Women in Literature: A Look at the Major Milestones

Did you know some of the first writers were women? Despite hardships, female writers have come a long way. Here are some major milestones women have achieved in writing!

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Women in literature have played a significant role throughout history. Did you know that the earliest known poet ever recorded is Enheduanna from Sumer, the earliest known civilization? She served as the priestess for Nanna (Sin), the moon god. Enheduanna contributed heavily to the collection of the first documentation of scriptures. Her most notable work was the Sumerian Temple Hymns.

A Timeline of the Earliest Female Writers

an ancient sumerian wall art for what appears to be a princess, a priestess, and a poet

In the 10th Century, Hrotsvitha from Saxony became the first female playwright. Her stories introduced the issues faced by women to storytelling. She discussed forced marriages and how women faced misogyny. Many also regard the first novel written to come from Murasaki Shikibu (The Tale of Genji) during the 11th Century.

a drawing of Genji wearing a Japanese yukata

Christine de Pizan wrote The Book of the City of Ladies, a book about a city where women were independent and lived like men. These women were fighters, inventors, academics, prophetesses, artists, and saintesses. De Pizan’s work influenced an increase in female education among girls in Europe.

Two ladies. One who resembles a nun, and the other a princess or a queen. Both laying bricks down to create what looks like a tower.

Women have been playing massive roles to allow other women to step up the societal ladder. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz was a Mexican writer. A philosopher, composer, poet, and nun, de la Cruz championed intellectual freedom for women through her moral, satirical, and religious lyrics.

In 1818, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley published Frankenstein, the first science fiction book. The genre is massive in books, films, and all sorts of storytelling and media. Shelly is considered the mother of the science-fiction genre.

A man with a trench coat with his back facing us. He is standing on a rock with his walking stick. He has his left foot on a rock that is higher than the placement of his right foot. He looks at a river gushing down at his location. You can see mountains and forests in the distance behind the river.

Selma Ottilia Lovisa Lagerlöf from Sweden became the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1909. She paved the way for more women to walk on the path of literature and storytelling. The Wonderful Adventures of Nils is a popular book of hers.

a boy with red apparel and a pointy red hat. He is barefeet and rides on a giant goose.

Female Perspective and Influence on Literature

Women writers brought their life experiences to an industry dominated by men. Jane Austen‘s critique of the British landed gentry explores the dependency of married women, and women seeking economic security.

Charlotte Brontë was one of the earliest authors to experiment with different poetic forms, including long narratives and dramatic monologues.

Louisa May Alcott published a critically acclaimed book Little Women. She was also active in various abolitionist and feminist reform movements, including working toward women’s suffrage.

four women in a flower field. They seem to be picking and crocheting flowers.

Gertrude Stein was known for her modernist writing style. As an advocate of the avant-garde, she shaped an artistic movement that broke the traditional norms of femininity, writing style, and form. Her experimental creative style included: the use of broken grammar and illogical writing flows, as well as repetition to emphasize and re-shape traditional concepts.

As well as challenging social injustices, Adeline Virginia Woolf tested and embedded different literary devices into our modern lexicon. Woolf is considered a pioneer in writing because of the use of stream of consciousness as a narrative device.

Dame Agatha Mary Clarissa Mallowan is the best-selling fiction writer of all time. Her novels have sold more than two billion copies. Her sales exceed even those of the Bible!

Octavia Estelle Butler is known for her sharp prose, strong protagonists, and social commentaries on society from the distant past to the far future. Furthermore, she also frequently wrote on themes of racial injustice, global warming, women’s rights, and political disparity.

Women Breaking Down the Walls of Patriarchy in Literature

Female writers were not a normal thing in society. Women were expected to stay home to look after the kids, and that was it. While there were women writers back then, no one took them seriously, thus the numerous instances of female writers writing under male pen names in the past. Our ability to witness the impact of women in literature is a direct result of the incredible strides women have made throughout history.

Typically written from the male gaze, female characters in literature would generally fit into stereotypes of either a “good” or “bad” woman. There was usually no in-between. They would either be the helpless damsel in distress who needed to be saved by their prince charming, or they would be a lawless minx who would threaten to break the very notions of society.

Women writers explore the psyches and struggles of women in patriarchal environments. Writers showed the fragmented minds of women, and their many experiences, in addition to educated women who can get their bread.

The Exploration of Taboo in Women’s Literature

Women in literature have explored societal standards, typically in marriage and how a woman should behave. Their writing includes taboo issues like the sexuality and feelings of women. Complex subjects like lesbianism also made it into the spotlight because it was mainly women who wrote about them.

Today, there are plenty of female protagonists in literature, women in control of their voices and actions. Female writers can and have written about disruptive, graphic, violent, and highly sexual content. They do this without worrying about their gender and whether it is inappropriate for them to do so.

Other female authors have written about the male gaze and how much literature revolves around it, the exploitation of women, and the repressive forces of the patriarchy, which are also prominent themes in literature. These works have broken gender stereotypes in literature and have paved a path for female writers in the modern age.

Women have come a long way and have made a lasting impression on literature. What do you think about these milestones? If you want to read more about some incredible women, click here!