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11 Women Authors Who Made Literary History

By Ashly Moore Sheldon • March 01, 2022

We never need an excuse to celebrate women authors, but since March is Women's History Month, it provides the perfect opportunity to spotlight a handful of the incredible women of literature. Here are eleven seminal scribes of the female persuasion.

Sappho

Plato called her "the tenth muse." Considered by many to be the first female author, Sappho (630–570 BC) was an Archaic Greek poet from the island of Lesbos. Though much of her writing has been lost, she is still regarded as one of the greatest lyric poets of ancient times. There are several excellent translations of her recovered works, but this volume from Mary Barnard offers one of the most complete and modern collections.

Murasaki Shikibu

Also known as Lady Murasaki, the Japanese author was born in the latter half of the first century. She was a lady-in-waiting at the Imperial court of the Heian period and she's best known as the author of The Tale of Genji, which is widely considered to be the world's first novel.

Mary Shelley

Shelley pioneered a new genre with her 1818 novel, Frankenstein, considered by many to be the first work of science fiction. She came by her trade honestly. Her mother Mary Wollstonecraft was also a notable writer, penning the bold feminist manifesto, A Vindication of the Rights of Women.

Harriet Beecher Stowe

No other American author had more of an international influence in the mid-nineteenth century when Stowe began writing. She was read all over the world and reviewed by Tolstoy. In addition to her best-known Uncle Tom's Cabin, abolitionist Stowe published thirty books over a writing career that spanned five decades and was renowned both for her writings and for her activism.

Baroness Emmuska Orczy

The Hungarian-born British novelist was best known for creating The Scarlet Pimpernel, literature's first masked superhero. The popular series centered on Sir Percy Blakeney, a wealthy English fop who disguised himself to carry out daring missions saving aristocrats from the guillotine during the French Revolution.

Edith Wharton

She was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Literature with The Age of Innocence in 1921. Wharton drew on her insider's knowledge of uppercrust New York society to portray the lives and morals of the Gilded Age. Her writing was defined by insightful honesty and razor-sharp wit.

Gabriela Mistral

In 1945, the Chilean poet, writer, and diplomat was the first Latin American author to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Much of her poetry centered on themes of nature, betrayal, love, childhood, sorrow, travel, and Latin American identity as formed from a mixture of Native American and European influences. This collection of her poems was translated by Ursula K. Le Guin.

Agatha Christie

Prolific and compelling, English author Agatha Christie is known for her addictive detective novels featuring beloved sleuths, such as Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. Her intricate murder plots typify what has become known as the cozy mystery genre. And she's the best-selling novelist in history! Here's a post we published to mark her birthday in 2020.

Lorraine Hansberry

Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun was the first work by an African American woman to appear on Broadway. She was also the first Black playwright and youngest woman to win a New York Critics' Circle Award. The play, about a struggling Black family living on the South Side of Chicago, tackled issues around segregation and discrimination and served as the inspiration for this award-winning 1961 adaptation starring Sidney Poitier.

Jeanette Winterson

She made waves with her semi-autobiographical novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, which tells the story of a young lesbian coming to terms with her identity and struggling for acceptance in her community. Although Winterson resists the book's categorization as a "lesbian novel," it is considered a touchstone for LGBTQ writers.

Octavia Butler

A trailblazer of Afrofuturism and speculative literature, Butler challenged the conventions of her genre. In 1995, she made history as the first science fiction author to receive a MacArthur Fellowship, aka the Genius Grant. Her novels, like Kindred and Parable of the Sower, offered mesmerizing, immersive tales featuring strong Black women heroines.

We've come a long way from the times when women authors like George Eliot, aka Mary Ann Evans, and the Brontë sisters had to adopt a male pen name to be taken seriously. And for that, we can thank these founding mothers of literature, and many more like them.

To learn more about groundbreaking women of American literature, check out A Jury of Her Peers by Elaine Showalter. She also wrote A Literature of Their Own, which focuses on female British novelists.

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Read more by Ashly Moore Sheldon

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