50 Great Women Writers — how many have you heard of?

February 4, 2013 at 10:35 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 10 Comments
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Dear Guardian newspaper,

We note that your books editor, Robert McCrum, has published a ‘partisan list’ of 50 turning points in literature, and that comments have remarked on the low numbers of women (7).

To begin redressing the gender balance, here is another list – even more partisan, in that it consists entirely of influential women writers. (McCrum’s original choices are in red.)

Here are those 50 great, pioneering women.


Kathleen Taylor (science writer) & Gillian Wright (senior lecturer in English literature)


1.Julian of Norwich: Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love (c. 1393; thought to be the first book written in English by a woman)

2.Christine de Pizan: The Book of the City of Ladies (1405; this courtly French poet wrote about women’s roles and emphasized their positive contributions to society)

3.Margery Kempe: The Book of Margery Kempe (1436; women can do autobiography)

4.Mary Sidney: Psalms (c. 1599; her paraphrases of the Psalms were as good as or better than her brother Philip’s)

5.Margaret Cavendish: The Blazing World (1666; women can do science-fiction, long before that term was invented)

6.Lucy Hutchinson: The Life of Colonel Hutchinson (c. 1673; women can do biography)

7.Anne Bradstreet: Severall Poems (1678; Bradstreet is often called ‘the first American poet’)

8.Aphra Behn: Orinooko (1688; pioneering playwright and poet who showed that women can make a living from writing)

9.Mary Astell: A Serious Proposal to the Ladies (1694; Astell advocated a university for women)

10.Anne Finch: The Spleen (1701; a pioneer woman writer on mental illness)

11.Charlotte Lennox: The Female Quixote (1752; women can do satire)

12.Elizabeth Carter: All the Works of Epictetus (1758; women can translate the classics)

13.Mary Wortley-Montagu: The Turkish Embassy Letters (c. 1761; women can do travel writing)

14.Catherine Macaulay: The History of England (1763-1783; women can do history)

15.Mary Wollstonecraft: A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792)

16.Ann Radcliffe: The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794; women can do Gothic fiction)

17.Maria Edgeworth: Castle Rackrent (1800; invents the regional novel in English)

18.Jane Austen: Pride and Prejudice (1813)

19.Mary Shelley: Frankenstein (1818; women can do enduring horror stories)

20.Elizabeth Barrett Browning: The Cry of the Children (1842; this poem helped bring about reforms to child labour in England)

21.Emily Brontë: Wuthering Heights (1847)

22.Charlotte Brontë: Jane Eyre (1847; set the pattern for many a romantic novel)

23.Harriet Beecher Stowe: Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852)

24.Elizabeth Gaskell: North and South (1855)

25.Florence Nightingale: Notes on Nursing (1859; women can do medicine)

26.Mrs Beeton: The Book of Household Management (1861; women can do really popular cookery books)

27.Julia Ward Howe: The Battle Hymn of the Republic (1861; women can do political propaganda)

28.George Eliot: Middlemarch (1871)

29.Edith Sitwell: Façade (1922-3; women can do surrealism)

30.Emily Dickinson: Complete Poems (1924; women can do poetry)

31.Virginia Woolf: A Room of One’s Own (1929; women can be revolutionaries)

32.Vera Brittain: Testament of Youth (1933; women can do war memoirs)

33.Agatha Christie: Murder on the Orient Express (1934; women can do detective fiction, and how)

34.Rebecca West: Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941; women can do travel writing)

35.Simone de Beauvoir: The Second Sex (1949; women can do philosophy)

36.Iris Murdoch: Under the Net (1954; this prolific philosopher-novelist showed how varied a woman’s writing can be)

37.Rachel Carson: Silent Spring (1962; pioneering and vastly influential work of environmentalism)

38.Doris Lessing: The Golden Notebook (1962; women can chronicle political and social change)

39.Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar (1963; women can write starkly about mental illness)

40.Germaine Greer: The Female Eunuch (1970; feminist bestseller)

41.Angela Carter: The Bloody Chamber (1979; women can do dark things with fairy tales)

42.Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale (1985; women can do dystopian fiction)

43.Jeanette Winterson: Oranges are Not the Only Fruit (1985; lesbian fiction goes mainstream)

44.Toni Morrison: Beloved (1987; women can reshape American fiction)

45.Pat Barker: Regeneration (1991; women can do war fiction)

46.Kay Redfield Jamison: An Unquiet Mind (1995; women can do psychiatry)

47.JK Rowling: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997)

48.Catherine Millet: The Sexual Life of Catherine M. (2002; women can write explicitly about sex)

49.EL James: 50 Shades of Grey (2012; women can do soft as well as hard porn)

50.Hilary Mantel: Bring up the Bodies (2012; women can win prizes. Even the Booker. Twice.)


Kathleen Taylor, author of Brainwashing, Cruelty, and The Brain Supremacy

Website: http://www.neurotaylor.com, Twitter: @neurotaylor

Gillian Wright, author of Producing Women’s Poetry

Website: http://earlymoderngillian.blogspot.co.uk, Twitter: @gwrightbham



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  1. Damn, yeah.

  2. There’s no gender in the soul, and as more of us begin to live from that vantage point, the whole ignorant issue of gender discrimination will disappear. Unfortunately, it still shows its ugly head in many quarters. Vey good post.

  3. Just to add, Robert McCrum now has his own 50 women list in the Guardian (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/feb/11/50-most-influential-books-by-women?CMP=twt_fd) — he mentions this list, but it’s quite different. Fascinating!

  4. […] and a male-dominated literary culture. That’s hard to avoid, in the light of history. But, as Kathleen Taylor and Gillian Wright have shown, there is another story, a different way of looking at our cultural […]

  5. […] 50 Great Women Writers – how many have you heard of? […]

  6. E.L. James and the 50 Shades of Grey books do not belong on this list, or any list that includes the work of Jane Austen and real writers. Those books began as fan fiction based on Twilight characters. The Twilight books are not great, and the fan fiction based on them are DEFINITELY not great. Fan fiction is almost plagiarism, after all. Furthermore, Ana is a complete and utter idiot that makes women seem like complete and utter idiots. Just because books are popular, does not mean they are great.

  7. How is Ayn Rand not on the list?

  8. what about the great Asian women writers of other languages? I ‘m sure greatness is not limited to English language only !

    • I’m sure of that too, Sumitra, but as the original piece to which this is a response was about books in English, I stuck to known territory. There are of course great female writers in other languages, from Enheduanna onwards, and I would love to know more about them, so if you’d like to post links to more information please do!

  9. […] many of the women writers on this list have you read? (See 50 Great Women Writers) I’ve read […]

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