Influential Women Writers: 1660 to Today

By Carole Reedy

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”  Maya Angelou

It’s simply not possible list all the women writers who have influenced us over the past few centuries. Today we focus on five from different genres who will stand out in the annals of history (or already do), not only for what they’ve accomplished through the written word, but for the hours of sublime entertainment they’ve given us.

Sor Juana

Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz is Mexico’s first feminist. In her short 46 years she sought the freedom to become educated and to become a writer and poet despite opposition from her superiors. Born in 1651 in Nueva España (now Mexico) to a Spanish Captain and Criollo woman, she learned to read at age three and as a young woman became the court poet to the viceroy of Mexico. At 16 she wanted to attend university (disguised as a man), but being denied this she studied privately. She mastered Greek logic, taught Latin to young children, and even learned and wrote poems in the Aztec language, Nahuatl.

The most lauded book about Sor Juana is written by Mexico’s own Nobel Prize winner, Octavio Paz, entitled Sor Juana, Or the Traps of Faith. In it he explores the culture, politics, and ideology of the time in order to discover the reasons she became a nun and renounced her passion for writing and learning. Her works and Paz’s book are best read in Spanish, but there are good English translations.

Hombres Necios, one of Sor Juana’s most famous poems, appears in most of her poetry collections. Here are the first three stanzas to give you a sample of her brilliance:

Silly, you men-so very adept
at wrongly faulting womankind,
not seeing you’re alone to blame
for faults you plant in woman’s mind.

After you’ve won by urgent plea
the right to tarnish her good name, you still expect her to behave– you, that coaxed her into shame.

You batter her resistance down
and then, all righteousness, proclaim that feminine frivolity,
not your persistence, is to blame.

To see the entire poem, go to acusais-english.html

And to think she wrote this in the 1600s!!

Jane Austen

“Oh dear, where’s my copy of Pride and Prejudice?” That was the very first thought that came to Enid Le Marchand’s mind when WW2 broke out in Britain, where she was a nurse practicing in London. (Ms. Le Marchand originally hailed from the Channel Islands.) Unable to find Jane Austen’s famous novel, she rushed to a bookstore to buy a new copy. This before anything else? Years later she would tell her daughter Jenny, “I needed something stable and grounded to read during the hours ahead that would be filled with fear and uncertainty.”

Austen’s reflections on daily life and social convention in England’s 19th century are not only soothing to the soul, but entertaining and insightful. Her first sentence is one of the most famous in the history of the novel: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” With that, Austen sets the stage for the humorous intentions of Mrs. Bennett, the mother, in the search of husbands for her five daughters, keeping with the social mores of the time. Although Pride and Prejudice (which recently celebrated 200 years since its publication in 1813) is the most widely read and best known of Austen’s novels, Emma and Sense and Sensibility, among others, also offer vivid glimpses into the motivations of men and women of the time, and perhaps of all times.

P.D. James

When discussing literature, the 92-year-old (and still writing) British doyenne of the detective novel doesn’t distinguish between serious or literary novels and crime or mainstream fiction. She started writing mystery novels because she liked them herself and she thought she’d have success with them. Also, she likes “structure, fiction with a beginning, a middle, and an end, as well as a narrative drive, pace, and resolution, which a detective novel has.”

There weren’t many books in James’ home, so she sought reading pleasure at the Cambridge Public Library. It was there she came under the spell of Jane Austen “early on because of her irony and control of structure.” James views “one’s response to literature as one’s response to human beings—if you asked me what appeals to me in a certain person, I might say his courage or humor or intelligence. In Jane Austen it was her style and her irony, the way she creates so distinctive a world in which I feel at home. I called my second daughter after her.”

There are dozens of great James novels, and her detective Adam Dalgliesh ranks second only to Sherlock Holmes. In 1991 James was ennobled by the Queen and sits in the House of Lords as Baroness James of Holland Park.

Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates must be one of the most prolific writers of the 20th century. Since 1963, she’s written more than 50 novels as well as many volumes of short stories, poetry, and nonfiction. One of her most revered novels, Them, won the National Book Award in1963, and three other novels have been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize (Black Water in 1992, What I Lived For in 1994, and Blonde in 2000). She often “novelizes” actual events, including the Edward Kennedy incident at Chappaquiddick in Black Water, the Jon Benet Ramsey case told from the point of view of her brother in My Sister My Love, and the life of Marilyn Monroe in Blonde.

Oates has drifted among a variety of styles over the years, including periods of stream-of-consciousness and gothic literature(Bellefleur and A Bloodsmoo rRomance). Some ofher best works are those written in the late 60s and early 70s, among them The Garden of Earthly Delights and Expensive People. Recent works include a personal history of her husband’s death (A Widow’s Story), which drove her into a state of depression and inability to act. Faithful readers who envisioned her as a stronger woman might be shocked. Oates has since remarried, and we look for more excellent fiction from this most centered, dedicated, entertaining writer and professor.

Nora Ephron

Nora Ephron died last year at 70 from leukemia, keeping her illness a secret from virtually everyone since 2006. She left behind mostly comedic novels, screenplays, and essays that reflect the mores of the second half of the 20th century. Ephron was also a producer and director of films. Her most recent play, Love, Loss, and What I Wore, can be seen in Mexico City. Five of Mexico’s top women actresses contribute to the ensemble work, which is proving popular among men as well as women in this grand city.

Ephron, “the queen of romantic comedy,” is known for her strong female characters in works such as Julie and Julia, When Harry Loved Sally, the essays Crazy Salad, and the novel Heartburn, written after her divorce from Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame.

In closing, we shouldn’t fail to mention three noteworthy and influential American women poets: the introspective Emily Dickinson, witty Dorothy Parker, and the contemplative Sylvia Plath.

¡Felicitaciones a todas en este Día Internacional de Mujer!