5 Female Literary Groundbreakers

Sappho, Sarah Wilson, Marie Stopes, Edith Wharton, Eleanor Catton and Hilary Mantel
Category: Reading

Last night, Eleanor Catton upset the bookies’ favourite, Jim Crace, to scoop the Man Booker Prize for her hefty (in every way) novel, The Luminaries. (It’s been a good week for literary ladies—Alice Munro was just awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, becoming the 13th woman to do so since the prize’s inception in 1901.) Catton’s win was doubly historical—she became the youngest person to ever win the Booker (at 28!) and her novel is the longest to take the prize, coming in at over 800 pages. But she’s certainly not alone in being a female history-maker in the world of literature. Here are a few other ladies who blazed trails, broke down barriers and made sure we never forgot their names.

Sappho: The legendary Greek poet is the only woman included in the list of nine lyric poets considered worthy of critical study by the scholars of ancient Alexandria. Her work was widely read and respected throughout the ancient world: Plato referred to her as the tenth muse, and Horace said her lyric were worthy of sacred admiration. She is credited with helping to define lyric poetry as a genre.

Sarah Wilson: Born Lady Sarah Spencer-Churchill, the youngest child of the 7th Duke of Marlborough, Sarah was expected to live the life of a genteel Victorian lady, remaining mostly at home and out of the way. Instead, she accompanied her husband, Lieutenant-Colonel Gordon Wilson, to Mafeking during the Boer War. While there, the Daily Mail recruited her as a correspondent, making her the first known female war correspondent in history. Their gamble paid off; her matter-of-fact style gained her a huge following back in England as she reported on both what the enemy was up to and how the people inside the town were coping. Her stories of the resilience of this small outpost helped make it a symbol of the British ‘bulldog spirit’.

Dr Marie Stopes: Edinburgh-born Dr Stopes wore many hats throughout her lifetime: author, palaeobotanist and campaigner for women’s rights and birth control at a time when such things were unheard of and even considered obscene. Something of a wunderkind, Stopes earned a B.Sc. from University College London after only two years of study before becoming the youngest person in Britain to receive a D.Sc. degree. In 1913, after the failure of her first marriage, Stopes began writing a book about how she believed marriage should work. With an assist from birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger, Stopes completed her book in 1915 and it was immediately rejected by several publishers, who considered it too controversial. Married Love was finally released in 1918 and became an immediate success, requiring five editions in the first year alone. It was soon followed up by Wise Parenthood: A Book for Married People, a manual on birth control. Both books were immensely popular for providing much needed information to women who had thus far been kept largely in the dark about their own bodies.

Edith Wharton: American novelist Wharton became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for the novel in 1921, though the win was not without controversy. The voting panel wanted to give the award to Sinclair Lewis for his satire Main Street, which had raised more than a few eyebrows, to say the least. The advisory board overturned the decision and instead awarded the prize to Wharton for The Age of Innocence, praising the novel for its ‘wholesome atmosphere of American life and the highest standard of American manners and manhood.’ A puzzling statement for anyone who’s ever read Wharton’s sharp-edged novel of temptation and near-adultery. Lewis, though understandably bitter, was gracious to Wharton, and the two became great friends. He eventually won the Pulitzer in 1926, while Wharton went on to break some more literary ground. Within the decade, she’d become the first woman to receive an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from Yale University (in 1923) and the first woman to be granted full membership to the American Academy of Arts and Letters (in 1926).

Hilary Mantel: Like Catton, Mantel pulled off a Booker double-first when she won last year for Bring Up the Bodies. The win made her the first woman to take the prize twice (her previous novel, Wolf Hall, won in 2009) and the first author ever to win for a sequel. She’s currently working on the final book in the trilogy, currently titled The Mirror and the Light. Will the third time be a charm? We’ll just have to see!

Who are some of your favourite literary ladies? Tell us about them in the comments below.

Want More? Check out our list of 10 Books That Celebrate Pioneering Women, and listen to our latest podcast, in which Margaret Atwood’s latest book, MaddAddam, gets the Book Talk treatment!

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