Narrowing down the list of the most influential women writers in history is quite the task. It bears an almost uncomfortable level of responsibility given the wealth of brilliant literature that has survived down through the ages, its impact still felt today. Women writers of times past and times present have reinvented literary genres, setting literary precedents that continue to have far reaching effects.
It is no secret that we owe a lot to these women. Bear in mind that sticking it to the man wasn’t always so easy, especially in twelfth century England, as Medieval poet Marie de France knew all too well. Expressing her belief that women should be entitled to choose whom they love did not go down well with the Church, but thankfully de France was not one to bow down easily and she continued to articulate her views regardless. Just like the daring writing of de France, the literary works of the women featured in this list have impacted society on a large scale, shaping public thought and opinion and those effects have sustained over time. The ability of these powerful literary figures to influence readers through their words and ideas is phenomenal. They have managed to captivate a global readership with their stories of survival and triumph over adversity, their satirical commentary of social mores and indictment of patriarchy, all while keeping their readers thoroughly entertained.
This list features 20 of the most iconic female writers in history, from the proto-feminists unappreciated in their time to the celebrated novelists we have come to love today. The list includes a must-read by each of the writers featured.
10 Mary Shelley - Frankenstein
Daughter of philosopher and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, she is probably best known for her Gothic novel Frankenstein, but Mary Shelley did much more to push the boundaries of traditional Romanticism and Gothic fiction in 18th century England. She used her writing as a means to critique Enlightenment ideals as well as challenging traditional gender relations. Her work continues to dominate much feminist literary criticism and scholarly study today.
9 Emily Dickinson - The Complete Poems
She is one of America’s greatest and most beloved poets, writing about 2,000 poems in her lifetime. A private individual, the majority of Dickinson’s poems were published posthumously whereupon they received widespread literary praise for their bold, unconventional style. She explored the universal themes of life and death, love and loss in a manner unlike any of her contemporaries, serving as inspiration to poets for generations to come.
8 Mary Wollstonecraft - A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
Wollstonecraft is often referred to as the mother of feminism or a founding figure of the movement. In her seminal work A Vindication of the Rights of Woman she made a powerfully persuasive case for the liberation and education of women. She is considered a 'modern' heroine today and has made an enormous contribution to women's rights.
7 The Bronte Sisters - Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
Each of the Bronte sisters deserve a place on this list, but there simply isn’t room for everyone so we’ve had to bundle them together. Emily wrote one novel, Wuthering Heights, during her short life, but her commentary on the precariousness of social class and the position afforded women in society changed the landscape of English Literature. Her sister Charlotte is perhaps best known for her novel Jane Eyre which succeeded in highlighting the daily struggles of oppressed women. The writing style of the youngest of the Bronte’s, Anne, was especially bold in its portrayal of 19th century society and had an impact on the social and legal structures of the time.
6 Jane Austen - Pride and Prejudice
Most of us have read at least one Austen novel in our time. One of the most popular female novelists, Austen’s novels examined the social and economic status of women in her time. She expressed her views fearlessly and passionately, famous for her satirical tone. She was writing in a time when it was frowned upon for women to do so, yet she managed to support her entire family on her income. She paved the way for women writers today and her books continue to be read widely. She is due to be the face of the next £10 Bank of England note, replacing Charles Darwin.
5 Simone de Beauvoir - The Second Sex
One of the leading existentialist philosophers of the Twentieth Century, Simone de Beauvoir’s revolutionary and incendiary book “The Second Sex” depicted the traditions of sexism that dominated society and history. It was a defining book for the feminist movement and is regarded as a pillar of twentieth century philosophy. She continues to be hugely influential having changed the position of women in society and is studied widely in academia today.
4 Virginia Woolf - A Room of One's Own
One of the founding figures of the modernist movement, Woolf was a literary genius whose writing had a huge impact on the literary scene. She was renowned for her experimental prose as well as her influential essays. Her thematic concerns included social and political issues and the position of women in society. One of the biggest impacts of Woolf’s writing is found in the way in which she brought women into the public sphere. She vindicated the right of women to be independent by challenging outdated gender roles. Woolf's writing continues to impact readers, writers and scholars today.
3 Maya Angelou - I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings
Arguably the most famous African-American writer in history, Angelou changed the landscape of literature when she penned her seven autobiographical volumes in a nontraditional structure that had a huge impact on the genre. She is one of the greatest voices of contemporary literature, helping readers to span the lines of race. Her candid literary style pushed the boundaries for all female writers.
2 Toni Morrison - Beloved
Nobel and Pulitzer-Prize winning author and Professor Toni Morrison is best-known for such works as The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon, and Beloved. Her impact of contemporary culture has been revolutionary. Her novels challenge white hegemony by taking an unflinching and sometimes haunting look at the black experience in America.
1 JK Rowling - Harry Potter Series
The author of the immensely popular Harry Potter fantasy series has become one of the most widely read female authors in history. A combination of whimsical fantasy, coming of age, adventure and romance have become the best-selling book series in history, inspiring a new generation to embrace the written word. Additionally, her books have had a far reaching social, moral, and political impact.