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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