Culture November 24, 2016
Women have been writing since the invention of the written language. Women wrote the first novel, “The Tale of Genji” by Lady Muraskai, and the first identified author in history was Enheduanna of Akkad, a Sumerian high priestess. So why don’t we pick up these good books to read in school?
For the most part, the female writers we know of today were wealthy and wrote about the experiences of women from their social class. Then you have to factor in women who published their works under pseudonyms, like George Eliot and Jane Austen. Some of the most famous women writers we know today weren’t even published when they were alive. It wasn’t until the second wave of feminism that women writers of the 19th and early 20th centuries were rediscovered.
From Austen to Angelou and Sappho to Shelley, here are the women writers from history you should be reading right now.
Known for her sensual, lyrical poetry, Sappho was the first person to write poetry in the first person narrative. She talks about her own personal love and loss and intimate relationships with the women on the island of Lesbos.
Sei Shonagon was a Japanese author, poet and court lady who served the Empress Teishi. She published “The Pillowbook,” the first gossip rag about the ins, outs and happenings during her time at court.
Margery Kempe was a Christian mystic who cataloged her life in “The Book of Margery Kempe,” which is believed to be the first English language autobiography. She claimed to have detailed conversations with God and went on extensive pilgrimages, subverting all typical female norms of the day.
Mary Sidney was one of the first English women to become recognized for her poetry. She was listed among the likes of William Shakespeare, whom she knew during her lifetime. She translated a lyrical version of the Psalms that we know today.
READ MORE: 10 Modern Woman Literary Heroines
One of the most famous female authors of the 19th century, Jane Austen needs no introduction. Austen is famous for her commentary on women, marriage and social conventions. She published her works anonymously as “A Lady” and, if you can believe it, received little recognition during her lifetime.
Daughter of the proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley cultivated a name for herself with her salacious relationship with the married Percy Shelley. She began her literary career editing her husband’s works, but soon developed a reputation of her own with the publication of “Frankenstein: or, The Modern Promethius.” She is widely considered one of the founding members of the science fiction genre.
Like Jane Austen, Alcott published her works, most famously “Little Women,” under the pseudonym. As A.M. Barnard, Alcott’s novels draw from her own real life experiences growing up with three sisters in Massachusetts and as a nurse during the Civil War.
Anne (1820-1849), Charlotte (1816-1855) and Emily (1818-1848) posed as Acton, Currer and Ellis Bell during their time as authors. Together they published a volume of poetry, and individually, they all published widely acclaimed gothic romance novels, including “Jane Eyre” and “Wuthering Heights.”
READ MORE: Top 10 Gothic Women Writers
A novelist, poet, journalist and translator, Mary Ann Evans was one of the premiere writers of the Victorian era. She adopted the name George Eliot to ensure that her works, like “Middlemarch,” would be taken seriously.
Emily Dickinson dropped out of college to become a recluse. She stayed at home and wrote poetry in a truly American voice. However, she was gained no notoriety during her lifetime and was undiscovered and unpublished until after her death.
Agatha Christie holds the world record for selling the most books, at four billion copies worldwide. During her lifetime, she wrote more than 66 works and reinvented what the modern author could achieve in a lifetime. Not to mention that “And Then There Were None” is the best selling mystery novel to date.
The wife of one of the most celebrated writers of the 1920s, F. Scott Fizergerald, Zelda was an accomplished writer in her own right. She is often said to have written some of the most inspiring lines of “The Great Gatsby” and “Tender is the Night.” She wrote “Save Me the Waltz,” a semi-autobiographical work based on her marriage to Scott.
Nin was among the first female erotic writers, exploring her honest feelings and desires. Cuban by birth, she wrote in journals for more than 60 years, many of which were published and cataloged her experiences with prominent artists and writers of the day. Her most famous work, “Delta of Venus,” is a collection of erotic short stories that was published after her death.
Maya Angelou published seven autobiographies, most famously, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” Attempts have been made to ban her books in schools and libraries, however, Angelou’s story speaks to one of strength and resilience and her works remain a national treasure.
Toni Morrison is an American author and novelist, best known for her works “Beloved” and “Song of Solomon.” Both of these are good books to read on the identity struggles of African-Americans.
READ MORE: 7 Pulitzer Prize-Winning Women
Known for her ‘speculative fiction’ novel “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Atwood writes about the loss of autonomy and identity. She continues to push the boundaries of social science fiction and speculative fiction with novels like “Oryx and Crake” and “The Blind Assassin.”
Walker is the acclaimed author of “The Color Purple” and several volumes of poetry and short stories. She joined the staff at Ms. Magazine, started by Gloria Steinem, as an editor in the late 1970s.
Beginning with a collection of short stories, Lahiri has continued to write novels about the struggle of finding an identity as an Indian immigrant living in the United States. She has written the critically acclaimed novels “The Namesake” and “The Lowlands.”
READ MORE: Writer’s Crush: Jhumpa Lahiri
Danticat’s stunning novel “Breath Eyes Memory” explores the disorientation she felt moving from Haiti to Brooklyn, New York, as a teenager. The novel explores her loss of identity and strength of love through her relationships with family.
If you haven’t read “Gone Girl” by Gillian Flynn, you are missing out. Flynn looks into the mutability of identity when suspicion arises about a deceitful husband and his missing wife.
Zadie Smith is the author of five novels, including “White Teeth,” winner of multiple awards. Smith explores themes of immigration, roots and assimilation in her debut novel.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a Nigerian novelist who has gained fame for her prose in “We Should All Be Feminists” and “Americanah.” Adichie poses an inclusive and accessible definition for 21st century feminism, sounding a rally cry for women today.
These woman have and continue to pave a path for future women writers.
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