Women in Literature

There have been women writers throughout history. Among the first whose work has survived into the 21st century, for example, is the Frenchwoman, Christine de Pisan (1364 to c.1430), who wrote lyrical love poetry. However, until the 19th century women writers tended not to be prominent, as their educational opportunities were limited.

In the 18th century, novels written by women increasingly introduced the subjects of the lives and the loves of ordinary people as a subject. The work of Jane Austen (1775 to 1817) established the novel as a highly successful form of engaging the public in literature. The reading public were captivated by the tales of Mr Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, which was first published in 1813.

In the 19th century in Europe and the United States, the novel became the primary means by which gender relations, social conduct and heroic ideals were explored. For the first time, women writers such as Austen, sisters Charlotte Bronte (1816 to 1855) and Emily Bronte (1818 to 1848) and George Eliot (real name Mary Anne Evans; 1819 to 1880) began to be publicly recognized alongside male writers including Charles Dickens and Leo Tolstoy as authors increasingly explored social and class issues. But the fact that Eliot felt it necessary to write under an assumed, male name to ensure her works were taken seriously demonstrates the prevalent discrimination against women writers in that period.

Considered a classic of English literature, Wuthering Heights, the only novel by the third Bronte sister, Emily, was written between 1845 and 1846. After initial rejection, it was published in December 1847 under the male pseudonym "Ellis Bell." Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte, was generally considered the best of the Bronte sisters' works.

The writer and critic Elaine Showalter follows the evolution of women writers from the Victorian period to the 21st century in her book In a Literature of Their Own. Showalter charts the rise of women authors and poets from novelists and suffragettes Sarah Grand (1854 to 1943) and Olive Schreiner (1855 to 1920) through to Eliot, Louisa May Alcott (1832 to 1888), Elizabeth Gaskell (1810 to 1865), Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806 to 1861), Sylvia Plath (1932 to 1963), Virginia Woolf (1882 to 1941) and Iris Murdoch (1919 to 1991).

Other writers such as Beatrix Potter (1866 to 1943) took on the male-dominated world of literature when her tales of Peter Rabbit and friends were given the backing of the publisher Warne and Co. Potter was 36 years old by the time her first book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, was published in 1902. The author had been rejected by various publishers but the book was immediately popular with the public.

English author Virginia Woolf (1882 to 1941) is regarded as one of the most important figures of 20th century literature. Her most famous works include the novels Mrs Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927). Her essay A Room of One's Own (1929) includes the famous quote: "A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction."

British novelist Doris Lessing is widely regarded as one of the major writers of the mid-20th century. Her first novel was The Grass is Singing (1950). Lessing writes on themes which include feminism, communism and global disaster and her work looks at the lives of women and their relationship to others. One of her most influential works, The Golden Notebook (1962), examines the struggles of a woman writer and is considered to be a classic of feminist fiction. Lessing is unusual in that she has succeeded in literary as well as genre fiction, such as science fiction.

American author Alice Walker is best known for her powerful stories about African American women. She won the Pulitzer Prize for her 1982 novel The Color Purple, which Newsweek described as, "A novel of permanent importance." Edith Wharton (1862 to 1937) was the first woman writer to win the Pulitzer Prize for literature for her book The Age of Innocence (1920).

By exploring the struggle of racial, gender and class conflict to tell her stories, Toni Morrison was the first African American woman to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. The author focuses on the experience of black Americans, particularly emphasizing the experience of women in an unjust society and the search for cultural identity.

Women in Literature: Selected full-text books and articles

Women in Literature: Reading through the Lens of Gender By Jerilyn Fisher; Ellen S. Silber Greenwood Press, 2003
The Bitch Is Back: Wicked Women in Literature By Sarah Appleton Aguiar Southern Illinois University Press, 2001
Shakespeare and Women By Phyllis Rackin Oxford University Press, 2005
Hemingway and Women: Female Critics and the Female Voice By Lawrence R. Broer; Gloria Holland University of Alabama Press, 2002
Gender in African Women's Writing: Identity, Sexuality, and Difference By Juliana Makuchi Nfah-Abbenyi Indiana University Press, 1997
Arms Akimbo: Africana Women in Contemporary Literature By Janice Lee Liddell; Yakini Belinda Kemp University Press of Florida, 1999
Women in Twentieth-Century Literature: A Jungian View By Bettina L. Knapp Pennsylvania State University Press, 1987
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