Who Was the First Kickass Heroine?

I ask the question not because I’m writing an essay, or because my latest heroine is going to reference all the great KHs of the past, but because I’m curious. And because I’m lazy. So why not ask the group mind here at SFNovelists?

I’ve done a little googling. There are several lists in Wikipedia (List of Female Action Heroes, Women Warriors in History), and a lot of Top Ten Kickass Heroine lists from many, many bloggers. Except for historical examples, almost all the women listed are from the last fifty years, (the last thirty, really), especially the top ten lists. But what about farther back? Would the Molly Pitchers qualify? Or the women who fought in the American Civil war dressed as men? Or the women who served in the various 18th century European navies? Or female pirates?  Or any of a number of non-Western examples about which I’m obviously pretty ignorant?

For that matter, does Joan of Arc qualify as a KH? I think so, because I think being a successful general is about as kickass as it gets. But, according to the accounts I’ve read, Joan didn’t do a whole lot of asskicking. Mostly she just exhorted the usual mob of belligerent men – there is no historical record of her actually fighting. Do you have to actually fight to be a KH?

And what about goddesses? Is Artemis kickass because she’s so smart? (Again, do you have to actually, physically kick ass to qualify?)

So you see, I have a lot of questions. I don’t really have any answers, though, as usual, I do have lots of opinions. Which are, of course, highly subjective. What’s not subjective, though, is the first time I realized there was such a thing as a KH. (I’m old enough to have seen the idea of the KH go from absurdity to cliché.) It wasn’t Batgirl, or Wonder Woman (though she did come close), or Wasp, or Sue Storm, or any of the other early ‘60s comic heroines where I first came close to the concept. It wasn’t Meg in A Wrinkle in Time – I’ve always thought Meg was pretty meh. And it wasn’t Queen Elizabeth I, either. (What did I know, I was twelve.)

It was Emma Peel, in the spring of 1966, when The Avengers first came to American TV.

Who was your first Kickass Heroine? Who is your favorite?

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  1. 1. Eliza

    This is going to sound odd, but…

    Esther, from the Bible.

    She was a Jew-ess who was put into an epic beauty contest around 520BC, was chosen by the King of Persia, Xerxes, to replace his last, disobedient wife, found out that Xerxes’ favorite adviser prince was conspiring to massacre her people. What’s she do? She risks her own neck to bring it to the king’s attention.

    What ended up happening is that legally, King Xerxes couldn’t take back the order to have the Jews massacred on the chosen day, because it was done with his royal seal. So instead, he issued another decree, letting the Jews fight back. So instead of a genocide, every antisemitic who had counted on killing their favorite enemy ended up being killed instead. There’s a big bloodbath at the end of the book of Esther, the villainous adviser-prince is hanged on gallows seventy-five feet high, and yet the Jews never lay a hand on the plunder.

    So, not a lot of personal ass-kicking… but Esther is one of two sub-books in the biggest best-seller of all time that follows a woman lead.

    My runner-up is also Biblical. A prostitute named Rahab decided the Jews’ God was onto something, and smuggles the Israelite army’s spies into and out of the city Jericho by letting them in and out with a rope out her window. (Imagine what would have happened to her if she’d been spotted– her home was part of Jericho’s wall. Sentries patrolling right over her head, I’d think.) Guess what? Rahab shows up later– in Jesus’ lineage.

  2. 2. Bradley

    Actually got into this conversation the other night. One person was arguing that there hasn’t been a new modern female ass-kicker/superhero since Buffy.

    I argued that female ass kickers have a long and storied history going all the way back to Electra. Not the marvel creation, but rather the Greek tragic heroine. Murdered father, dead sister, epic revenge story where the villain is her mother.

  3. 3. Steve Buchheit

    Catherine the Great, Queen Isabella of Spain, Catherine of Aragon, Mary Queen of Scots, of couple of Medici, Hildegard of Bingen (depends on your definition of KickAss), Cleopatra and the first Biblical kick ass woman, Lilith. If you want mythical, there’s Artemis/Diana, Athena, Sekhmet, Frida, Sigrdrífa, and here Steve’s brain turned to mush. Hope that helps.

  4. 4. Justine Graykin

    If you want Biblical, how about Judith, who did in General Holofernes? Due to patriarchal prejudices, a good number of women who refused to take any shit were painted as evil (Circe, for example) or they were on the wrong side (Jezebel). But speaking personally, my first KH was Emma Peel as well. Kickass, brains and class, an unbeatable combination.

  5. 5. James (@urbanwolf)

    Let’s not forget Boudicca.

    And again on the Biblical front, there’s Deborah. She’s in the book of Judges, and she actually did lead an army against the king of Canaan.

  6. 6. S.C. Butler

    Eliza – Esther is definitely a hero, but is she truly kickass? It’s all in the eye of the beholder, I know, but I’m not sure she really fits the definition. Never heard of Rahab, though. Have to go look at that one.

