Note: As someone who identifies as a gender other than the one assigned at birth, and with the inclusion of trans writers on this list, I have purposefully avoided using the term ‘female.’
I know many a reader and writer who lament at not having enough women as role models. They know of only a handful of women who inspire them in fiction, or poetry, or nonfiction, or what have you. I got you. From me to you, here is a list of fifty hardworking, talented women who write (in no particular order).
1. Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison is best known for her novels The Bluest Eye, Beloved, and Song of Solomon. She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Beloved and won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993. Her novels explore themes of race and feminism, and are known for their vivid metaphors and deeply complex characters.Among her many awards and distinguishes, Morrison is a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the USA’s highest civilian award.
2. Simone de Beauvoir
This French writer was both a novelist and feminist political theorist. Her 1949 treatise The Second Sex greatly influenced contemporary feminism. More than that, she was known for doing whatever she wanted. In her 1954 novel The Mandarins, she went into great detail about her sexual relationship with Nelson Algren. Algren was so infuriated by her treatment of their sex life that those parts of the book were not available in the English translation until after her death.
3. Zora Neale Hurtson
Zora Neale Hurtson is a somewhat prolific writer, dabbling in novels, short stories, plays, and essays. Of her body of work, she is best known of her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. In addition to this, she was politically active (a member of the Republican party) and a respected anthropologist. Although her research and politics have received a healthy amount of criticism over the years, she remains a notably kick-ass lady.
4. Margaret Atwood
While best known for her feminist speculative fiction novels, Atwood is also a respected poet and literary critic. In addition to this, she is a businesswoman and environmental activist. She is the founder of the nonprofit literary organization Writers’ Trust of Canada as well as the inventor of the LongPen technology.
5. Virginia Woolf
Woolf’s work continues to be examined today for its blatantly feminist and lesbian themes. These themes are visible in many of her most famous novels, including Mrs. Dalloway and Orlando. Outside of her novels, she is perhaps best known for her works A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas, both of which examine the struggles faced by women in a legally and economically male dominated society.
6. Mary Shelley
Shelley is widely regarded as one of the pioneers of the modern horror genre with her game-changing novel Frankenstein. Deeper examinations of Shelley’s work reveal that she was likely a political radical – later known as a progressive – as many argument can be found within her essays, novels, and short stories on how one ought to go about reforming civil society.
7. Maya Angelou
Perhaps best known for her autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou is a decorated poet and civil rights activist. She challenge the model of every genre she worked in. Where her poetry inspired a generation of rappers, her autobiographies inspired feminist writers to open themselves up and speak their minds. She spent most of the end of her life traveling and lecturing, cementing herself as a spokesperson for women and black people alike.
8. H. D.
H.D. was a prominent poet of the Imagist movement, as well as an unapologetic bisexual. As such, feminist themes are expressed in her work through the goddesses of Greek mythology. When her poetry, letters, and essays were rediscovered in the 1970s – a decade after her death – she became an icon for both the feminist and queer rights movement.
9. Alice Walker
Walker is best known for her 1982 novel The Color Purple, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. In addition to that, Walker is a prominent activist. She participated in the 1963 march on Washington, and coined the term ‘womanism’ as a kind of feminism distinct to women of color. She is also active in anti-war groups. In 2003 she was arrested for protesting the Iraq war, and has continuously worked to improve the lives of Palestinians affected by the Israel-Palestine conflict.
10. Zadie Smith
On top of being a professor of creative writing, Smith has published five critically praised novels. She is also a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Her novels tend to focus on identity through ethnicity and socioeconomic class, making for meaningful and deeply layered reads. She is a deeply accomplished woman, and should serve as a role model for any aspiring writer.
11. bell hooks
On top of being an author with more than thirty published books and scholarly articles, hooks is an active feminist and social activist. Her works focus heavily on intersectionality, covering topics such a race, class, gender, capitalism, and the systems of oppression that they produce. She also founded the bell hooks institute, which “strives to promote the cause of ending domination through understanding the ways systems of exploitation and oppression intersect through critical thinking, teaching, events, and conversation” (bell hooks institute About page).
12. Trish Salah
Salah was the first transgender representative of the National Pink Triangle Committee of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, and is currently a professor of Gender Studies at Queen’s University. Her work focuses on the transgender experience, Arab identity, and economic and social justice. The 2013 edition of her poetry book Wanting in Arabic won the Lambda Literary Award for Transgender Fiction in 2014.
13. Donna Tartt
Tartt has written three novels: The Secret History, The Little Friend, and The Goldfinch. Her works tend to focus on social class and stratification, as well as aesthetic beauty and guilt. In 2014, The Goldfinch won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction and the TIME 100 named her one of the 100 most influential people of 2014.
14. Alice Munro
Alice Munro is frequently cited as the modern master of the short story. Her stories tend to focus on the complexities of women. While many call her the next Chekhov, many critics agree that it would be more appropriate to call her to first Munro. In 2013, she became the 13th woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.
