10 Badass Women Writers Your Teacher Never Told You About
In high school, you learned that Jane Austen was the rebellious authoress of the Regency. An unmarried woman who made fun of the people around her while giving readers what they wanted in the form of convenient marriages and happy endings. If you were lucky, your teachers also introduced you to Mary Shelley or The Bell Jar. That’s as far as you get until you’re swamped with Dickens, Twain, and Poe. Well, if Sylvia Plath got your motor running then you will want to check out the work of these unsung heroes. Women authors who wrote as well as their male contemporaries and didn’t take shit from anyone.
1858 – 1924
Read: Five Children and It, 1902
Welcome to The Maury Show…er, I mean, the life of Edith Nesbit. No wonder the lady had to write. Who wouldn’t want to escape the juicy soap opera that was her life? Did I mention she was mainly a children’s author?
So, Edith gets pregnant out of wedlock at the age of 18 which is essentially a death sentence for any young woman at that time. THEN Edith finds out that not only is her baby daddy living with his mother but he is already engaged to another woman. AND she’s pregnant AND Edith’s best friend, Alice, was pregnant with his child too! Edith takes the high road and invites Alice and the whole gang to live with her and despite violent arguments, they are one big family. But her troubles aren’t over. Her son ended up dying from a tonsil operation.
She wrote about socialism with her husband and gave speeches but her greatest accomplishment is her canon of wonderful children’s books. Think Narnia meets Peter Pan. Epic adventures that let kids in on how rough life can be because well, Edith would know.
Read: The Portable Dorothy Parker, 1944
Here she is, the baddest bitch of them all. Not only is Dorothy the wittiest woman ever to call NYC home, she was one of the funniest writers who ever lived. She was hardcore from the beginning. Growing up, she called her stepmom, “Housekeeper” and was kicked out of her Catholic school for referring to the Immaculate Conception as, “spontaneous combustion.”
Dorothy was published in Vanity Fair and Vogue. She was a sexual hurricane and never apologized for her indiscretions or abortion or being named on the Hollywood Blacklist. Parker told people exactly what she thought about them. She rallied for women and black rights long before doing so was safe. Her intelligence and quick tongue bought her a membership to the Algonquin Round Table, one of few women to achieve this. Here is one of her gems: “You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.”
Parker had two Academy Award nominations and her books as well as her plays were celebrated, getting her into any party. She gave interviews on radio shows. Her first volume of poetry, Enough Rope, sold 47,000 copies. However, her wit and promiscuity masked a loneliness. After a breakup that ended with an abortion, she became depressed and attempted suicide. When she died of a heart attack at age 73, she left her entire estate to Martin Luther King Jr..
Anna Katharine Green
1846 – 1935
Read: The Leavenworth Case, 1878
Anna had a talent for writing but like all women authors of the time, she was encouraged to settle for romance or poetry. She had other ideas and after six years of work, threw down one hell of a bestseller in The Leavenworth Case. It’s the first American detective novel, influenced by the knowledge she gained from her lawyer father who knew a lot about police investigation. Over 15 years, the book sold 750,000 copies. After marrying an actor seven years her junior and having babies, Anna managed to pop out almost 40 more novels. Anna’s cases were so well crafted that Yale Law School once studied them to learn more about circumstantial evidence.
Anna’s detective stories rivaled Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s and pissed off scholars. They refused to believe that a woman wrote them. She influenced another bad girl, Agatha Christie, and inspired the character of Miss Marple. You might even say Anna had the first “girl detective” long before Nancy Drew. One of her characters is a debutante gumshoe named Violet Strange.
Edna St. Vincent Millay
1892 – 1950
Read: Millay: Poems (Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets), 2010
Edna never cared what people said about her. Growing up, Edna told everyone to call her, “Vincent” which enraged one teacher so much that he would call her a variety of girl’s names that started with the letter “v”. Millay openly dated girls in high school and even dated Edith Wynne Matthison who became a silent film actress. Miss Millay was a published poet by the age of 15. At Vassar College Edna dated so many people that she gained a bad reputation. When Millay moved to Greenwich Village she lived the life of a poor poet with her writer friends. The salacious theme of her poems caught the public’s attention and she became a great success. Millay was the third woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and the second woman to win the Frost Medal. She also wrote the libretto for The King’s Henchman (1927).
A nice man named Floyd proposed but she refused him and eventually wed a man 12 years her senior and were happy in their “open marriage”, both dating other people until he died in 1949. A year later, Millay fell down the stairs after a heart attack and wasn’t found until the next day.
1928 – 1974
Read: The Complete Poems: Anne Sexton, 1999
When learning about Anne Sexton, you know why your teachers never mentioned her. Her seemingly boring 1950’s life was pretty X rated and when it’s not sexually explicit, it’s scandalous. There are videos of her reading her poetry and though she is calm and put together, you are hearing about masturbation, suicide, and abortion. After depressive episodes, it was her therapist in a hospital who encouraged her to start writing and the result was publication, success, and a Pulitzer Prize in 1967. That would have made any writer happy but she could not shake off her demons and after the end of her long marriage (and the end of an affair with a married man) she killed herself by sitting in a running car in her garage. But not before putting on her mother’s fur coat.
