Literature wouldn’t be the same without the influential writers who used their voices to make permanent changes in culture and society. Feminist literature, fictional or otherwise, seeks to help define, establish, and support equal rights for women in traditionally patriarchal societies.
Historic female poets of the sixth century, outspoken feminist philosophers of the 18th century, and modern women writers and activists have all continually broken boundaries, enriched literature, and changed history through the power of their pens. Let’s explore five of these fearless women who dared to transform and inspire the world they lived in.
Sappho was a poet and songwriter born in Greece in the sixth century B.C. She was considered the greatest lyric poet of her time in a world dominated by men, and Plato dubbed her “the tenth muse.” Her works celebrated the sensuality of people of all genders and her fearless identification as a lesbian. Sappho’s life and work were considered scandalous until recent times. In the 11th century, the Church burned most of her poems and songs. Thankfully, some of her poetry survived, and its rediscovery opened the doors to many more generations of feminist literature.
Mary Wollstonecraft was an 18th-century English writer, advocate, and feminist philosopher who produced critical works such as “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman,” which asserted that women deserved the same educational, economic, and political rights as men. This revolutionary sentiment earned her a prominent place in feminist literature. She even influenced her own family to think ahead of their time: Her daughter Mary Shelley was the author of “Frankenstein,” a novel that would also change history.
“Sense and Sensibility” and “Pride and Prejudice” are literary classics still beloved by modern readers, and so is their novelist, Jane Austen. Her many books explored female characters that were independent and able to accomplish much on their own. While their depiction may seem tame by modern standards, it was extraordinary in 19th-century England, which was governed by a patriarchal society with strict status quos. Her voice led the way for newer generations to address inequalities. Austen herself remained unmarried and chose to write books instead, also challenging 19th-century norms.
Virginia Woolf was an English novelist and modernist who explored stream of consciousness as a narrative device and pioneered the idea of women as emancipated individuals. One of her most striking works is “Orlando,” which explored the idea of gender fluidity. “A Room of One’s Own” argued for female writers to have equal opportunities to express themselves artistically, including the private physical space that creative thought often requires. While suffering from mental illness and the trauma caused by her sexual abuse, Woolf still managed to produce work that deeply explored the human condition and continues to inspire many readers today.
Maya Angelou was a 20th-century poet, screenwriter, and activist. She lived in a time when African American women were deeply oppressed and she spoke out bravely through her work. Her famous autobiographies, such as “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” garnered national attention by addressing women’s issues during segregation, racial discrimination, and sexism. Angelou went on to become the first African American female director in Hollywood, writing award-winning screenplays that addressed the oppression of women—especially women of color. She won the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2010, four years before her death, and her 1975 poem “Alone Together” rode a recent wave of popularity as a viral rallying cry during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Get Inspired by History’s Greatest Feminist Writers in Our Online BA in English Program
Our online BA in English offers a deep and profound exploration of English language and culture. In this convenient online program, you’ll examine topics ranging from British and American poetry to fiction and drama to feminist literature, and you’ll gain an introduction to great creative minds from Shakespeare to Spielberg. Our course 18th Century Women Poets focuses on revolutionary female poets and emerging feminism in literature between 1660 to 1800, which greatly influenced contemporary, 20th-century feminism and feminist literature.
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The University of Texas Permian Basin’s 100% online classes provide students with high-quality, cost-effective, and convenient education on par with our in-person classes. Enrich your knowledge of English language and culture from anywhere in the world! UT Permian Basin can provide you with a critical literary foundation that will allow you to successfully pursue an English master’s or doctoral degree.
Careers that students will be poised to pursue with our BA in English include:
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- Research analyst
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Explore the timeless literature of historical greats and gain valuable knowledge and skills through our online classes. Join UT Permian Basin’s online BA in English program and start your journey today.