Manhwa is full of fascinating historical narratives that encompass many different settings and periods, from the realistic to the highly fictionalized. However, one of the most exciting trends in this genre is the increasing number of strong female leads that can be found in popular stories. This is a pivotal change for several reasons. So for those looking to take a step back in time, here are some of the best historical manhwa with strong female leads.
Empress Cesia Wears Knickerbockers
Empress Cesia Wears Knickerbockers is a fun twist on both an isekai and a historical series. Written by Jeogyeom, the series follows Yuri, a modern pattern designer who gets warped back in time to a Renaissance-era country. While there, she learns that Empress Cesia has a problem: despite her power, she hates her corset and is instead looking for something comfortable to wear. Yuri poses as a man and joins the local fashion designer's guild, soon becoming Cesia's designer and using her modern sensibilities to revolutionize the country, one outfit at a time.
Taking a slightly off-kilter look at historical fashion, Empress Cesia Wears Knickerbockers touches on an often overlooked part of the historic female experience -- how clothing standards often prevented women from living free lives by cladding them in restrictive outfits. This makes Yuri and Cesia's rebellion against these standards even more powerful and brave, and shows the importance of standing up for what one believes in.
Doctor Elise: The Royal Lady With the Lamp
Continuing the theme of overlooked female contributions, Doctor Elise: The Royal Lady With the Lamp sees Dr. Song, a professor at the College of Medicine in Korea, sent back to her past life. In this time, she was a bratty princess who was hated by everyone. But now, with her modern medical knowledge, Dr. Song is keen to turn everything around for her old self.
Drawing a lot from the mythology surrounding Florence Nightingale, Doctor Elise, while fantastical, subverts traditional historical fantasy narratives by empowering the female lead to make sweeping cultural changes to her kingdom without resorting to battle. It also draws attention to how important but overlooked women were in the history of medical advancement, especially in the nursing field.
Possibly one of the most famous historical manhwa in history, Saver follows Lena Ha, the captain of a kumdo team. When she draws the ire of a powerful woman, her mother gets murdered by a sword-wielding assailant while Lena herself is thrown into a deep lake. When she wakes up, however, Lena realizes she is now in Medieval Scotland, carrying the sword that killed her mother. On her quest to get home, she must find her inner strength and protect the Scottish people from various threats in this fascinating meditation on power and trauma.
Lena's inner strength and desire to fight is a breath of fresh air in a genre where women are all too often love interests or decorations. Her transition from trauma and anger to finding new purpose and kinship with the Scottish people is also a unique narrative, showing that allowing oneself to heal is often a mighty and rebellious act. Finally, the harsh reality of medieval Scotland contrasts perfectly with Lena's mental state, leading to a one-of-a-kind historical story.
Charlotte's Letter is set in a pseudo-Victorian world and follows Charlotte, a young woman who longs to become a writer. However, money issues force her to work for Lord Matthew and his sister Lady Anna, but Charlotte's ability to write soon catches their attention. Matthew tasks Charlotte with writing letters for him, having her pretend to be him when replying to specific pieces of correspondence. Anna also orders Charlotte to report on Matthew's activities to her, but for unexplained reasons. However, Charlotte soon learns things are not so peaceful in this house as a dark secret lurks in the shadows.
With a compelling female lead, Charlotte's Letter shines a light on how fraught life could be for poor women in history. Despite Charlotte's intelligence and strength, her economic situation forces her into a position she can't willingly walk away from, forcing her to use all her wits to survive.
It is fantastic to see more historical manhwa feature strong female leads. Historical fiction has long centered on male stories, often using women as decoration or trinkets to be won in battle. Today, however, young women can see themselves reflected in all genres of entertainment. Despite historical marginalization, women have always played a massive role in society. In fact, they've been behind plenty of events and inventions that allow the comforts many people around the world enjoy today. Hopefully these stories will encourage more writers to create female-led historical fiction -- and empower young women to chase their dreams and tell their own stories.