I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar (Archetypal Women “Fighting the Man”)

Jeanne d' Arc, by Eugene Thirion (1876). Late ...
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They are the women we admire: strong, intelligent, determined, resourceful. To their opponents, they are gadflies. To the oppressed, they are cherished protectors. They stand alone against the world—and often pay the price for it. These feminine crusaders spend their days fighting the powers that be in order to bring about change, and stories of their exploits abound.

Two of the earliest examples of civil disobedience in literature involve crusading women: Esther and Antigone. Both of these ladies put their lives at risk by openly defying their kings’ laws for religious reason; Esther desires to save her fellow Israelites from annihilation, whereas Antigone feels that she is obligated by the gods to put her brother’s soul at peace. So in a time when women had very little real political power, they used the only means at their disposal to affect change—namely, themselves. A comic take on this approach is when Aristophanes’ heroine, Lysistrata, urges the housewives of the Athens to withhold sex from their husbands in order to force the men of the city to make peace with Sparta.

History is replete with examples of courageous women working to sway the affairs of men. The French maiden, Joan of Arc, and the ancient Hebrew prophetess, Debra, lead their respective armies to victory. Likewise, the legendary Celtic warrior queen, Boudica, dies trying to drive the Roman legions from her homeland. England’s Queen Elizabeth I spent much of her early reign battling the power-brokers who questioned the legitimacy of her succession. (She survived more than twenty assassination attempts).

In more recent years, figures like Harriet Tubman and Corrie ten Boom show how far women are willing to go to rescue the oppressed and the persecuted. Susan B. Anthony and Rosa Parks were arrested for their political and ideological stances, and the Dutch feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali continues to receive death threats because of her outspoken criticism of the Islamic treatment of women.

Aside from history and literature, crusading women are also a regular staple at the movies. Sally Field’s portrayal of Norma Rae (an Alabama textile worker fighting to form a union) and Edna Spalding (the matriarch in the film Places in the Heart who struggles to keep the bank from foreclosing on her family’s cotton farm after her husband’s death) provide inspiring examples of women who do battle against the system. And who could forget Erin Brockovich’s real-life experiences fighting corporate greed?

A question remains, however, regarding a particular category of crusaders who are reflected in the classical character mentioned earlier, Antigone. Antigone fights “the man” (her uncle/king) and is vindicated by the gods for her actions. Yet in the end, she takes her own life. Is this act heroic? What about other suicidal heroines who follow Antigone’s path, such as Ophelia, Anna Karenina, Hedda Gabler, or Edna Pontellier? Are their deaths courageous or cowardly? Perhaps that is a topic for another day.

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About Scott Shields

Years ago, I left the Midwest for the deserts of Arizona. Since then, I have worked in the grocery business and as a high school English teacher. Literature and writing are my passions, and I try to share my love of the written word with my students each day.


  1. I also admire the women heroes that aren’t world renowned. Those everyday women that bring their all to a cause ever day like my mom. Saw this today and it ties with the strength of women. “Whatever you give a woman, she will make greater, give her sperm she will make a baby, give her a house she will give you a home, give her groceries she will give you a meal, give her a smile she will give you her heart. She multiplies and enlarges what she is given. So if you give her any crap, be ready to receive a ton of shit”

  2. My all time favorite female heroine is Eleanor of Acquitaine. She’s portrayed late in life in “A Lion in Winter” by Katherine Hepburn, but it’s her early life that was most intriguing. She was married to 2 kings (France and England), and mother to two kings, Richard the Lionhearted and John Lackland. In her time being a young woman with valuable property was the fastest route to being a pawn of men. But she learned the game and then mastered it. My kind of role-model.