What Makes a Heroine

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In ten short days, my play Leto Legend premieres at the Hub Theatre just outside of Washington DC. The play follows two imagined heroines in two very different worlds. Charlie, a contemporary, single mom, strives to balance newfound success as a comic book creator with the demands of parenthood. In the alternative universe, Charlie’s alter ego and comic creation, Leto also deals with the dual demands of work and family, as her maternity leave is cut short once she learns that her patron village needs her to be their superhero once again. In both stories, I investigate the qualities that make a heroine: strength, courage, sacrifice, and compassion.

I selected Leto because she is the ancient Greek goddess of motherhood, and although there is evidence of ancient cults dedicated to her, her story is relatively unknown to contemporary audiences. Leto is the daughter of Titans, the paramour of Zeus, and mother to Apollo and Artemis. Her story begins and ends with her pregnancy, which is full of complications. Leto flees a Python and fights a Cyclops that Hera, Zeus’s jealous wife, sends to attack. Hera also convinces the people of nearby villages to shun Leto, leaving her to wander the countryside seeking a sanctuary to give birth. Leto eventually does find refuge on the deserted island of Delos, and after a lengthy and painful labor, Artemis and Apollo are born. Subsequent stories of Leto are scant, but tales of her talented twins abound.

LetoLeto has all of the characteristics of a heroine. She is strong and courageous demonstrated by her ability to fight off menacing monsters and strike out alone to bear her children. She makes a sacrifice for her babies, leaving behind family, friends and all that is known to her so that Apollo and Artemis can survive. Leto is not perfect. There is a peculiar story about her that describes how she transforms a group of hateful women into frogs. However, heroes are rarely perfect.

Flaws humanize a hero, and the more I can relate to a hero, the more I can rally and cheer them on their quest. Often the heroic flaw is both a strength and a weakness. Antigone’s righteousness and unwavering loyalty is her undoing. Juliet’s boundless love is both romantic and devastating. Hermione Granger’s intelligence is a great asset to Harry and Ron, but sometimes always having the correct and clever answer can sting. For Leto, her dedication to protect her babies is infinite. There is nothing she won’t do to defend them.

There are many kinds of heroines: epic, tragic, super, anti, and historical, but in case after case, the flaw in a heroine reminds me of my own imperfections, and shows me that if a heroine can work with their shortcomings and still be heroic, then there is hope for me too. Hope is another key ingredient in any heroine story. Hope is inspiring and uplifting, and I need that because the world can be a harsh and cruel. Heroines show me that there is good in humanity.  We are worth fighting for. They instruct me to be more patient, caring, and compassionate as a result.

Group_of_10_suffragettesDuring the development of Leto Legend, the director, Helen Pafumi, asked the cast to share stories of their personal heroes – real or imagined. Overwhelmingly, the heroes were real women – moms, sisters, friends, and co-workers who showed tenacity, spirit, and heart in harrowing times. This got me thinking more about my personal heroines – there are so many! And they change over time. In elementary school, I wrote an essay about how my mother was my hero – she put herself through school, worked full-time, and still made me my favorite meals – Swedish meatballs and noodles. In high school and college, I recall being captivated with dramatists I wanted to emulate – Caryl Churchill, Marsha Norman, María Irene Fornés and Tina Howe. Today, I draw strength and inspiration from many sources: the friend who continues to smile and laugh as she fights cancer, the fellow artist who remains calm and graceful through upheaval, and historical figures who are bold, articulate, and persevere.

History is rife with such heroines, but many of their names are still hazy and/or unknown. Their tales are forgotten because they were deemed less important than their male counterparts and therefore less likely to be recorded. It is my hope that Historic Heroines can be a meeting place to learn more these incredible women, their achievements, failures, perspectives: their stories.

About Kristen LePine
KRISTEN LEPINE is the co-founder and Executive Director of Historic Heroines. An accomplished writer, educator and mother, Kristen is often inspired by history and current events. She wrote about Nellie Bly and mental health care in CRACKED POTS, a play commissioned by Theatre J in Washington DC. Currently she is working on a historical novel set in ancient Sparta. Visit her at www.kristenlepine.com.
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