Wicked Wednesday: Impressive Female Villains from the Past

Edith/Maddie here, with our third Wicked Wednesday celebrating the badass ladies who went before.

This week let’s dish on impressive lady villains from the past, real or fictional. Were they really bad, or acting as the Robin Hood of their day? A spy who is a villain to one side and a heroine to the other? Or did society condemn them for acting outside their expected role?

Julie: Another great question! I remember talking to an actor who was playing a truly evil character. I asked how he did it, and he said that he found the humanity in the character. If he couldn’t, then the character would be flat. All that to say, the best villains, IMHO, have a core of humanity that sparks a level of empathy in the reader. One of my favorite villains is Lady MacBeth. Depending on the director’s vision, she can be pure evil. Or she can be a woman thwarted by her time who tries to live through her husband. I’ve seen her played many different ways–and the best is when she’s complicated.

Edith/Maddie: I’m going with Madame Restell of New York City, whose actual name was Ann Trow Lohman. She was a late nineteenth-century radical who provided prenatal care and a safe place to give birth to unwed mothers, and she also offered contraception and safe (ish) abortion services to any woman. She was widely regarded as a villain for what she did and was excoriated in the press. I modeled Madame Restante in my Agatha-Award-winning Charity’s Burden, Quaker Midwife Mystery #4, on the real Madame.

Liz: I have to call out Hester Prynne, wearer of the scarlet A in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. She was so brave, standing up against the religious and “moral” high ground of Puritan life. One of my favorite books of all time.

Barb: I love The Scarlet Letter, too, Liz. I am going to have to go with Irene Adler, the only woman who bested Sherlock Holmes. She’s not necessarily a villain, but she thwarts him–and fascinates him. In many subsequent incarnations of the characters, she is Holmes’ love interest, or a true villain, or both.

Sherry: I find the trend to rehabilitate female villains as misunderstood in Wicked, Maleficent, and Cruella fascinating. Do we ever see them trying to do the same with men or is it just more accepted that men can be bad and women have to be good? I’m enjoying writing my character, Ann Williams, who has a somewhat ambiguous moral code that is outside societal norms. She sees justice a bit differently than other characters I’ve written and exploring that has been interesting.

Jessie: I adore the works of P.G. Wodehouse and absolutely love his creation, the overbearing Aunt Agatha. She is the catalyst for much of what goes on in the stories in which she appears and the Wodehousian world is far better for her interfering ways! One of the things I love about her is the fact that she is a villain for her nephew Bertie, but she is definitely the heroine of her own story.

Readers: Tell us your favorite female villain!

24 Thoughts

  1. Countess Vera Rossakoff in Agatha Christie’s Poirot series. She is both an adversary and a friend of Poirot. He knows she is a villain, but he admires her and turns a blind eye to her crimes.

  2. Amy Dunne from GONE GIRL. If anyone has NOT read the book, I will gave a spoiler-free description.
    At first, Amy seemed to be the sweet, funny, sexy young woman and a perfect wife Instead, Amy was a master manipulator and played nasty mind-games that fooled her husband, the police, her friends and the community.

  3. I’ll be somewhat silly here. I liked Natasha on Bullwinkle! Classic clothing, accent and evil way of speaking! Wasn’t that a similar part played by Nita Talbot on Get Smart?

      1. When I was in high school we put on a play that required an off-stage voice of a Russian spy repeating a code phrase. It was my only “role” on the stage, and I totally channeled Natasha!

  4. I think any villain – male or female – is much better when they are complex. Lady Macbeth is a great example. I also love the “heist story” female characters who are capable of hoodwinking just about anybody – including other criminals.

  5. I was thinking of Katherine from Wuthering Heights! Not really a villain, but boy she was pretty cruel to old Heathcliff!

  6. This may be unpopular. I’m going to say Eleanor Roosevelt. A woman ahead of her time who was seen as a villain by many who lacked her vision. She’s one of my personal heroines.

  7. My favorite female villan would be Lizzie orden. Although she was aquitted she was totally ostracized and nott accepted in Fall River society. Ro some she was wrongly accused and to others she ws the devil incarnaate. I think the case is a fascinating one and love to delve into the various books written about her and the murders.

  8. Good badass was Sarah Woolston in Murder on nob Hill by Shirley Tallman. Then they just ended. I loved them.

  9. It’s been a busy day, so I’m just getting over here.

    Liz, I’m surprised by your choice. I consider Hester the hero of The Scarlett Letter, not the villain. Roger Chillingsworth is the villain. And the townspeople/society of the time. At least that’s how I took it when I read it in high school. Really enjoyed it, too.

      1. Yes, the town did. But the book didn’t. Or maybe that was just my reading of it as a junior in high school.

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