The Evolution of Women’s Literature and Its Forgotten Trailblazers

From debaucherous political satire to “The Color Purple,” learn about how women have contributed to literature since its inception.

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Headless image of 18th century woman beside three book covers, on a lavender background with graphics of ink splatter and a feather pen.

Historically, female authors have been as innovative as they’ve been overlooked. Considered a relatively new study, women’s literature is at the center of intersectionality. More and more, we recognize that writing, as we know it, wouldn’t exist without the women who laid its foundation. With that in mind, let’s skim back the pages of literary history to remember our pen-wielding foremothers.

How Do We Define Women’s Literature?

More than works written by female authors, women’s literature is a movement that promotes the importance of women having their own space within the literary canon. Virginia Woolf’s 1929 essay A Room of One’s Own was a major proponent of this, while second-wave feminism in the ‘70s and ‘80s further propelled interest in women’s contributions to literature.

Book cover of "A Vindication of the Rights of Woman" by Mary Wollstonecraft, featuring a grayscale photo of a sea of women raising their hands.

The first work to ever empower women’s writing, however, was Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792. This treatise set the standard for female writers to both publish and participate in discourse around women in literature.

Women Did It First

One of the first known texts by a woman is the poem Hymns to Inanna (also known as The Great-Hearted Mistress), an ode to the goddess of war and desire. It dates back to 2300 BCE and was written by the high priestess and Sumerian princess, Enheduanna. Enheduanna is, in fact, considered to be the first author in all of history. At a time when writing was used as a means of record-keeping, the high priestess wrote poetry that wound up influencing the Hebrew Bible, Homer’s epics, and Christian hymns.

Book cover of "The Tale of Genji" by Lady Murasaki Shikibu, featuring a drawing of the author herself in a predominantly green and red garment, against an off white background.

Equally groundbreaking was history’s first ever novel, which was also written by a woman. In 11th-century Japan, noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu created Genji Monogatari (The Tale of Genji), which she wrote in Japanese hiragana — a relatively new script system at the time. The story follows a prince named Genji, the son of an emperor and a low-ranking concubine. Split into 54 chapters, the novel spans several decades of Prince Genji’s life, focusing on his romantic relationships with women of varied social standings. The cultural impact of The Tale of Genji has spawned numerous adaptations in Japanese film, theater, manga, and anime.

Amatory Fiction

Not only did women have a hand in the world’s first novel, but they also helped shape the “modern novel.” Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote notoriously receives this credit, but in 17th and 18th century Britain, women writers laid the foundation for the modern novel through amatory fiction. With a focus on themes of romance and pleasure, amatory fiction involves female leads who indulge in love affairs, breaking away from society’s moral standards. These were stories by women, for women, a departure from the usual treatment of female characters in fiction.

Book cover of Eliza Haywood's "Fantomina," depicting an oil painting of an 18th century woman gazing lovingly at a man, with her arm tucked under his.

Outside of amatory fiction, women were dealt with the “ruined woman” trope — stories where they were seduced by men and met grim consequences for having sex out of wedlock. Though amatory fiction did often implement sour endings too, its priority was to embrace women and their desires. In The History of the Nun (The Fair Vow Breaker) by Aphra Behn, the female lead is able to give an empowered speech before meeting her fatal end, while in Eliza Haywood’s Fantomina, the male lead isn’t spared from having consequences of his own.

By contrast, traditional fiction reinforced that women’s value was tied to their innocence and purity. Because amatory fiction challenged that, the genre was considered immoral, and thus, underappreciated.

The Fair Triumvirate of Wit

The shame cast upon amatory fiction carried over to its creators — namely, the genre’s pioneers. Due to the “promiscuity” of their works, Eliza Haywood, Delarivier Manley, and Aphra Behn were referred to as “Prostitutes of the Pen.” However, they are best known as “The Fair Triumvirate of Wit.”

Sketch portrait, from the bust up, of author Aphra Behn.

While their contemporaries chose to distance themselves from them, The Big Three did find success with audiences. In fact, Behn has been called the “first professional female writer,” while Haywood’s best-known work, Love in Excess, is one of the most popular fiction novels of its time. Regardless, none of the Fair Triumvirates were taken seriously within literary circles. To combat critics, they incorporated political commentary into their works.

Book cover of "The New Atalantis" by Delarivier Manley depicting an image of a man on a horse arrogantly pointing at commonfolk while heavenly beings hover over him.

A perfect example of this is Delarivier Manley’s The New Atalantis. The political satire depicts the goddesses Justice, Astrea (Virtue), and Lady Intelligence witnessing debaucherous acts by the rich and powerful. In it, Manley specifically aims her satire at the Whig Party. The piece was so explosive that it actually impacted political spheres. Not only did it strain the relationship between Britain’s Queen Anne and her loyal attendant, Sarah Churchill, but Manley was also arrested as a result. However, the charges were dropped due to the author’s claim that her work was pure fiction and, therefore, not libel.

Grayscale portrait of author Virginia Woolf's profile.

Manley, Haywood, and Behn were ahead of their time in how they appealed to a female audience rather than admonishing them, and in a way, they challenged both literary and systemic politics. Not until early feminism would they receive proper recognition, with Virginia Woolf referencing Behn in A Room of One’s Own, writing,

Female Authorship and The Welfare Effect

During the second-wave feminism of the 1970s and 1980s, there was a resurgence in conversation around women’s literature. Undervalued works by female writers were reprinted, while studies in women’s history and literature were incorporated into college curriculum. This renewed interest led to more recent studies on intersectionality, further proving the unique space marginalized groups occupy in literature. Authors Toni Morrison, Adrienne Rich, and Margaret Atwood are among those whose works demonstrate that this space benefits the literary canon just as much as it does women.

Another testament of that is Alice Walker, who was the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for The Color Purple (1982).

Book cover of "The Color Purple" by Alice Walker with artwork of two black women in different shades of purple on a blush background.

Presently, more than half the books on the market are authored by women. According to economist Joel Waldfogel, by 2021, female authors were even outselling male writers. This parallels the tremendous growth the publishing industry has experienced in the last few years. Waldfogel emphasizes that it’s not a matter of women replacing male authors; rather, they are taking a larger share of the higher sales.

In the same study, Waldfogel found a boost in the welfare effect of reading thanks to female-authored books — i.e., there are benefits to reading books written by women. He argues that women’s writing offers a more diverse range of storytelling and perspectives.

The value of women’s literature is slowly but surely gaining traction. Forgotten, ignored, or revered, female authors everywhere have paved the way for all writers. So, in honor of the trailblazers of the past, let’s continue to hold space for the innovators of the future.

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