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One of the best parts of growing up in a household of radical feminist bookworms is that I’ve been exposed – and addicted – to strong literary women from the first. Although the Bechdel Test is great as a baseline, it doesn’t begin to highlight the strengths of female characters in fiction. Here, then, are some of those ladies in literature who inspire, fascinate, and aggravate me the most.

Jane Eyre. I do not, and have never, considered the works of the Bronte sisters to be fine romances, though Wuthering Heights is a fine how-to manual for domestic abuse. But Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre offers a heroine who is compassionate, dedicated, and strong to the point of being stubborn. Even though she is horribly naïve at times (being eighteen and raised in a girls’ boarding school will do that to you), she makes the hard choices even in her naivete, all while managing to convince us that she is, in fact, doing The Right Thing. Well done, Miss Eyre.

Flo Forrest and Eva Greene. Minrose Gwin’s The Queen of Palmyra earns praise all over the map for its wonderful clarity of writing, sense of place, and elegance of exposition. I particularly love the main character, eleven-year-old Florence Forrest, and Eva Greene, the Tougaloo junior who fights for her right to die standing. Flo and Eva manage to bring out the best in one another throughout the course of the novel. They are stunning examples of human beings as well as fabulous literary females.

Taylor Greer. Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees became my favorite novel the moment I picked it out of the middle school library in 1993 and read the opening sentence: “I have been afraid of putting air in a tire ever since I saw a tractor tire blow up and throw Newt Hardbine’s father over the top of the Standard Oil sign.” This is our introduction to Taylor Greer, one tough – and terrified – Kentucky cookie. Yet this novel is about far more than just Taylor and her fear of exploding tires; its themes – childhood, motherhood, compassion, and loss – are universal. As for the Bechdel test, this book passes with flying colors. Why has no one made it a movie?

Alanna of Trebond. Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness Quartet was not my first introduction to crusading ladies, but it was among my most memorable. That Alanna can throw on a suit of armor and sally forth as a knight errant is just icing on the cake. Beneath the bravado, Pierce has created a girl, later a woman, whose loves, losses, fears, and ambitions are as complex and varied as our own. Bonus points for explorations of romantic and sexual relationships that are honest and appropriate for pre-teen girls.

This list, of course, is by no means complete. Who are some of your favorite literary ladies? Let us know in the comments!

~*~ Dani