Monday, 4 February 2013

Feminist Turning Points

Earlier today, Robert McCrum published 'a provisional, partisan list' (his description) of key moments in English literature. Distressingly, for me, only seven of these 'moments' involved women writers. Has feminism all been in vain?

In reply, @neurotaylor and I have devised an alternative, all-female list, which I append. (The women/texts in red are those also mentioned by McCrum.) Not all the women included on the list are English and Julian of Norwich, our first inclusion, predates McCrum's first 'moment' (the death of Christopher Marlowe) by 200 years. Our list is not intended to be like-for-like. Nonetheless, it makes a point.

Update: 12 February. Robert McCrum has now published a new list, consisting entirely of women writers. It's generated some comment, which is great to see. No list is ever going to please everyone, and there have been many more than 50 important books by women over the centuries. Further suggestions very gratefully received!

1.      Julian of Norwich: Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love (c. 1393; thought to be the first book written in English by a woman)
2.      Christine de Pizan: The Book of the City of Ladies (1405; this courtly French poet wrote about women’s roles and emphasized their positive contributions to society)
3.      Margery Kempe: The Book of Margery Kempe (1436; women can do autobiography)
4.      Mary Sidney: Psalms (c. 1599; her paraphrases of the Psalms were as good as or better than her brother Philip’s)
5.      Margaret Cavendish: The Blazing World (1666; women can do science-fiction, long before that term was invented)
6.      Lucy Hutchinson: The Life of Colonel Hutchinson (c. 1673; women can do biography)
7.      Anne Bradstreet: Severall Poems (1678; Bradstreet is often called ‘the first American poet’)
8.      Aphra Behn: Oroonoko (1688; pioneering playwright and poet who showed that women can make a living from writing)
9.      Mary Astell: A Serious Proposal to the Ladies (1694; Astell advocated a university for women)
10.  Anne Finch: The Spleen (1701; a pioneer woman writer on mental illness)
11.  Charlotte Lennox: The Female Quixote (1752; women can do satire)
12.  Elizabeth Carter: All the Works of Epictetus (1758; women can translate the classics)
13.  Mary Wortley-Montagu: The Turkish Embassy Letters (c. 1761; women can do travel writing)
14.  Catherine Macaulay: The History of England (1763-1783; women can do history)
15.  Mary Wollstonecraft: A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792)
16.  Ann Radcliffe: The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794; women can do Gothic fiction)
17.  Maria Edgeworth: Castle Rackrent (1800; invents the regional novel in English)
18.  Jane Austen: Pride and Prejudice (1813)
19.  Mary Shelley: Frankenstein (1818; women can do enduring horror stories)
20.  Elizabeth Barrett Browning: The Cry of the Children (1842; this poem helped bring about reforms to child labour in England)
21.  Emily Brontë: Wuthering Heights (1847)
22.  Charlotte Brontë: Jane Eyre (1847; set the pattern for many a romantic novel)
23.  Harriet Beecher Stowe: Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852)
24.  Elizabeth Gaskell: North and South (1855)
25.  Florence Nightingale: Notes on Nursing (1859; women can do medicine)
26.  Mrs Beeton: The Book of Household Management (1861; women can do really popular cookery books)
27.  Julia Ward Howe: The Battle Hymn of the Republic (1861; women can do political propaganda)
28.  George Eliot: Middlemarch (1871)
29.  Edith Sitwell: Façade (1922-3; women can do surrealism)
30.  Emily Dickinson: Complete Poems (1924; women can do poetry)
31.  Virginia Woolf: A Room of One’s Own (1929; women can be revolutionaries)
32.  Vera Brittain: Testament of Youth (1933; women can do war memoirs)
33.  Agatha Christie: Murder on the Orient Express (1934; women can do detective fiction, and how)
34.  Rebecca West: Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941; women can do travel writing)
35.  Simone de Beauvoir: The Second Sex (1949; women can do philosophy)
36.  Iris Murdoch: Under the Net (1954; this prolific philosopher-novelist showed how varied a woman’s writing can be)
37.  Rachel Carson: Silent Spring (1962; pioneering and vastly influential work of environmentalism)
38.  Doris Lessing: The Golden Notebook (1962; women can chronicle political and social change)
39.  Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar (1963; women can write starkly about mental illness)
40.  Germaine Greer: The Female Eunuch (1970; feminist bestseller)
41.  Angela Carter: The Bloody Chamber (1979; women can do dark things with fairy tales)
42.  Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale (1985; women can do dystopian fiction)
43.  Jeanette Winterson: Oranges are Not the Only Fruit (1985; lesbian fiction goes mainstream)
44.  Toni Morrison: Beloved (1987; women can reshape American fiction)
45.  Pat Barker: Regeneration (1991; women can do war fiction)
46.  Kay Redfield Jamison: An Unquiet Mind (1995; women can do psychiatry)
47.  JK Rowling: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997)
48.  Catherine Millet: The Sexual Life of Catherine M. (2002; women can write explicitly about sex)
49.  EL James: 50 Shades of Grey (2012; women can do soft as well as hard porn)
50.  Hilary Mantel: Bring up the Bodies (2012; women can win prizes. Even the Booker. Twice.)


  1. No Katherine Mansfield (women can write, and change the nature of, short stories)? Catherine Millet and EL James but no Anais Nin? I would also have liked to have seen Jean Rhys and Charlotte Perkins Gilman included, myself, but all in all, I think your list is very good. I still can't believe only 7 women were included in the original list!

  2. Thanks so much for commenting, Angela! Yes, there are many more wonderful women writers who *could* have been on the list. We very nearly included Katherine Mansfield, and both Rhys and Gilman would have been good inclusions too. I can see the case for Nin, though I'm not a great enthusiast for her work. Among other names we reluctantly omitted were Kate Chopin, Edna O'Brien, Alice Walker, Nadine Gordimer and Marilynne Robinson. Yes, the paucity of women on the original list was astonishing. We like to think attitudes have changed, but I'm not so sure they have.

  3. I'd just like to add, we were in something of a rush! I did think of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, but not of Anais Nin (should have!) -- but isn't it great that we're spoilt for choice?

  4. A shame you couldn't have squeezed in Dorothy Richardson or even Sylvia Townsend Warner.

    1. As Neurotaylor has stressed, we put this list together very quickly. We were also limited by our decision to include just 50 women, to match the numbers on Robert McCrum's original list. So yes, almost inevitably, some very interesting and important figures were omitted.

      I stress 'important', because one of our key criteria for inclusion was that our selections should demonstrably be pioneering figures within the history of women's writing. (If this had simply been a list of women whose writing we liked, it would almost certainly have looked rather different.) So what rationale would you suggest for including Richardson and Warner on the list? Richardson because of her role in developing 'stream of consciousness' fiction? Warner as an early lesbian writer? And -- more controversially -- who should be omitted to free up places on the list for these two women?