The 5 Most Inspiring Women In Period Dramas

They may live in less enlightened times, but these heroines defy their eras and prove the power of women against incredible odds…

Call the Midwife


Call the Midwife has no shortage of incredible women, and we could just have easily picked the bright and energetic Jenny Lee, or the hilariously sharp-tongued Sister Evangelina. But ultimately it's Chummy who surely deserves the most credit, because of how she overcomes awful self-doubt and natural clumsiness, as well as her overbearing snob of a mother, to make her own way in the world.

Adorably self-effacing from the moment she first appears (she explains her nickname Chummy by recounting that "My pa used to say 'long dogs need short names'"), the gangly and awkward midwife even struggles to ride a bicycle at first, and as for romance... well, she almost thinks she doesn't deserve it when she finds her prince charming in the shape of copper Peter Noakes. And yet, despite all of this, Chummy has real strength and determination, defying the class conventions of her day, helping the mums of East London, and even heading to Sierra Leone to work as a missionary. If Chummy can believe in herself enough to be this magnificently independent, anyone can.

Cissie in The Dwelling Place played by Tracy Whitwell.

Cissie in The Dwelling Place played by Tracy Whitwell.


Catherine Cookson heroines often go through enough hardships to leave the average person a blubbing wreck. Some cope better than others, but few manage to brush aside terrible traumas quite as nonchalantly as Cissie Brodie in The Dwelling Place. Think of it: she's orphaned as a teenager. She has no money. She has a huge cluster of younger, needy siblings suddenly looking up to her as a mother figure. The dark, dank workhouse beckons. And what does she do?

She defiantly marches into the countryside with her brothers and sisters to set up home in a cave. In a time when most girls had next to no influence - much less orphaned poverty-stricken girls like her - Cissie barely bats an eyelid at the perils of her situation, preferring to rely on her instincts than give in to servitude. Even when she's lavished with affection by a local carpenter, she doesn't swoon or come over all pathetically grateful. And even when she's physically attacked by an arrogant aristocrat, she recovers and deals with it, showing the kind of iron will most of us can only aspire towards having.


Wish Me Luck is one of the hidden gems of British drama, and is that rarest of things: an espionage saga focusing almost entirely around strong female characters. Included among them are Liz and Matty, two ordinary women who finds themselves recruited for secretive intelligence operations during the darkest days of World War Two. Liz is a well-to-do mum, while Matty is a plain-spoken factory worker, but both are plucked from a world they understand and thrown into a battle-ravaged Europe to risk their lives for their country.

All of which would be enough to make us admire these characters, but what really makes them special is the power of their personalities. The absolute dedication to what they have to do. In the face of fear. In the face of possible death. Matty even falls into enemy hands and is subjected to torture - that's how much is at stake. As a depiction of female strength and resilience, these are characters who blazed a trail for other dramatic depictions to come.

Sarah in South Riding, played by Anna Maxwell Martin.

Sarah in South Riding, played by Anna Maxwell Martin.


Yorkshire in the bleak days of the 1930s Depression. Not the most colourful or inspiring place, you might think. But then there comes a one-woman tsunami of change, Sarah Burton, and suddenly things look very different. The heroine of classic tale South Riding, Sarah is a gutsy teacher who has absolutely zero time or patience for the social etiquette and expectations of her era.

The phrase "ahead of her time" isn't quite enough - Sarah is so forward thinking, she might well be a time traveller sent back to bring a breath of fresh energy to the past. Fiery and outspoken, refusing to be impressed by the doddery, creaky, conservative forces around her, she embarks on a mission to craft young minds and encourage them to see the world in fearless new ways. No wonder she rubs some of the less enlightened men up the wrong way. Not that she cares. Because she's Sarah Burton and is brilliant.


A bit of cheat's entry, this one. But only because it's impossible to just single out one admirable woman in this classic wartime drama about a group of Dutch, British and Australian wives and mothers who are captured by the Japanese in Singapore in 1942. What ensues is a life of heated proximity in squalid conditions. The phrase "blood, sweat and tears" pretty much sums up their existence - a reality all the more shocking when you consider some of these women were once members of the cocktail-sipping elite.

Certain characters really stand out. Stephanie Cole became a telly icon as the unstoppably stoic and stern Dr Mason - a pillar of strength in a terrible situation. But we also have the just-as-tough Sister Ulrica, the nun who leads the Dutch contingent, as well as Marion Jefferson, the Colonel's wife who learns the true depth of her own soul in the hellish confines of the prison camp. But really, we can't nitpick. All the women prisoners in Tenko have to count among the most inspirational ever to grace the telly.