This list came about in two ways: first, I was re-reading Jane Eyre. She mused on the inequity between the sexes, and I thought, Go, Jane, go… Then, a few chapters later, she calmly observed that beautiful, soulless Blanche was simply “too inferior to incite jealousy,” and she had me. I watched her forgive her terrible aunt, love and leave Rochester, survive on barren moors, find a family, become independent, resist (sort of) the manipulative advances of St. John, and, at long last, return to care for and marry her former master. I wanted to meet her, to befriend her, to be her. I thought she was the coolest, most self-possessed person I had ever met and she only existed in a book.
The other thing that happened was that I found this list. And I was very, very disappointed. I know, I know, it’s Buzzfeed, what did I expect? But really: about two-thirds of these women I don’t even like at all, and, as for the rest of them, well, I like their movies? But that in no way makes them worthy of large chunks of my admiration and emulation. Which, after my experience with Jane, was what I was searching for.
I believe that it is important to have heroes. (I’m twenty-two and about due for that revelation.)
Not just literary heroes, like Jane, but tangible examples of what it means to live a good life, to do what you can with the time that’s been given you. People to remember, to revere, to consciously try to live up to.
And if you ask most people from the Christian circles I grew up in to name their heroes, they’ll usually give you a splendid list. And that list is going to be almost entirely comprised of men. Great men, good men, wise men, and very few women whatsoever. It is true that well-behaved women rarely make history. For centuries, a woman could expend all her mental, physical, and emotional efforts to serve God and love those around her, and still her name would be forgotten just a generation or two after her death. Wallace was right to say that the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world, but history has done an extraordinarily poor job at remembering the names and deeds of those to whom those hands belonged.
So what follows is my little attempt to begin to fix that inequity in my own mind, at the very least. If asked specifically for female heroes we’re likely to name our mothers and grandmothers, aunts and teachers. It is a good thing to recognize the virtues of those around you, particularly those who raised you, and I don’t want to discourage that in the least. But there’s something to be said for the larger-than-life quality inherent in someone who has had national or international impact. To adore and emulate the same virtues in the same person is to build kinship, affection, and understanding with people you have not met yet and may never meet a tall. Literary heroes will serve this office in a sense, but not with the same solidity as people who have actually lived. We need this combination of the actual and the mythic in our heroes. (Those were, after all, the qualities of the Man who died for us and then rose again.)
1) Deborah 1200-1144 BC
Judge of Israel. Dispenses advice under a palm tree. Admonishes the commander of the army for his cowardice. Drags him out of bed so he will go and fight. Rejoices in victory, and writes a song.
“Let those who love Him be like the sun when it comes out in full strength.”
Read: Judges 4-5
2) Esther 400’s BC
Orphaned and then adopted by her cousin. Grows up in lower echelons of society. Becomes queen through her charming personality and God’s providence. Risks death to save her people. Prepares a banquet in the presence of her enemies. Obtains justice for all concerned. Establishes Purim.
“And so I will go to the king, which is against the law; and if I perish, I perish!”
3) Eleanor of Aquitaine 1122-1204
Wife of two kings, mother of three (along with five other children.) Queen of both France and England, at different times. Fills her courts with troubadours. Imprisoned for supporting her sons over her husband. Rules England while her son Richard crusades. Generally rides all over Europe on horseback to retrieve wayward offspring. Most influential woman of the 12th century.
“Let the word of the Lord not be bound up in your mouth, nor human fear destroy the spirit of liberty in you. It is more acceptable to fall into the hands of men than to abandon the law of God.”
Read: A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver E.L. Konigsburg
4) Queen Elizabeth I 1533-1603
Outlives her enemies to become queen. Establishes the Church of England. Sends Sir Francis Drake to the new world. Fends off the Spanish Armada. Claims to have the heart and stomach of a king. While imprisoned early in life uses her diamond to write poetry on the window.
“Life is for living and working at. If you find anything or anybody a bore, the fault is in yourself.”
“Fear not, we are of the nature of the lion, and cannot descend to the destruction of mice and such small beasts.”
Read: Elizabeth I: Collected Works
5) Mary Sidney Herbert 1561-1621
Sister of Sir Philip Sidney and related by marriage to George Herbert. Has the queen over for dinner. Raises two sons. Finishes Philip’s translations of the Psalms after his death and completes her own translations of Petrarch. Manages the Pembroke estates. Watches Shakespeare with King James. John Bunyan models the “House Beautiful” on her home.
