Influential Women Authors of the Past
March is National Women’s History month which was created to remember extraordinary women and especially those who have gone unsung. Although it is toward the end of March, I believe that female authors ought to be celebrated year round. I have tried to select a variety of historical authors who have contributed something unique to literature. Each author has a link in their paragraph which will either connect to a book that they wrote or to a book written about them.
Murasaki Shikibu c. 973 – c. 1014
I have to begin my list with the woman who wrote the first ever novel. The Tale of Genji focuses on the lives of courtiers in the Heian period. Murasaki Shikibu was a Japanese noblewoman who lived in the 11th Century and was called to be lady-in-waiting to the Empress. Not much is known about her, not even her true name, but she was born into the noble Fujiwara family and was well educated. Bibliophiles should be thankful for Murasaki Shikibu.
Anna Comnena 1083 – 1148
Anna Comnena was the daughter of Emperor Alexius I Comnenus of Byzantium and is often touted as the world’s first female historian. After her father passed away, she wrote a tribute to his life and to his reign called the Alexiad. This 15 volume history was written in Greek and included information about life in the Byzantine empire, medicine, astronomy, and the accomplishments of other women. Anna Comnena herself had tried to seize the throne from her younger brother to rule with her husband but was not successful. Eventually she was exiled to a monastery, where she worked on her volumes of books.
Sarah Winnemucca 1844 – 1891
Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins, who was born Thocmentony or Shell Flower, was a Northern Paiute author who wrote Life Among the Paiutes: Their Wrongs and Claims. This memoir included a history of her people after they met Europeans and is touted as the first autobiography written by a Native American woman. Winnemucca traveled around the US to spread the word about the plight of her people. There has been some controversy about her approach to Native American assimilation, but she was an activist for Native American rights.
Jane Austen 1775 – 1817
Jane Austen is famous for the wit and oftentimes romance, found in her satirical novels like Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma. Austin is one of the first female authors to use parody, poking fun at the way women were portrayed in the gothic novels popular in her lifetime. She used her work as social commentary and made the lives of women compelling and interesting to readers in her day and long afterward.
Mary Shelley 1797 – 1851
Mary Shelley’s most famous novel Frankenstein took the gothic novel and introduced it to science fiction. Shelley is sometimes called the mother of science fiction as she was one of the first women to blend that element into gothic novels. Dr. Frankenstein’s monster—who is actually unnamed—is one of the most widely recognized monsters around the world in part to the numerous book, radio, and movie adaptions he has been used in.
Harriet Beecher Stowe 1811- 1896
I can remember a history book I had in elementary school that called Harriet Beecher Stowe the woman who began the Civil War. That might not be entirely accurate, but Stowe’s anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin certainly furthered the abolitionist cause and played a part in the political climate that led to the Civil War. The work is definitely a product of its time with the biases and beliefs of the period. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was one of the best-selling novels of the 19th century.
Harriet Jacobs 1813 – 1897
Harriet Jacobs was born into slavery on a plantation in North Carolina. She was an amazing woman who managed to escape slavery and later joined the antislavery movement. She wrote Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself which brought to light the particular issues faced by female slaves. The narrative details the abuses of slavery and the anguish of a mother who has been separated from her children. Jacobs’ skill in telling a tale and her unique viewpoint make her novel one of the most famous slave narratives written by a woman.
Laura Ingalls Wilder 1867-1957
It’s the Year of the Pioneer at the Clermont County Public library so of course I included Laura Ingalls Wilder. She is most famous for her Little House series of books, especially Little House on the Prairie. Wilder wrote the novels based on her own childhood as a pioneer along with her parents. Her books were simplistic in style yet very compelling and are enjoyed by children and adults. The novels set the tone for future children’s literature.
Agatha Christie 1890-1976
Agatha Christie was the first prolific British mystery or crime novelist and she’s also the best selling female author of all time. Her talent for creating interesting characters and well plotted whodunits made her very commercially successful. She paved the way for female mystery writers and had several successful series. Two of her most well known detectives are Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot.
Zora Neale Hurston 1891-1960
Zora Neale Hurston was an author and anthropologist who was active during the Harlem Renaissance becoming a prolific writer of short stories, essays, plays, and books. She is most well known for her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God which was not initially well received due partially to the fact it focused on gender issues, was considered risqué, and the characters spoke with a strong dialect. Hurston also did amazing work as an anthropologist, collecting folktales and stories from many cultures. In fact, she published a collection of African American folk tales and oral histories that dated to the time of slavery titled Mules and Men.