Date of Publication: 01 March 2022
Throughout history, some of the most influential women have been writers, poets and essayists; breaking social barriers, challenging the status quo and questioning the rules through the art of their writing.
From the pioneering voices of the late 18th and early 19th Century through to modern day feminist contemporaries in the literary sphere, women have long shaped the landscape of literature, of cultures around the world, and of history with their ingenious creative writing talents.
In honour of International Women’s Day, we wanted to share just a small selection of the most pioneering female writers in history. Each of the authors featured on this list have gone down in history as some of the greatest artists in history, with various film and TV adaptations made from their work.
1. Jane Austen (1775 – 1817)
English novelist Jane Austen is one of the most famous 18th Century novelists, known primarily for her six major novels. One of the earliest female writers to produce works that critiqued and commented on the British landed gentry, Austen was a writer who focused on plots which explored the dependence of women on marriage, or women who were in the pursuit of economic security.
As such, many of Austen’s works were published anonymously, meaning that she enjoyed little fame during her life. It was after her death that she gained far more status as a writer, with her six full-length novels rarely having been out of print. There have also been several film adaptations of her works, with a number of critical essays and anthologies accompanying them.
Jane Austen’s famous works:
- Sense and Sensibility (1811) – First published anonymously by ‘A Lady,’ it tells the story of the Dashwood sisters, Elinor and Marianne as they come of age and are forced to move with their widowed mother from the estate on which they grew up.
- Pride and Prejudice (1813) – A novel following the character Elizabeth Bennet, who learns about the repercussions of hasty decision-making and the difference between superficial goodness and actual goodness.
- Emma (1815) – A comedy of manners, depicting the concerns of genteel women living in Georgian-Regency England, focusing on issues of marriage, sex, age and social status.
2. Mary Shelley (1797 – 1851)
Second on our list of famous female writers in history is famous Gothic fiction writer, Mary Shelley. Recognised as one of the early creators of science fiction, she was also a prominent editor, working mainly on the works of her husband, the Romantic poet and philosopher, Robert Bysshe Shelley.
Born to political philosopher William Godwin and feminist activist, Mary Wollstonecraft, Shelley was raised solely by her father after her mother’s premature death. Having been provided a rich yet informal education, with her father promoting a lifestyle of anarchism, Shelley married early and pursued a life predominantly dedicated to promoting her husband’s works but also towards writing fiction.
Mary Shelley’s famous works:
- Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818) – Written when Shelley was just 18 years old, the story follows young scientist Victor Frankenstein who accidentally creates a sapient creature during an unorthodox experiment.
- Valperga (1823) – A historical novel set amongst the wars of the Guelphs and Ghibellines which retells the adventures of Castruccio Castracani – a real historical figure who became the Lord of Lucca and conquered Florence, Italy.
- Rambles in Germany and Italy (1844) – A travel narrative published in two volumes that describes two European trips Shelley took with her son, Percy, and several of his university friends.
3. Emily Brontë (1818 – 1848)
Sister to the aforementioned Charlotte Brontë, Emily Brontë was another famous female writer of the Victorian era who is best known for her only novel, Wuthering Heights (which also features on our list of classic books to read for students!)
Publishing her work under the pen name, Ellis Bell, Brontë was also a prolific poet, with her writing at the time and still today regarded as ‘genius.’ Her most famous collection of works, Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, was a collection of pieces published with her sisters Charlotte and Anne under their pseudo-names.
Emily Brontë’s famous works
- Poems by Currer Ellis, and Acton Bell (1846) – A volume of poetry published jointly by the three Brontë sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne. It was their first work to ever go to print.
- Wuthering Heights (1847) – A prime influence of Romantic and Gothic fiction which concerns two families of the landed gentry living on the West Yorkshire moors – the Earnshaws and the Lintons – the book follows their turbulent relationships with Earnshaw’s adopted son, Heathcliff.
4. Charlotte Brontë (1816 – 1855)
One of the most famous Victorian female writers in history, Charlotte Brontë is best known for her novels, including Jane Eyre (1847). The eldest of one of three sisters who survived into adulthood, she became an author only after she and her sisters attempted to open a school – which failed to launch.
