Badass Women in Literature You Never Knew Existed
This essay appears in Boshemia Magazine: Identity.
Unless you studied English Lit any further than GCSE level (that’s high school for you readers across the pond), there’s a fairly good chance that if I asked you to name as many women writers as you could your list would look something like this:
the Brontë sisters
J K Rowling.
If you’re lucky, maybe even add Harper Lee or Virginia Woolf to that list.
Now what if I asked you to name male writers?
Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Arthur Miller, George Orwell, Douglas Adams, Daniel Defoe, Tolkein; the list goes on.
Even if you couldn’t identify them by name, you’ll at least recognise their work; Oliver Twist, Ulysses, The Great Gatsby, The Crucible, 1984, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Robinson Crusoe, Lord of the Rings, and others such as Moby Dick (Melville), Lord of the Flies (Golding), Dracula (Bram Stoker), and many many more.
So it goes. This is not to say that the above-mentioned women aren’t badass; on the contrary, they are incredibly so. But dig even the tiniest bit deeper and there are SO MANY other badass women writers in history who go unnoticed and underrated. Historical context has a lot to do with this. Can you think of any female writers before Jane Austen at the beginning of the 1800s? Social prejudice towards women asserting their voice and place outside of the home meant that their works were on the whole not taken seriously even if they got as far as publication.
To put oneself out into the public sphere like that was to infringe on the ‘male’ territory of the public world, rather than remaining in the ‘female’ domestic sphere, and rendered a woman as troublesome, promiscuous and ‘unfeminine’. Even in the nineteenth century Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters were forced by widespread prejudice to publish under false names in order to publish at all: the Bronte sisters went by male pseudonyms in order to pass their work as worthy of public readership (they went by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell for Charlotte, Emily and Anne respectively), whereas Austen simply attributed authorship of her novels to “A Lady” to avoid personal backlash and accountability for her subtle, clever and shrewdly observed satires. Hiding behind these pen names provided safety for these female authors, should their character or reputation be brought into question because of their creative foray into the world of men, and also validated their work as more reputable.
Fast-forward a hundred years or so and you’ve got some of the other women writers you may have heard of – Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath – publishing under their own names. But sadly you’re more likely to be able to tell me about their mental states and the manner of their death than you are likely to be able to name any of their works.
Skip forward to 1997 and you will find J.K.Rowling, the author of one of the most beloved book series in the world, being asked by her publisher to use initials rather than her name in order to appear more masculine on the cover of Harry Potter, thus avoiding their target audience of little boys turning up their noses at a book written by a woman.
2011: although I loathe to call it literature, E.L.James is playing the same masculine name-game in order to market Fifty Shades of Grey – supposedly the book to have validated female sexuality for generations of women. Not much has changed, eh?
Here are three of my favourite badass women writers from throughout history:
Eliza Haywood (1693-1756)
Haywood wrote biting satire in the early eighteenth century. As well as being a writer she was also an actress and a publisher, producing no less than seventy works of periodicals, prose, drama, translations and poetry throughout her lifetime. Her later works focus on women’s rights and position in society, frequently portraying the ‘fallen woman’ in her fiction in a positive light – as women capable of accessing power in the male-dominated society, of autonomy, of taking charge of their sexual life. She is most well renowned for her periodical in response to the then-popular journal The Spectator, named The Female Spectator, in which she single-handed took on her male counterparts by writing for women in a variety of female personas, taking stances on public and political issues and generally arguing for space for women and women’s opinions in the male-dominated reading climate. She also wrote a sassy AF satirical response to the vastly popular, evangelical novel Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded by Samuel Richardson, entitled Anti-Pamela: Or, Feign’d Innocence Detected (1741), in which she calls out all of the ridiculous moral standards that women are held to in Richardson’s novel. My faves are Love in Excess, or The Fatal Enquiry (1719) and Fantomina, or Love in a Maze (1724).
Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797)
I guess you could call her ‘the original feminist’. Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) was written in response to contemporary theorists’ views that women should only receive a ‘domestic education’ – read: learn how to raise children and keep a household. She attacked the sexual double standards in society and called for moral equality in her work. This work emerged to the backdrop of the French Revolution, during a series of vicious ‘pamphlet wars’ between theorists, writers and political commentators. She first entered the pamphlet war with A Vindication of the Rights of Men in 1790 in response to Edmund Burke, and followed up with Woman two years later. Whilst her specific arguments are very ~of the time~ and the term feminist wasn’t even coined until the 1890s, this text is a very important benchmark in women’s writing and women’s rights in the mainstream; it was very well-read and well-received at the time of publication. Whilst the entire work is quite dense, you can find well-selected abstractions almost anywhere that sells books and it is a fascinating insight into very early feminism and discussions on women’s place in society.
Anaïs Nin (1903-1977)
Nin was a French writer who moved in the same circles as Henry Miller, author of Tropic of Cancer. The pair shared a bohemian lifestyle in Paris during the 1930s and 1940s (swoon), during which time they made a living by writing dollar-a-page erotica for a private collector in the States. They were collected and published posthumously in Delta of Venus (1977). In the postscript Nin says
“At the time we were all writing erotica at a dollar a page, I realized that for centuries we had had only one model for this literary genre – the writing of men. I was already conscious of a difference between the masculine and feminine treatment of sexual experience […] I had a feeling that Pandora’s box contained the mysteries of woman’s sensuality, so different from man’s and for which man’s language was inadequate. […] Here in the erotica I was writing to entertain, under pressure from a client who wanted me to ‘leave out the poetry’, I believed that my style was derived from a reading of men’s works. For this reason I long felt that I had compromised my feminine self. I put the erotica aside. Rereading it these many years later, I see that my own voice was not completely suppressed. In numerous passages I was intuitively using a woman’s language, seeing sexual experience from a woman’s point of view. I finally decided to release the erotica for publication because it shows the beginnings of a woman in a world that had been the domain of men.”
Delta of Venus is a must-read. Since it is a collection of shorter erotic stories which challenge a whole spectrum of taboos, it is easy to dip in and out of and it provides a unique and wonderful look at sensuality and femininity and the female voice.
So in summary, go and check out these badass bitches. They’ve been doing the feminist game longer than anyone else and it is really freakin’ interesting.