Her Campus Logo Her Campus Logo

4 Classic Novels Featuring a Strong Female Lead

When students think of classic novels, they immediately think of the books they were forced to read in English class during high school. Personally, I often found the assigned books in high school to be rather boring. The required readings for schools often put a damper on classic novels, and actually hinder students from reading other works on their own time. This was a major disappointment, because I had been reading classic novels long before high school, and I loved them—I was looking forward to discussing and analyzing different classic literature.

The stories I enjoyed reading often had female authors and protagonists, since they tended to have more accurate depictions of women. The characters were often unconventional: women seeking independence, refusing marriage proposals, seeking education, and gaining financial independence. While these notions are normalized today, they were completely unheard of back then. So, for anyone who is a fan of classic literature like me, here are some highly recommended reads featuring inspirational, strong female leads:


1. Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen (1813)

“There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me.” – Elizabeth Bennet, from Pride and Prejudice 

Jane Austen is known to be an author ahead of her time. Elizabeth Bennet, the protagonist of the novel, is known for her stubbornness, liveliness, and independence. Elizabeth (called “Lizzy” by her family), is unconventional for the time period; she refuses a marriage proposal that would benefit her family, a concept practically unheard of during the time. In the end, she marries a man for love, not for the love of his money, and the couple truly loves one another—flaws and all. While Lizzy does have her faults, it only makes her a more endearing character, rather than another Mary Sue.


2. Anne of Green Gables, by Lucy Maud Montgomery (1908) 

“Oh, it’s delightful to have ambitions. I’m so glad I have such a lot. And there never seems to be any end to them– that’s the best of it. Just as soon as you attain to one ambition you see another one glittering higher up still. It does make life so interesting.”Anne Shirley, from Anne of Green Gables

Yes, it may be considered a children’s story, but did you know Anne of Green Gables is actually a series which follows a girl from childhood to womanhood? Anne Shirley is an orphan who is adopted by a couple, Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert. The Cuthberts, who are expecting a boy, are initially disappointed. However, Anne quickly shows that she is equal to any boy. She is outspoken even though women are supposed to be quiet and demure, and while her free-spirited nature sometimes gets her into trouble, she continues to learn and grow from her mistakes. Anne is also very intelligent and curious, and strives to be the top of her class. Anne even goes on to college to gain a higher education in later books, a rarity among women of the time.


3. Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott (1869)

“I find it poor logic to say that because women are good, women should vote. Men do not vote because they are good; they vote because they are male, and women should vote, not because we are angels and men are animals, but because we are human beings and citizens of this country.” Josephine March, from Little Women 

Jo is known among her family of four sisters as “tomboyish,” with a fiery temper. Her actions often challenge the conventional gender roles of the past (and present). She is independent, and believes that the married life is not for her. She is another female protagonist who turns down her first marriage proposal. Instead, she aspires to become a published writer, a feat that not many women can accomplish during her time. Jo’s story actually mirrors the life of the author, Louisa May Alcott. However, Jo does end up getting married (for love), when Louisa May Alcott never did.


4. Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë (1847)

“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will.” Jane Eyre, from Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre is a gothic novel, which makes it an interesting read for those looking for a classic novel with a change of pace. Jane is definitely a fascinating character; she is raised by her aunt, who was physically and emotionally abusive to her, then sent to an institution for poor and orphaned girls. After six years, she leaves and seeks employment. During the novel’s set time period, not many women choose to work and instead are dependent upon men. Jane, however, becomes a governess, and does not consider marriage until after gaining financial independence. She is fiercely loyal to her own morals and principles. For example, she refuses marriage to a man (even though she loves him) because he is already married to a madwoman. In the end, she marries the love of her life, neither for his looks nor his money.



These books are perfect reads for those looking for classic stories that have strong—and accurately depicted—female protagonists. To all those bookworms out there: Happy reading!

Image Sources: 1, 2, 3

Emily Duryea

U Mass Amherst '21

Emily Duryea is a sophomore at UMass Amherst. She is a psychology major with a minor in education. Emily is aspiring to become a school psychologist. Her hobbies include, running, yoga, working out, cooking, writing, and reading. Emily resides in Sandwich on Cape Cod; she loves taking trips to the beach and taking her dog for walks along the Cape Cod Canal.
Similar Reads👯‍♀️