Beyond Hermione Granger: Finding Female Role Models in Literature
Think of the greatest characters in literature and you may notice something: You immediately think of male characters. A 2021 study analyzed the protagonists of 3,280 children’s books from 1960-2020. While there was an increase in the number of female protagonists over this time span, the study found that male protagonists are still overrepresented— even in recent years.
But dig a little deeper and you’ll find that strong female characters in literature can be found throughout all reading levels. Whether they are standing up for themselves and others or showing courage and determination, these characters can inspire and entertain your students.
Creating Your Library
In 1990, literary researcher Rudine Sims Bishop wrote that children’s books serve as “windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors” for readers.
Kristen Strobbe writes, “…books should be windows into the realities of others, not just imaginary worlds, and books can be mirrors that reflect the lives of readers. Sliding glass doors refers to how readers can walk into a story and become part of the world created by the author – readers become fully immersed in another experience. Approaching children’s stories through the lens of windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors, prioritizes diversity, honors many cultures, and promotes empathy.”
Teachers must curate libraries that are responsive as well as expansive for our students—not only do we want them to see themselves represented in these stories, but we want them to be able to imagine new possibilities for themselves because of these stories.
For our female students, this means choosing books that will model empowerment, emphasize empathy, and teach them the power of breaking stereotypes.
How Can Female Characters Empower Readers?
Whether they’re fictional characters or real-life women, books with female leads are powerful teaching tools. Stories with strong female characters don’t just benefit girls, they benefit all readers.
They provide role models.
Research has shown that strong female role models provide the following benefits for young girls:
- They represent and expand what is possible.
- They inspire women to be more ambitious and aim higher.
- They demonstrate the mindsets and behaviors of how to rise.
When selecting books with female role models, look at the demographics of your class and choose characters that your girls can relate to—this is particularly important for minorities, English language learners (ELLs), and students with special needs.
For students who are learning English as a second language (ESL), it can be especially powerful for them to read stories of women from their native cultures who have overcome barriers to be successful. When choosing books for ESL students to read, it is important to take a thoughtful approach to develop a diverse library.
They help girls develop a healthy sense of self.
As children enter adolescence, they begin to develop more complex thinking and reasoning. They are starting to develop their sense of self—who they are, what they believe, and what makes them unique.
When readers can identify with female characters, it can help them to appreciate their individuality and who they are.
They break gender bias and stereotypes.
When the majority of stories available to young girls are centered on male characters, girls may begin to believe that their voices are less important. By introducing stories to your class that also have strong female lead characters, you can teach boys and girls alike that all perspectives are valuable.
Girls have historically been underrepresented in STEM-related careers for a number of reasons. One way that teachers can help minimize gender stereotypes is by providing stories of female characters with diverse interests.
For Young Readers
The title character from a series of books by Ian Falconer may be a pig, but she’s still a role model. Inspired by the author’s niece, Olivia embodies confidence as she truly believes anything is possible.
The Paper Bag Princess
Elizabeth, the princess in this book by Robert Munsch, has to resort to wearing a paper bag as a dress when a dragon burns down her castle, but she doesn’t let that stop her from having a series of adventures. She’s the antidote to the damsel in distress as she does the rescuing of a not-too-grateful prince.
In a series of books, this French heroine is a 7-year-old girl attending boarding school. Although she’s the smallest of the 12 girls at her school, she proves to be the bravest as she navigates life in Paris.
In this series of books by Kat Zhang, readers are introduced to Amy Wu, a young Chinese-American girl who always tries her best. Zhang weaves culture effortlessly into her stories with this funny, fierce, and fearless heroine.
For Elementary and Up
Roald Dahl’s classic tells the story of a little girl who is very different from her family. Curious and intelligent, she has to overcome a series of obstacles to find happiness.
While Fern stands up to her father and saves Wilbur the pig from being slaughtered in “Charlotte’s Web” by E.B. White, there’s another female hero here, too: Charlotte the spider. Charlotte embodies the characteristics of kindness, intelligence, and ultimately, selfless spirit.
Created to be the female counterpart to the Hardy Boys detective series, Nancy Drew has entertained and inspired readers since 1930. She’s a strong female character in literature because she’s brave and outspoken, and she never gives up in her sleuthing quests.
Pippi is a 9-year-old girl who marches to her own beat. From her crooked braids to her mismatched stockings, she’s not afraid to stand out in the crowd, proving she’s a perfect role model for being yourself.
Like Pippi, Beverly Cleary’s heroine likes to stand out. Known for her imagination, she handles a variety of setbacks with courage, strength, and a sense of humor, proving attitude is everything when it comes to success in life.
The Girls Survive Series
This series of fictional adventure books offers your students a unique fictional perspective on some of history’s most fearsome events. Strengthen your cross-curricular connections with these stories of courageous female characters.
The lead character of Sandra Cisneros’ “The House on Mango Street,” Esperanza faces the challenges of sexism, racism, and classism while growing up in a poor Chicago neighborhood.
For High School
The tomboy lead character of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” is high-spirited and energetic, which often gets her in trouble. But she stands firm in her principles as she comes face-to-face with racism and hatred in her hometown.
Said to be modeled after author Louisa May Alcott, Jo is the main character in “Little Women.” She’s strong-minded, creative, and independent — all qualities worthy of a role model.
This heroine of Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time” uses adversity to bring out her best —determination, intelligence, and some major math skills.
In Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” Janie transforms from a sheltered, quiet woman into a true role model for the feminist movement. Throughout her life, she finds her voice, grows in confidence, and discovers who she is.
A unique graphic memoir presented in black-and-white comic strips, “Persepolis: The Story of A Childhood” tells the story of Marjane (Marji) Satrapi growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. Intelligent and outspoken, Marji offers powerful insight to a time in history that may be unfamiliar to students.
By choosing books that feature multidimensional, strong female characters, you can empower your students to grow and be their best—in and out of the classroom.
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This blog was originally published on November 26, 2018. It was updated on June 23, 2023.