Literature’s Greatest Women Writers
Exploring the lives of women writers gives you a two-dimensional tale.
As the names in this list will remind you, women writers have created some of the most influential and recognizable literary stories. On the other hand, their personal lives’ events reveal moments of humor, awe, and inspiration.
What they put into their work is only a fraction of their full stories. A peek into their lives shows what drove and motivated them to craft masterpieces. These writers faced heartbreak and adversity, abuse, and mental illness; and still have created iconic pieces of literature.
What’s even better is that each of them brings a unique portrait of what it means to be a woman in a man’s world. These female authors are so dynamic and eclectic that it’s almost impossible not to, at some point, feel a strong connection.
No doubt about it, these writers represent everyone who dares to dream, while being brave and unwavering in their beliefs. They’ve helped pave the way for others to tell their own stories, take risks, and be proud of who they are and what they have accomplished.
Best of all, we get leading female characters, ones that we may sometimes relate to, sometimes aspire to and always leave an impression.
In celebration of the words written by women that have left a mark on our world, here is a selection of women writers to inspire you to learn, create, and dance to the beat of your own drum.
Mary Shelley (1797-1851)
Mary Shelley is best known for dreaming up one of the most enduring and iconic horror characters: Frankenstein. This story broke the mold as the world’s first science fiction novel, a genre that’s now, strangely, overrun with men.
It’s no wonder that a teenage girl would be able to dream up such an impressionable nightmare. Mary lost her mother as a child. She was just a teenager when she eloped with her husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Mary lost her virginity to him in a cemetery. In the wake of Mary and Percy’s marriage, Percy’s estranged previous wife committed suicide, pregnant, by drowning. Later, in 1822, Percy himself would drown, though accidentally.
No stranger to real-life horrors, Shelley embraced darkness with fascination. On holiday during 1816, which went down in history as “the year without summer” due to strange climate patterns, Mary and some vacation companions (also writers) were forced inside, left to amuse themselves with conversation and imagination. Shelley was incredibly well-read on scientific theories of the time–including the reanimation of bodies through electricity. It was there in Switzerland that Frankenstein was born.
Its first publication went anonymous, and her name was finally credited with the work in 1823.
It started as a small tale to pass the time and transformed into an unforgettable novel and an iconic character, come to life at a woman’s hands.
Notable titles: Frankenstein, The Last Man, Transformation
Toni Morrison (1931-2019)
Speaking of horror, Toni Morrison exhibits a type of fear that’s all too real in Black women’s lives. Her debut novel, The Bluest Eye, tells the story of a young girl who endures a life full of trauma, all of which she believes is the result of being Black.
Most of Toni’s work is based on the experience of being Black in America. Though many of the characters throughout her work are undermined, unfortunate, and abused, Toni herself was highly intelligent and powerful. She learned to read very young, growing her passion for literature early on, and graduated high school with honors.
She pursued this passion through a bachelor’s and then a master’s degree. Her thesis would focus on the fellow female writer, Virginia Woolf.
Toni exhibited the strength of mind and soul throughout her life and work. She was devoted to fueling her literary passion at any cost. Her husband decided to move back to Jamaica while she was pregnant with their second son. Toni decided to stay in the States, committed first and foremost to her dreams. She would go on to become an editor at Random House as she worked on various other novels.
It was Beloved that ultimately won her a Pulitzer Prize for fiction, based on a true story. Toni’s impressive achievements include earning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, becoming an officer of the French Legion of Honour in 2010, and receiving the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012.
Notable titles: Song of Solomon, Beloved, The Bluest Eye, Tar Baby
Joanna Russ (1937-2011)
Joanna Russ was an all-around rebel. She spent her career furthering the representation of women in science fiction and questioning societal ideas around gender identity, feminism, and pornography.
In the Female Man, one planet was populated entirely by women, and the other was an eternally embattled bi-gender planet. This was almost certainly an allegory for how she felt things were on earth: biased and gender divided. Around the time of this publication, she would begin to come out as a lesbian publicly.
It was science fiction itself that, in Russ’s mind, helped us to escape from the pressures of society.
Retrospectively (and through her non-fiction works like How to Suppress Women’s Writing), you can see the blatant correlation between her work and her rebellious beliefs. Most of her writing involves exploring duality, which she achieves through her uncanny ability to write jokes amid grave plot lines. She often spoke out against other writers, like Ursula K. Le Guin, who she believed perpetuated female stereotypes in their writing.
She’s not only a feminist champion but a gay and trans champion as well. She explored what at the time was called “slash literature,” indicating gay and lesbian characters. Her short story on When It Changed was part of the greater work The Female Man, and questions the necessity of gender in society.
