The Remarkable Story of the First Woman Who Made a Career From Writing

Let’s dive into the journey of what it looked like to be the first woman to make a career from writing.

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Background split with blue on the left and light green on the right, with 4 book covers of Aphra Behn's works.

Throughout history, women were not highly regarded as writers, even if they had incredible ideas to share with the world. Whether it be having to change their writer’s name to a male alias or staying anonymous, knowledge of the identity of these women was largely kept under wraps. In the 1600s, though, a writer named Aphra Behn made waves with her writing and more surprisingly, published her works under her real name. Her works boasted bold ideas, which garnered both popularity and scandal.

The Path to Success

Not much is known about Aphra Behn’s background, from her early life to her life in England after she returned from Surinam to the man she married. What was undeniable was her time as a spy for King Charles II. However, this position was short-lived, as she racked up debt, which the King refused to pay despite her commitment to being a spy, and was instead thrown in jail.

Among the speculations and mysteries of Behn’s life, no one knows how she was released from jail either, but by the time she was free, she’d turned to writing. Her first play, The Forc’d Marriage, quickly garnered audiences as it matched the tone of the Restoration period, which was described as a time of pleasurable pursuits. As much as the content in her work aided in her massive success, it was also the reason she was classified as scandalous.

Notoriety Before and After Death

Her time as a playwright gave way to nearly nineteen of her works appearing on stage. Behn’s writing was notorious for being,

“Bawdy comedies, full of libertines, harlots, and foolish characters.”

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Despite her success, following her death in 1689, her works were torn apart by critics who viewed her directness in speaking about sex as appalling, especially for a woman. This was due to the changing view of the Restoration era that people wanted to step away from.

Penguin Book cover of Oroonoko by Aphra Behn with main character in the center.
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While she was a well-known playwright, her prose fiction work, Oroonoko, eventually became the story she would be most recognized for, fast forward hundreds of years later. Some say Oroonoko may be the first published novel in English. This in itself is a huge accomplishment, but another aspect that possibly added to Behn’s notoriety was the fact that this novel was a response against slavery and the Dutch political trade.

The Impact of Behn’s Writing Today

Despite the opposition to her works, even after her death, the 1900s welcomed Behn’s works back into the literary sphere. Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf talked of the status that Behn reached as the first professional woman writer; however, it was not truly in celebration of Behn’s writing itself, but rather of what she might have done. They only saw what could have been instead of the work Behn put into her writing, much like Woolf’s remarks about Behn’s work in her book, A Room of One’s Own.

Book Cover of A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf with green background and red and brown flowers.
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It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what Behn and her works represent to people since various biographies were created about her after the writings of Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf. Some say she was a martyr or a revolutionary, but these have been based on the biography writers’ points of view. That being said, Behn’s success and achievements provide insight and inspiration into women’s success in the writing sphere.

Along with her incredible collection of writings, many referenced Behn’s works as the beginning of feminism. As the first woman to make a career from her writing, her legacy and work helped to put future women writers on the map and gain recognition for their literary talents.


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