    Bradley – Excellent example. I never would have thought of Electra, but the revenge motif is definitely part of the KH CV. I think Electra wins so far.

    Steve – I don’t buy Isabella (being a financier isn’t kickass enough for me), Mary of Scotland (mostly a victim, I think), or Cleopatra (another victim). As for the goddesses, is Sekhmet a kickass heroine, or villain?

  7. 7. S.C. Butler

    Justine – No one tops Emma Peel. Not even Buffy. And good point about the patriarchical effects on some of these KHs. They shift from villains to heros with a more modern point of view.

    James – I actually did some research on Boudicca, but ended up not using it. Like so many early kickass women, her end is pretty tragic. As Justine points out, it doesn’t pay to take on the patriarchy.

  8. 8. Elaine T

    Joan of Arc lead men into battle, she didn’t lead from behind, and she was always quarreling with the cautious men who were her co-commanders, she wanted to be more bold than they did. She also almost always got her way bout that. I’d say she fits.

    (read a whole bunch of non-fiction about her, once.)

  9. 9. S.C. Butler

    Elaine T – She definitely fits in my book. And was persecuted for it, too, which can be a big part of the KH profile.

  10. 10. Elizabeth Moon

    In Barbara Tuchman’s _A Distant Mirror_, she writes about a French nobleman’s wife….um…de Montfort, I think I remember–who–left behind to defend the castle while he was out somewhere else–was besieged. The knights he’d left behind were too chicken initially to do much, but she rallied them, put on armor, mounted a charger, and led them out to the attack. I can’t find the book (it’s somewhere in this house; my books are a mess) but she definitely counts.

    In a volume of Welsh Ballads I read repeatedly while in college, one was “The Ballad of Ievan’s Wife” which reported a similar situation (wife left at home while husband is out somewhere and she successfully leads the household to drive off attackers.) The refrain brags on “Ievan’s” strength and war-skills, but ends “But better still than Ievan…Ievan’s wife.”

    In the 19th century, a Russian woman ran away from an unhappy marriage and her child, dressed as a youth, and joined the Cossacks, campaigning successfully for several years in Poland–a miserable life as the translation of her memoirs makes clear (badly supplied, ill-clothed, often hungry and always cold or wet) but better than being married, to her. She was eventually discovered to be female, and pled with the Czar to be allowed to continue her military service.

    In genre, the first would be Jirel of Joiry by C.L. Moore (first showing up in a story in _Weird Tales_ in the mid 1930s, if I’ve got my dates right.) I read some of the Jirel stories (and others by Moore) in the late 1950s, when I discovered our town library’s SF collection.

    It depends, too, on how you define “kick-ass” (not a term I particularly like, but that’s just me…) If you insist on the woman being triumphantly successful, it’s many fewer–most adventurers, soldiers, etc. came to a hard end, male or female. I would include Boudicca, myself, and any other woman who led troops in battle. Maeve, in Ireland, Scathach in Scotland (said to have trained Cuchulain.)

  11. 11. Moira

    I also thought of Boudicca (recently read Manda Scott’s epic series) and was glad to see Esther & co. mentioned.

    But I think Penthesileia, queen of the Amazons in the Iliad, predates them all. She gets my vote.

  12. 12. Justin

    The mention of Electra made me think of Atalanta, the renowned huntress who drew first blood at the Calydonian boar hunt and would only agree to marry a suitor that could beat her in a footrace.

  13. 13. S.C. Butler

    Elziabeth – There’s an Irish pirate from the late 16th c. too, who battled the English after her husband died. Can’t remember her name off the top of my head, but she’s documented as having met Elizabeth I. Seems like there were a lot of those across Europe. Probably a lot elsewhere, too, if I knew my non-European history.

    Kickass isn’t the best of term, I agree.

  14. 14. S.C. Butler

    Moira – I don’t remember Penthesileia in the Iliad. According to Wikipedia, she was more prominent in several later poems, which would mean she wasn’t even as early as Boudicca

    Justin – Huntress dosn’t qualify for me, as I don’t think it fills the heroine half of KH.

  15. 15. Scott Seldon

    Some that come to mind are Tasha Yar (security chief, died in the line of duty), Susan Calvin (KH in the sense that she was the top of her field and won out in every challenge – most of Asimov’s male lead characters weren’t nearly as strong), Boudica, Joan of Arc, Cleopatra, Livia Drusilla, Jirel of Joiry, Hatshepsut (taking the title of King), Selene (in the Underworld films), Leela, Chani, Lunzie (Anne McCaffrey’s Dinosaur Planet series), Gunnery Sergeant Torin Kerr, Chase Kolpath, Priscilla “Hutch” Hutchins, Queen Maud (first descendant of both William the Conqueror and the Anglo-Saxon kings), and Katnis.

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S.C. Butler

Butler is the author of The Stoneways Trilogy from Tor Books: Reiffen's Choice, Queen Ferris, and The Magician's Daughter. Find out what Reiffen does with magic, and what magic does with him... Visit site.

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