Strong women…

GreeceOctober10 276Last week’s post,in which I remembered editors who didn’t think my heroine was ‘feisty’ (horrible word!) enough, got me thinking about strong female characters, and how the writer sets about portraying them. Well, I don’t think I have ever written about a weak and feeble heroine – why would you?- but my heroines have frequently been confused, uncertain, afraid; they wouldn’t be human if they didn’t show some of these characteristics at certain times. However, what makes – I hope – for interesting reading, is how they manage to cope with- and overcome- these feelings.
Of course, if you’re writing about a woman of the past, you have to pit her against constraints that a modern woman wouldn’t know. I’ve placed much of the story of the Girls of Troy series in a sort of classical Greek background, as this is a period we know more about than the Mycenean/Trojan world. But for all their fine words about democracy and freedom, the men of classical Greece gave their respectable womenfolk a pretty bad time. Mostly women were confined to their quarters, where they spent their days weaving and spinning. The fairly foul Hipponax said of women;’There are two days when a woman is most pleasing – when someone marries her, and when he carries out her dead body.’ Even noble Pericles declaimed that ‘the greatest glory of a woman is to be least talked about by men.’ Women would have had a pretty hard time being ‘feisty’ under those circumstances.
However, I’m sure that women managed to find ways round some of those strictures and find some freedom and fun for themselves. Hermione, the heroine of ‘Helen’s Daughter’ escapes the Mycenean court on at least two occasions, and at the end of the story is about to make her own decisions about marriage. Eirene, the heroine of my forthcoming ‘The Burning Towers’ is a slave, so her freedoms are even more restricted, but she manages to steal away to pursue the private devotions to her goddess which are so important to her. Electra is the heroine of the last in the trilogy and she is going to haveto behave in very unwomanly ways to take part in the terrible revenge which is to be her fate.
So what constitutes a ‘strong woman,’ either historical or contemporary? There seems to be a feeling, at least in YA books, that to be strong, a woman must be a sort of imitation man, dressing like a man, and wielding killer weapons. True, Katniss Everdene is a successful version of this character – she’s sympathetic and the books are well-written- but there also seem to be a lot of violent girl characters around. Murder and violence don’t do men many favours either- it would be a much better world if they learned to be softer and more ‘feminine’ but that doesn’t seem to be the way things are going.
So what constitutes real strength? A strong woman stands up for herself and learns to combat bullying. She isn’t fazed by internet ‘trolling,’ Mary Beard’s recent response of engaging with some of her ‘trolls’ is a truly strong and courageous one. A strong woman uses her natural empathy to relate to people, rather than thinking that authority means being rude and peremptory. (I had an eye test the other week; the male oculist peered through a machine at my eyes, and simply snapped over his shoulder to an observing student ‘She’s got cataracts.’ Luckily I knew this already, so it wasn’t a shock, but I can’t imagine a women doctor conveying the news so rudely and so brutally.) Often strength consists in not saying, or doing. Strong women will of course fight for their families, often getting no recognition for doing so, especially if they are poor. But truly strong women don’t need to constantly tell you how brave and fierce they are, ( I’ve known some who delight in spinning long narratives the sole purpose of which is to tell you how rude they were to some hapless person. ‘I can be rude to you too, if I choose,’ they seem to imply. Well, yes, and often they are too, but this isn’t strength, just an unpleasant character flaw.)
So who are my favourite woman characters in fiction? Surprisingly I can’t think of too many offhand, but these are some who spring to mind:
Beatrice and Olivia,
Elizabeth Bennett,
Flora Poste,
Miss Jean Brodie,
Jo March,
Marigold ( from Jane Gardham’s Bilgewater)
Berie (from Lorrie Moore’s Who Will Run The Frog Hospital?)
So who are your favourite literary females? I’d love to hear.

7 thoughts on “Strong women…”

    1. Rosemary Sutcliffe was amazing – I don’t think her readers in those days knew the extent of her disability – I always imagined because of the vividness of her descriptions that she had travelled – and walked – everywhere. But the only female character I can remember is the one in The Armorour’s House – I think she preferred writing about men. Unlike Geoffrey Trease, who I think had lots of sparky girl characters

  1. Sara Crewe (you knew I’d say that!)
    Scout Finch?
    (I am struggling to think of grown ups, but that probably says more about the crap I read!)

    You have reminded me to re-read Bilgewater! Thank you, I love that book.

  2. So good to find someone challenging the idea that somehow “to be strong, a woman must be a sort of imitation man”. I’m not sure what others will say about this, but I think Cordelia (Lear) is a strong woman – she didn’t have much room for manoeuvre, but she stood her ground.

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