Last month I asked people to share their favorite headstrong women of literature. I was pleasantly surprised at the number of responses–though many responses were not exactly women, and, in at least one case, perhaps not even human.
Among the top answers were the kinds I was expecting. They included authors like Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott, and Gertrude Stein who had written about strong, independent female characters and/or were notably strong and independent themselves. Some new names showed up on this list as well, including Jodi Picoult, Nora Ephron, Isabel Allende, Barbara Kingsolver, and even HIldegard of Bingen.
Other responses were female characters who clearly knew their own minds and felt empowered to live accordingly. I’m still not entirely clear what headstrong means, but these characters were all certainly memorably and complicatedly independent and determined. Top choices included classic heroines such as Catherine from Wuthering Heights, Elinor Dashwood (Sense and Sensibility), and Jane Eyre. They were joined by Henriette Deluzy-Desporte (All This and Heaven, Too), Marjorie Morningstar, Podkany of Mars, and Ruth the Moabitess.
More surprising, and a bit concerning, was the preponderance of characters from young adult and children’s literature: Pippi Longstocking, Nancy Drew, and Harriet the Spy, for example. Most popular of all was Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, that proprietor of cures for children’s bad habits.
Many of the favorite headstrong women in adult literature, classic and otherwise, turned out to be relatively young as well.
Headstrong Baby Women
The number of “headstrong women” named from children’s and young adult literature far outweighed the number named from any other source. They included:
The Paper Bag Princess
Vivian Carter (Moxie)
Harriet the Spy
Meg (A Wrinkle in Time)
Clearly young readers like strong, and headstrong, female characters. My daughter Sage remarked that when she taught at a Great Books summer camp, her teenage female students readily cited favorite young adult fiction featuring female heroines. “It’s definitely something young women are drawn to,” she says.
It also seems that most of these strong female characters are young and unmarried.
That’s true for the headstrong women in adult literature, too, in fact. Being young, unmarried, or, even better, a young, unmarried governess, seems to be the secret to being a strong female character without getting a bad name for it.
Mrs. Piggle Wiggle is not young, of course. However, as a widow, she is technically single–plus it seems that she was married to a pirate, which may have left her pretty much alone even in her married years. In any case, the fact that Mrs. Piggle Wiggle got more votes hands down than any other character–or writer–suggests that headstrong women of any age are welcome in kiddie lit.
Maybe strong becomes headstrong when you grow up
That young readers like strong (and headstrong) women is something to celebrate. As my friend Deb Coleman remarked, “Strong young adult characters build strong young adults! My early reading years of Nancy Drew and Laura Ingalls were perfect influences in tugging boot straps, personal accountability, independence, problem solving, and calling the bad guys the bad guys.”
Still, the relative dearth of strong older women, or even our limited ability to name them, is concerning. Here I stand by my earlier contention that what people call “headstrong” in women is a quality simply known as independence, or integrity, in men. In women such qualities often take on a more pejorative tone, connoting stubbornness and defiance. Whether you call the behavior “headstrong” or just plain “strong,” as adult readers. and as adults in general, we clearly like it a whole lot more in men than in women.
In any case, it seems that young readers do seem to gravitate to fierce, strong, smart female characters. Adults not so much. As Sage remarked, perhaps that is because adult women may know such role models “only get them in trouble.”
Someday perhaps the list of headstrong women will be dominated by adults. For now, I will certainly do my part to read, create, and model ways for adult women to be strong without getting a bad name for it. More immediately, though, I’m going to get my little grandsons a set of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books.