Although her first novel, The Professor, was initially rejected by publishers, it was her second novel, Jane Eyre which was well-received by critics and has gone on to become a capsule piece in the history of British literature.
Setting the characteristic tropes of Victorian literature, Brontë was one of the earliest authors to experiment with different poetic forms, including the long narrative and dramatic monologue – but later gave up on poetic writing after the success of her prose.
Charlotte Brontë’s famous works
- Jane Eyre (1847) – This coming-of-age novel follows the journey of its eponymous heroine, including her love for Mr Rochester and his home at Thornfield Hall.
- Shirley (1849) – Set in Yorkshire during the industrial depression of the early 19th Century, the story follows characters during the Luddite uprisings in the Yorkshire textile industry.
- Villette (1853) – Follows the protagonist, Lucy Snowe, as she flees a family disaster and travels to the fictional city of Villette in France to teach at a girls’ school, where she’s drawn into adventure and romance.
5. Louisa May Alcott (1832 – 1888)
American novelist, short story writer and poet, Louisa May Alcott, may be best known as the author of Little Women, but has made a much larger literary contribution than you may have first thought.
Raised in New England by her parents and Abigail and Amos, Alcott was one of four daughters in the family. Just like the four sisters in her famous novel do, Alcott worked hard to support her family’s struggling financial situation, using writing as an outlet when she had the time.
Published in 1868, Little Women was her first major literary success, after having written for the Atlantic Monthly from 1860. In the early 1860s, she also published a number of lurid short stories for adults under her pen name, A. M. Barnard, in an attempt to break onto the literary scene.
Once a popular household name with her debut novel, Alcott became an active member of various abolitionist and feminist reform movements, including working towards women’s suffrage, which she continued to support throughout her life until her passing in 1888.
Louisa May Alcott’s famous works:
- Moods (1864) – Alcott’s first novel which tells the story of passionate tomboy, Sylvia Yule, who embarks on a camping trip with her brother and his two friends, both of whom fall in love with her.
- Little Women (1868) – Coming-of-age novel following the lives of four sisters and their journey through genteel poverty as children into womanhood.
- Little Men (1871) – Sequel to Alcott’s famous Little Women, reprising characters from the original – Jo Bhaer, her husband, and the various children at Plumfield Estate School.
6. Gertrude Stein (1874 – 1946)
Pioneering American novelist, poet, playwright and art collector, Gertrude Stein was a key figure in early twentieth century feminism – both in a literal and literary sense – who rose to mainstream attention thanks to her ‘quirky’ lifestyle and 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 styles included the use of broken grammar and illogical writing flows, as featured in her 1914 novel Tender Buttons: Objects, Food, Room, as well as repetition to emphasise and re-shape traditional concepts in her later works like, The Making of Americans.
Although born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and then raised in California, it was Paris, France, that Stein moved to as an adult that she called home for the remainder of her life. During her time here, she hosted a salon in Paris, where leading figures in literature and art would meet and share their work. Notable attendees included Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Gertrude Stein’s famous works:
- Three Lives (1909) – Separated into three separate stories, ‘The Good Anna,’ ‘Melanctha,’ and ‘The Gentle Lena,’ which follow three different lives of working-class women living in Baltimore.
- Tender Buttons (1914) – Consisting of three separate sections; ‘Objects,’ ‘Food,’ and ‘Rooms,’ the book consists of poems about the mundanities of everyday life, whilst experimental language keeps the subjects unfamiliar and engaging.
- The Making of Americans: Being a History of a Family’s Progress (1925) – A novel which traces the genealogy, history, and psychological development of members of two fictional families.
7. Virginia Woolf (1882 – 1941)
Adeline Virginia Woolf was an early 20th-century writer from England. Considered to be one of the most modernist authors of her period, Woolf not only challenged the social injustices on women in the early 1900s, but also tested and embedded different literary devices into our modern lexicon of creative writing.
For example, Woolf is considered a pioneer in the use of stream of consciousness as a narrative device, especially in one of her more famous novels, A Room of One’s Own.
