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Trendsetting Literary Ladies

In Many Cases, Women did it First

By Ashly Moore Sheldon • March 27, 2020

Women at the Helm

It may come as a surprise to some that ladies have often taken the lead in the literary world. For example, the first novel in existence is believed to have been The Tale of Genji written in the early eleventh century by Japanese noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu. To cap off Women's History Month, we bring you a handful of literary firsts by trailblazing female authors during the last two hundred years.

19th Century Female Frontrunners

In 1811, Jane Austen's first novel, Sense and Sensibility, introduced a new kind of fiction. Although she didn't invent the genre, Austen is often thought of as the godmother of rom-com genre, being the first author to reflect the complex inner lives of women characters in her humor-filled love stories.

The science fiction genre is thought to be especially male-dominant, but in fact, Mary Shelley produced the prototype with Frankenstein in 1818. In 1826, she continued her streak with The Last Man, the world's first post-apocalyptic novel.

In 1843, English botanist Anna Atkins was the first woman to publish a book illustrated by photographic images with her Photographs of British Algae. Raised largely by her father after her mother's death, Atkins received a thorough scientific education, unusual for girls at the time. Children's book, The Bluest of Blues by Fiona Robinson tells her story.

Published in 1852, abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin became the bestselling book of the 1800s. It was so widely read that, upon meeting her in 1862, Abraham Lincoln reportedly said, "So this is the little lady who made this big war."

Magazine contributor and editor, Ann S. Stephens is widely considered to be the progenitor of the dime novel, publishing her first one in 1854. Her melodramatic romance and adventure stories proved wildly popular and, at the time of her death, they were published as a 23-volume anthology.

One of the first writers of detective fiction, Anna Katharine Green has been called "the mother of the detective novel." Her first book, written in 1878, sparked a debate in the Pennsylvania State Senate over whether or not it could really have been written by a woman. Green invented the prototype for female crime-solvers with Amelia Butterworth, a nosy society spinster introduced in That Affair Next Door.

20th Century Girly Groundbreakers

Would you be surprised to learn that a woman created the original masked hero story? In 1905, Hungarian-born British novelist Baroness Emmuska Orczy published The Scarlett Pimpernel, introducing the archetypal character that inspired dozens of popular copycats such as Batman and Spiderman.

Building on the foundation set by Anna Katharine Green, mystery author Agatha Christie began her decades-long publishing career in 1920 with The Mysterious Affair at Styles her first in the Hercule Poirot series. She would go on to become the bestselling novelist in history.

In 1950, the Chicago South Side's Gwendolyn Brooks was the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for her forceful and passionate poetry. She wrote, "If you wanted a poem, you only had to look out of a window. There was material always, walking or running, fighting or screaming or singing." Her work, as shown in Selected Poems, fused modernist aesthetics with African-American cultural tradition.

The great Octavia Butler racked up several Nebula and Hugo Awards for her powerful, socially conscious science fiction. But she broke new ground when, in 1995, she became the first sci-fi writer to win a coveted MacArthur "Genius" Grant, shortly after the success of one of her many Afrofuturistic novels, Parable of the Sower.

In 1997, a British struggling single mother named Joanne Rowling published Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (the first in a series you may have heard of). She went on to become the world's first billionaire author. She has since given away much of her earnings to charity, but remains one of the wealthiest people in the world.

The Future is Female

Two decades into the twenty-first century, it is clear that the women writers of the new millennium are continuing to build on the momentum set by their predecessors. Our shelves are overflowing with groundbreaking, award winning, blockbuster publications from a variety of emerging luminaries like Jesmyn Ward, Sally Rooney, N. K. Jemisin, Miriam Toews, Zadie Smith, Elena Ferrante, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Jenny Offill, and many more. Feel free to chime in with any of your favorite women writers from the past or present.

And combat social isolation by following us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for daily book recommendations, literary tidbits, and more.

Read more by Ashly Moore Sheldon

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