Wednesday, March 8, 2017

International Women's Day: Recognizing Women Who Changed the Face of Literature

by Kristin Baer, E-Services/Web Marketing Librarian

It's International Women's Day, a time to highlight the importance of women's contributions to the world we live in. In this spirit, we thought it might be interesting to take a look at how female authors have shaped literature as we know it. In putting together this post, it was very difficult to decide who to spotlight because, as it turns out, many women worldwide have left some amazing literary legacies.

So, we have opted to call attention to a few notable female authors, with the hope that you lovely readers will chime in with a comment and tell us about your own favorites and how they have changed the world for you.

In the meantime, here are some creative women who came to mind for us:

Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou is arguably the most famous African-American autobiographer and poet, and her accomplishments actually live up to the hype. Her work gave literary, political voice to African-American women; beyond that, the nontraditional structure and unique literary style of Angelou's autobiography pushed stylistic boundaries for the genre and encouraged new forms of expression for female writers.

Jane Austen

Jane Austen's influence on literature and popular culture looms large, even centuries after her death. Generations of readers have enjoyed Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and her other writings, but her work is also praised by scholars for the important historical contexts it provides and for Austen's mastery of style. While we now take for granted that women can and should be protagonists in novels, Austen was among the first to popularize this concept, creating compelling heroines with authentic personalities.

Judy Blume

Judy Blume was one of the first authors to write novels for a young adult audience (YA) that confronted social taboos, including menstruation, teen sex, and birth control and, because of these candid discussions, over the years many individuals and groups have lobbied to have her books banned within public schools and libraries. According to the American Library Association (ALA), Blume is one of the most frequently challenged authors of the 21st century, but despite this her books continue to sell--and in large numbers.

Charlotte Brontë

Most of us know of Charlotte Brontë from required reading for English class, but what you may not know is that this English author was quite a rebel. When Jane Eyre was first published in 1847 the notion of having or expressing an individual "Self" was pretty radical, so you can imagine what many 19th Century readers thought of the novel's heroine and the author who created her. Brontë's sisters made significant impacts on literature, too: Emily Brontë gave us the Gothic classic Wuthering Heights, and Anne Brontë's The Tennant of Wildfell Hall ultimately inspired reforms in legal protections for women (at the time the novel was written, English women could not own property, sue for divorce, or control custody of their children).

Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie is one of the best-selling authors of all time and she has been dubbed the "Queen of Crime" both because of how many murder mysteries she wrote and the strong influence her work had on subsequent writers. She is credited with introducing many of the plot twists used by later mystery writers and which can still be seen on many procedural crime dramas.

Emily Dickinson

Alongside Walt Whitman, Dickinson is recognized as one of 19th century's American poets. She was ahead of her time, using unconventional poetic techniques, such as short lines, slant rhyme, and unusual punctuation, and is considered the mother of American English free verse poetry (the most common style for contemporary American poetry).

S.E. Hinton

S.E. Hinton published her first young adult novel when she was a young adult: she began writing it at age fifteen and published it at eighteen. The Outsiders, which still sells more than 500,000 copies a year, was one of the first books to genuinely connect readers, young and old, to the experiences and emotional lives of teenagers.

Harper Lee

Harper Lee's literary reputation mainly rests on her 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird, but this story on its own exerted a profound influence on attitudes toward racial inequality and injustice, in Lee's native Deep South and throughout the United States.

Murasaki Shikibu

If you enjoy reading novels, history suggests that you probably have Murasaki Shikibu to thank for the pleasure. Drawing on her experiences as a lady-in-waiting in Japan's Imperial court, she anonymously penned what is widely recognized as the first modern novel, The Tale of Genji.

Baroness Emma Orczy

Like superhero stories? Some historians credit Baroness Orczy's The Scarlet Pimpernel as the first appearance of a modern superhero.

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

Except for Dracula, Frankenstein's "Creature" is perhaps the most popular fictional monster, and had teenaged Mary Shelley not enthusiastically accepted Lord Byron's rainy-day challenge to write a bone-chilling story, the world of fiction would be a much duller place. Although it is not quite true that Shelley invented the science fiction genre (that credit seems due to Margaret Cavendish), she definitely popularized it. Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus was a landmark as well in that it helped change social assumptions about female authors (and pave the way for more of them).

Phillis Wheatley

Esteemed poet and author Phillis Wheatley was the first published African American woman, a feat made all the more impressive given that she was born in West Africa and sold into slavery at a young age and, therefore, learned to read comparatively late by our modern-day standards. George Washington was among her biggest fans.

Virginia Woolf

Among other things, Woolf is seen as a major innovator among novelists, for her experimentation with "stream of consciousness" writing, rich in inner monologue and auditory and visual description of individuals' experiences, especially those of everyday women. As an essayist, she wrote extensively and passionately about issues of women's equality, in access to education, in marriage, and in other contexts.

We hope you've enjoyed getting to know these ladies, but we know we've left out many who deserve to be mentioned here. Who would you add to this list (and why)?

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