For Women’s History Month in 2023, I decided to compile a list of great women writers from around the world and throughout the centuries.
Elizabeth Acevedo was only 14 years old when she started competing in poetry slams. Born to Dominican immigrant parents, she grew up in Harlem, New York. She went on to teach 8th grade in Maryland, and at one point, one of her students told her, “These books aren’t about us.” Elizabeth recognized what it meant to students to read diverse books about characters and people who looked like them. Today, she is not only a National Poetry Slam Champion, but also an award-winning writer.
- What she wrote: With the Fire on High, Family Lore, The Poet X, and Clap When You Land
In 1993, the Boston Globe called Isabel Allende “Latin America’s Scheherazade.” Her own life story isn’t so different from that of one of Scheherazade’s tales. Born in 1942 in Lima, Peru, Isabel was cousin to Salvador Allende, who was the president of Chile from 1970 to 1973, until he was overthrown in a coup by the military. At that time, she suddenly found herself helping targets on the regime’s “wanted list” flee the country. But when her mother and stepfather were nearly assassinated, she became a target herself, and was also forced to flee to Venezuela. It was during her time in Venezuela as a refugee that she wrote her debut novel, The House of Spirits, and began to consider herself a serious writer. She keeps a very strict writing schedule, writing from 9 AM to 7 PM, Monday through Saturday.
- What she wrote: The House of Spirits, City of the Beasts
If Maya Angelou had a Bible, a deck of cards, a bottle of sherry, a copy of Roget’s Thesaurus, and enough legal pads to last her several hours, she had everything she needed to start writing. She checked herself into a hotel, asked the staff to take everything off the walls, and stayed until early afternoon. In the evening, she revised what she’d written that day, and then started over the next morning.
A child of the Great Depression, she knew hard times. She was sexually abused and raped when she was a child. After she told a family member what happened, the perpetrator was convicted of the abuse, but he only spent one day in prison for it. Shortly after his release, he was murdered, possibly by Maya’s uncles. For five years after his death, she didn’t speak because she blamed herself for his death. Poetry and literature and the influence of a family friend persuaded her to speak again. As an adult, she traveled as a dancer and an actor all over Europe and tried to learn the languages of every country she visited. She became proficient in several languages. During the Civil Rights Movement, she worked with Martin Luther King, and considered Malcolm X a close friend up until his assassination.
She wrote throughout her life, but it wasn’t until a dinner party in 1968, when Robert Loomis (an editor at Random House) issued her a challenge that resulted in her first autobiography—I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The book brought her international recognition. Over the course of the rest of her life, she continued her writing (much of it autobiographical) and remained highly active in politics. Her work has inspired generations. She passed away in 2014 at the age of 86.
- What she wrote: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, And Still I Rise, Phenomenal Woman
Octavia Butler had undiagnosed dyslexia and didn’t do particularly well in school. Her father passed away when she was just 7 years old. But despite all of this, she begged her mother for a typewriter, and finally received one when she was just ten years old. As a child and teenager, she was extremely shy and considered herself socially awkward, which made her a target for bullying. So she spent a lot of her time writing in a big, pink notebook and hanging out in the Pasadena Public Library.
When she was thirteen, she was told that black people couldn’t be writers, but when she was in 7th grade, a teacher noticed her writing and encouraged her to keep going. After she graduated from high school, she worked during the day and went to college by night, working a series of temporary jobs that allowed her to spend time writing. She would get up at two or three o’clock in the morning to work on her writing.
Over the course of the next few years, she began to sell and publish short stories until she was able to live off of her income as a writer. In 1984 “Speech Sounds” won the Hugo Award for Short Story, and a year later, Bloodchild also won the Hugo, in addition to the Locus Award and the Science Fiction Chronicle Reader for Best Novelette. Born in June 1947, she passed away much too young at 58 in 2006.
