1. Murphy Brown, Murphy Brown
Investigative journalist and news anchor Murphy Brown, played by Candice Bergen, has been fighting the patriarchy since the 1980s, proving her aptitude in a notorious boys’ club. She’s at the top of her game — smart and tough — and she was a pioneer in her pursuit of single motherhood.
2. Dr. Mindy Lahiri, The Mindy Project
Mindy Kaling’s Dr. Lahiri is a beacon of hope for those who are killing it in one aspect of life, but struggling in others. She’s partner at her OB-GYN office but still kind of figuring out who she is and who she wants to be, but she’s truthful in and proud of that journey. She’s even willing to bear the unspoken secrets of womanhood — no shame in the maintenance of body hair.
4. Buffy Summers, Buffy the Vampire Slayer
The obvious reasoning here is that Buffy, played by Sarah Michelle Gellar, is a vampire slayer. She kills vampires in her spare time, when she’s not busy with school or her friends or her dating life. But here’s the thing: She’d be on this list even if she didn’t kill monsters. She’s strong physically and emotionally, she refuses to be underestimated, she’s the protector of her friends and family (and also, the world), and she’s dedicated to her principles.
6. Lt. Abbie Mills, Sleepy Hollow
You don’t want to cross Nicole Beharie’s Abbie Mills, the real hero in Sleepy Hollow’s fight to save the world. It’s not that she’s fearless as she takes on the demons looking to bring the apocalypse; it’s that she shows remarkable strength in the face of that fear. And she’s got the best quips in town.
7. Agent Dana Scully, The X-Files
Gillian Anderson’s Dana Scully approaches the world with healthy skepticism, never relinquishing her trust in her own mind even when facing things that challenge her beliefs (like, say, an alien abduction). She’s smart enough to know that there are things she doesn’t know, and she’s a loyal and capable partner to Mulder — who honestly probably owes his life to her.
8. Sun-Hwa Kwon, Lost
Sure, Kate has more screen time and that juicy love triangle, but Yunjin Kim’s Sun is so much more of a compelling hero. Her story begins with an attempt to get out of an unhappy marriage (during which she asserted her independence by secretly learning English on the side) and she comes into her own on the island, surviving and protecting those around her on her own terms.
Roseanne Barr brought working-class family life to the mainstream through Roseanne, presenting a strong, loving, principled matriarch who’s a little rough around the edges. She always has her kids’ backs, even though she often demonstrates it with tough love, and she never sacrifices her own sense of self.
10. Lisa Simpson, The Simpsons
This young feminist, voiced by Yeardley Smith, is a girl we can all aspire to be, refusing to be pigeonholed and never ashamed of her more scholarly pursuits. Known to fight for the causes she believes in (which range from the political to the religious to the environmental), she isn’t afraid to challenge the world around her, and all at the tender, perpetual age of 8.
11. Bette Porter, The L Word
Bette, played by Jennifer Beals, is a big deal in the art world. She’s co-gallery owner and director of the California Arts Center, and uses that cred to push for visibility of feminist, queer art in more traditional galleries. She’s creative, perseverant, intimidatingly powerful.
12. Olivia Dunham, Fringe
FBI Special Agent Olivia Dunham, played by Anna Torv, follows in Dana Scully’s footsteps, delving into supernatural mysteries with determination and a brilliant mind. She’s used to standing up against the skeptics in the world, even when she’s a bit skeptical herself, which is helped by her innate sense of justice. It’s all just part of the job.
13. Peggy Olson, Mad Men
As the sole female copy chief in the male-run 1960s advertising industry, Elisabeth Moss’ Peggy has shattered the glass ceiling. She knows exactly what she wants from her career and demands it from herself and those around her, and now she gets to kick back and enjoy being a boss.
14. Veronica Mars, Veronica Mars
Veronica Mars, played by Kristen Bell, is similar to Buffy in that her accomplishments are made even more impressive for her age. The quick-witted teenage detective starts out searching for her best friend’s murderer but her talent leads her on a trail toward the darkest secrets of her hometown. She’s wise beyond her years but still undoubtedly a teen, with all of the crushes, school drama, and occasional naiveté that come with it.
15. C.J. Cregg, The West Wing
As the White House press secretary, Allison Janney’s C.J. is the best at putting the people (usually men) around her in their place. She never shies away from the blunt realities of the political world, and she’s adept at combating any and all sexist nonsense that comes with it.
16. Lana Winters, American Horror Story: Asylum
She’s held captive in an evil asylum, tortured, and almost murdered, but still investigate journalist Lana Winters, played by Sarah Paulson, doesn’t give up the story. Ambitious, driven, obviously resilient, and ultimately successful, she follows through on her word to shut down the corrupt institution and she makes it out with hordes of fans.
