Today is Lucrezia Borgia's birthday, born in Italy way back in 1480. Happy Birthday, Lucrezia!
Lucrezia has become notorious in history as a woman who will do anything for her family, including poisoning, sexual favors, and incest. The men of her family were worse in their actions, but it's Lucrezia who is the most notorious.*
Perhaps, if she were a man, Lucrezia would have been modestly infamous for being so ruthless and Machiavellian, but it seems to be even more outrageous that she did those things and was a female. Of course, if she were male, she wouldn't have had to resort to sneakier methods of getting her way such as using sex or a poison ring to guarantee the outcome she wanted; she would just have straight-out murdered the person in question, or perhaps gone ahead and led an army against them. But being a woman, she didn't have those methods at her disposal, so she used what she did have—her femininity and the misguided thought that women were the weaker sex, and wouldn't dare to act as she did.
Another memorable heroine, albeit entirely fictional this time, is Scarlett O'Hara from Gone With the Wind. Scarlett's one true love (because it's SO NOT Ashley Wilkes!) is Tara, the plantation her family owns, and once that is in jeopardy, she will do whatever is necessary to keep it. To Scarlett, Tara is her family. She lies to her sister's well-to-do beau, telling him her sister has moved on to another, and then lures him into marrying her so she can access his money to keep Tara. She shoots a Yankee deserter without flinching to protect herself and her property.
Cersei Lannister from the Game of Thrones series is another woman who will do whatever she needs to if she feels her actions are necessary to protect her family (and like Lucrezia, is sleeping with her brother). Cersei is the closest in personality to her father, Tywin, but since she is a woman, she cannot lead an army, nor become the Hand of the King, to affect the change she wants to see. Instead, she is married off to the King, and her worth is due to her beauty and her ability to bear children. She uses her sexual favors to get what she wants (or what she thinks her family needs), she accedes to unpleasant actions because she's convinced that the action will result in good for the family, and she is incredibly protective of all her children, including the loathsome Joffrey.
Many other women in fiction (or fictional history, as in Lucrezia's case) are willing to do anything to protect their family, but there aren't as many women who are even able (never mind if they're willing) to do some of the worst deeds these ladies have done. Mostly, females protecting their families end up in a huge life sacrifice, such as marrying someone you don't want to, rather than taking the bold step of murdering someone. One of the excellent examples of this kind of woman is Pride and Prejudice's Charlotte Lucas, who is a contrast to Elizabeth Bennet. If they remain unmarried, both Charlotte and her best friend Elizabeth will be burdens on their respective families, but only Charlotte agrees to a loveless marriage in order not to be a burden.
Without thinking highly either of men or of matrimony, marriage had always been her [Charlotte's] object; it was the only honourable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want. —Pride and Prejudice
Some romance heroines are willing to marry a particular gentleman in order to save their sister from that same fate, but usually the particular gentleman ends up being the hero of the story, and the heroine falls in love with him herself, so she gets to have her sacrifice and fall in love, too.
Ruthless women such as Lucrezia, Scarlett, and Cersei don't do bad things because they necessarily want to; they believe they are doing what they do for a greater cause, namely protecting, advancing, or preserving their families. That distinction is what makes them ultimately more intriguing than being bad for bad's sake.
Who else would you add to the list?
*Bear in mind we are only discussing Lucrezia's reputation, not the actual facts of her life; according to several sources, there is no proof that she actually did these things.
Megan Frampton is the Community Manager for the HeroesandHeartbreakers site. She lives in Brooklyn, NY, with her husband and son.