Born into a blended family of eight, Woolf lived in an affluent household in South Kensington, London with her mother, father, and five siblings. She was home-schooled in English Classics and Victorian Literature before attending the Ladies’ Department of King’s College London to study Classics and History.
Encouraged by her father, Woolf began writing professionally in 1900, eventually moving to the more bohemian Bloomsbury area of London, where she was part of the formation of the famous Bloomsbury Group.
Throughout her life and even long after she passed, Woolf has remained a prominent literary figure; in 1917 she married her husband Leonard Woolf, who she went on to found the Hogarth Press with, a publishing house which published much of her work; she published over 20 different works; and was the central subject of the 1970s movement of feminist criticism, cited as “inspiring” and drawing much attention to her literature.
Virginia Woolf’s famous works:
- Mrs Dalloway (1925) – Fictional high-societal Clarissa Dalloway living in post-First World War England shares the details of a day in her life.
- To the Lighthouse (1927) – A philosophical introspection novel which centres on the Ramsay family and their visits to the Isle of Skye in Scotland between 1910 and 1920.
- A Room of One’s Own (1929) – An extended essay, based on two lectures Woolf delivered in October 1928 at Newnham College and Girton College (both constituent colleges at the University of Cambridge) about social injustices against women.
8. Agatha Christie (1890 – 1976)
Detective crime writer Dame Agatha Christie is recognised by the Guinness World Records as the best-selling fiction writer of all time, with her novels having sold more than two billion copies around the world.
Famed for creating the fictional detectives Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, she also wrote the longest-running play, The Mousetrap, which has been running in the West End since 1952.
Born into a wealthy upper middle class family in Devon, she eventually moved to Wallingford in Oxfordshire with her husband, where she passed away aged 85.
Christie’s works remain popular amongst detective fiction fans, (with her even featuring on our list of classic authors to read!), with several of her works having been transformed into TV and film adaptations.
Agatha Christie’s famous works:
- Murder on the Orient Express (1934) – During Poirot’s trip home to London from the Middle East on the Orient Express, snowfall brings the train to a halt. A murder is discovered, and detective Poirot is forced to solve the case.
- The A.B.C. Murders (1936) – Featuring crime detective Poirot, Arthur Hastings and Chief Inspector Japp – the characters are forced to contend with a series of killings by a mysterious murderer known only as “A.B.C.”
- The Mousetrap (1952) – The longest-running West End show, this murder mystery play was written as a birthday present for Queen Mary, the consort of King George V. The plot is still unknown amongst those who have not seen the stage play, with the audience asked not to reveal the twist at the end when they leave the theatre.
9. Harper Lee (1926 – 2016)
Pulitzer prize-winning novelist, Harper Lee, was an American writer best known for her 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird. The book went on to win her the Prize in 1961 and pushed her into literary success as an acclaimed writer.
Lee’s childhood in Monroeville, Alabama, is what inspired her idea for the novel. Her father, a former newspaper editor, businessman and lawyer, served in the Alabama State Legislature from 1926 to 1938. During his time in this role, he defended two black men accused of murdering a white storekeeper. Both men were found guilty of the act and hanged – setting the plot of Harper Lee’s famous novel.
Thanks to the book’s widespread success, Lee has received numerous awards and honorary degrees, including the Goodreads Choice Awards Best Fiction in 2015, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007 for her contributions to literature.
Today, Harper Lee’s works are widely taught in schools in the United States, encouraging students to learn more about how to empathise tolerance and dissipate prejudice towards others. In 2006, British librarians even ranked the book ahead of the Bible, calling it a novel that “every adult should read before they die.”
Harper Lee’s famous works:
- To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) – A novel about justice, that deals with the serious issues of rape and racial inequality. Loosely based on Lee’s observations of an event that occurred near her hometown when she was a child.
- Go Set a Watchman (2015) – The second of only two novels published by Harper Lee. First published as a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, it is now widely accepted that Go Set a Watchman was a first draft of the aforementioned book, drawing parallels with the original plot.