17. Nyota Uhura, Star Trek
Nichelle Nichols originated the role of Chief Communications Officer Uhura — groundbreaking for a black woman in 1966 — and continued to portray her through the first six Star Trek films (as seen above). She proves herself a canny and heroic leader, manning the helm when necessary, and rises through the ranks to ultimately become a commander.
18. Sarah Manning (and Co.), Orphan Black
Tatiana Maslany is a force to be reckoned with on Orphan Black, playing con-artist Sarah Manning as well as the nine clones she discovers in this sci-fi drama. Street-smart Sarah gets pulled into the world of illegal human cloning with her daughter and foster brother after witnessing the death of one of her clones. Originally looking out for only herself, she realizes her own compassion as she meets her other equally impressive clones: the police detective, the mom, the grad student, the assassin, and more.
We’ve seen the highly motivated Leslie Knope, played by Amy Poehler, achieve her goals — both in her relationships and her career — and, more importantly, we’ve seen her jump back when she’s come up against failure. She’s an ally of all women everywhere, an incredibly loyal friend, and an overall unstoppable force.
20. Blanche Devereaux, The Golden Girls
Rue McClanahan’s Blanche is ahead of the curve when it comes to sex positivity, celebrating her sexual appetite and refusing to be ashamed. She’s passionate, confident, open-minded, and the best friend a girl could have.
21. Dr. Callie Torres, Grey’s Anatomy
Sara Ramirez has portrayed a heartbreaking (and heartwarming) journey of self-discovery in orthopedic surgeon Callie. She’s controversial, initially judged for her competitive drive and unwillingness to put up with anyone’s shit, but she’s respected by her peers for her undeniable talent. As she explores and embraces her sexuality, she proves herself to be a loving and loyal friend, wife, and colleague.
22. Mary Richards, The Mary Tyler Moore Show
Where to begin? Mary Tyler Moore’s Mary Richards was a single, successful woman working as an associate producer for a news show in Minneapolis in the 1970s, and she would’ve been groundbreaking for any one of those details, but she was all of them. Any one of the female roles on this list can be traced back to her.
23. Jackie Peyton, Nurse Jackie
Nurse Jackie, played by Edie Falco, is supremely flawed. We meet her in the midst of a pill addiction, an extramarital affair, and something of a prolonged nervous breakdown. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t rooting for her. She’s in a constant negotiation with herself as a loving mother, a skillful nurse, and a human being who is perpetually annoyed by any incompetence around her.
24. Detective Olivia Benson, Law and Order: SVU
Detective Benson, played by Mariska Hargitay, is a voice for the victims and an advocate for women everywhere. She’s experienced her own trauma, and channels it into the often demoralizing fight to bring down criminals as a Special Victims officer. She’s brave, empathetic, resilient, and would make you feel safer than even her partner Stabler could.
25. Emily Fields, Pretty Little Liars
Shay Mitchell’s Emily is strong both physically (as a competitive swimmer) and emotionally (as an out lesbian in high school). She’s overcome more than her fair share of trauma, having suffered the death of her ex-girlfriend, but she comes out a survivor — proud, kind, and loyal.
26. Daenerys Targaryen, Game of Thrones
Emilia Clarke’s Daenerys starts as a pawn in her brother’s power play, but she becomes irrepressible when she decides she that wants that power for herself. She proves herself a powerful, rebellious, yet compassionate leader with an army of thousands (and three very loyal dragons) behind her.
27. Jessica Pearson, Suits
Jessica, played by Gina Torres, is the boss, heading a law firm that’s in charge of some of the country’s most influential clients, and she runs the show with apparent ease. She’s quick-witted, cutthroat when she needs to be, and demands the best out of those around her.
28. Dr. Joan Watson, Elementary
Some folks were in an uproar over the casting of a female Watson in this modern Sherlock Holmes reboot, but Lucy Liu more than rises to the task. The former surgeon isn’t just a companion; her expertise, emotional intelligence, and overall support are vital to the cases, and she keeps the detective on his toes.
29. Amy Jellicoe, Enlightened
Laura Dern’s Amy Jellicoe takes the dangerous stereotype of the hysterical woman and turns it on its head, proving a woman can get angry and come out (mostly) unscathed. After a rehab stint following a public nervous breakdown, the idealistic and at times naive former executive is on a path to self-betterment. But it’s not enough that she alone is better; her whistle-blowing campaign proves she expects the best from the world around her too.
