• 3-minute read
  • 8th March 2019

International Women’s Day: Pioneering Female Writers

It’s International Women’s Day, which seems a good time to celebrate pioneering female writers! But instead of looking at the obvious candidates – your Wollstonecrafts, Austens, and Woolfs – we thought we would focus on writers who deserve a little more recognition than they usually get.

1. Enheduanna

When people discuss the first female author, they often point to Sappho, the sixth-century BC poet from the Greek island of Lesbos. But while Sappho is a key figure in literary history, she was not the first female poet. For that, we have to go back another 1,700 years to the Sumerian city-state of Ur.

There, we will find Enheduanna, the High Priestess of the goddess Inanna and the moon god Nanna. Among other achievements, Enheduanna wrote a series of hymns and other religious texts. This makes her not only the first known female poet, but also the first named author in history. And if that doesn’t make her a pioneering writer, we don’t know what would!

2. Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe

We’re not saying that the Revelations of Divine Love – a book of fourteenth-century mystical Christian devotions about universal love and hope in a time of plague and war – is going to suit everyone’s tastes. But it is the first book written in English by a woman, Julian of Norwich. So it does have an important place in literary history, and more people should know about it!

Julian of Norwich (in statue form).
Julian of Norwich (in statue form).
(Photo: Matt Brown/flickr)

Oddly, another literary first by a female author comes from Norfolk, England: The Book of Margery Kempe by Margery Kempe, was the first autobiography written in English.

Even stranger is that Kempe mentions visiting Julian of Norwich in 1413 in her book. So not only were there two pioneering female authors in one part of England at that time, they even knew one another!

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3. Anne Bradstreet

Moving beyond England itself, we have Anne Bradstreet. An important early American poet, Bradstreet moved to the English North American colonies in 1630. She and her family settled in what is now Massachusetts. And while there, she wrote poetry that reflected her religious and emotional conflicts as a woman writer and Puritan.

Bradstreet is noted for being America’s first published poet, with The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America, By a Gentlewoman of Those Parts. This was also the first book written by a woman published in what would become the US, so Anne easily makes our list of female literary pioneers.

4. Phillis Wheatley and Lucy Terry

Phillis Wheatley was the first African-American woman to be published. Her book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, came out in 1773 to much acclaim. And her fans included George Washington, who noted her ‘great poetical Talents’ in a letter.

Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral
Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.

The earliest known work of literature by an African-American woman – or, in fact, by an African American of either gender – is ‘Bars Fight’ by Lucy Terry. The ballad describes an attack on two white families by Native Americans in 1746. But it was only published in 1855, 24 years after Lucy Terry’s death. Both Wheatley and Terry, though, were undoubtedly literary pioneers.

Are there any authors you think should have been on our list? Let us know!

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