Feminist Sundays: Books with Openly Feminist Characters

Hello and welcome to our very first Feminist Sunday! Feminist Sundays is a weekly meme started by Elena of Books and Reviews. It is supposed to be a space where we can discuss all sorts of things that might fall under the larger umbrella of feminism: from important female figures in history to the portrayal of women in fiction, and everything in between. We're very excited to join and we hope to participate every week (and perhaps have some of you join us as well). For now we thought we'd kick off this series by discussing - and hopefully getting some recommendations for - books with openly feminist characters.

What counts as an openly feminist character? 

We are not great readers of contemporary literary fiction. (And yes, that is a thing we are trying to fix.) We do know our media, though, and we are somewhat familiar with contemporary romance novels, too. Openly feminist characters are rarer in them than you might think, considering that feminism did change the world and in some cases made the plot of said books or movies possible. And much too often, when a feminist character does appear, she turns out to be a stereotype - the man-hating workaholic that needs to be tamed/defeated/abandoned by the hero or some variation thereof. (We say "she turns out to be" because there doesn't seem to be a parallel trope for male allies/feminist men.) So what are the features we are looking for in an openly feminist character?
  1. The character must live during a period when feminism existed as a movement - say 19th century onwards. This is of course not to say that there weren't women vindicating their rights before, but only that we are interested in the historically (and geographically) determined feminist movement and the connotations of this label in fiction.  
  2. The character must be explicitly associated to feminism somehow. What counts as an explicit association might vary from case to case, but it has to be something more substantial than a character wearing pants or holding a job or insisting to open her own doors. Or, in the case of men, simply tolerating women who wear pants, hold jobs and open their own doors. 
  3. The character must not be a straw feminist. Feminism can be criticized in the narrative, it can even have a negative impact on the character's life, but feminist caricatures need not apply. (If you don't know what a straw feminist is: 1. lucky you and 2. TV Tropes to the rescue!) 

A few examples from contemporary fiction

Interestingly enough, all the examples we could think of from literary fiction are pro-feminism in a general sense, but also address problematic issues of the movement. Without further ado, here's our selection:  

On Beauty by Zadie Smith: This is the book that initially inspired our post, because one of its main characters, Kiki Belsey, is the kind of feminist we can recognize. The language, the authors, the quotes that inspire her are tailored to evoke a strand of mainstream American feminism that is also pretty popular on the internet (not particularly radical, but not aggressively corporate either). For much of the novel, Kiki's explicit feminist beliefs contrast with the pretty stereotypical gender roles she and her husband have unconsciously slipped into.

Possession by A.S Byatt: This book engages not only with feminist characters, but also with feminism as an institutional endeavor. One of the main characters, Maud Bailey, is an academic feminist, working in a Women's Studies Department, going to conferences on the topic, writing feminist literary criticism. She provides a glimpse into the workings of feminism in academia: the struggle for recognition and funds, the solidarity and networking between departments, the evolving perspectives in the field etc. Through Maud, the novel also deals with the difficulty of doing feminism in an organized institutionalized way while not losing its liberating and transgressive power.

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood: Belonging to the genre of "speculative fiction," Atwood's novel deals with the possibility of feminism being unable to hold on to its advances. The openly feminist character (the protagonist's mother) is a second-wave feminist: she goes to rallies where they burn Cosmo-type magazines, she takes pride in not needing a husband, she is distrustful of men. The Handmaid's Tale also gets the reader to engage more in depth with the framework of feminism, by presenting ways in which the Republic of Gilead has appropriated elements of the feminist discourse into an essentially anti-woman doctrine.

Over to you now 

So what other books we should check out for nuanced openly feminist characters? We'd love to compile a bigger list, so if you know a good example, feel free to share. And if you're interested in what other people discussed this Feminist Sunday, do head over to Elena's blog.


  1. Ohhh The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood is always in someone's list for a good reason: best book, best feminist book etc. Having said that, I should read it as soon as possible.

    Thank you very much for the design, Claudia, you're a graphic-design angel! Also, thank you for participating and being so supportive from the very beginning.