As we commemorate International Women's Day, we turn to literature as it spans across time periods, genres, styles of writing, and more. We have observed that many women authors fall into obscurity for various reasons, especially the inconsistent documentation of their work and the tendency to get overshadowed by those they influence. With this in mind, we have compiled this list to recognise lesser-known writers who were rebels in their own right, and made significant contributions to literature, society, and culture.
Murasaki Shikibu was a novelist and poet who can be credited with writing the world's first novel, Genji monogatari or The Tale of Genji. During the Heian Period in Japan, Murasaki was a lady-in-waiting at the imperial court. She dipped into her own experiences to write The Tale of Genji, which addresses the culture of aristocracy, entertainment, dressing styles, routines, and values. The novel contains 54 connected chapters across four generations, and is twice as long as War and Peace! We only know this writer by a nickname as her actual name was not recorded — Murasaki is the name of her story's protagonist, while Shikibu refers to the post her father held in the imperial government. Though this hasn't been confirmed, scholars speculate that someone else completed the book after Murasaki passed away.
Mirabai was a queen-turned-ascetic, devotee, and poet. Although not much is known about her, the legends narrate the story of a woman with indifference for social structures and hierarchies, and a brilliant poet and composer, her sole impetus being the element of devotion.
As a princess, she was married to the then-king of Mewar, who is famously known to have been supportive of Mirabai’s incorporeal calling. However, the same could not be said for the rest of her royal family that expected her to live her life holding the conventional royal status. After the king died in a battle in 1521, Mirabai acted on her long-standing detachment toward worldly affairs by leaving the palatial complex for the wilderness, to live in a small temple where she composed most of her writing works. To this day, Mirabai's poems are sung and celebrated as Krishna bhajans.
Juana Inés de la Cruz
Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz was a Mexican philosopher, composer, nun, writer, and poet.
She was active in the Baroque Period when the general public of western society was still under religious hegemony, but artists were known to challenge authoritarianism. De la Cruz used her stature as a clergy member to write about taboo subjects like feminism and independent theological philosophies. But that was not the extent of her writings, her poems challenged authoritarian dogma just as easily as her plays narrated brilliant romantic sagas. As one of the most influential Latin poets of the time, she had emphatically faced her share of misogyny and racism in life, but her persistence despite the unfairness justly earned her the title, ‘The Phoenix of Mexico.’
Mary Wollstonecraft was an English philosopher, writer, and feminist advocate. Wollstonecraft pioneered the western feminist movement with her writings, and is famously known as 'Britain's First Feminist.' For unspecified reasons, until the late 20th century, she was commemorated primarily as the mother of writer Mary Shelley rather than for her own achievements. Her novels ranged from children's books to insurgent literature, covering themes such as politics, morals, and even romance. One of her most notable works was A Vindication of the Rights of Women, a book that shed light on the unfairness and misogyny in the educational facet of Western society.
Ann Radcliffe was a pioneer of gothic literature who was known for her unique ability to use powerful landscape imagery and elements of suspense, terror and wonder in her stories. 18th-century literary critics who did not regard gothic fiction as a legitimate genre considered Radcliffe’s writing to be an exception. Her work influenced big names such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, Edgar Allen Poe, and Sir Walter Scott. She was so popular at the time that her work was often emulated and copied in short chapbooks and even in paintings by Romantic-era artists. As a leading figure in early feminist literary literary consciousness, Radcliffe made female characters equal to their male counterparts, and in fact gave them more power and significance.
Zitkála-Šá was a Native American activist, musician, and educator. She was among the first activists whose work, writing and otherwise, brought Native American stories and perspective to predominantly European audiences. Having been abandoned by her Euro-American father, Zitkála-Šá was raised by her mother on the Yankton Indian Reservation in South Dakota. At the age of eight, she was taken to a Quaker boarding school after a union of missionaries came seeking recruits. This traumatic experience later inspired one of her early writing works, The Schooldays of an Indian girl. A lot of her work narrates the splendour and beauty of Native American cultures and reflects on the catastrophic ordeal of having one’s identity be erased and homeland be colonized. Apart from her writing, Zitkála-Šá was active in the fight for Native Americans' autonomy and their right to American citizenship.
Kamini Roy was a Bengali poet, social worker, and feminist. Challenging the societal expectation to focus on marriage and family, Roy decided to pursue her passion for education and became one of the first women to attend school in British India and graduate with honours. She established herself as one of the most prominent Bengali poets after her first book, Alo O Chhaya, was published in 1889.
She was determined to use her privilege and access to literacy to uplift women around her and held a crucial role in the fight for women’s suffrage and education. Thanks to the efforts of activists including Roy, limited women's suffrage was granted in the Bengal Presidency in 1925. By the next year, Indian women were able to exercise their right to vote for the first time ever in the general elections. Roy was also known for her efforts to encourage other writers and poets.
USA 20th century
Lorraine Hansberry was an American playwright and author who wrote
A Raisin in the Sun (1959), the first play written by a Black woman to be performed on Broadway. It was groundbreaking for a story about the lives of Black Americans to be given a popular platform.
Hansberry’s success with the play paved the way for more Black writers and artists in theater, arts, and the broader cultural landscape. The most common themes of Hansberry’s work were the struggles faced by Black Americans due to racism and racial segregation. In addition to this, Hansberry wrote about her sexual identity at a time when the LGBTQ community faced a great deal of oppression.
Written by Aakanksha Gupta and Sakshi Sharma (Weloquent)