Who are my five most influential women writers? Five? There are so many women writers who are important that I used two parameters to narrow the field. The women had to be dead (to make sure their work stands the test of time) and they had to brave criticism, imprisonment and/or social exile to publish their work.
The author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Critics warned that girls who read Wollstonecraft would turn into depraved sluts. Her enemies called her ‘A Hyena in Petticoats’ and ‘Whore!’ Why? Wollstonecraft argued that women deserved an education. She fought against laws that made fathers the legal ‘owners’ of children and which prevented wives from owning property and initiating divorce.
She exposed a system that allowed husbands to ‘discipline’ wives through whipping, imprisonment, and starvation. Radicals praised her work, but for much of the nineteenth century, her name was a byword for immorality. If you looked up ‘Whore’ in the English dictionary, Wollstonecraft was cited as an example of a prostitute (‘Whore – See Mary Wollstonecraft’).
The nineteen-year-old author of Frankenstein. Shelley endured years of social exile and was called a ‘whore’ for running away with the already married Percy Shelley.
The daughter of that other famous ‘whore,’ Wollstonecraft, Shelley dedicated herself to the principles of freedom espoused by her mother, promoting the cause of women in all of her work – five more novels after Frankenstein and many works of non-fiction.She could read Greek, French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese, and was the only female contributor to the first English encyclopaedia.
Perhaps her least known achievement, however, was the creation of her husband’s reputation as a poet. When Percy Shelley died, he was unknown to most of the reading public. Mary edited his work and wrote extensive biographical notes that depicted him as an otherworldly angel, a blithe spirit – an image that captured the imagination of Victorian audiences and made him famous.
The African American author of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, published under the pseudonym Linda Brent. Jacobs escaped from slavery in North Carolina and wrote an account of her sufferings, daring to expose the sexual violence she endured at the hands of her masters. An active speaker on the abolition circuit, she was in danger of being captured by slave-catchers until a friend purchased her freedom.
A free woman at last, she wrote her memoir, describing the horrors of slavery from the perspective of a woman.
The great Russian poet who endured decades of persecution in Soviet Russia. Akhmatova dedicated herself to bearing witness to the suffering of those who endured repression and torture at the hands of the government.
She endured the loss of many loved ones, killed by the secret police or sent to the Gulags. To protect her from the authorities, Akhmatova’s friends memorised her poems and then burned them. Banned from publication and public speaking, her most important poem, Requiem, was not published in its entirety until twenty years after she died.
Zora Neale Hurston
The African American author of Their Eyes are Watching God. A Guggenheim winning anthropologist, Hurston published more than fifty stories, plays and essays, collected folklore in Florida, Jamaica, and Haiti, and was a leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance. Despite being sharply criticised by Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright for her commitment to folklore, humour, and dialect in her fiction, Hurston stayed true to her vision of capturing the inner lives of African American women.
Although she enjoyed early success, she ended her life penniless and alone. She was buried in an unmarked grave in Florida, her books out of print. She remained forgotten, until Alice Walker, another important woman writer, rediscovered her work in the 1970s.