10. Toni Morrison (1931 – 2019)
Born and raised in Lorain, Ohio, Toni Morrison was an American novelist and editor, made famous by her ability to depict the Black American experience in her writing with such authenticity; in an unjust society, her characters typically struggle to find themselves and their cultural identity; while her use of poetic style and often fantastical style of writing give her stories great strength and texture.
After achieving an MA in American Literature at Cornell University in the mid-to-late 1950s, Morrison established herself in the literary world when she secured a role as first black female editor in fiction at Random House in New York City in the late 1960s. However, it wasn’t until the 1970s and mid ‘80s that Morrison developed her reputation as an author and published her most famous works.
Morrison was incredibly successful as an author, receiving several awards and accolades for her work. In 2012, President Barack Obama presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom; in 2016, she received the Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction; and in 2020, Morrison was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
Toni Morrison’s famous works:
- The Bluest Eye (1970) – Morrison’s first novel tells the story of a young African-American girl named Pecola who grew up following the Great Depression.
- Sula (1973) – Morrison’s second novel focuses on a young black girl named Sula as she comes of age during a period of harsh adversity and distrust, even hatred, within the black community that she lives in.
- Beloved (1987) – Set after the American Civil War, Beloved tells the story of former slaves who Cincinnati home is haunted by a malevolent spirit. The novel is inspired by an event that actually happened in Kentucky: when an enslaved person, Margaret Garner, escaped and fled to the free state of Ohio in 1856.
11. Margaret Atwood (1939 – )
Canadian-born poet and novelist, Margaret Atwood, is most famous for creating the dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985, which has subsequently led to tremendous success – including a hit US TV series adaptation of the original book.
As a literary artist, Atwood covers a variety of themes across time but which still remain relevant today, including themes on gender and identity, religion, climate change, ‘power politics’ and the power of language. And it’s her combination of these themes with sharp literary tongue which makes her the subject of study for many A-Level syllabi.
Atwood has won numerous awards for her writing, including two Booker Prizes, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and the PEN Center USA Lifetime Achievement Awards, amongst many others.
Margaret Atwood’s famous works:
- The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) – Dystopian novel set in a near-future New England in a strongly patriarchal, totalitarian state which has overthrown the United States government. The central character and narrator, Offred, is one of a group of ‘handmaids’ who are forcibly assigned to produce children for ‘commanders’ – the ruling class of men in the state.
- Alias Grace (1996) – A novel of historic fiction which re-tells the notorious 1843 murders of Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery in Canada, where two of the servants in the household were convicted of the crime.
- The Testaments (2019) – A sequel to ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ set 15 years after the events of the original. Narrated by Aunt Lydia, a character from the previous novel; Agnes, a young woman living under state control; and Daisy, a young woman living in the free country of Canada.
12. Alice Walker (1944 – )
Although all the female writers on our list are very much accomplished in their own right, Alice Walker certainly stands out as one of the most successful in female literary history.
In 1982, she became the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her novel The Color Purple. Since then, she’s also been awarded over 15 different awards for her fiction work and social activism, including the Domestic Human Rights Award from Global Exchange (2007) and being inducted into both the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame (2001) and the California Hall of Fame for History, Women and the Arts (2006).
During her career, she has also published seventeen novels and short stories, twelve non-fiction works, and various collections of essays and poetry.
Alice Walker’s famous works:
- Meridian (1976) – Described as Walker’s “meditation on the modern civils right movement,” ‘Meridian’ follows a young black woman in the late 1960s who is attending college at a time when the civil rights movement begins to turn volatile.
- The Color Purple (1982) – This epistolary novel follows the life of Celie, a poor, uneducated 14-year-old girl living in the Southern United States in the early 1900s who shares her story through a series of letters to God.
- Possessing the Secret of Joy (1992) – Follows the story of Tashi, a minor character who features in Walker’s earlier novel, ‘The Color Purple.’ Now in the US we watch her battle an internal conflict between her new culture and the heritage she’s entrenched in.
13. Octavia E. Butler (1947 – 2006)
American author, Octavia Estelle Butler, was an award-winning female writer who rose to fame in the literary industry in the late 1970s after releasing a series of novels in the science fiction genre.