- What she wrote: Kindred, Parable of the Sower, Wild Seed
Margaret Lucas Cavendish
She was known as “Mad Madge” by her contemporaries in the 1660s. In a time when it was unusual for women to be writers, she not only published her work but she published it under her own name—Lady Margaret Lucas Cavendish.
Born to a royalist family in Essex, probably in 1623, she was educated privately as a child, and read widely, particularly in subjects that were, at the time, considered to be more suited for male scholars.
In 1645, she married William Cavendish, and many critics claimed that he had secretly written her works, which he denied. She did indicate, however, that he was an important influence on her works. Her first book was published in 1653, Poems and Fancies, was a compilation of her poetry, prose, and epistles. These explored the scientific and philosophical ideas.
In 1668, she published The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing World, in which a young woman is shipwrecked and discovers a new world, and becomes the Empress over the anthropomorphic inhabitants of that world. It is significant for being an both an early piece of science fiction, and also because it was woman-centered.
- What she wrote: The Blazing World
Agatha Christie was already well underway to becoming the “Queen of Crime” when she went missing in December 1926. Her husband had just confessed an affair with another woman, and when Agatha got the news, she took off in her car. Not long after, the automobile was found abandoned. A thousand people—police and volunteers alike—searched for her for days, but the only clue to her disappearance was her abandoned car. Rewards were offered and the search continued, but she was nowhere to be found. At last, after 11 days, she was sighted and identified in a hotel. When questioned how she had gotten there, she claimed some kind of amnesia, and to this day, we still don’t know what possessed her to hide herself. In 1928, she and her husband divorced and he married his lover a week later.
But Agatha was not one to let heartbreak stop her. She went on to write 66 detective novels and 14 short story collections and become the best selling fiction writer of all time. Today, her novels have sold more than 2 billion copies. Born in 1890, she lived through both World Wars, and served in hospitals during World War II, where she learned about poisons and met the Belgian soldiers who would inspire one of her greatest characters, Detective Hercule Poirot. In 1971, she was made a Dame (the women’s equivalent of Knighthood) by Queen Elizabeth II.
In February 1930, she went on an archeological dig in Ur, Mesopotamia, and it was there that she met her second husband, archeologist Max Mallowan. They fell in love and married, and for the rest of their lives they traveled the world as she wrote her detective stories and he worked on his archeological digs. During their marriage, she wrote some of her most well-known works, including Murder on the Orient Express. He was knighted for his archeological work in 1968, and just a few years later, in 1971, she was made a Dame (the women’s equivalent of Knighthood) for her contributions to literature by Queen Elizabeth II. They remained happily married until her death in 1976.
A bonus fact: Agatha Christie was one of the first Britons to surf standing up.
- What she wrote: Murder on the Orient Express, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Death on the Nile, The Murder at the Vicarage, And Then There Were None, The Mysterious Affair at Styles
As the only girl of seven siblings, children of immigrant parents from Mexico, Sandra Cisneros was always looking for a little peace and quiet. She found it in her local Chicago library, and as she browsed the pages of design books there, she dreamed about having a house of her own. She went on to become a counselor to high school drop outs and teach creative writing to young students. She wrote The House on Mango Street, and in 1998, she began the Macondo Writers Workshop. She practices Buddhism, and lives in Mexico in a house of her own.
- What she wrote: The House on Mango Street
When Margarita Engle was a little girl, she wanted to grow up to be a wild horse. But when she was very small, her mother read her poetry in Spanish, or recited it from memory, and sparked in Margarita a love for poetry. By the time Margarita was only 5 or 6, she was making up her own poems to the rhythm of her footsteps. And so she became a poet instead. But she never stopped loving the outdoors and animal life. She was born in Los Angeles, but she spent many summers visiting her mother’s family in Cuba. In college, she studied agronomy and botany. It was while she was working on her doctoral degree that she took a seminar in creative writing from Tomás Rivera and has said that this was the experience that led her to writing. Today, she writes memoirs, novels, and children’s books in California, where she also lives with her husband.