Throughout literary history, female writers struggled to be taken as seriously as their male counterparts. Indeed some often chose to write under male pen names to strengthen their chances of being published, the most famous example of this being George Eliot (who was actually Mary Anne Evans). Female authors began to come to prominence in the seventeenth century with the emergence of Aphra Behn (1640–1689), and the publication of her novel Oroonoko. In the 18th century, the English writer Mary Wollstonecraft wrote the prose pamphlet A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), which brought feminist discourse into the public arena for the first time. Wollstonecraft was also the mother of English novelist Mary Shelley, who is best known for writing Frankenstein in 1818.
The leading female author of the 18th century was Jane Austen (1775–1817). Her novels, including Pride and Predjudice (1813) and Sense and Sensibility (1811) studied and gently satirized class in English society. The 19th century saw the emergence of the Brontë sisters, who, like Austen, also published their novels anonymously at the time. Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre is the story of an orphan girl who becomes a governess and eventually marries her mysterious employer, while Emily Bronte wrote the classic love story Wuthering Heights. The United States also had influential female novelists writing during this period. Famous authors of this era include Harriett Beecher Stowe, whose Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) sold more than 500,000 copies and was a catalyst in the antislavery movement, and Louisa May Alcott wrote the children's novel Little Women in 1868. By the end of the 19th century, female authors were starting to be recognized alongside their male contemporaries as important and innovative literary creators. Virginia Woolf's novels, including Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927) were at the forefront of the modernist movement. Woolf also wrote important meditations on the status of women such as 1929's A Room of One's Own, and Three Guineas, first published in 1938.
In the 20th century, women writers who made their mark included satirical novelist Muriel Spark (1918–2006) and the Irish novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch (1919–1999). In France, female authors became extremely important figures on the literary scene. Simone de Beauvoir (1908–1986), wrote The Second Sex, an analysis of the status of women. Nathalie Sarraute (1900–1999) and Marguerite Duras (1914–1996) contributed to the formulation of the "nouveau roman," a French avant-garde form of the novel. Perhaps the biggest female literary icon of this period is Anaïs Nin (1903–1977), who wrote surrealistic novels, erotica, and seven volumes of diaries.
Through the post-war publication of her diary chronicling her life in hiding in Amsterdam from 1942 to 1944, Anne Frank is considered to be one of the most powerful anti-war documents of the era. The diary has been translated into more than 50 languages, and ranks among the best-selling literary works of the 20th century. Female writers continued to gain recognition after World War II. Ayn Rand (1905–1982) used her novels The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957) as vehicles for her hugely influential objectivist philosophy, which endorsed individualism by stressing rational self-interest over charity and the welfare state. American writer Harper Lee won a Pulitzer Prize in 1961 for her classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird.
The women's movement of the 1960s and 1970s allowed female writers the chance to voice their opinions and theories in areas such as politics, race and society. Canadian author Margaret Atwood (1939-) considered the problems of impersonal societies, while Bharati Mukherjee (1940-) and Anita Desai (1937-) wrote about the experiences of Eastern immigrants to Western countries. The Australian author Germaine Greer garnered international attention with the publication of her book The Female Eunuch in 1970, establishing herself as an authoritative commentator on women's liberation and sexuality.
Contemporary female authors are ubiquitous in every literary genre. J.K. Rowling caused a publishing sensation with her first book Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, which became a best-seller in 1998. Rowling built upon the success of her first Harry Potter novel with the publication of six other titles in the series, and each novel has also been adapted into a successful feature film in its own right. Other successful women writers include Helen Fielding, whose Bridget Jones' Diary series also became best-sellers and feature films, while Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series was an international sensation following publication in the mid-2000s.