To continue our Women’s History Month “Most Influential Women Authors” series, we’re looking at some notable names from the last century. A lot of these women may be familiar names from your English literature class- and for good reason! These 20th century women made strides in the literature genre, and are still talked about today for their contributions. Not only did these female authors redefine the world of writing and literature, but brought attention to topics including feminism, racial equality, and inclusivity!
What better way to start off our list with none other than Virginia Woolf? Critics recognize Woolf for her role as one of the leads in modern literature and using the stream-of-consciousness narrative device in her writing. She often associated with upper-class English socialites, becoming a notable figure in its literary scene. Her most famous books include To The Lighthouse (1927) and Mrs. Dalloway (1925).
Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf? Ever heard that line before? It is the name of a 1962 play that, ironically, does not actually feature Virginia Woolf at all, but bases its central conflict after her influential writing. Critics revere Woolf’s style for depicting the candid, emotional truths of her characters, without the guise of social illusion. This is covered in the play and its characters’ relationships, showing just how Woolf’s writing legacy goes on to inspire more works of art and literature.
Tragically, she passed away at 59 from suicide, after a lifetime of struggle with mental health. Throughout her life, Woolf also worked and met with activists in the women’s rights movement, and feminist scholars used her writing as examples of feminist literature during the second-wave-feminism movement. Historians today speculate that Woolf may have been a lesbian or bisexual, despite marrying a man, due to her notable affairs with women.
If you’ve ever taken 9th grade English, this is name you’ve definitely heard! Harper Lee is most known for her novel, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), about the loss of childhood innocence in the face of harsh realities of societal and community racism and discrimination. She based her writing off her own childhood growing up in the American South, where she observed the racist attitudes and bigotry that existed in the adults of her town. Lee’s novel gained critical acclaim and is credited as being one of the best novels of the 20th century.
Outside of To Kill A Mockingbird, Lee also released Go Set a Watchman in 2015, originally announced as a sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird. However, that position is subject to debate due to conflicting characterization and writing compared to the plot of its predecessor. Today, it is considered more of Lee’s first draft to her most famous novel.
Lee was also known for her friendship for famous writer, Truman Capote, where she helped him write his most famous book, In Cold Blood (1966). Both served as inspiration for characters in each others’ novels. Lee passed away in her birthplace and hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, at age 89.
Maya Angelou was not only an esteemed poet and writer, but she also had an indelible role in the civil rights movement through the 20th century. Her career consisted of autobiographies, poetry, plays, and even credits in television and movies that reached over a half-century of work! Angelou is best known for her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), about her early childhood and experiences that gave her International recognition.
Her role in the Civil Rights Movement helped pave the way for change, working with crucial figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Her work provided a voice for Black people, culture, and feminism. She became one of the first Black women to gain such a highly-regarded literary influence. Her style of autobiography-writing was unique, also- while readers consider them autobiographies, Angelou wanted to change the genre by creating her own autobiographical fiction.
Gertrude Stein was a Jewish-American writer, poet, and playwright. Her writing was famous for introducing early concepts of the LGBT community, including her own experience coming out as a lesbian in Q.E.D.(1903). Stein was an open lesbian, something uncommon at the time. Her other famous books and writing included Three Lives (1905-06), and The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1932), the second of which threw her into critical acclaim and public attention. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is about the relationship she shared with her lifetime partner, Alice B. Toklas. She had some influences of the stream-of-consciousness writing style, similar to Woolf.
One of her most famous lines is from 1913 in her poem, Sacred Emily, “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.” She moved to Paris in 1903, and lived there for the remainder of her life. In her time in Paris, Stein also met and hosted a salon for other great 20th century artists and writers, including Picasso, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway.
Throughout her life, Stein was outspoken about social issues, including feminism and immigration. During World War II, Stein was a Jewish woman living in Nazi-occupied France. Throughout the war, Stein ensured her safety by working and collaborating with Vichy France, making her a subject of controversy and debate throughout history.
