We’re continuing our celebration of Women’s History Month by looking at some amazing female authors throughout history. Because we can’t bear to limit ourselves to just a few authors or risk excluding writers, we’re looking at a handful of women from each century.
Today, we’re looking at some prolific female authors of the 17th century, their works, and the mark they’ve left on history and women who decided to take up the pen after them.
This is the first in our series of Female Authors Throughout History, so make sure to check back for our next article on 18th century writers! Also, keep an eye out for more Women’s History Month content from us, including feminist reads for International Women’s Day, and new books by female authors that are making history!
Now, let’s dive into some women’s history!
Aphra Behn broke cultural and societal barriers by becoming one of the first English women to make her living as a writer. The best part? Behn was a dramatist, translator of science and French romance, and an erotic poet. Behn regularly wrote about topics like female sexuality, the comedy of male impotence, bisexuality, and gender.
On Behn’s sexual frankness, novelist Virginia Woolf famously wrote, “All women together must let flowers fall on the tomb of Aphra Behn… For it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.”
Behn’s most notable works include Oroonoko: or, the Royal Slave (1688), which is considered one of the first novels in English, and The Rover (1677), which was Behn’s most popular and respected play for three centuries.
Besides being a writer, Marie Meurdrac was a French chemist and alchemist. Her book, La Chymie Charitable et Facile, en Faveur des Dames (roughly Useful and Easy Chemistry, for the Benefit of Ladies) (1666), is her most notable work, and the one that keeps her name from falling into obscurity. La Chymie is one of the first works on chemistry to be written by a woman, and it went through five editions in French, and was translated to German and Italian.
Despite potential criticism from those who believed women shouldn’t receive and education, Meurdrac wrote anyway and believed “minds have no sex.”
Marie Dupré was a French scholar and poet who knew Latin, Greek, and Italian, and was also versed in rhetoric, poetics, and philosophy. A relative of French writer and dramatist Desmarets de Saint-Sorlin, Dupré wanted to follow in her family’s footsteps. She was the author of The Responses of Isis to Climene, and her ability to argue her points earned her the nickname “The Cartesian.” Dupré was well-known and admired by those within the French Salons of the day.
Anne Dacier was a French translator, classical commentator, and editor. Her most notable work comes from her translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Dacier’s father taught her ancient Greek and Latin. In 1683 she married one of her father’s students, André Dacier, who also worked on translations, though encyclopedia editors consider his work to be far inferior to Anne’s.
Anne Dacier: 1, Men: 0.
Marie de Gournay
A French writer and translator, Marie de Gournay used her gift for words to advocate for women’s right to receive an education. Gournay argued that given the same opportunities, privileges, and education as men, women could equal men’s accomplishments in her works like The Equality of Men and Women (1622) and The Ladies’ Grievance (1626).
Gournay studied humanities and taught herself Latin. While in Paris she was determined to make a living through writing, and eventually wrote for famous figures like Queen Margo (who later became Gournay’s patron), Henry IV of France, Marie de Médicis, and Louis XIII. With the support of Queen Margo, Gournay was invited to the Queen’s royal salon and received financial support on a quarterly basis.
Madame de La Fayette
Madame de La Fayette wrote France’s first historical novel and one of the earliest novels in literature, La Princesse de Cléves (1678). It was first published anonymously and is considered to be a prototype of the early psychological novel.
La Fayette began to receive a literary education and was taught Italian and Latin at the age of 16. In Paris she was a member of a number of well-to-do salons, like those of Madame de Rambouillet and Madeleine de Scudéry. In the 1650’s after marrying her husband she even started her own successful salon in Paris and mixed with court society. One of her acquaintances included the future Duchess of Orleans, who asked La Fayette to write her biography.
Anne Bradstreet is one of the first poets to write works in the American Colonies. Though she supposedly didn’t know it, her brother-in-law took some of her poems back to England and published them in 1650 under the title, The Tenth Muse, Lately Sprung Up in America.
The Tenth Muse was the only collection of her work to be published during her lifetime. Six years after her death in 1678, The Tenth Muse was published in America and expanded as Several Poems Compiled with Great Wit and Learning. Bradstreet posthumously gained critical acceptance for her later poetry, which weren’t published until the mid-1950s. Poet John Berryman paid tribute to Bradstreet in a 1956 poem titled Homage to Mistress Bradstreet.
Bathsua Makin was considered one of England’s most learned women, skilled in Greek, Latin, Hebrew, German, Spanish, French, and Italian. Makin argued for the rights for women and girls to receive an education and criticized women’s inferior positions in domestic and public spheres. In her most famous work, An Essay to Revive the Ancient Education of Gentlewomen (1673), Makin argued for the women’s’ rights to education.
Makin was also a seasoned teacher in addition to being a writer. She was a tutor to Charles I of England’s children and the governess of Princess Elizabeth Stuart.
Henriette-Julie de Murat
A French aristocratic writer, Henriette-Julie de Murat published three volumes of fairy tales from 1698-1699: Fairy Tales (1698), New Fairy Tales (1698), and Sublime and Allegorical Stories (1699). Additionally, she published a short ghost story titled A Trip to the Country in 1699. Her works gained her recognitions by the Ricovrati Academy of Padua and the Academy of Toulouse.
Unfortunately Murat’s publishing career was put on hold when she was accused of “shocking practices and beliefs” in 1699. One of these accusations included Murat supposedly having a relationship with a woman. People believed this to be “confirmed” in 1701 when Murat was pregnant. Don’t you just love 17th century logic?
The scandal caused Murat to be estranged from her husband, disinherited by her mother, and exiled in 1702 to Château de Loches. She tried to escape Château in 1706 by wearing men’s clothing, but was captured and transferred to two other prisons before being put back in Château. It wasn’t until 1709 that Murat obtained partial liberty and returned to her aunt’s home. She published her last work, The Sprites of Kernosy Castle, in 1710.