They may not be perfect for every woman, but they're a good place to start. These four handgun categories all have a place in a good personal-defense plan, and the specific models can be found chambered for reliable self-defense rounds.
Full-Size Semi-Auto Pistol
Smith & Wesson M&P: I like the M&Ps in both full-sized and compact models. They're simple, ergonomic and come with three different, easily changeable backstraps to customize fit to your hand.
In the full-sized versions, they're excellent for training, but a tad big for concealment. They offer excellent ammunition capacity, and with the built-in rail for attaching a dedicated light, make great house or car guns.
These are extremely "soft" shooting pistols, and felt recoil across all three chamberings I've tried (9 mm, .40 S&W and .45 ACP) is insignificant.
Springfield Armory EMP, Colt Defender or Smith & Wesson M&P Compacts: There is more variety among these choices, as they are offered in different calibers and each feels different in the hand.
The biggest difference is found in their triggers. This includes trigger pull weight—the actual feel and movement of the trigger as it is pressed and the consistency of both. A trigger is not just a matter of personal preference, it can affect your shooting significantly.
External safeties also vary, so make sure you know where they are and can reach them well enough to disengage them easily. Each of these pistols will hold more ammo than small, five-shot revolvers, in some cases more than doubling the capacity. They will, however, be heavier and bulkier, so consider how and where you're going to be carrying.
Smith & Wesson K-frame revolvers, Ruger SP101 (non-snub nose) or GP100: These small- to medium-framed revolvers are available in configurations that allow firing .38 Spl. as well as .357 Mag.
They are great, all-around revolvers—which in themselves are great all-around handguns. Simple to fire and easy to load and unload, they are a good size for shooting multiple rounds at the range or in training as well as for carrying. They also make good car or house guns. In this medium-frame configuration, even .357 Mag. loads are comfortable to shoot.
Like most revolvers, they can be fitted with a wide variety of grips, allowing modification to fit a wide range of hand and finger sizes. Revolvers also generally don't have sharp edges or rub points that can wear on inexperienced hands.
Ruger LCR and Smith & Wesson J-frames: These are compact, five-shot revolvers and in their various models can handle anything from a .38 Spl. to .357 Mag. cartridges. Light enough to always carry, they are also small enough to easily conceal. I carry mine whenever possible, and with an internal hammer, I can fire it through a pocket or purse. The downside is they hold only five rounds—so always have at least one full reload on you, and know how to use it.
These true pocket guns are a handful to shoot, but they aren't unpleasant. I routinely fire 30 to 50 rounds in practice. That said, I wouldn't want to fire many more in a single session.