Even though many of literature’s heroines tend to be underrated in the canon as a whole, there’s no doubt about who the favorite leading ladies are. If books were like high school, all the Jane Austen heroines would be sitting at the cool kids table surrounded by bookish admirers begging Elizabeth Bennet for the scoop on dating Mr. Darcy. Meanwhile, a bunch of the lesser-known lady leads and sidekicks would be picking through their meatloaf surprise next to the band geeks and teachers’ pets.
In a world where “strong female protagonist” has been the rallying cry of women tired of seeing damsels in distress and “women in refrigerators," we, lady lit-lovers, have always clung dearly to our Jane Eyres and Jo Marches. And rightly so. Who wouldn’t love the tomboy book geek we all not-so-secretly wanted to be as kids? We love these popular heroines because they are too-rare depictions of ridiculously awesome women. Plus, we kind of just wish they were our best friends. (Seriously, I can’t be the only one who named her childhood diary after Jane Bennet).
But we don’t all have to crowd around Lizzie Bennet and Hermione Granger. Dazzling as the popular heroines are, some of the more underrated heroines could give the popular ladies of literature a run for their money. These 10, for instance, should get way more cred:
Orlando, Orlando by Virginia Woolf
If you woke up one morning to find that all your lady parts had been replaced with manly ones, you’d probably have several small heart attacks before having yourself committed. Virginia Woolf’s Orlando takes about five seconds to freak out after she goes from sweet-faced boy to hot woman overnight. Then she just puts on a dress and starts turning down marriage proposals like a pro. Disappearing gender lines and fiercely holding onto her independence, Orlando is one of the most unique heroines in literature. On top of that, she lives to something like 300 years old, which practically makes her a demi-goddess or something. Orlando is a heroine that makes you love being a woman. Or, in her own words,“Praise God I'm a woman!"
Sula Peace, Sula by Toni Morrison
Sula Peace is a fiercely independent, adventurous, morally ambiguous character. Some critics even go so far as to call her a straight-up antagonist, but Sula would give exactly zero hoots about that. Of all the women on this list, and possibly of all women in literature ever, Sula is the queen of just not giving a damn. She also rivals Rihanna as the shade queen of the universe. Whenever anyone tries to come at her with nonsense, like when her best friend tries to make her feel bad about being alone, and she comes back with the fire, “but my lonely is mine. Now your lonely is somebody else's. Made by somebody else and handed to you. Ain't that something? A secondhand lonely.”
And if you ever need a response for someone asking when you’re going to get married and have kids, try this one: “I don’t want to make somebody else. I want to make myself.”
Valentine Wiggin, Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
Valentine Wiggin is probably overlooked for the same reason she’s denied from the International Fleet — she’s just too nice! Valentine's strongest trait is her overwhelming empathy. Although we tend to think of a sweet, empathetic character as the opposite of a “strong” hero, Valentine proves you can be sweet and still save the day. It turns out to be Valentine’s overly compassionate nature that makes her pretty much the most crucial character in the story. She convinces the main protagonist Ender to stop whining and go save the world, and her compassion is what helps her to keeps her psycho-genius older brother in check, instead of just bailing and leaving him to the villainous conniving which would have undoubtedly led to some global-scale problems. Without Valentine there is no Ender’s Game. Oh, right, on top of all that she’s also a super-genius who single-handedly re-establishes government on Earth while Ender’s out playing hero. So, yeah...
Lady Brett Ashley, The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
Charming, beautiful, sexually free, intelligent, strong, independent, and unforgivingly seductive, Lady Brett Ashley almost seems too perfect. Unless, of course, you’re cool with Hemingway’s misogynistic implications that she’s some sort of succubus that causes any man in a 10-foot radius to spontaneously self-destruct. But even Hemingway’s misogyny can’t hide the genius of this character. Ashley DGAF about Hemingway’s slut-shaming. Even if she is a “bitch,” as she herself claims, she’s a dynamic depiction of a free, independent woman barely staying afloat in the deluge of misery drowning the "Lost Generation."
