Women Who Changed Literature Forever
It is in human nature to write.
It’s easy to assume, especially in this day and age, that there is no precedent for a separate category of “women’s literature” and “feminist literature”. Not that there’s anything wrong with being a part of either of those categories. But no one should bear the burden of being exiled to defining their prose by a part of their identity.
Last Monday, it was Women’s Equality Day in the United States, to celebrate the Right to Vote being expended to women in 1920. We made a pledge to strive towards the same level of equality even in literature. Equality doesn’t just stop with political rights, does it?
To honour the voices of scores of women who have clamoured to level the field, we have compiled a list of iconic women who changed literature forever, for the better.
Mary Wollstonecraft (1759 – 1797)
Why she matters: Women have always found ways to assert their place in society, but it was only in the mid 19th century that feminism, as a political movement, began to gain momentum. One can only imagine how revolutionary
it would have been to be a pioneering champion of women’s’ rights at a point when they weren’t even deemed worthy of casting a vote in democratic politics… “democratic” politics.
So writing what could be considered as the world’s first feminist manifesto is pretty cool.
Where to start: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792).
This is the place to begin your adventure in feminist literature.
L to R: Mary Wollstonecraft, Jane Austen, Mary Shelley
Jane Austen (1775-1817)
Why she matters: Okay, we’ve all heard those jokes about how Austen only writes about women wanting to get married, right? But here’s the thing. Jane Austen is as much of a feminist icon as anyone else on this list. Austen’s novels are very sensitive to issues faced by women in the Victorian era. In fact, the themes she shed light upon can even be adapted to today’s struggle for gender equality. Talk about being timeless! That conversation definitely should not happen sans Austen.
Where to start: Pride and Prejudice; Sense and Sensibility; Emma
Mary Shelley (1797 – 1851)
Why she matters: Mary Shelley is iconic for so many reasons. She was one of those rare individuals who rose up to the challenge of living beyond her mother’s shadow…even literally, perhaps. She published her most famous work, Frankenstein at the young age of 19.
In a world where science fiction is male-dominated, she is a beacon of hope.
Still think sci-fi is only for men? Well, you’ll do well to remember that a pioneer of science fiction was this wonderful, revolutionary woman.
Where to start: Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus (1818)
Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896)
Why she matters: Although Beecher Stowe was a prolific novelist and short-story writer, but perhaps she is most well known for her revolutionary anti-slavery text Uncle Tom’s Cabin for its humanitarianism.
Her work is known as a sharp critique of patriarchal conventions of her time.
Where to start: Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Why she matters: That’s right. George Eliot is actually a woman.
Born Mary Ann Evans, she is now considered as one of the leading voices of the Victorian Era. Her prose, often set in rural England touches upon women’s issues of the time.
The fact that she had to go by a pen name in order to be taken seriously is a reflection on a long history of women resorting to male or androgynous sounding pseudonyms to be accepted by publishers.
Where to start: Middlemarch (1871); Silas Marner (1861)
Why she matters: She was an American playwright, novelist, poet and literary critic. She spent most of her literary career in Paris, where she would often host figures of modern literature including Ernest Hemingway and F Scott Fitzgerald.
Her association with the mainstream figures of modernism did not diminish her determination to be one of the leading feminist voices of 20th-century literature.
Where to start: The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933)
Why she matters: Woolf was a prolific figure in shedding light on issues that affected women at a point in history when they were considered trivial. She was at her prime as the world was plagued with war, and she wrote extensively of its impact on domestic life.
Where to start: “A Room of one’s Own”, “Mrs Dalloway” and “Orlando”
Why she matters: It is no secret that she is a master of her genre. Agatha Christie is one of the most well-known figures of mystery fiction, and it is estimated that about 2 billion copies of her books have been sold so far. Nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge that all this acclaim comes with her struggle of earning a high place in a genre that is typically perceived as male. Literature should be biased like that, don’t you think?
Another fun thing to note: She is also the writer of the longest-running play in London’s West End – “The Mousetrap”
Where to start: “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd”, “Mousetrap”, “And Then There Were None”
Why she matters: Fiercely independent from the very start, she is the author of the feminist text The Second Sex – a detailed treatise on how patriarchy has come to be a dominant ideology. What makes it beloved is the depth in which it went to explain the predicament of women around the world. She was also one of the first people to highlight the idea that women can be emancipated without resorting to masculinity. In other words, femininity is powerful on its own.
Where to start: The Second Sex (1949)
Gloria Steinem (1934-)
Why she matters: Simply put, she changed journalism forever. Along with Nora Ephron, she actively worked to make journalism more egalitarian in the 1960s. Starting from her famous expose of sexism in Hugh Hefner’s Playboy, she worked her way to become one of the most acclaimed and articulate feminists of our generation.
Where to start: “Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions” (1985) her memoir, “A Life on the Road” (2015)
Why she matters: An iconic figure of LGBTQ+ literature, her books often explore gender and sexual identity. She is perhaps most famous for her first novel Oranges and Not the Only Fruit, which is about teenager rebelling against a conventional lifestyle.
Where to start: Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985)
Why she matters: Like her or hate her, it’s difficult to navigate 21st century without JKR. Numbers speak for themselves here: Harry Potter is one of the highest-selling series of books. She’s also the only author to become a billionaire.
And best of all, she gave the world one of the strongest female role models of literature: Hermione Granger!
Where to start: Harry Potter 1-7 (1997-2007)
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