Women have left an incredible literary legacy, with their works earning international acclaim, awards and coveted places on prestigious reading lists and syllabi the world over. Obviously, a list such as this comes saddled with a whole heap of subjectivity, so try to keep the blood pressure down if a personal favorite’s been omitted. Plenty more amazing authors warrant exploration than space and time allow, so use these amazing reads as a jumping-off point to discovering even more!
- The Awakening by Kate Chopin: While not an explicitly feminist work, Kate Chopin’s novel certainly laid the foundation by exploring the thoughts of a woman breaking free from social expectations.
- Frankenstein by Mary Shelley: The limber, hyperintelligent creature and his monstrous creator at the center of this landmark literary work still resonates throughout today’s manic pop culture sphere.
- Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel: Magic realism, tantalizing food and forbidden romance blend to create a wholly satisfying read — even for those who normally find love stories repellent.
- The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu: Most, though not all, literature aficionados consider The Tale of Genji humanity’s first modern novel. Beyond its historical significance, the book is notable for its slice-of-life plot, hundreds of characters and painstaking attention to continuity.
- Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe: Harriet Beecher Stowe’s abolitionist leanings inspired her to write a sympathetic portrayal of Southern slaves, further stoking pre-Civil War social, political and economic tensions.
- Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko: Protagonist Tayo’s half-Laguna, half-white heritage isolates him from both backgrounds in spite of his World War II heroism. Such pain drives him to find solace in Native American spirituality.
- The Color Purple by Alice Walker: This Pulitzer and National Book Award winner channeled the horrific exploitation and marginalization of impoverished, female minorities during the 1930s. In spite of the torment, however, an undercurrent of hope and love still trickle throughout.
- The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan: Two generations of Chinese and Chinese-American women suffer cultural differences, but ultimately learn that family is absolutely the most important thing of all.
- Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen: Although modern audiences tend to focus on romanticizing Mr. Darcy, Jane Austen’s Regency classic was actually quite the bitter, scathing satire of her time.
- Their Eyes were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston: Set in steamy Florida, heroine Janie Crawford grows into an incredibly strong woman after a harrowing series of heartbreaks, traumas and setbacks.
- I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou: The former poet laureate shares the triumphs and tragedies that inspired her illustrious career, focusing mainly on her childhood in Stamps, Arkansas.
- The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan: Influential and controversial, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique raised provocative questions about the role of women in American society at a time when they could really only be housewives and low-lever workers.
- Mythology by Edith Hamilton: Classicists know Edith Hamilton well, as her compilation of traditional Greco-Roman and Norse stories is still widely read and taught today.
- Remarks on Prisons and Prison Discipline in the United States by Dorothea Dix: This hardworking activist worked tirelessly to provide more compassionate, humanistic care for those tucked away in mental health facilities and prisons.
- Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi: One of the quintessential graphic memoirs, Persepolis dissects Marjane Satrapi’s experiences during the deposition of the Iranian Shah, instillation of a fundamentalist Muslim regime and expatriate schooling in Europe, where she discovers an entirely new set of prejudiced attitudes.
- The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir: Simone de Beauvoir’s classic sits on the shelves of most women’s studies majors because of its existentialist exploration of what it means to be and behave female.
- A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecroft: As one of the earliest feminist texts, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman issued forth a then-controversial call to educate women on the same level as their male family and peers.
- Through a Window by Jane Goodall: 30 years studying the chimpanzees of Gombe, Tanzania opened one of the world’s most famous, influential biologists to surprisingly human behaviors and nuances. The experience led Jane Goodall to strive for economic and environmental sustainability in impoverished regions.
- Twenty Years at Hull-House by Jane Addams: Her work at Hull House and an ardent dedication to ending poverty earned Jane Addams the very first Nobel Peace Prize given to an American woman. The eponymous shelter opened itself to immigrants and sought to help them better integrate into their newfound home.
- The Story of My Life by Helen Keller: Hear about the extraordinary disabled rights activist’s life and how a devoted teacher inspired her to make the world better for the oft-marginalized demographic.
- Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks: Two brothers with the bitterly ironic names Lincoln and Booth grapple against their mutual love and hate for one another until things finally go straight to Hell.
- A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry: One of America’s most influential and beloved dramas, A Raisin in the Sun follows a family whose financial and interpersonal struggles revolve around making and breaking dreams.
- The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler: Eve Ensler meant for her humorous, poignant reflection of female genitalia to comment on American society’s propensity for shaming and making taboo human sexuality.
- Spreading the News by Lady Gregory: A popular comedy in one act, Lady Gregory utilized common character archetypes to poke fun at certain elements of Early 20th Century Irish society.
