In the literary world, every day is International Women’s Day, and every month is Women’s History Month. The real world just hasn’t caught up to speed—yet.
“Every word a woman writes changes the story of the world, revises the official version.”—Carolyn See
We could argue for a very long time about what constitutes strength, and we might never come up with one single definition. Similarly, it’s impossible to identify every influential woman who made her mark on the world through the written word. We are all limited in our experience with them, whether because of exposure, education, or even personal taste. But, the lady bosses of lit—whoever they were/are, whatever they wrote, however it’s been perceived, and whenever they’ve published—helped pave the way for the rest of us.
They didn’t always get the recognition they were due, and even today we tune out so many voices that need to be heard. So, in this spirit, let’s have a look at just a few of these daring, innovative individuals who have stood the test of time—or, in some cases, are just getting started on shaking things up.
While she’s best known for her novel approach to narrative stream of consciousness, Woolf contributed so much to approaches on biographical works, artistic theory, short fiction, and political pieces. Born to the perfect Victorians, Woolf cast off societal expectations time and time again to assert her own beliefs on everything from what novels could be to what a woman’s role was and could be. She challenged the concept of perception both on and off the page, and set the tone for Modernist writers to come. Despite her struggle with her mental health and her eventual tragic end, Woolf can be an inspiration to any writer hoping to carve his or her own path in what often feels like a rigid standard.
One of my personal favorite aspects of Angelou’s style is that she can go from the most beautiful, insightful prose, to telling it like it is. She’s credited with saying, “I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels. Life’s a bitch. You’ve got to go out and kick ass.” This from the author who has received countless awards and honorary degrees, and who also had the guts to address and publish her experience with sexual abuse in a time when the subject was even more taboo than it continues to be now. A poet and an activist, a screenwriter and an actress, Angelou is an excellent example of a renaissance woman, and a trailblazer to boot. Don’t be afraid to stretch yourself, to step out of your comfort zone and challenge the norm.
Like her famous literary creation, Shelley might have felt out of place in her time. Though her mother was Mary Wollstonecraft, defender of women’s rights, she died days after her daughter was born. That didn’t prevent Shelley from tapping into her roots, though. Her own father described her as “singularly bold, somewhat imperious, and active of mind.” Not the typical praise women received in the early 1800s, but apropos when one considers that Shelley later traveled Europe with a man her family didn’t want her to marry, then hosted ghost story sessions with the likes of Lord Byron, Jane Clairmont, and John Polidori. Though Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus was published anonymously in 1818, Shelley herself lived unapologetically and openly, something we can all aspire to whether we write or read.
Her first novel, The Bluest Eye, wasn’t published until Morrison was almost forty years old, but to be fair, she was a tad busy up until that point. She went from being the only black child in her first grade class who could read, to a graduate student at Cornell, to a university professor, to a Random House editor—all in between the ups and downs of her personal life. Through her novels, Morrison brought characters who were more frequently marginalized into the light. She became an advocate in multiple arenas, and lent her voice to groups of people that otherwise had none of their own. Writing for you is great, but writing for others? That’s Pulitzer worthy.
No list of groundbreaking and inspiring female authors would be complete without the woman who reconstructed the world as we know it by asking us to allow for the possibility of magic in the modern age. Say what you want about the opinions she’s put out there lately; her fiction writing speaks for itself. And the fact that it all started on a bar napkin endears us to her journey as an author all the more. It’s the reason she’s on this list in the first place; we all know what it’s like to be at the bottom, to feel like all we have is what’s in our heads and on our backs. The difference between Rowling and others is that she let it fuel her passion and created something that changed the literary world, one reader at a time. Let adversity and generally shitty circumstances be your motivation to write the reality you would rather live in.
Ursula K. Le Guin
This writer’s science fiction and fantasy novels have been compared to the work of literary giants like J.R.R. Tolkien. But, Le Guin also understands the merits of sticking to your guns and not compromising standards for the sake of the reward and the recognition. The Diary of the Rose was once honored with the Nebula Award by the Science Fiction Writers of America; at the same time, novelist Stanislaw Lem was stripped of his honorary membership for politically charged reasons. This drove Le Guin to refuse the award, and she continued to do so even after the organization tried to offer it to her again. She held fast and didn’t associate herself with a group that, while prestigious, didn’t align with her moral and social views. The takeaway? Be excellent, so awesome that even those you can’t agree with want to recognize you for it. And when they try to, don’t let the flattery and vindication intoxicate you.
Ever feel like everyone is just mercilessly dumping all over your greatest masterpiece? Chopin would be able to commiserate with you on that one. The Awakening was banned for being immoral and scandalous, and was assaulted by scathing reviews from the very beginning. While she never wrote another novel after that, her short stories were featured in major magazines across the country. It wasn’t until the 1950s, decades after her death, that The Awakening resurfaced and was recognized as something other than morbid, vulgar or disagreeable. Today, it’s included in many educational curriculums to discuss the true conditions in which many women lived in her time. And that’s a common theme in Chopin’s writing style: truth. So don’t worry so much over how your work will be received once it’s out there; write the truth, whatever that means for your piece, and never apologize for doing so.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
If you ever listened to The Danger of A Single Story or We Should All Be Feminists, you’re in good company. Both of these TED Talks put Adichie on the map, and solidified her place in both the publishing world and the realm of social activism. She’s won countless awards for her novels, been featured in national publications for years, and is being recognized as one of the faces of a rising generation of female writers of color. And in this digital age, it’s easier than ever for us to follow in this Nigerian author’s footsteps by utilizing the many tools we have to convey important messages that others need to read or hear. Like Adichie, we can step back from traditional publishing and explore other options in a world where there are so many ways to communicate and connect with our audience.
As we’re all well aware of by now, fiction can have just as great an impact on worldviews as nonfiction. Atwood, an accomplished author as well as a literary critic, an essayist, a poet, an environmental activist, and an inventor, has proved time and time again that “a word after a word after a word is power.” Her power as a writer lies in her concise, introspective approach and her unassuming way of addressing the more difficult topics and themes that are bound to arise in any works that contain even a hint of feminism. And that’s the thing about Atwood’s novels; some of her more highly acclaimed works dive headfirst into the issues facing women, even those that make a lot of people uncomfortable, and challenge us to stare them right in the face. Write what needs to be written, and don’t flinch away from the rough stuff. Our lives are made up of that, too, and art should always contain at least a dash of reality to help drive the point home, even in the most stubborn skulls.