Amit Varma links to this interview with Mallika Sarabhai where she says that Draupadi "is the epitome of the 21st century woman." In the same post, Amit Varma also links to this blogger who disagrees with the above quote and instead says that Draupadi "comes out like she has no personality and personality is what defines a 21st century woman... That was then; this is now."
Personally, I prefer to view these people as literary characters rather than historical figures. I find it's easier to discover the divinity in them that way. And, I have to agree with Mallika Sarabhai when she says:
"I have always felt that our mythological women and historical women got aI had a similar feeling when I read the Ramayana and pondered the problem of Sita. Mallika Sarabhai follows up the previous statement with this:
raw patriarchal deal. The writers of history were men: the priests were men, the
storytellers were men, the historians were mostly men. And they ended up by
reducing all the women into cardboard cutouts – wimps, in fact."
"And yet they (the women) could not have been so. Think of this -- why are
all the men identified by their women? Radheshyam -- Radha's Shyam; Umashankar -- Uma's Shankar; Sitaram -- Sita's Ram etc?"
Alternatively, couldn't one argue that the women are defined by their men? In fact, that's exactly the case with the women of the Ramayana. Here's what I wrote last year about that epic (after reading R.K. Narayan's adaptation):
I wrote this as part of a larger essay on "Rama's Moral Lapses". The main focus of the piece was Rama's killing of Vali, but as mentioned above, Sita's trial by fire is just as revealing, if not more so, about Rama's character. I'll post the full piece on this site one of these days. Today I just wanted to add my two cents to the issue of women in our epics.
"The female is treated very unfairly (from a modern and feminist persepective)
in the entire 'Ramayana', and Sita's trial [by fire] is just the culmination of
that sentiment, developped through the epic. The major female characters in the
story are Sita, Kaikeyi, Manthara (Kooni in this version), Soorpanaka and Tara
(Sugreeva's wife). None are given their full due as independent characters, and
all seem to exist solely for the men in their lives. Sita's sense of dharma
compels her to follow Rama into exile. Had she chosen otherwise, it is clear
that the moral judgement would be negative. Kaikeyi's disobedience of Dasaratha
forms part of the ethical charges made against her. Kooni's evil nature is made
clear by her attempt to interfere in the male-centric ritual of succession.
Soorpanaka, the one independent female in the story is given a very unflattering
portrayal, and even she ends up with a Rama-centered identity. Tara is flung
from one husband to the next with no concern for her preferences. Even Ahalya,
is forced to live an eternity as a rock for being raped by Indra.
All the classic feminist critiques apply to the Ramayana. While stacked with
powerful male characters like Rama, Ravana, Hanuman and Vali, the Ramayana lacks strong female characters. Sita's greatness lies not in her independence or
strength, but devotion to Rama. Given all this, it is easy to see why Sita's
trial by fire fits in with the general narrative of the Ramayana and with Rama's
own code of ethics...
This is not to say that Sita's trial by fire is excusable. In fact modern re-tellings of the tale can quite easily skip the sordid chapter and not lose any of the narrative. Sita's trial by fire, like Vali's killing is inexcusable and indefensible, but the latter is also inexplicable."