- White Biting Dog by Judith Thompson: Canada’s lauded experimental playwright earned a bevy of accolades and awards for her story of a suicidal youth and the titular canine who gives him a second chance at life and family.
- Gone Too Far! by Bola Agbaje: This slice-of-life drama explores race relations in contemporary London, drawing from playwright Bola Agbaje’s own experiences.
- How I Learned to Drive by Paula Vogel: Driving and the utter control it represents parallels the inappropriate, tense, sexual relationship between a confused young woman and her deeply troubled uncle.
- Blood Relations by Sharon Pollock: Another cornerstone of contemporary Canadian theatre, Sharon Pollock chilled audiences with her seriously scary and highly psychological drama about Lizzie Bordon’s life.
- The Mousetrap by Agatha Christie: Even detractors of the mystery genre should give The Mousetrap some credit. It is, after all, the longest-running play of all time, credited with over 24,000 performances since 1952.
- In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play) by Sarah Ruhl: Taking place in the Victorian era, this fearless drama peers into the prominent female repression, sexual dissatisfaction and the surprising medical origins of the vibrator.
- The Collected Poems by Sylvia Plath: Tragic Sylvia Plath earned a posthumous Pulitzer for her oeuvre, which shed quite a bit of light on the realities of life with severe mental illness and suicidal thoughts.
- The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson by Emily Dickinson: While she may not have earned much acclaim in her lifetime, Emily Dickinson’s poetic experimentations eventually solidified her place amongst America’s most important writers.
- If Not, Winter by Sappho: Not much remains of this favored Greek poetess’ work, but even the fragments receive considerable accolades for their lush, gorgeous lyricism and romanticism.
- Those Who Ride the Night Winds by Nikki Giovanni: Civil Rights activist Nikki Giovanni used poetry to honor African-American leaders as well as those who supported the movement.
- Tender buttons: objects, food, rooms by Gertrude Stein: A unique experiment in repetition, form, connotation and denotation, Tender buttons is one of many examples of Gertrude Stein’s literary importance and influence.
- The Seraphim and Other Poems by Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Really, any of this highly praised Victorian poet’s published collections could have ended up on this list. Her influence spread to such literary luminaries as Edgar Allan Poe and Emily Dickinson.
- The Moon is Always Female by Marge Piercy: Although she’s published 17 poetry volumes so far, Marge Piercy is mostly praised for this one, considered a strong feminist masterpiece.
- Live or Die by Anne Sexton: Sadly overlooked these days in spite of its Pulitzer, Live or Die frankly discusses heavy issues such as strained filial relationships and mental illness.
- Breathing the Water by Denise Levertov: Spirituality, art, family and plenty of other common and not-so-common themes come alive with lush lyricism.
- The Golden Threshold by Saronjini Naidu: Both politician and poet, Saronjini Naidu’s works reflect India’s culture and natural beauty during one of its most volatile eras — its desire to slough off the yoke of British exploitation.
Short Story and Essay Collections
- Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri: This Pulitzer-winning collection explores the lives of both Indians and Indian-Americans, highlighting their cross-cultural struggles.
- A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf: One of the English author’s most powerful and lauded works is a book-length essay expounding upon the role of women in literature and society, among other topics.
- This Is Not Chick Lit edited by Elizabeth Merrick: Readers tired of the endless cycle of men and shoes and men and shoes found in mainstream ladies’ literature will find this eclectic, intelligent collection incredibly refreshing.
- A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories by Flannery O’Connor: Flannery O’Connor is easily one of the most influential short story writers from the English language canon, and this collection perfectly showcases her quintessential Southern Gothic flair.
- Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories by Sandra Cisneros: Almost all of the lyrical, feminist prose featured here revolves around intersections and clashes between Mexican and American culture as well as the role of women in relation to their friends, family, society and lovers.
- Molly Ivins Can’t Say That, Can She? by Molly Ivins: A brash, proud Texas woman offers up essays and stories pertaining to her state’s culture and politics, particularly the infamous 1990 gubernatorial elections.
- The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter by Katherine Anne Porter: 1966 saw The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter win both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” and its frank, evocative depiction of a depressive episode is probably the most popular of the 19 inclusions.
- Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout: 13 Pulitzer-winning short stories about the eponymous protagonist peer into different facets of her life and relationships in chilly Crosby, Maine.
- The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women edited by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar: W.W. Norton regularly cranks out volumes chock-full of essays, short stories, poems and excepts from a diverse selection of women across time and geography.
- Delta of Venus by Anais Nin: These unapologetic, erotic tales intelligently explore a wide variety of sexual taboos and features various points on the spectrum of human desire.