The word heroine derives from the Greek word “heros” and was used to describe a person with superhuman qualities which were admired by the gods or a demi-god (the off-spring of a god or goddess and a human). As the word passed into classical Latin a feminine version of this gender-neutral noun emerged, which was “heroina”. The English version heroine comes from Middle French which removed the Latin ending “-ina” and attached the French suffix “-ine”.
The word heroine first appeared in English print in 1587 when John Bridges wrote A Defence of the Government Established in the Church of England for Ecclesiastical Matters. It is here that he wrote: “In like manner Bundwica ruled this Realme, and maintained warres against the Romanes, in defence of her countries libertie… These Heroines..were in religion to Godward al Pagans”. Who was the heroine he was referring to here? It was Bundwica – better known as Boadecia, Queen of the British Iceni tribe. Not superhuman but undoubtedly tough-as-nails, she led her tribe in the fight against the Roman occupying forces and is believed to have finally met her match somewhere in Northamptonshire.
These days, however, you don’t have to be a demi-goddess or warrior queen to be awarded the title heroine. It’s applied to many women who have shown bravery, strength or any other kind of admirable characteristic. When someone speaks of their “heroine”, they are simply referring to qualities or achievements that they admire – perhaps confidence, career success, or even just fashion sense.
In 2013, The Huffington Post ran an article with the title: 9 of literature’s most beloved heroines. The list included Edna Pontellier from Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, Emma Bovary from Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, and Esther Greenwood from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. These women have been heralded as heroines, their common theme a battle against the constraints of societies that were not interested in their strength of character or opinions.
But the number nine is a curious number…it makes you want to round it up to 10, doesn’t it? So who would you add to this list of literary heroines? Ma Joad from Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath must be an excellent contender. As her and her family travel to California during America’s Great Depression desperate to find work in the fields, she fights with every last fiber in her body to keep the family together and alive, even when all other members of it are falling at her feet in despair. She’s great, and thank you to Steinbeck for her. But you decide who your favourite heroine is.