“Unlock my lips, shut up with sinful shame,
Then shall my mouth, O Lord, thy honour sing;
For bleeding fuel for thy altars flame,
To gain thy grace what boots it me to bring?
Burnt offerings are to thee no pleasant thing;
The sacrifice that God will holde respected
Is the heart-broken soul, the spirit dejected.”
Read: The Collected Works of Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke.
6) Anne Bradstreet 1612-1672
Leaves England for America with her husband at the age of eighteen. Suffers from joint problems and later tuberculosis. Moves all over the New World. Raises eight children. Becomes America’s first published poet and the first woman published anywhere.
“If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant: if we did not sometimes taste of adversity, prosperity would not be so welcome.”
“There is no object that we see, no action that we do, no good that we enjoy, no evil that we feel of fear, but we may make some spiritual advantage of all.”
Read: The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America, Several Poems Compiled with Great Variety of Wit and Learning
7) Susanna Wesley 1669-1742
The twenty-fifth of twenty-five children and gives birth to nineteen herself. Has a sometimes absent and incarcerated husband. Raises and educates her ten surviving children, most notably John and Charles Wesley. Survives two severe house fires. Writes meditations and scriptural commentaries. Begins her own Sunday afternoon services in the absence of proper teaching from the church.
“Whatever weakens your reason, impairs the tenderness of your conscience, obscures your sense of God, takes off your relish for spiritual things…that thing is sin to you, however innocent it may seem in itself.”
Read: Susanna Wesley, Her Collected Writings
8) Abigail Adams 1744-1818
Wife of the second U.S. president, mother of the sixth. Gives birth to six children. Restores the family home into what is now a National Park. Tells her husband to ‘remember the ladies.’ Has to chop the wood herself while living in the White House.
“If we do not lay out ourselves in the service of mankind whom should we serve?”
“Great necessities call out great virtues.”
“If we mean to have heroes, statesmen and philosophers, we should have learned women.”
Read: The Letters of John and Abigail Adams
9) Julia Ward Howe 1819-1910
Marries Samuel Gridley Howe at the age of twenty-four. Raises her six children while studying foreign languages and writing essays, poetry, and plays on the side. Writes the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Publishes multiple works without her husband’s knowledge. Works to establish Mother’s Day. Travels around Europe and the Caribbean.
“I am confirmed in my division of human energies. Ambitious people climb, but faithful people build.”
“I want to take the word Christianity back to Christ himself, back to that mighty heart whose pulse seems to throb through the world to-day, that endless fountain of charity out of which I believe has come all true progress and all civilization that deserves the name. As a woman I do not wish to dwell upon any trait of exclusiveness in the letter which belongs to a time when such exclusiveness perhaps could not be helped, and which may have been put in where it was not expressed. I go back to that great Spirit which contemplated a sacrifice for the whole of humanity. That sacrifice is not one of exclusion, but of an infinite and endless and joyous inclusion. And I thank God for it.”
Read: Words for the Hour, Modern Society, Sex and Education
10) Fanny Crosby 1820-1915
Blind from infancy. First woman to speak in the U.S. Senate. Joins the Faculty at her alma mater, the New York Institution for the Blind. Marries Alexander Van Alstyne and gives birth to a baby girl who does not survive. Writes almost 9000 hymns using almost 200 pseudonyms. Works devotedly in city rescue missions.
“Thou the Spring of all my comfort,
More than life to me,
Whom have I on earth beside Thee?
Whom in Heav’n but Thee?”
“Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!
O what a foretaste of glory divine!
Heir of salvation, purchase of God,
Born of His Spirit, washed in His blood.
This is my story, this is my song,
praising my Savior all the day long;”
Read: Fanny Crosby’s Life Story, The Blind Girl
11) Christina Rossetti 1830-1894
Youngest of four children, all of whom are very creative. Deals with bouts of depression. Becomes deeply interested in the church. Begins to publish her poetry and eventually hailed as the natural successor to E.B. Browning. Suffers from Graves Disease and breast cancer. Volunteers in a fallen women’s home. Never marries.
“Choose love not in the shallows but in the deep.”
“Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak?
Of labour you shall find the sum.
Will there be beds for me and all who seek?
Yea, beds for all who come.”
Read: Goblin Market and Other Poems
12) Laura Ingalls Wilder 1867-1957
Moves with her family from Wisconsin to Kansas to Minnesota to Iowa to Dakota Territory by the time she is ten. Survives one of the most bitter Dakota winters on record. Begins teaching school at the age of fifteen. Marries Almanzo Wilder and has one daughter, Rose. Eventually settles in Missouri. With encouragement from Rose, writes about her growing up years.
“Laura felt a warmth inside her. It was very small, but it was strong. It was steady, like a tiny light in the dark, and it burned very low but no winds could make it flicker because it would not give up.”
“Then he drew a long breath, and he ate pie. When he began to eat pie, he wished he had eaten nothing else.”
Read: the Little House series
13) Corrie ten Boom 1892-1983
First licensed female watchmaker in the Netherlands. Joins the Dutch resistance. Has a secret room built in her bedroom to hide Jews from the Gestapo. Is arrested and placed in various Nazi prisons and camps for ten months. Is released through a clerical error. After the war founds a rehabilitation center in a former work camp.
“And so I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness anymore than on our goodness that the world’s healing hinges, but on His. When He tells us to love our enemies, He gives along with the command, the love itself.”
“Mama’s love had always been the kind that acted itself out with soup pot and sewing basket. But now that these things were taken away, the love seemed as whole as before. She sat in her chair at the window and loved us. She loved the people she saw in the street– and beyond: her love took in the city, the land of Holland, the world. And so I learned that love is larger than the walls which shut it in.”
“To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover the prisoner was you.”
Read: The Hiding Place (Read, re-read, and re-read this)
14) Dorothy Sayers 1893-1957
Wins a scholarship to Oxford and is one of the first women to receive a degree there. Writes detective novels about Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. Gives birth to an illegitimate son and oversees his upbringing from afar. Also writes plays, literary criticism, and, somewhat reluctantly, apologetics. Translates Dante’s entire Divine Comedy. Known for wearing men’s clothing because it is more convenient and generally speaking her mind.
“God did not abolish the fact of evil; He transformed it. He did not stop the Crucifixion; He rose from the dead.”
“And what do all the great words come to in the end, but that? I love you- I am at rest with you- I have come home.”
Read: Whose Body?, Gaudy Night, Are Women Human?, Christ of the Creeds, “Why Work?”
15) Flannery O’Connor 1925-1964
Raised and remains a devoted Roman Catholic. Participates in the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop. While working on her first novel is diagnosed with lupus and moves home to her mother’s house in Georgia where she lives for the rest of her life. Writes many stories and two novels which most readers either misunderstand and hate or misunderstand and love. Obsessively raises poultry, particularly peafowl.
“‘Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead,’ The Misfit continued, ‘and He shouldn’t have done it. He thrown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness,’ he said and his voice had become almost a snarl.”
“All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.”
Read: Wise Blood, The Complete Stories, Mystery and Manners, The Habit of Being
16) Elisabeth Elliot 1926-
Moves to Ecuador. Marries Jim Elliot. After her husband is killed by the Auca, moves with her small daughter to live with them and share the gospel for two years. Moves back to the U.S. Marries twice more. Has her own daily radio program for thirteen years. Writes extensively on her experiences and on Christian living.
“One does not surrender a life in an instant. That which is lifelong can only be surrendered in a lifetime.”
“It is God to whom and with whom we travel, and while He is the end of our journey, He is also at every stopping place.”
“We want to avoid suffering, death, sin, ashes. But we live in a world crushed and broken and torn, a world God Himself visited to redeem. We receive his poured-out life, and being allowed the high privilege of suffering with Him, may then pour ourselves out for others.”
Read: Through the Gates of Splendor, These Strange Ashes, Let Me Be a Woman
This is not an exhaustive list, and tends to show my own biases, but I figured it was best to start with what I knew: most of these women are westerners and tend toward the more modern. Many of them are published authors and almost all are prolific letter writers. This list is not meant as a compendium of those you absolutely must love and admire. It’s just encouragement and ideas towards starting a list of your own.
And if you want some male heroes, I’m happy to oblige. I just figured that an inventory like that was, well, a little easier to find…