11 Women in Classic Novels Who Rebelled Against Their Time Periods

12/20/2013 12:53 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Although the details have shifted throughout the ages, women have often been urged to be quiet, demure, and submissive, to marry and serve their husbands and children and not to strive for much more. Yet many women have fought against those expectations, as can be seen within the annals of classic literature.

From Joan of Arc burning at the stake for her beliefs to Mulan posing as a man to enter the military and save her father, these women have rebelled against their time period, acting in ways unheard of for women. While some of these women were saintly in their rebellions and did so for the good of women and humanity in general, others tipped the scales towards the side of evil. Yet whether their intent was angelic or devilish, it is important to note that these women made their mark by defying expectations.

I was inspired by these other courageous literary heroines when writing my second novel, The Scribe. At the dawn of the Middle Ages in Europe, when monasteries ruled over kings and men marched to war to pillage and rape, the life of any young peasant woman was worth less than a well-fed pig. A woman's fate was to marry, bear children, and work in the home until her death. But my main character, Theresa, decides to face that fate. She longs to read and write, to learn the knowledge that was forbidden to women. Although the novel was inspired by the true story of a secret document that changed the course of the Western World, the more personal story of Theresa's search to be more than the women of her time was inspired by literary rebels such as those below. I created Theresa as a tribute not only to those literary figures, but also as a tribute to all those unknown, brave and rebellious women who throughout history faced the injustice of a violent and unequal world, struggling hard to achieve and to bequeath a better world for us all.

Cleopatra (Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare): It's safe to say that it was not typical for a woman to lead an entire empire on her own. Although she first ruled with her father and then brother, Cleopatra ascended to sole ruler.

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Joan of Arc (Joan of Arc by Mark Twain): Few are even aware that Mark Twain wrote about Joan of Arc. This feisty French maiden was put on trial for "insubordination and heterodoxy" and was burned at the stake for heresy, only later to be named innocent and a martyr posthumously. While alive, she led armies to victory, not the norm for a teenage girl in 1400s France.

Moll Flanders (The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe): The actual title of this book is quite lengthy: The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, &c. Who was Born in Newgate, and during a Life of continu'd Variety for Threescore Years, besides her Childhood, was Twelve Year a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her own Brother), Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon in Virginia, at last grew Rich, liv'd Honest, and died a Penitent. Written from her own Memorandums. Moll Flanders may not seem like the most pious woman, but she did what she had to do, resorting to illegal actions and sexual deviancy to survive within the male dominated early 17th century.

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Countess Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed aka The Blood Countess (Tragica Historia by László Turóczi): Although the legend of The Blood Countess has now reached mythical proportions, she is first mentioned in this Jesuit scholar's work. Hungarian royalty in the 1500s, Báthory was the most prolific female serial killer in history, having reportedly killed hundreds in sadistic murders, yet never stood trial due to her family's influence. She is rumored to have vampiric tendencies, bathing in the blood of her victims to keep her skin young. Her legends are said to have inspired the character of Count Dracula, and are certainly anything but ladylike.

Hester Prynne (The Scarlett Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne): There's nothing like some harsh Puritan rules to bring out the rebellion in a woman. This colonial woman rebelled not only by having a (gasp!) affair, but even more so by refusing to reveal the name of her child's father or, more importantly, to appear ashamed in public.

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Jane Eyre (Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte): Jane seeks independence, something essentially unheard of for a Victorian woman. She doesn't consider marrying Rochester until after inheriting her own money, becoming financially independent. She also refuses to marry her cousin because of the way he treats her, again asserting her independence.

Josephine "Jo" March (Little Women by Louisa May Alcott): Jo has a strong personality that can get her in trouble...especially as a woman. Her father even calls her his son, and she would rather be a professional writer and live with her sisters forever than get married and have to leave them. When she does finally marry, it is to a man she views as her equal, and the union was wholly her choice.

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Anna Karenina (Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy): Russian women in the 1800s weren't supposed to have affairs (although it was acceptable for men), and they certainly weren't supposed to leave their respectable husbands for their lovers!

Hua Mulan (The Ballad of Mulan, 6th century Chinese poem): While most people nowadays know Mulan from her forays into Disney fame, this warrior woman has been legendary in China since the 6th century when she first appeared in a poem called The Ballad of Mulan. Dressing as a man to take her father's place in the army, Mulan's story of rebellion doesn't revolve around avoiding marriage or seeking passion, but is one centered on familial love, honor, and war.

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Scarlett O'Hara (Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell): Scarlett was one of the many strong women who had to fight to survive during the Civil War. She was married and pregnant by the age of 16 and was widowed only months later by the War, yet she stayed an independent thinker the whole time and refused to follow traditional customs.

Sofia (The Color Purple by Alice Walker): Unlike Celie, Sofia won't let any man beat her. In fact, when Celie tells Sofia's husband, Harpo, that the only way to make Sofia listen is to beat her, Sofia ends up fighting back and hurting Harpo badly. When the mayor later slaps Sofia for being defiant, Sofia hits him back, landing herself in jail.