Women in (Literary) History

Throughout time, women have overcome countless barriers to rise up and make their mark on humanity. March is Women’s History Month, and today is International Women’s Day, and Bas Bleu could think of no better way to celebrate than by recognizing ten of the myriad of women whose writings have impacted the world. Some names are probably familiar, while others may be new to you, but all of these women wrote works that influenced the course of history—literary or otherwise.

Sappho (630–570 BCE)
Little is known about Sappho, a lyric poet in ancient Greece, and most of her poetry is lost. Only one poem, “Ode to Aphrodite,” exists in its complete form, though numerous fragments of her other works survived the ages. What remains has influenced writers for more than two thousand years. Praised by the likes of Plato and called “the tenth muse” by many, Sappho has inspired poets such as Alfred, Lord Tennyson and remains an influential poetic voice today.

A portrait of Murasaki Shikibu; illustration from an uta-garuta playing card for Hyakunin Isshu, created in the Edo period.

Murasaki Shikibu (c. 973 or 978–c. 1014 or 1031)
A lady-in-waiting to the Japanese Empress Shoshi in the Imperial Court in 1005, Murasaki Shikibu wrote The Tale of Genji—considered by many to be the first complete novel—over the course of a decade. The book is still widely regarded as a classic of Japanese literature, and was written at a time period when the Japanese language was developing from unwritten vernacular to its own written script. (Until the ninth century, a variation of Chinese characters were used in Japanese writing.)

Phillis Wheatley (c. 1753–December 5, 1784)
Born in Africa and sold into slavery around age eight, Phillis Wheatley learned to read and write under the tutelage of her owners in Boston. She began to write poetry at age fourteen, and, with the publication of her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, she became the first published African American. The book stirred debates over slavery, and abolitionists hailed her work as proof that slaves could be “civilized” and flourish in society.

Mary Wollstonecraft in 1790–1, by John Opie

Mary Wollstonecraft (April 27, 1759–September 10, 1797)
Mary Wollstonecraft wrote nearly twenty works during her tumultuous lifetime, the most famous being A Vindication of the Rights of Women, considered one of the earliest works of feminist philosophy. In it, Wollstonecraft argues that women and men are equally capable, but that women are suppressed by a lack of education, and that women deserve the same fundamental rights as men. (To read more about Wollstonecraft and her daughter, writer Mary Shelley, check out Romantic Outlaws.)

Margaret Fuller (May 23, 1810–July 19, 1850)
Journalist, critic, women’s-rights advocate, Margaret Fuller was an active member of the transcendentalist movement, including acting as the editor for The Dial, a magazine featuring writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson. She was the first full-time female book reviewer in American journalism, and her book Women in the Nineteenth Century is considered the first major feminist work in the United States. It debuted to much criticism, Fuller herself being a controversial figure in society and literature since she—a single, educated and outspoken woman who managed much of her family’s household after her father’s death—did not conform to many of the traditional feminine ideals of the time.

Edith Wharton (January 24, 1862–August 11, 1937)
A prolific writer, Edith Wharton was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel (now the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction), in 1921 for her novel The Age of Innocence. With cunning wit and keen social insight, Wharton wrote novels, novellas, short stories, poetry, and nonfiction. In Paris during World War I, she was active in helping unemployed French women and refugees fleeing the German bombings of Belgium, and was appointed as a Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor for her work.

Zitkala Sa, “Red Bird,” also known as Gertrude Simmons (1876-1938); photographed by Gertrude Käsebier c. 1897

Zitkála-Šá (1876–1938)
Born on the Yankton Indian Reservation in South Dakota but educated at a white missionary boarding school, author and political activist Zitkála-Šá struggled with reconciling her heritage and assimilation into European-American culture, a theme that pervades her numerous works. Several of her writings, including her article “Oklahoma’s Poor Rich Indians,” were influential in persuading Congress to pass the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. Also called the “Indian New Deal,” the act was signed into law by Franklin D. Roosevelt and attempted to reverse assimilation and encourage the Native Americans to strengthen and perpetuate their own heritage.

Eleanor Roosevelt (October 11, 1884–November 7, 1962)
Though she was First Lady and wife of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt was also a writer and diplomat with an active political life of her own. Frustrated by the limitations of the role of the first lady, she redefined the position from hostess to activist, leveraging her visibility in the White House to advance causes for civil, human, and women’s rights. Rather controversial during her time, she wrote newspaper columns, magazines, movies, and books, including It’s Up to the Women, a book of advice for women of all ages written at the height of the Great Depression, and You Learn by Living: Eleven Keys for a More Fulfilling Life.

Agatha Christie (September 15, 1890–January 12, 1976)
Listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the best-selling novelist of all time, Christie’s contributions to the literary world and the mystery genre are undeniable. Her books have been adapted for television, film, and radio, and the author herself has been frequently portrayed in print and onscreen. Known as the “Queen of Crime,” Christie is the most translated author in the world.

Alice Walker

Alice Walker (born February 9, 1944)
Author, poet, and activist Alice Walker is the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, for her third novel, The Color Purple. Growing up in Georgia during Jim Crow as the daughter of a sharecropper and a maid, Walker experienced poverty and discrimination first-hand. After attending Spelman College and graduating from Sarah Lawrence College, she returned to the South to work as an activist in the Civil Rights Movement. Walker has been active in human-rights campaigns ever since, including participating in the 1963 March on Washington and protesting the Iraq War on International Women’s Day in 2003.

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8 thoughts on “Women in (Literary) History

  1. Iam currently rrading a book by candace camp, and the main female character discussrs hoe her aint introduced , mary wollstonecraft to her ypung noece as a little girl& as an adult woman
    The totle is an affair without end.

  2. Hoping you will feature Ayaan Hirsi Ali the Somali born author of Infidel & Heretic who lives with 24/7 body guards as she gives voice to the mistreatment of Muslim women by speaking out against FGM ( female genitalia mutilation) Forced Marriages, Honor Killings, and the submission of women. She is heroic.

  3. Too little energy/time/effort is devoted to Women’s History Month. Thanks for calling attention to and honoring us during Women’s History Month!

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