In carrying on the representation of women in science fiction, Joanna Russ emerged as a leader in feminist canon and science fiction.
Notable titles: The Female Man, We Who Are About To, How to Suppress Women’s Writing
Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)
Virginia was so much more than a groundbreaking author, but also an early feminist. A Room of One’s Own was one of the first examples of this mindset and remained a cornerstone feminist text.
Born to a scholarly family, she had no lack of inspiration to guide her. Her first novel was published through her brother’s printing press. When she married, she and her husband would become publishers themselves, founding the Hogarth Press. She’d publish much of her work this way.
Her personal life carried a more sinister streak. As a child, she was sexually abused at the hands of her half-brothers. She writes about it in memoirs, addressing that it had impacted her entire life. Some biographers insist that these stories are made up, reducing them to delusion (a terrifying narrative as women continue to fight to be heard), whereas others maintain that these authentic experiences molded the author she’d become.
She had mental collapses many times, following the death of her mother, her older sister, and her father. Under the care of psychiatrist George Savage, a friend of her father’s, he attributed her mental illness to be “too well educated.” These anti-feminist ideals continue to be real today, perhaps why Woolf’s work remains so prominent.
As if these losses weren’t painful enough, the home that housed the Hogarth Press was destroyed in World War II London Blitz.
She battled mental illness (believed today to have been bipolar disorder) most of her life and eventually succumbed to it, by drowning herself in 1941. In her suicide note to her husband, she wrote: “I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time.” At the end of the note, she tells him lovingly, “I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.
Virginia’s life held plenty of tragedy, but her legacy is anything but. Her struggles continue to resonate with women today, and her enduring work beams as moments of triumph for women overcoming societal hurdles and mental illness.
Notable titles: Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, The Waves, Orlando, Jacob’s Room
Jodi Picoult (1966- )
Jodi Picoult is both literally and figuratively a wonder woman of a writer.
So far, she’s published 26 novels that are in circulation in various languages around the world. Additionally, she wrote issues 6 through 10 of the graphic novel Wonder Woman.
Her crime-fighting reaches into other areas of her work, as well. She often touches on hot button topics, including abortion, euthanasia, school shootings, and LGBTQ rights. Her first #1 NYT Best Seller was Nineteen Minutes, the story set in the aftermath of a school shooting.
One interesting method of her storytelling is that she’s begun to build her own personal world. Many of her novels will feature characters introduced in other books, a helpful device wherein, as she puts it, “you don’t have to reinvent the wheel—you already know how he speaks, acts, thinks.”
Picoult is also a fierce advocate for women and children. She’s on the advisory board of the research-driven organization, Vida: Women in Literary Arts. She spoke in her home state of New Hampshire in support of the Women’s March on Washington and participated in significant fundraisers for a local children’s hospital.
Jodi Picoult was the recipient of the 2019 Hale Award and was named one of Princeton’s most influential living alumni (joined by none other than Michelle Obama and writer Jennifer Weiner). It’s safe to say she’s a writer to keep reading.
Notable titles: Small Great Things, A Spark of Light, My Sister’s Keeper, The Pact
James Tiptree Jr. (1915-1987)
If this seems like a masculine name to have on the list, you’re not wrong. James Tiptree Jr. is the pseudonym of Alice B. Sheldon, an author who nailed intrigue and mystery throughout her life by living it. Her pen name, James Tiptree Jr., allowed her to author several science fiction books under the guise of a man.
Readers of her (or, perhaps, we can say “his”) work regarded Tiptree with masculinity, as he often detailed his affinity for the outdoors, as well as cruel and harsh themes. In truth, she did have a tough edge to her. As a child, she embarked on expeditions through uncharted Africa with her parents. Later, she would become an Air Force intelligence officer, research psychologist, and worked for the CIA.
Alice’s mother, also a writer, wrote children’s books with Alice as the central character. When Alice began penning her own stories, she wanted a fresh identity and presented herself to the world as a man.
The manliness and creativity of Tiptree even duped fellow science fiction writer Joanna Russ. People began speculating James, who was never seen in public, was a woman. Russ wrote to him with the belief that “no woman could even think, or understand, let alone assent to” the ideas James wrote in stories.
More impressively (to readers of the time, at least), Tiptree exhibited a soft side of a male. Her stories often detailed the complexities of being a woman and the struggle to live in a male-dominated society.
