For nearly five decades, MASTERPIECE has highlighted the stories of remarkable women: Elizabeth R, Rose from Upstairs, Downstairs, Livia in I, Claudius, Lady Dedlock in Bleak House, Jane Eyre, Miss Marple and so many more.
For International Women’s Day, we’re celebrating some of the more recent show-stopping MASTERPIECE leading ladies who inspire us. They rule countries, run household estates, solve crimes and defy conventions. Browse below to learn more about just a few of our heroines and their remarkable fortitude, and then re-watch (and fall in love with!) these favorites with PBS Passport, an added member benefit.
Victoria: Queen Victoria
“I know that I’m young and some would say my sex puts me at a disadvantage, but I know my duty and I assure you I am ready for the great responsibility that lies before me.”
She may have been barely five feet tall and just eighteen years old when she ascended to the throne, but Victoria was born to be queen. From the very start of Season 1, we see an impassioned woman determined to do what is best for her people and to love them as much as she’d like to be loved in return. Headstrong, passionate, and caring, the famed Mother of the Nation left her mark on both England and the world at large, and it’s not hard to see how she won her people over.
Poldark: Demelza Poldark
“For I’m fierce and proud and steadfast and true.”
Demelza quite literally burst onto the scene in Season 1 and made one thing very clear: she is no damsel in distress. From Ross’ rough-around-the-edges hired hand to the leading Lady of Nampara and Ross’ heart, Demelza has proven herself time and time again. Even after learning to read, write, dance, and speak like a woman of higher class, Demelza never backed down from her roots as a miner’s daughter, never shying from getting her hands dirty. She chops wood, she cooks, she helps manage affairs at the mines, she schemes with best friend Caroline Enys….there are few things she can’t do, really.
Downton Abbey: Lady Mary Crawley
“You know my character, Father. I’d never marry any man that I was told to. I’m stubborn. I wish I wasn’t, but I am.”
Downton Abbey fans far and wide will agree: the women of Downton were all notable in their own rights. Kind-hearted Sybil, hopeful dreamer Edith, snappy and wise matriarch Dowager Countess, and of course, the spirited Mrs. Patmore…
But while she may not have always been agreeable, at times difficult and cold, it’s no question that Lady Mary Crawley was the progressive, strong-willed heroine of Downton. She made no apologies for who she was, and she was determinedly independent. She fought to be useful and downright refused to be demure. Even in the wake of tragedy, she picked herself back up again and rebuilt her life, refusing to lay down for good. Her memorable quick-wit and chic sense of fashion helped make her an unforgettable MASTERPIECE icon.
Unforgotten: DCI Cassie Stuart
“Is a crime less serious because time’s passed? Is it wrong less wrong because it was done fifty years ago? Or sixty? Or seventy?… I think if people are still alive who are affected by it, or even if they remember people that were affected, I think the society has a responsibility to take it seriously. No matter how far back, no matter how old they are.”
You’d be hard pressed to find a woman who cares about her work quite as much as DCI Cassie Stuart. She makes it her life’s mission to solve the crimes that, perhaps, the rest of the world has forgotten and looked over. She stays calm and cool-headed at all times, professional and a real, modern career woman that women today can most certainly relate to.
Grantchester: Mrs. Maguire
“Don’t you be bringing your murders in here!”
A tough cookie with a big heart, Mrs. C (formerly known as Mrs. M) not only keeps the vicarage moving, but provides support and structure to the parish. We love Mrs. M for her attention to detail, her rigor for manners and keeping up appearances—but most of all, we love her for her warmth and love as the matriarch of Grantchester.
Prime Suspect: Tennison: Jane Tennison
“Am I in trouble again,
Jane Tennison is one of London’s first high-ranking female Detective Chief Inspectors,
a flawed detective who rose to command through fierce cunning and sheer grit. From 1991 to 2006, Dame Helen Mirren’s warts-and-all portrayal of Tennison won numerous awards and legions of devoted fans alike for its star and the detective she played. In Prime Suspect: Tennison, the detective returns—not as the iconic, single-minded crime fighter, but as a smart and ambitious fledgling police constable expected to make tea and let the men hunt down the killers. Watch the murder investigation that kick-starts Tennison’s storied career, and see the young woman that becomes the icon.
Little Women: Jo March
“I need to not live out my entire life in the tiny town where I was born. I need to see things and be things,
because I’m terrified that if I don’t, my writing will have to be forced out of nothing and go nowhere.”
Few characters in literary and film history are as iconic as Jo March, the tough, independent tomboy March sister from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. She’s fierce, smart, fiery, stubborn, and defies expectations. She’d rather forge her own path than live a conventional life of domestic bliss, and for that reason, generations of young readers have looked up to the outspoken, inspiring March sister.
(Of course, not everyone identifies with Jo. Some are more Meg than Jo, more Beth than Amy. Want to find out which March sister you are? Take our quiz and find out.)
Home Fires: Frances Barden
“What the next months will deliver is unknown. But what is known is that together we shall endure whatever the future will throw at us. For none understands the true cost of war better than women.”
World War II palpably looms on the horizon, but the women of rural Great Paxton find surprising hope and kinship in their chapter of the Women’s Institute. Joyce Cameron may be the grande dame of the village, but rival Frances Barden comes to the fore with heart and soul to imagine a different way of being together. While Home Fires, a MASTERPIECE fan-favorite, tells the poignant and interwoven stories of a group of remarkable women, Barden stands out as a woman who not only unfailingly supports the women around her during their trials, but when faced with her own decimating reality, ignites her own core of strength and grace to move forward.