Both women and men can fulfill the Mad Scientist/Quirky Inventor or Adventurer character types in Steampunk, but there is one particular character type unique to women that took on particular importance during the late 1800s. The Suffragette arose with the drive for women's rights that took place throughout much of the Western Republics during the late 19th/early 20th centuries. We have women like Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Muriel Matters, Louisa Lawson, Viscountess Nancy Witcher Astor, Emmeline Pankhurst, and the list goes on and on.
|Susan B. Anthony|
Though the historical Suffragettes crusaded for women's rights, there isn't a need to do the same in order to fall under the Suffragette character type. A fine example of this character type, in fact, is Alexia Tarabotti from Gail Carriger's Parasol Protectorate series. Alexia is intelligent, independent, and though she's aware of her place within society she isn't hidebound by the societal mores she doesn't agree with.
The proper Suffragette character type is that type of woman -- intelligent, independent, and capable of ignoring established laws when they stand in her way. The Suffragette's of history were almost all very, very smart women who were focused on altering the established rules of society to give women all sorts of rights under the law that they didn't have before in the Western Republics.
Not every independent female character is a Suffragette-type, but many of them are. The character archetype of the Warrior Woman from fantasy novels is subsumed under the Suffragette umbrella within Steampunk, primarily because the drive for Women's Suffrage took place smack in the middle of the time period where much of Steampunk is set. Both character types can still exist in a Steampunk world, but the Suffragette is almost more natural because she understands the nature of the society she lives in and seeks to change it for the better.
In terms of real-life Steampunks, I can think of few better examples for the attitudes of the "punk" suffix of the word than the Suffragette. She quests for change in the world around her, to give a voice in government to groups that don't yet have one or to help change an attitude that has sent her nation spiraling down the proverbial tubes. She also might be a wife and mother, sometimes to a husband that shares her goals and sometimes to one that tells her she should give up and accept the world for what it is. However, the fictional Suffragette can't do that because she sees an injustice and something in her character forces her to right it.
I realize, as I write this, that I've created Moriah Rowani (heroine of CALLARION AT NIGHT) as a Suffragette character. She doesn't really start off this way, but eventually becomes a leader when she realizes the true depth of the wrongs going on in the city.
An alternate side is the Suffragette-as-villain; this might be someone who's had a psychotic break and is convinced that something's wrong with the world when it's really not, or someone who's taken their quest to the extremes of using fear tactics and hatred to change things. Granted, this is my personal opinion (and one you're welcome to disagree with).
Can you think of any other Suffragette characters in fiction?