Tiptree was one of the few writers on our list who joined in a happy marriage for much of her life. Unfortunately, just like many other writers here, she committed suicide, in the most poetic fashion imagined since Shakespeare: together with her husband
Notable titles: Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, The Screwfly Solution, The Girl Who Was Plugged In, The Women Men Don’t See
Angela Carter (1940-1992)
The sharp edge and expansive range of Angela Carter have given her a place as one of the best and “boldest writers of the 20th century.” Interestingly, her inclination for gothic horror is that she had a picturesque and straight-edge family home as a child.
Or, maybe not so interesting at all. It’s a common trope for overly-coddled kids to seek out a sort of rebellion in adulthood. Angela Carter certainly did a lot of that. Married to Paul Carter at 20 (to escape the confines of her parents), she eventually went on to study at university. What interested her most were medieval studies and Freudian theories, which would inspire her fairy tales.
After winning the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, she went to Japan without her husband. During her stay abroad, she removed her wedding ring and left it in an ashtray, nailing the coffin shut by writing to her husband that she wanted a divorce–a decision in itself that shamed her mother.
“What is marriage but prostitution to one man instead of many?” she wrote in Nights at the Circus–the book holds the honor of being the best to win the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.
But her time in Japan, as she put it, “radicalized her feminism.” She accepted her Japanese lover’s many other affairs but learned to despise the doll-like Harajuku culture of the women. This feminism persisted throughout her career. She was outspoken about being looked over, along with other female contemporaries, for awards that less-deserving male authors received.
She explored the place women should have in pornography (The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography). Desire plays a decisive role throughout her work, as she allows plenty of her female characters to succumb to it, sparing no detail.
She died of lung cancer in 1992, and her “adult fairy tales” have helped solidify her as one of literature’s greats.
Notable titles: Nights at the Circus, Several Perceptions, The Sadeian Woman, The Bloody Chamber, Heroes and Villains, The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr. Hoffman, and The Passion of New Eve.
PL Travers (1899-1996)
Best known for Mary Poppins, PL Travers’ life was heavily influenced by storytelling. She started writing as a teenager and expressed an interest and a flair for acting. She spent some time touring Australia and New Zealand in Shakespearean productions, before eventually moving to England.
England would go on to be her true home throughout the rest of her life. She moved there with the intent to act and dance, something her family disapproved of. It was this disapproval that would inspire her name change From Helen to Pamela Lyndon. The other name that would change her life while in England was Mary Poppins.
“M. Poppins” was a name Travers had seen written in one of her favorite books as a child. In 1934 when she decided to write a stern-but-fun nanny story, this was the name she was given.
The story of Mary Poppins and her author is a history within a story. There was plenty of deliberation with Walt Disney, who spent 20 years trying to secure the rights to adapt it to film. Disney finally got her to agree (a first-class ticket to California may have been part of the mix). The story of these business meetings is told in the movie Saving Mr. Banks.
Ultimately Travers hated the finished version. She hated that it included an animation sequence, and banned anyone involved with the movie from ever attempting to adapt her stories again. She allowed the story adaptation for the stage, under the condition that only British writers undertook the production.
Though born in Australia, Travers spent most of her life in England, which was very much part of her identity, and awarded an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE).
Notable titles: Mary Poppins
Ursula LeGuin (1929-2018)
During her career, Ursula LeGuin not only created her fictional universe but arguably sat at the time of the hierarchy of science fiction writers. She was once called “the greatest American writer of her generation,” and has several awards attesting to such a title.
Her writing is sometimes classified as “speculative fiction,” in that it dealt with themes that were both literally and figuratively out of this world.
This theme is especially apparent in one of her most significant works, The Left Hand of Darkness. It explores the Hainish universe, a world of her own creation, and questions the role (and necessity) of gender in society. This concept, and this book, was integral to establishing what’s now called “feminist science fiction.”
This book was awarded the best novel and received both the Hugo and Nebula awards, making her the first woman to hold that honor. Through her life’s work, she won each of these awards seven and five times, respectively. She was also the first woman to be honored as a Grant Master of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. In 2000, she was given the honor of being considered a Living Legend by the U.S. Library of Congress.
Her career produced several other novels, more than a hundred short stories, and a writing genre that set the stage for novelists for generations to come.
Notable titles: A Wizard of Earthsea, The Left Hand of Darkness
Shirley Jackson (1916-1965)
The Lottery was one of the first stories to feature the concepts we’d later become familiar with through The Hunger Games. This tale of a wholesome American town that holds a yearly sacrifice was published while Shirley Jackson was living in New York and writing for the New Yorker. This story created so much buzz; it’s said to have sparked an onslaught of mail from readers that was never before seen–in such volume.