Acclaimed for her sharp prose, strong protagonists and social commentaries on society from the distant past through to the far future, she also frequently wrote on themes of racial injustice, global warming, women’s rights and political disparity.
Butler’s writing received a tremendous amount of attention, making her a multiple recipient of the Hugo and Nebula awards and a recipient of the PEN West Lifetime Achievement Award. In 1995, she also became the first science fiction writer to receive a MacArthur Fellowship. Today, many of her books remain a common choice for high school and college syllabi.
Octavia E. Butler’s famous works:
- Kindred (1979) – Incorporating time travel and slave narratives, the book follows a young African-American woman writer, Dana, who finds herself stuck in time between her LA home in 1976 and a pre-Civil War Maryland plantation.
- Parable of the Sower (1993) – A New York Times Notable Book of the Year, this apocalyptic science fiction novel provides commentary on climate change and social inequality. It follows central protagonist Lauren Olamina in her quest for freedom.
- Parable of the Talents (1998) – Winner of the Nebula Award for Best Novel, the novel consists of journal entries from Lauren Olamina (previous protagonist in Parable of the Sower) and her husband Taylor Bankole after having founded a new community called Acorn.
14. J. K. Rowling (1965 – )
Joanne Rowling OBE, better known by her pen name J. K. Rowling, is a British author, film producer and screenplay writer, best known for being the author of the bestselling Harry Potter book series.
After working as a researcher and secretary for Amnesty International, in 1990 Rowling conceived the idea for the Harry Potter series while sitting on a delayed train to London. For seven years, Rowling worked on the first book draft, which was initially rejected by twelve different publishers before being eventually purchased by Barry Cunningham – giving her the platform she needed to launch her fantastical book series.
Having won multiple awards and having sold more than 500 million copies of her works, Rowling is the best-selling living author in Britain and recognised as the best-selling children’s author in history.
J. K. Rowling’s famous works:
- Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997) – The first book in the series; Harry is a wizard who lives with his non-magical (muggle) relatives until his eleventh birthday when he is invited to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The book followed with six sequeuls, following Harry’s adventuress at Hogwarts with friends Hermione and Ron and his attempts to defeat Lord Voldemort, who murdered Harry’s parents when he was a child.
- The Casual Vacancy (2012) – Rowling’s first book for adult readership is a mature murder mystery which explore complex themes such as class, politics and adult social issues. The novel was the fastest-selling in the UK in three years and had the second best-selling opening week for an adult novel ever.
15. Zadie Smith (1975 – )
Sadie Adeline Smith is an English novelist, essayist and short story writer who rose to fame back in the year 2000 after her debut novel, White Teeth became an international bestseller. This initial success has since led her to win a number of awards, including the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the Betty Trask Award.
White Teeth set the tone of Smith’s subsequent writing style. Known for her novels’ eccentric characters, savvy humour and snappy dialogue, her fiction often deals with discussions on the treatment of race, religion and cultural identity.
Since Smith’s early successes, she has gone on to enjoy a lifelong career in the literary world. She began serving as writer-in-residence at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, before teaching fiction at Columbia University School of the Arts. Since 2010, she has been a tenured professor in the Creative Writing faculty of New York University while also being a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books.
Zadie Smith’s famous works:
- White Teeth (2000) – Centred on Britain’s relationship with immigrants from the British Commonwealth, Smith’s debut novel focuses on the later lives of two wartime friends and their families in London.
- On Beauty (2005) – Smith’s third novel won the Women’s Prize for Fiction tells the story of two families – each set between New England and London – with events spurred on by a long-time professional rivalry of the two protagonists.
- Grand Union (2019) – This is a collection of 11 new and previously unpublished short stories, as well as snippets of work from The New Yorker and other renowned publications.
Follow in the footsteps of these female literary heroes
Feeling inspired by the work of these famous female writers? Join us for a 2-week summer course in the UK and have the opportunity to learn the art of writing from top tutors and published authors.
During a 2-week course, you’ll learn the fundamentals of creative writing and put its key techniques into practice as you work on your own piece of prose. You’ll be joined by a small group of other passionate students (no more than 8 students per class) and have the opportunity to workshop your work with one another for the most constructive course possible.