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11 Awesome Books with Badass Female Leads You Need to Read Now

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at CMU chapter.

One of my biggest complaints about college is that I never have enough time to read. Truth be told, I do have time, I just usually spend it watching Netflix or scrolling through Tumblr. When I do find the time to sit down with a book, though, I don’t want to waste my time. I want to spend my time reading good books, and as a self-proclaimed feminist, I particularly enjoy books with badass female leads. These are among the best books I’ve encountered. I tried to include a wide range of genres and I have excluded obvious answers like Harry Potter or The Hunger Games. If you don’t think Hermione or Katniss is a strong female character or if you don’t already know those are great books to read, are you living under a rock?

1. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Why not start off with a classic? And this book is a classic for a good reason. Elizabeth Bennet is a strong woman who don’t need no man, even in a time when all a woman could hope to be was a wife. She is not easily impressed by looks or money, and refuses to be married off to the first man who offers her father the highest bid. If you have only seen the movie, seriously, read the book. The prose is a refreshing reprieve from the awful use of the English language we encounter in conversation and the media every day.

2. Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

I don’t know if I’ve ever read a stronger female character than Scarlett O’Hara. This badass bitch doesn’t let anyone or any circumstance including living in the South during the Civil War stop her from fighting for her life and the well being of her family. Sure, not all of her choices are ones we might necessarily agree with, but she shows that she is capable of making the hard decision for a greater end goal. Furthermore, she is equally as fiery when she is wealthy and comfortable in life as she is when she is poor and her circumstances demand strength. Scarlett encapsulates the very essence of an independent woman. However, be forewarned. This book is best read over the summer when you don’t have piles of homework to do every night. It clocks in at over 1000 pages no matter what edition you own and it takes some time to get through, but trust me, it is 100% worth it to witness Scarlett valiantly battle her way through all of the adversity she encounters.

3. The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley

What is more badass than training your three-legged horse to carry you into battle so you can singlehandedly slay a dragon? Not a lot. Aerin, the king’s daughter, doesn’t start as a confident, valiant queen. The beauty of this book is watching her evolve from the reserved king’s daughter to the hero she becomes. Spoiler alert: the hero mentioned in the title of this book is Aerin. Over the course of the book she realizes that she has more to offer the world than her beauty and if she wants something done, she has to go out and do it herself. She fights her own battles. She slays her own dragons. Literally. This Newberry Award winning book is an excellent read for anyone who enjoys fantasy books with a badass female protagonist. 

4. A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray

Gemma Doyle, the protagonist in this trilogy, starts as a spoiled wealthy daughter in Victorian India. After she unwittingly gets her wish of going to boarding school in England, however, she starts to change. There Gemma befriends the two most popular and cruel girls who run the school and leads them as well as her misfit roommate into another realm where they must use the magic of the parallel universe to defeat an evil that has entered their world, and does it all in a corset. This book starkly contrasts the conservative standards for women in Victorian England with particularly strong, independent female characters who have to fight for what they want. It is both engaging and empowering and I highly recommend it.

5. Poison Study by Maria V. Snyder

When Yelena is convicted for murdering a man she is given a choice: face execution or become the Commander’s food taster? She accepts the slower and more spontaneous of the two deaths, and learns to taste food for poison all while trying to suppress magic powers that she doesn’t understand how to control. However, Yelena just can’t catch a break. Someone is always after her. So she learns how to fight too. This book is super fast-paced and action-packed. You won’t be able to put it down. And Yelena is a pretty badass heroine proving that the best security guard you can have sometimes is yourself.

6. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

Everybody is familiar with this story from the recent movie based on it starring Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig. The book, however, is equally if not more compelling. It is a complicated crime novel that keeps the reader on the edge of his or her seat. Lisbeth Salander is a particularly strong asset to the book. A computer genius with a photographic memory and a thirst for exacting justice, Lisbeth quite frankly refuses to take shit from anybody, and those who get on her bad side quickly come to regret it. Warning: this novel is not for the faint of heart; it contains some very graphic material. However, if you can get past that and the long Swedish names, it is a gripping book.

7. The Help by Kathryn Stockett

I would consider this a must-read for anybody. It’s a fast-moving story with multiple conflicts, and dimensional characters. In addition, it’s beautifully written and makes important commentary on a not-so-distant American past. Skeeter, the main character, is an aspiring journalist looking for an interesting story to make her big break into the newspaper world. She finds her story in interviewing the help that works for her mother’s wealthy friends. The story takes place in Jackson, Mississippi, one of the most heated areas during the civil rights movement. Skeeter proves that she will do what is right and will follow her dreams no matter what as she pursues both goals that her family discourages and a risky subject for a newspaper article. Definitely highly recommended. Also, the movie is fantastic as well.

8. Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery

I will admit that this is a bit of a childish selection, but if you’re looking for a more light-hearted read, this is a wonderful book. Anne is quirky and loveable despite being a bit too imaginative and bold for her surroundings. She brings back fond memories of what it is like to be a child. In addition, she is a girl who isn’t afraid to be herself and won’t let anybody tell her what to do, least of all a boy.

9. Carrie by Stephen King

While most people wouldn’t immediately think of this book when it comes to strong female leads, I definitely think it qualifies. Carrie may not be our most loveable or inspirational protagonist, but she has power and she is not afraid to use it. She uses her telekinesis to make everyone who bullied her (which is basically the entire population of the town, including her mother) regret it. For those readers like me who don’t like scary things, it’s okay. Even though this is a Stephen King novel, it is not as scary as it is thrilling. Anyone who’s looking for a less conventional female should look no further.

10. The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter

This collection of short stories is a series of fairy tales that Angela Carter rewrote to be a bit truer to their original plot lines. Further, she made the protagonists of the stories strong females who don’t just sit around waiting for princes to save them. You will recognize most of the tales (including Little Red Riding Hood and Beauty and the Beast), but will be surprised by the twists Carter has added. These stories are both beautifully written and inspiring to every girl who would rather save herself than hope for a handsome prince to do so. Plus, since they are short, it’s not an exhaustive undertaking to read them. I especially recommend “The Bloody Chamber,” “The Tiger’s Bride,” and “The Company of Wolves.” 

11. Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire

Many of seen or at least heard of the Broadway musical based on this book, but this is where the whole “Defying Gravity” phenomenon began. For those who are unfamiliar with the story, it follows Elphaba, otherwise known as the Wicked Witch of the West, and how she got her name. Elphaba, being born with green skin, can’t count on her looks to get her by in life, so she studies and is one of the most powerful students at Shiz University. When she is persecuted because she won’t blindly obey orders from the higher-ups in Oz, she decides to embrace the name the Munchkins have fashioned for her – Wicked – and follow her own path. You have to admire the girl for being her own person.

I am a junior Materials Science and Engineering mjaor at Carnegie Mellon University, and I am also minoring in Professional Writing and Business. I am a member of Kappa Kappa Gamma.  I love TV and trying out new beauty products.  I follow E! on Twitter so that I can stay up-to-date on celebrity news.  I'm royal-obsessed, and I love Kate Middleton's style.  I'm kind of a Sephora addict, and I could easily spend hours there.  I also spend way too much time on Pinterest.  Finally, I love hockey and all Pittsburgh sports.