She led a domestic life–married with four children–and she often turned to the supernatural to help tell stories inspired by her world. Her first story, The Road Through the Wall, focused on her childhood experiences and a grim and sharp recollection.
This would eventually unravel into what she’s known for best: mystery and horror.
One of her most identifiable tities is The Haunting of Hill House, wherein a group of people seek out supernatural experiences, and get what they sought. This story was recently turned into a Netflix series, possibly because it was considered one of the greatest ghost stories of all time.
She left a legacy of six novels, two memoirs, and more than 200 short stories. She serves as a reminder of how women can take their otherwise mundane experiences and turn them into stories that can shock the world for generations.
Notable titles: The Haunting of Hill House, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, The Lottery
Jane Austen (1775-1817)
The name Jane Austen is almost synonymous with literature. Though she focused on portraying women of her day at the time, she can now be considered a valuable historical fiction author.
Since her very first published novel, the enduring story Pride & Prejudice, she’s put women as central characters. Her work’s common theme is the assessment of women in marriage and whether or not the motivation is true love or life’s security.
This was undoubtedly a reflection of her own true life. She lost her only true love for societal and familial pressures. When she eventually settled and married another man, it appeared to have been based in practicality as opposed to passion. Her novels attempted to tell stories of young women who opted for love instead. She didn’t get the chance to do so, but she advised a niece to do so in a letter.
As a woman writer then, she found success. In the centuries since her death, her books have never been out of print. She is undoubtedly a literary legend but remains a shining example of a woman who questioned the status quo.
Notable titles: Pride & Prejudice, Sense & Sensibility, Emma
Judith Merril (1923-1997)
Women writers in the science fiction genre are staunch reminders of how powerful you can be if you dare to dream. In addition to authoring various novels and short stories, Judith Merrill was also an editor, sportswriter, and political activist.
Shadow on the Heart solidified her place as a novelist. This story was praised for being both sensitive and warm, even amidst the terrifying story plot. In Merril’s own words, it was meant to be political.
Much of her life’s events were political. She moved to Canada to separate from the undemocratic response to anti-Vietnam war campaigns in the States. She would also go on to take part in protests against Canada’s government. Still, maple leaf became attached to her legacy, and she donated much of her writing, letters, and manuscripts to the National Archives of Canada.
Merril’s predilection for writing helped champion science fiction and pushed it to become a mainstream genre. She was posthumously inducted into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame.
Notable titles: That Only a Mother, Shadow on the Hearth
Hilary Mantel (1952-)
Though Hilary Mantel is a contemporary writer, her work can transport us through time. As a historical fiction writer, she’s won several awards and is longlisted for this year’s Booker prize for her novel The Mirror and the Light–the third story in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy.
Her stories are so strong because they recount moments in history through the eyes of most remarkable people who lived it. She’s written stories surrounding the French revolution, a celebrity freak known as “the Irish Giant,” and the minister of Henry VIII.
Inspired by her own life, she wrote An Experiment in Love. This novel chronicles a year away at college for three girls, and the desires and setbacks that they experience as they break into their freedom. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher makes an appearance in the story, a notable figure, indeed, as she is not only the longest person to hold her seat in the high office this century but also someone who Mantel has outwardly despised.
She fantasized about her killing in a short story, “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: 6 August 1983,” which sparked a police investigation.
She’s also been outspoken of what she thinks of the royal family (calling Duchess Kate a “shop window mannequin”) and Catholicism (“…the Catholic Church is not an institution for respectable people.”)
Her outspoken nature only gives us more reason to love her work. She’s a novelist, and it’s her job to make commentary on people. It has been entertaining us for years now, positioning her for a lasting legacy.
Notable titles: Fludd; The Giant, O’Brian; A Change of Climate; An Experiment of Love.
A.R. Garrett is writing her debut historical fiction series, Atalanta & The Amazons. As a writer of the ancient world, she excavates facts & dissects mythology to spotlight the most prolific warrior women lost in the shadows of our history books—adding a touch of fantasy for the daydreamer in all of us.
A.R. Garrett has a degree in Business and English with a concentration in fiction writing from SNHU, and is currently working on a double masters in Creative Writing and Ancient History. She’s been a freelance fiction editor since 2018 and created a platform to help other women writers on FB: www.facebook.com/groups/supportingwomenwriters
When she’s not wrangling her two boys in the mountains of Colorado and trying endlessly to understand the mystical world of algorithms, she loves handwritten letters sealed with a wax stamp, and appreciates a dang-good brownie.
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