15. Alison Bechdel
She initially gained notoriety with her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, but shot to commercial success with her graphic memoir Fun Home. Fun Home was adapted into a musical that went on to win the Tony Award for Best Musical in 2015. She also, somewhat accidentally, invented the Bechdel Test, which is popularly used to judge gender representation in media.
16. Jennifer Finney Boylan
Boylan is a professor, writer, and political activist. She has made significant strides for the transgender community. In 2003, her autobiography She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders became a bestseller, marking the first time that an openly transgender author was on the bestseller list. In 2013, she pioneered yet another path when she became the first openly trans co-chair of GLAAD’s National Board of Directors.
17. Isabel Wilkerson
In 1994, her coverage of the 1993 midwestern floods earned her a Plitzer Prize in Journalism. She was the first black woman to win this award. She is also known for her non-fiction book The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, which focuses on ways that black people migrated from the American South between 1915 and the 1970s. She has won numerous awards and continues to be an outspoken journalist.
18. Louise Erdrich
As an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, Louise Erdrich is perhaps one of the most notable writers of the second wave of the Native American Renaissance. In addition to being a multiple-prize-winner writer, Erdrich owns an independent book store in Minneapolis that serves the community with Native American literature and community events.
19. Susan Sontag
Although (or perhaps, especially because) her work was controversial, she is often lauded as one of the most important cultural critics of her generation. A Jewish-American writer and political activist, she wrote heavily of conflict and freedom, often visiting areas of armed conflict for her work.
20. Jacqueline Woodson
Writing primarily for children and young adults, Woodson often tackles issues of Black culture, economic status, and gender and sexual identity in her work. Due to this, her work often faces questions of censorship. Regardless, she has won several awards as an author and remains an outspoken activism for the Black and queer communities.
21. Sybil Lamb
Sybil Lamb, like many trans women, was a victim of a hate crime. Unlike many trans women, Lamb had both the platform and the courage to write about her experiences in a book titled I’ve Got a time Bomb. In doing this, she adding to the growing representation and visibility of trans women in literature and beyond.
22. Amy Tan
Amy Tan is a multiple award winning author whose work primarily focuses on mother-daughter relationships within the Chinese-American family. She has spent her career as an outspoken voice for women and Chinese-Americana alike.
23. Charlotte Bronte
Charlotte Bronte, with her most famous novel Jane Eyre, ushered in an important moment for feminist literature. That is, a defiant and independent protagonist that was not only a woman, but one of low social standing in relation to the primary man she chose to defy. Though her career was short, it left us with an important novel in the feminist canon.
24. Jane Austen
Though her thematic success is up for debate, no one can deny the power of her commercial success. Through her social critiques and biting irony, Austen secured a place in the classical canon.
25. Octavia E. Butler
Perhaps the best known woman writing in science fiction today, Butler has received several awards for her works. She was the first science fiction writer to become a recipient of the Genius Grant, and was inducted into the Chicago State University’s international Black writer’s hall of fame.
26. Laurie Notaro
Laurie Notaro is hilarious. Which would explain why she’s a #1 best selling author. Her endless wit shines light of the day to day lives of average women, including herself. This normalcy is what, to me, makes them so important.
27. Laurie Halse Anderson
Laurie Halse Anderson has been widely critically recognized for her work in young adult literature. She does not tell easy stories. She explores issues of assault and abuse, such as in Speak and Twisted, and even has explored the lives of inner city students, in Prom. These stories are important, and this woman does not shy away from telling them.
28. Jean Rhys
Rhys is an multiple award winner writer, perhaps best known for her unofficial prequel to Jane Eyre – Wide Sargasso Sea. In this novel, as within her earlier works, she explores the stresses of colonialism, domination, and dependence. She is widely hailed as a literary hero.
29. Leslie Marmon Silko
Silko is a Laguna Pueblo writer and is widely considered a key player in the first wave of the Native American Renaissance. She roots the majority of her work in her own culture, acting as an important voice for her community. She has won many awards, and was a recipient of the Genius Grant.
30. Terry McMillan
McMillan is a trail blazer in the literary world. As the story goes, when she was unsatisfied with the limited marketing given to her first book, Mama, she personally wrote to thousands of booksellers and the book sold out its initial release. Her writing tends to focus on the sort of Black woman oft ignored: the thirty-something, successful, unhappy, and ridiculously relatable Black woman. For that, the world thanks her.
31. Julia Alvarez
Julia Alvarez is widely regarded as one of the most critically and comercially successful Latina writers of all time. Perhaps best known for her book In the Time of the Butterflies, her work focuses on Dominican and feminist themes. Alvarez has received numerous grants and honors and is the current writer in residence at Middlebury College in Vermont.