Zora Neale Hurston
Zora Neale Hurston’s writing made her an important figure during the United State’s Harlem Renaissance, especially with one of her most famous novels, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). She explored Black culture of the 20th century through her stories, plays, and even ventured into filmmaking! Her work discussed discrimination and bigotry in the American South, and she based a lot of her writing off her hometown of Eatonville, Florida. Hurston explored genres including satire and folklore based off the African-American experience.
Hurston travelled a lot throughout the American South to inspire her writing, where she learned and documented aspects of African-American folklore, art, and struggles. One notable novel inspired by these experiences included Mules and Men (1935).
Despite her role in the Harlem Renaissance’s literary scene, Hurston unfortunately did not get as much recognition as she deserved throughout her career and life. One of the primary reasons is due to her work using African-American dialect, something unpopular with readers and writers at the time.
Born in Iran and raised by her parents in Zimbabwe, Lessing later moved to London, England to begin her writing career. In addition to her passion towards writing, Lessing also moved to London to pursue vocalizing her leftist, socialist beliefs. Her opposition to apartheid even resulted in her getting banned from South Africa, and even brought her as as subject of investigation in Britain. Queen!
Lessing published her first novel, The Grass is Singing in 1950, but her 1962 novel The Golden Notebook, brought her to public attention and acclaim. Throughout her career, Lessing published over 50 novels, some of which under her pen name, Jane Somers. She became the oldest person to win a Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007, in addition to the variety of writing honors and awards she received throughout her career. Many of her novels reflected many of her discussions about social issues and leftist ideas, including The Golden Notebook. Today, The Golden Notebook is considered to be feminist literature by many scholars.
Agatha Christie is a household name for any mystery or crime fans! Throughout her career, Christie published 66 crime detective books, and had responsibility for creating some notable fictional detectives including Miss Marple and Hercules Poirot. She sold over two billion copies of her novels through her lifetime, and remains one of the most translated authors. One of her most famous novels is And Then There Were None (1939), which is one of the top-selling novels of all time.
Christie’s legacy makes her one of the most popular fiction writers and one of the biggest crime novelists, winning a plethora of awards for her novels and writing. Outside of books, Christie also wrote The Mousetrap, the world’s longest running play, and her novels and short stories are still adapted into a variety of multimedia. This includes TV, film, radio, video games, and more!
Sylvia Plath is most recognizable for her poetry and her bestselling novel, The Bell Jar, reflective of her own struggles and experience with mental health and published soon before her own tragic suicide in 1963. She wrote poetry as a child, and Plath’s best known poetry books include The Colossus (1960) and Ariel (1965). Although Ariel became published posthumously, it brought public attention and notability to Plath’s name. She helped in popularizing the genre of confessional poetry, and today, is well-recognized for the imagery provided in her poems.
Her struggles in mental health became synonymous with her name and legacy, yet her talent in writing and poetry made her a visible voice in the 20th century feminist movement. There is a phenomenon, called the “Sylvia Plath Effect,” after Plath. The effect refers to poets being most vulnerable to mental illness than other writers in the creative writing field.
Audre Lorde made an impact not only in the world of writing and poetry, but also in social justice. As a civil rights activist and feminist, Lorde dedicated her career to advocating and discussing societal racism, sexism, socioeconomic disparities, and LGBT rights. Lorde was an open lesbian and was open-minded on her thoughts against war and discrimination. Her work became recognized by influential black publishers and writers, including Langston Hughes.
Today, we recognize her poetry and writing style as notable for her skillful use of emotion and expression, particularly in addressing social injustices in her community and world. Outside of just the written word, Lorde had skills in spoken word, too, with her oral poetry gaining acclaim from the Poetry Foundation and for its intensity and power. Lorde is credited for being one of the lead figures of the Black Feminism movement and initiative, and contributed to the third-wave feminism movement and ideas of intersectionality.