back to top

17 Groundbreaking Female Lead Characters That Lit Up The Small Screen

From Xena to Olivia Pope, these are seventeen of TV's greatest female lead characters of all time.

Posted on

It's March, and that means that it's Women's History Month. Although most of the time women in television and film are based on specific archetypes in the media, there are a few characters who have managed to break the mold and exist outside of the rigid confines of Hollywood culture. Here are seventeen beloved television and film characters who made history as the first characters of their kind.

1. Julia Baker, Julia


Portrayed by: Diahann Carroll

Groundbreaking because: While lauded by some critics, Julia was seen as a false representation of African American life during the 60s. What makes the character that Diahann Carroll brought to life truly remarkable is that she was a black woman in a non-stereotypical role on television, the likes of which had not been seen at the time.

2. Erica Kane, All My Children


Portrayed by: Susan Lucci

Groundbreaking because: Erica Kane was a a polarizing character, which as anyone knows, makes great television. Her defining moment came when she became the first woman on television to undergo a legal abortion.

3. Lucille Ball, I Love Lucy


Portrayed by: Lucille Ball

Groundbreaking because: Like most things in the world, comedy at one point in time was an old boys club. No women allowed. Ball is credited with many "firsts" for women in television. For instance, she was the first woman to be visibly pregnant while on camera, and she was the first woman to be at the helm of a major studio.

4. Denise Huxtable, The Cosby Show


Portrayed by: Lisa Bonet

Groundbreaking because: Denise Huxtable was an ambitious, carefree black girl, and a marvel to watch on television. It was refreshing to see a character on television like Huxtable because she wasn't bound to conventional portrayals of femininity, especially when it came to how she expressed herself through fashion.

5. Clair Huxtable, The Cosby Show


Portrayed by: Phylicia Rashad

Groundbreaking because: Clair Huxtable was the living example of what a carefree black girl becomes when she fully comes into her own. She was bilingual, an accomplished lawyer, and an incredible business woman. Another thing that made Huxtable standout is that her role was unique and devoid of stereotypes of black women.

6. Blanche Devereaux, The Golden Girls


Portrayed by: Rue McClanahan

Groundbreaking because: Blanche Devereaux is probably one of the most important characters in television history. Someone finally realized that women like to have sex, and occasionally, they like to talk about it. Devereaux was unapologetic when it came to her carnal desires. Huge win.

7. Mary Richards, The Mary Tyler Moore Show


Portrayed by: Mary Tyler Moore

Groundbreaking because: Mary Richards ushered in the birth of the career-oriented woman who was capable taking care of herself without the help of a man.

8. Mackenzie Allen, Commander in Chief


Portrayed by: Geena Davis

Groundbreaking because: Mackenzie Allen was the first woman to portray the job of the highest office in the United States, and this was in 2005! The creator of the series, Rod Lurie, stated that he created the series to get the American public more comfortable with the notion of a female president.

9. Julia Sugarbaker, Designing Women


Portrayed by: Dixie Carter

Groundbreaking because: Julia Sugarbaker is one of the original shade queens. Smart as a whip and southern to her heart. She also didn't take any bull when it came to ignorance. Check out this clip of Sugarbaker getting "fired up" when the subject of AIDS being a gay person's disease is brought up.

10. Olivia Pope, Scandal


Portrayed by: Kerry Washington

Groundbreaking because: As a show, Scandal is incredible because of it's racially diverse cast. The show, ironically, lets the plot drive the story instead of external factors. Olivia Pope is kind of an anomaly in television because she's a black woman carrying the show without the use of stereotypical notions of black women. She's a three dimensional character and hopefully there will be more like her in the future.

11. Joan Holloway, Mad Men


Portrayed by: Christina Hendricks

Groundbreaking because: Joan Holloway is a woman on the move. All men are merely pawns in her world. Yes, she slept with the Jaguar guy to get her partner position with Sterling Cooper Draper Price, but it was ultimately her decision. Additionally, before she made that decision she had managed to demolish the glass ceiling in the agency, moving from office manager to Director of Agency Operations.

13. Felicia "Snoop" Pearson, The Wire


Portrayed by: Felicia Pearson

Groundbreaking because: There's no denying that Felicia "Snoop" Pearson was a villain, however, she was a ruthless anti-hero that didn't rely on sex appeal to bring down her victims. Her role was unique in the fact that she was a lesbian, even though it wasn't explicitly stated in the series. Additionally, she wasn't a lesbian character who was boosted to appeal to the male gaze.

15. Carmelita Rainer, Dirty Sexy Money


Portrayed by: Candis Cayne

Groundbreaking because: At the time of the show's airing, Candis Cayne was the first transgender woman to play an actual transgender character on television.

17. Fa Mulan, Mulan

Disney / Via

Portrayed by: Ming-Na Wen

Groundbreaking because: Before Princess Merida became Brave, there was another Disney princess that gave young girls a different image to look up to. Mulan was different from her contemporaries because she wasn't driven by the need or longing for a man, she wanted to make her family proud and it just so happened that she fell in love with a guy along the way.