32. Monica Ali
Ali has been called one of the best British novelist of our time. In addition to having a strong writing career, beginning with her first book Brick Lane, Ali is politically active. She takes the time to speak on multiple issues, and participated in Marks and Spencer’s Womanism campaign.
33. Sylvia Plath
Sylvia Plath is widely considered to be one of the most important writers of the past century. Her work in poetry advanced the genre of confessional poetry, which itself helped in the formation of the beat movement. Plath won a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for The Collected Poems.
34. Gwendolyn Brooks
Gwendolyn Brooks was the first African American to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize in poetry, which she won for her poetry collection Annie Allen. Although numerous schools and awards are named in her honor, and she is arguably one of the most important writers of the 20th century, her work is rarely taught as part of any school or college curriculum.
35. Audre Lorde
Audre Lorde was an extremely prominent civil rights activist and feminist. Her poems are widely regarded for the sheer technical skill at which they are written, and often explore the identity and experience of the Black woman. In addition to fictional work, Lorde produced an impressive body of critical theory. As a writer and as a critical theorist, she is one of the most influential people in American culture.
36. Lucille Clifton
Clifton served as the poet laureate of Maryland from 1979 to 1985, and was twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Her writing is known for celebrating Blackness and women. She also wrote on the position of the Black woman’s body in society, making her work heavily relevant and important today.
37. Emily Dickinson
Although only a handful of her poems were published her her lifetime, Dickinson is widely regarded as one of the most important American poets. Her poetry was groundbreaking in its style and form, standing in a genre all itself.
38. Claribel Alegria
Alegria’s works are a major part of the Central American contemporary canon. She is notably very critical of the society in which she grew up, and is known for using language in her writing that is often considered to be ‘counter literary.’ She is also a recipient of the Neustadt Internation Prize for Literature.
39. Eileen Myles
Myles has been called the “rock star of modern poetry.” With over twenty published volumes of poetry, and a stack of other works spanning over several decades, she has more than earned that title. She is also incredibly politically active, having started several campaigns for women’s rights, and writing a glowing endorsement for Hilary Clinton for president.
40. Chun Shu
As the author of the controversial Beijing Doll, Chun Shu was the first Chinese writer to be features on the cover of Time Magazine. She is known for her punk spirit, and recently has become heavily active in the environmentalist movement.
41. Andrea Gibson
Andrea Gibson is known for both her beautiful spoken word poetry and her activism. Her poems focus on themes of gender roles, LGBTQAI+ identity and struggles, and social reform. She has been active in anti-war peace rallies, organization for Palestine, and groups and rallies against capitalism, the patriarchy, and white supremacy.
42. June Jordan
June Jordan was a multiple award winning Caribbean-American essayist, activist, and poet. She was known as “the poet of the people,” having major contributions to both poetry and feminist theory.
43. Nella Larsen
Larsen was a writer of the Harlem Renaissance. Although she only published two books and a handful for short stories, there has been a large amount of academic interest in her work due to its focus on race and sexual identity.
44. Daphne du Maurier
An English writer and playwright, many of du Maurier’s bestselling works were not initially taken seriously by critics. Her stories often used themes of horror and the paranormal, breaking the mode of the classic romantic story.
45. Carson McCullers
A Southern Gothic writer, McCullers’ characters are often eccentric misfits and suffer from an acute loneliness and spiritual isolation which she handles with masterful empathy. There are also political undertones in her works, some interpreting anti-fascist themes in much of her work.
46. Arundhati Roy
Roy is responsible for writing The God of Small Things, which remains the best selling book by a nonexpatriate Indian author ever. She is an incredibly active political activist. She has spoken in support of Kashmiri independence, heavily criticized Israel, campaigned against dams, spoken against in U.S. war in Afghanistan, and much more. She has published many essays on these topics and continues to be outspoken for human rights and environmental issues.
47. Barbara Kingsolver
Barbara Kingsolver is a novelist, poet, and essayist. Her work often focuses on themes of biodiversity and social justice. She received heavy criticism for writing a piece for the LA Times in which she outlines deep issues of the war in Afghanistan, some going so far as to call her a traitor. She address these criticisms and did not back down from her own.
Sapphire is a performance poet, novelist, and activist. She is a member of the organization United Lesbians of Color for Change Inc., and was active during the height of the slam poetry movement in New York. Her work often focuses on race, poverty, and sexual abuse, which has recieved her both critical acclaim and criticism.
49. Gillian Flynn
Flynn is an author, screenwriter, and comic book writer. She has also worked as a TV critic for Entertainment Weekly. Flynn is a self identified feminist, writing multi faceted woman and allowing them to be horrible people in her works. This has garnered her some criticisms and accusations of misogyny, but she persists, insisting that it is harmful to think of women as innately good.
50. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi is a Nigerian novelist, short story and nonfiction writer, and lecturer. She is a self identified feminist, and these themes present heavily in her work. She has been widely regarded as the most prominent African writer of our time, and had received numerous awards and recognition for her work.