Incredible Women in Historical Fiction

As Alex Myers wrote his book Revolutionary, the story of a woman who disguised herself as a man to fight for the Continental army during the Revolutionary war, he found himself wondering what women his character would have met. That led him to creating the list of 10 Absolutely Incredible Women in Historical Fiction he posted this week.

Since Liddie Treadway, a young woman struggling to decide her own future, is the main character in my upcoming historical novel Go Away Home, I thought I’d weigh in on this topic, too. I think Liddie is pretty great, but readers will decide if she rises to occupy a place on any Top 10 list.

In the meantime, I’m sharing Myers’ list, adding incredible women from my own reading, and asking you to share the Incredible Women you’ve found in your historical fiction reading.

10 Absolutely Incredible Women in Historical Fiction

By Alex Myers

Too often, even in the twenty-first century, history’s all about the men. That’s just one reason why I love to read and write historical fiction: It provides the opportunity to explore or create or re-energize the roles of women across the ages. As I wrote Revolutionary, I kept wondering which women from history Deborah Sampson would have known. In 1782 Massachusetts, she probably read chapbooks that told the stories of Joan of Arc, or Mary Rowlandson (who survived being captured by Native Americans) or Hannah Snell (who disguised herself as a man and served in the British Navy). I have no doubt that these stories inspired Deborah to set off on her own adventures, disguising herself as a man, enlisting in the army, and fighting for a year and a half in the Revolutionary War.

How fortunate are we, then, to live in an era so abundant with texts that champion the role of women throughout history. Here are my 10 favorite works of historical fiction that feature women in the main roles. These women come from all sorts of time periods and class backgrounds, but every one of them has to fight and has to believe in herself, no matter what society tells her. Whatever the era, whatever the setting, these are the universal challenges that brave women face.

1. Orleanna Price in The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

2. Sethe in Beloved by Toni Morrison

3. Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

4. Anna Frith in Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

5. Orlando in Orlando by Virginia Woolf

6. Villanelle in The Passion by Jeanette Winterson

7. Mary Sutter in My Name is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliveira

8. Joan in Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross

9. Lizzie, Reenie, Sweet, and Mawu in Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

10. Dinah in The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

Myers shares his thoughts on why each of the women in these novels deserves to be on his Top 10 list. To read his entire post, click.

Several of the books Myers lists are also on my list – The Poisonwood Bible, Pope Joan, and The Red Tent. I also nominate the following women and books to a list of historical fiction’s great women.

One Thousand White WomenMary Dodd of One Thousand White Women by Jim Fergus: Mary Dodd is one of a group of white women (and one black woman) who travel to the western United States to intermarry with the Cheyenne Indians as part of a controversial “Brides for Indians” program sponsored by the U.S. Government under President Ulysses S. Grant. The alternative for these women is incarceration in an insane asylum. Mary and the others show remarkable fortitude, resourcefulness, and adaptability through this fascinating story.

Snow Flower and the Secret FanSnow Flower and Lily in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See: Snow Flower and Lily are two women in nineteenth century China. Rigid rules of conduct governed women in that era, beginning with the excruciating practice of foot binding. Yet the women have their own secret language and formed life-long friendships outside the view of men. Lily and Snow Flower are laotong, bound for life, but that relationship is challenged when Lily learns that her friend is of a lower social class.

I know as soon as I post this, other incredible women of historical fiction will come to mind. But I bet this list gets your minds churning. Who would you add?