Monday, August 28, 2023

Female Authors Throughout History

Victoria Pedraza | 8/14/2023

Throughout history, the voices of female authors have been instrumental in shaping literature and culture, yet their contributions have often been overlooked. This blog post aims to shed light on the significance of female authors and their impact on the literary world.

Early Female Authors

I didn’t know it before I started research for this post, but the first known author in history was a woman. Her name was Enheduanna, and she was an Akkadian princess and high priestess that lived sometime near 2200 BC. Of course, there is debate whether she wrote the poems attributed to her, but having read the arguments for and against it, and with no personal biases at all, I side with William Hallo, professor in Assyriology and Babylonian literature, who says there is little cause to doubt her authorship.


One female poet from the ancient world you may have heard of is Sappho. She was born around 615 BC on the Greek island of Lesbos. She was so respected that Plato called her “The Tenth Muse”, and you may have studied the Sapphic meter in school, though it’s unknown whether she invented it or simply perfected it. Unfortunately, she was parodied a few centuries after her death as promiscuous and a lesbian, so much so that the term for lesbian derives from her home island. We don’t know whether those claims are true or not, and I’m not sure if it’s important other than to say that it caused Pope Gregory to burn her poems in 1073 and much of the work of one of the greatest lyrical poets in history was lost.


From Greece, all the way to Kyoto. Murasaki Shikibu is the author of “The Tale of Genji”, thought to be the world’s oldest full novel and widely considered the best piece of Japanese literature. She was born in 978, (the Middle Ages in Japan started in the XII century) and though she used a nom de plume, it is believed that her real name may have been Fujiwara no Kaoriko. She was fluent in Chinese, the written language of government, despite the fact that women were typically excluded from learning it during the Heian dynasty, and served as a lady in waiting in the court of Empress Jōtō mon’in.


Female Authors in the Middle Ages

The Middle Ages were a tough time to be a woman, never mind a female author. In a world dominated by religious dogma, everything stood in their way. They faced very limited education, limited legal rights to manage their finances, the difficulties of even finding time to write while fulfilling all responsibilities within the home, stigma, and criticism. And having overcome all of that to write their manuscript, they had no way of establishing a professional network and struggled to find publishers. Despite all of this, resilience and creative talent prevailed, and today we can point to many female authors from the Middle Ages. 


Marie de France was born in 1160 and was France’s first female poet. We don’t know her real name, all that we know of her comes from her writing. She spent a significant amount of time in the court of Henry II, and some speculate she may have been his half-sister, who followed him to England when he was crowned. She often wrote of the mistreatment of women by men, which may have been a critique of her maybe half-brother’s treatment of his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine


Born in Italy in 1364, and raised in France, Christine de Pizan was the first professional female writer of the Middle Ages, and she anticipated the feminist movement in her work by 600 years or so. For her, it was life circumstances that forced her to pursue a career in writing, when her husband's death left her with the responsibility of caring for her three children, her mother, and her niece. She wrote quite a few romantic ballads meant for the French aristocracy, advocating for greater equality and respect for women.


Florencia Pinar, born in Spain in 1470, was one of just two women included in The Cancionero General, the XV-century recompilation of verses from the most famous poets of the time. Little is known of her life; we know she was a lady in waiting in the court of Isabella the Catholic, and assume that she was from a high social class and likely enjoyed a thorough education.


Female Authors in the Modern Era

Skipping ahead a few centuries to the female writers born in the XIX century, we find a collection of women who were becoming vocal about their desire to be an equal part of society. This is the century that saw feminism become more and more prevalent. Behind them, they saw people like Mary Wollstonecraft and her celebrated “A Vindication of the Right of Woman” and ahead, they saw a world where gender equality was the norm.


Agripina Montes del Valle was a Colombian poet born in 1844 in Salamina, often nicknamed “Azucena del Valle” meaning lily of the valley. Agripina was unusual in the sense that she came from a modest family but received a good education and though she is not often read today, she was awarded the “Ala América del Sur” in Chile in 1872 and a national poetry contest in Colombia carries her name.


May Sinclair was a British author born in 1863 and celebrated for her groundbreaking contributions to literature. Beyond her literary achievements, Sinclair's commitment to feminism and her active role in the suffragette cause cemented her legacy as a progressive thinker and an influential force for social change.


Katherine Mansfield was born in New Zealand in 1888 and stands as a remarkable writer known for her short stories that offer intimate glimpses into the subtleties of human emotions and experiences. As a prominent figure in the modernist movement, Mansfield's writing pushed the boundaries of conventional storytelling, leaving an enduring impact on the literary landscape of the early 20th century.


Female Authors Today

And so we arrive at the present day. Undoubtedly, a tremendous amount of progress has been made since the time when the works of women like Sappho were burned to ashes. But the XXI century is not without its challenges. For a woman, fighting her way into the literary world is still an uphill battle. From underrepresentation in literary awards and publishing rosters to disparities in advances and royalties. All of this is despite the fact that the best-selling author of the present century is a woman. Ever heard of Harry Potter?


Joanne Rowling was born in England in 1965 and is the author of the Harry Potter series. Yes, she’s transphobic. But it would be disingenuous to write about current female authors and leave her out. Her literary achievements are undeniable, but so are her transphobic comments. I’m curious, where do you stand on the issue of separating the creator from their work and the responsibility of authors in the face of social issues? Comment in the section below, just keep it respectful.


Born in Uruguay in 1976, Fernanda Trías has had a lot of success in her literary career, but her first big hit came when she was only 22, and it’s titled “The Rooftop”. She has won plenty of awards throughout her career, including the first SEGIB-Eñe-Casa de Velázquez Prize,  Bartolomé Hidalgo Prize, and the Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Prize. Not only that, but she is currently the writer-in-residence at the Universidad de los Andes, and I’m sure we’ll still see plenty from her.


Last but not least, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was born in Nigeria in 1977 and has a lot of very impressive degrees under her belt, including 17 (!!!) honorary doctorate degrees. In particular, I’d recommend her novel titled Americanah, a fascinating story of race and identity which also touches on the subject of diaspora and disappointment in one’s country. For me, those last two are familiar themes. I promise, when I finally get my hands on her “We Should All Be Feminists” essay, I’ll write a dedicated post on it.


Takeaway

There are twelve female writers in total in this post. And I did my best to include writers from several parts of the world, though a critical eye would find that there is an abundance of European authors. Chalk it up to a Eurocentric literary education and sources. Hopefully, I managed to provide at least a couple of names of authors you didn’t know before, and you’ll be motivated to explore their work. Every single one of them is worth the time. This is just a fragment, a quick little recap of some of the thousands of female authors that we often don’t hear enough about. They helped shape the minds of the ones who came after them. They’ve helped shape mine, and maybe, if you let them, they’ll do the same to you.


Sources:

https://historia.nationalgeographic.com.es/a/enheduanna-la-primera-poetisa-conocida-de-la-historia_19288
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enheduanna#Authorship_debate
https://poets.org/poet/sappho
https://www.britannica.com/biography/Shikibu-Murasaki
https://www.worldhistory.org/Marie_de_France/
https://www.worldhistory.org/Christine_de_Pizan/
https://www.mujeresenlahistoria.com/2015/06/una-poetisa-en-el-cancionero-florencia.html
https://mujeresliteratas.wordpress.com/2016/11/13/florencia-pinar-1470-1530/
https://poetassigloveintiuno.blogspot.com/2014/09/agripina-montes-del-valle-13269.html
https://maysinclairsociety.com/biography/
https://www.biografiasyvidas.com/biografia/m/mansfield.htm 

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