The defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 has long been held as one of England's greatest military achievements. [...] The successful defence of the Kingdom against invasion on such an unprecedented scale boosted the prestige of England's Queen Elizabeth I and encouraged a sense of English pride and nationalism. In the speech [delivered by Queen Elizabeth to her troops who were assembled at Tilbury Camp], Elizabeth defends her strength as a female leader, saying "I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too". (British Library)
Elizabeth I of England was an exceptional woman but her success, as formulated here, diminishes other women, who are described as merely "weak and feeble." I think Jane Tolmie has observed a similar dynamic at work in fiction when she argues of Middle English romances that there is a "price [to be] paid for female participation in these texts" (146) which feature a
romance heroine, often described as independent, strong, feisty, and passionate – ‘feisty and desiring’, in Cooper’s formulation – [who] does not exist within a system in which all women are independent, strong, feisty and passionate (Cooper, 2004, p. 220). She must be exceptional to catch our attention, and that of the hero. She often picks the man she wants, eludes the (many) others, escapes rape, lives a life less ordinary. Behind her and all around her is the silent rank and file of women who do not choose, elude, or escape. (146)
Tolmie adds that the passage of several hundred years has apparently not given rise to
a radical new approach to the delineation of the female hero in contemporary fantasy fiction. The emphasis remains on the individual woman rising above a system that keeps her down – triumphing over it, reversing expectations – rather than in cultural revolution or innovation, and oppressive structures continue to provide the basis for representation. (147)
Quite a lot of romances also feature heroines who triumph because of their exceptional natures and I have to admit that I find this more disheartening than empowering. Can anyone recommend some novels (not necessarily romances) in which a fairly ordinary heroine finds a way to improve her society (without the assistance of friends with magical or military power)?
Tolmie, Jane. "Medievalism and the Fantasy Heroine." Journal of Gender Studies 15.2 (2006): 145-58.