.
3. Marmee (from Little Women by Louisa May Alcott)
Most lists like this would probably choose Jo over Marmee — and Jo is certainly a feisty and strong-willed character worthy of admiration in many ways — but when it comes to the strongest female character in Little Women, the winner is clearly Marmee.
Margaret March (“Marmee" to her four daughters) is the bedrock of the March family. She is the embodiment of sacrifice, responsibility, and love — she is a mother. She cares for her girls through the hardest of times, while her husband is away at war. With quiet kindness, discipline, and love, she guides her children’s morals, comforts them in their heartaches, and forgives them their transgressions.
Her strength is quiet and unassuming, but that’s what makes it powerful.
She has the strength to reveal her weaknesses to her daughters in order to help them manage their own. “I am angry nearly every day of my life,” she says, when Jo is struggling with her own temper, “but I have learned not to show it.” She suffers the worst fate a mother can imagine — the death of a child — and picks herself back up again so she can be there for her remaining daughters. Her strength is quiet and unassuming, but that’s what makes it powerful.
4. Katherine of Aragon (from . . . well, a lot of books)
Alright, I confess, I’m cheating a little here. Katherine of Aragon was a real person, not a fictional character. She was the first wife of England’s infamous king, Henry VIII. But she has been featured in countless novels (most notably The Constant Princess by Philippa Gregory and The True Queen by Alison Weir) specifically because of her strength and bravery. (These are modern novels, not classics, but she’s a classic, so we’re keeping her.)
“I want only one true thing, to make this vow: that, in this life, mine eyes desire you alone.”
Katherine’s strength came from sticking to her guns and never backing down, even when it would have been much easier to do so. Katherine’s husband, Henry, tried to prove that their marriage wasn’t valid. But Katherine believed that “what God has joined together let no man put asunder.” Katherine claimed, until her dying day, that she was Henry’s “true, humble and obedient wife,” and even had the courage to claim it in court, and to the Pope, and to any number of Henry’s advisors who tried to change her mind. On her deathbed — when Henry had cast her aside — Katherine is said to have written to Henry that, “I want only one true thing, to make this vow: that, in this life, mine eyes desire you alone.”
5. Elizabeth Bennet (from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen)
Lizzie Bennet is a fairly obvious choice for a list like this. Even feminists tend to like her for her quick wit and willingness to speak her mind. But I like her for a different reason. Elizabeth represents the “prejudice” mentioned in the title. Her unwillingness to believe that Darcy’s cold and prideful demeanor might stem from anything other than spoiled hauteur causes her to nearly miss her chance at happiness.
Her strength, then, lies in being able to admit when she’s wrong.
Though Darcy’s attitude leaves much to be desired so, initially, does Elizabeth’s. Her strength, then, lies in being able to admit when she’s wrong. When Darcy begins to show signs of being something more than what originally met the eye, Elizabeth is able to open her mind and her heart to him and discover the truth behind his distance and disdain. Her ability to do that — instead of holding a grudge — allows her to find, in Darcy, a true equal.
So often, women like these are written off as “products of their time,” or cast aside entirely as “victims of the patriarchy.” But that is prejudice. These women — and so many women today who embody the same traits they do — are strong women. They’re just not strong like men. They’re strong like women. And that is a beautiful thing.
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