30. Donna Meagle, Parks and Recreation
Who doesn’t want to be Donna? Played by Retta, she is confidence embodied, casting an irresistible spell on everyone she meets. She’s smart, steadfast, more empathetic than she lets on, and she isn’t afraid to indulge in the occasional fine fur.
31. Abbi and Ilana, Broad City
These ladies, played by Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, come as a pair because their friendship is an intrinsic part of their empowerment. The show is a love letter to female friendships, and together they take on the world — flawed but capable, liberated, self-assured, and endlessly supportive of each other.
32. Sydney Bristow, Alias
Jennifer Garner’s Sydney is almost a machine — a highly trained, kickass spy machine. She’s a master of martial arts, can transform herself into any identity, speaks dozens of languages, and is a real danger to anyone dumb enough to be her enemy. But the best part is that she isn’t a machine. She’s a human being with real relationships, emotional depth, and relatable humanity.
33. Liz Lemon, 30 Rock
Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon is a victory for the everywoman, showing that you don’t have to be a superhuman master of your career/love life/closet to be a badass boss. She struggles as creator and head writer of The Girlie Show, just as she struggles in her dating, but it hardly ever gets her down. She’s tenacious, sympathetic, hilarious, and — most important — ever unapologetic.
34. Detective Shakima “Kima” Greggs, The Wire
In Kima Greggs, Sonja Sohn gives a truly honest portrayal of the struggle to balance personal relationships with a taxing, high-stress job. Her dedication to both her narcotics task force and her girlfriend is unwavering, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy or perfect. She’s strong, competent, and a real source of humanity in an otherwise dark show.
35. Olivia Pope, Scandal
Played by Kerry Washington, Olivia is a high-powered political problem solver with the weight of the country on her shoulders and a team of gladiators behind her. She’s complicated and flawed — in other words, human — but still strong, confident, and decisive. She’s also got killer style.
36. Joan Holloway, Mad Men
Played by Christina Hendricks, Joan has spent years in the midst of a rising company, and she’s been paying attention. With markable business acumen and shrewdness in personal politics, she works her way up from office manager to partner by working a system built against her.
37. Dr. Martha Jones, Doctor Who
Freema Agyman’s Martha spends just one season as the companion to Doctor Who, which makes sense since she hardly seems the “companion” type. She meets the Doctor when she’s already found success as a medical student, and after leaving him because she finds their dynamic unhealthy, she finishes her degree and lands a job for a paranormal military organization.
38. Tami Taylor, Friday Night Lights
We should all be so lucky as to have a mom or wife or counselor like Tami Taylor. Was there ever anyone so insightful? So principled? Played by Connie Britton, she knows how to be supportive without being selfless, refusing to put her professional pursuits on hold while her husband chases his dreams. Instead, they make up the perfect power duo.
Orange Is the New Black is filled with tough and inspirational women, so it takes a lot for just one to stand out. And yet Laverne Cox does, as transgender inmate Sophia who refuses to allow the state to govern her body. She’s complicated for sure, as are her fellow inmates, but she’s brave enough to stick up for the new girl, confident enough to run for a position on the Advisory Council, and strong enough to maintain a sense of self in the face of rampant transmisogyny.
40. Kara “Starbuck” Thrace, Battlestar Galactica
Katee Sackhoff’s Starbuck is as tough as they come, a cocky captain fighting bravely for the survival of humanity. She’s also an impressive example of personal growth, though; the abrasive and nihilistic pilot whom we meet at the beginning opens up to those around her without ever losing her edge.
41. Alicia Florrick, The Good Wife
The smart and resilient Alicia Florrick, played by Julianna Margulies, is hardly destroyed by her disgraced husband’s sex scandal, and she proves it by working her way up to partner at her law firm (after a 15-year absence), seeking a relationship that actually fulfills her, while still providing for her two children.
42. Arya Stark, Game of Thrones
In the brutal, ruthless universe of Game of Thrones, young Arya Stark, played by Maisie Williams, has it particularly rough. She battles gender expectations from the beginning, pursuing her interest in swordsmanship and battle over needlework, and it’s these skills that have allowed her to survive on her own for as long as she has. She’s got her sights set on vengeance, and she’s bound to get it.
43. Tina Belcher, Bob’s Burgers
Yes, Tina is technically voiced by a man (the hilarious Dan Mintz), but we’re glossing over that detail because she is currently one of the most empowering depictions of a young woman on television. She oozes a confidence that doesn’t rely on external approval, she’s self-actualized as a pioneering writer of erotic friend fiction, and she’s a self-proclaimed “smart, strong, sensual woman.” Our collective new mantra should be: “What Would Tina Do?”
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