Margaret Hale, North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
Margaret Hale is one of the few female literary protagonists with a strong passion for social justice and politics (in a non-sci-fi-super-revolution setting). She dared to be political at a time when women were expected to be silent, charming idiots. Growing up in what was basically “la-la land,” Margaret’s heroism in the socially turbulent North of England comes as a bit of a surprise. But sure enough, when personal and social tragedy hit, she handles it like nobody’s business. Margaret Hale could easily top any list of the best literary heroines. It’s a shock she rarely does.
Ursula Iguaran, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
Living for more than 150 years, Ursula Iguaran sees pretty much every single snot-nosed Buendia through the house that she rebuilds over and over again. In fact, she kinda seems like the only real protagonist in the book. She’s certainly the only non-crazy, lazy, wild, or cruel character in the entirety of the Buendia family’s seven generations. And she’s the one that quite literally keeps the Buendia household from collapsing in on itself. Every time some misfortune or other (and there are several) comes a knocking, she just gets up, dusts herself off, and keeps on... like a boss.
Lauren Olamina, Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
Lauren Olamina survived the apocalypse, started her own humanitarian religion, and saved the world… and she was only 15... 15! If you are somehow, impossibly, not impressed by that, let me add that she also did all this while suffering from a condition that makes her feel the physical pain of anyone she sees. That’s right, she’s literally the most empathetic person in the world. So she’s basically a hop, skip, and a cape away from being a genuine superhero. Not that I need to say anymore about her, but let’s add that even though her compassion is what got so many people to follow her, she’s also merciless when she needs to be, which, you know, is kinda often in the apocalypse.
Primrose Everdeen, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Probably overlooked because of how adorably sweet she is, Prim is arguably even more hardcore than her sister. If you can look past the pigtails, you’ll find a talented healer, who cuts all that scaredy cat business when it comes time to get things done. Meanwhile Katniss just kind of goes full-on traumatized and starts yelling when the going gets rough. And while Katniss wants nothing more than to pretend the revolution doesn’t exist, Prim is the one determined to be involved, insisting on taking on a role in the revolution as a medic. She’s even the one who convinces Katniss to fight for the cause. So, if you think about it, the Capital might still be cheering kids to their deaths without Prim.
Charlotte Lucas, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
“I’m not romantic, you know; I never was.”
What? Charlotte Lucas? The voluntary Mrs. Collins?! Charlotte Lucas is far from the obvious choice for a heroine, but, if you can get over her stodgy, somewhat stupid husband, you’ll find that she has all the virtues we admire in Lizzie Bennet, minus the beauty crutch, the pride, and the romantic idealism, and plus a whole lot of sense and self-determination. In a way, Charlotte Lucas is the precursor to Austen’s beloved Fanny Price, and a descendant of sensible Elinor Dashwood. She sees the realities of her prospects and uses her wits to forge a more desirable path for herself. Charlotte Lucas will never be the romantic heroine — but she is easily the most realistic.
Helen and Margaret Schlegel, Howards End by E.M. Forster
Yeah, it’s a little bit of a cheat to group them, but it seems so necessary, doesn’t it? Margaret Schlegel’s cool remove and cold logic is balanced by her sister’s fiery passion and idealism. Meanwhile Helen’s self-importance is balanced by Margaret’s compassion. They’re sort of like the Jane Austen’s Dashwood sisters, except they’re super-geniuses, and their stories don’t revolve entirely around marriage. Helen is actually something of a failed heroine, her selfishness and idealism end up literally destroying the people she was trying to help. But through Helen’s idealism and Margaret’s reason, Forster dares us to consider the way the world could be without losing sight of how to live happily in the world as it is.
Images: Adventure Pictures; Summit Entertainment; Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation: BBC: Lionsgate; Merchant Ivory Productions