1937 – 1964
Read: Chocolates for Breakfast, 1956
Pamela Moore’s fantastic first novel, Chocolates for Breakfast was published before she turned 19 and mirrored her life growing up: rich, bouncing between famous and self-absorbed parents who ignored her most of the time. The book centers around a 15 year old boarding school student named Courtney whose escapades included smoking, lesbianism, and having a sexual affair with an older man. This book shocked the 1950’s crowd but just the paperback edition sold 600,000 copies in its first printing. When the ban on the book was lifted in Italy, it sold 400,000 copies in that country alone. Parents started naming their daughters, Courtney, which had always been considered a boy’s name.
As a young girl, Moore responded to success the way we see other ingénue’s like Kristen Stewart respond to it. She appeared ungrateful, refusing to give interviews and traveling around Europe. In 1958, Moore married Adam Kanarek but she was starting to have problems with her second act. Constantly compared to her young contemporary, Françoise Sagan, Moore could never repeat the success of her first book. Many say, “learn to write what you know”. The problem Pamela Moore had was that she couldn’t write anything else. Her novel The Horsey Set revolved around the equestrian social circles her own family moved around in. The unfinished, Kathy on the Rocks, was about a young, failed writer. Pamela was washed up and not even 24 years old.
Shortly after giving birth to her first child, she waited until he was asleep in the bedroom and then shot herself in the mouth with a .22 caliber rifle in the living room. Today her son (who has pushed the reprint of Chocolates for Breakfast) says that no one ever understood why she did it or how long she had been thinking about it. Friends said that she did not appear depressed or sad. Just exhausted. At the end of Chocolates for Breakfast, one of the main characters commits suicide.
1752 – 1840
Read: Evelina, 1778
Frances Burney was not supposed to be an author. Hell, she wasn’t even supposed to know how to write. A real life Cinderella, her father remarried a horrible woman and her two favored sisters were sent to have proper education in Paris while Frances had no schooling and had to teach herself how to read by looking through the family library. Oh, by the way, Frances also had dyslexia. Lonely, she would write her journal with the header, “Miss Nobody” and she had to burn her first novel so it would not offend her family. All of this prepared her for a lifetime of being a bad ass.
Frances grew a pair and anonymously published her first novel, the socially biting, Evelina. When it was leaked to the public that she was the author, she was accepted and praised. Jane Austen’s, Pride & Prejudice was even taken from Burney’s book, Cecilia: “The whole of this unfortunate business,” said Dr Lyster, “has been the result of pride and prejudice.” Burney’s family looked down on her writing but had to eventually shut up when her books ended up paying the bills.
Frances became friends with royalty and turned down a marriage proposal when she was far past the age considered, “old maid”. She eventually married in her 30’s to a nice guy who taught her French during a time when the English and French were not exactly on good terms. She found a lump in her breast and they did a mastectomy…while she was awake. Burney watched them rip her flesh out and took it like a champ, even writing to her sister about the ordeal. Burney survived and died years later, almost making it to 100. Bravo, Frances.
Sarah Chauncey Woolsey
1835 – 1905
Read: What Katy Did, 1872
Woolsey started her career as a novelist after working as a nurse during the Civil War and this was the most opportune time for her writing style. Louisa May Alcott’s publisher, Roberts Brothers, were looking for more novels that showcased feisty female characters and sentimentality. Woolsey (writing as Susan Coolidge) gave them the first in what would be a wildly popular series, What Katy Did. It still ruffled feathers in the mid 1800’s with its portrayal of a heroine who relished in being a tomboy, fought with her parents, and dreamed of being pretty like other girls. Woolsey made Katy pay for her sins by getting into an accident (because she didn’t listen) and losing the ability to walk.
Ironically, Woolsey ended up editing The Diary and Letters of Frances Burney (1880). What Katy Did is still celebrated all over the world in pop culture. The bands, The Libertines and Babyshambles have written songs about Katy. In the graphic novel, The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, Katy makes an appearance and she is referenced in Coffee and Cigarettes. A pretty cool legacy for a girl who was created right after the Civil War!
1896 – 1965
Read: The Locusts Have No King, 1948
Powell should be the patron saint of unloved writers everywhere. Her entire life was bullshit. Her mother died when she was young, her father was abusive, she was passed from relative to relative in squalid conditions, and Dawn’s stepmom destroyed all of her writings. That’s when Dawn decided to bounce.
She managed to go to college and married, giving birth to one son named JoJo who, with severe developmental problems, also ended up beating her. The family moved to Greenwich Village where Dawn wrote her heart out to no avail. This is a lesson to any aspiring writer who feels like giving up. She went through all of this and still managed to crank out dozens of plays and books. After taking odd jobs to make ends meet (including being an extra in a silent film) she finally got a break in 1939 through publisher Scribner who helped her achieve reasonable success with two of her novels. However, by the time she became terminally ill, all of her works were out of print. Her last year was one of unspeakable pain until she died of colon cancer. AFTER a tumor had cracked her ribs.
Dawn’s “friend” (philanthropist and resident villain, Jacqueline Miller Rice) was her executor and refused to turn over Dawn’s unpublished work or even accept Dawn’s body so it was stuck in a potter’s field called Hart’s Island with thousands of homeless people and prisoners. She claimed that the family refused the body but years later, family members swore that they did not know Dawn’s body was available. You can get Powell’s novels in e-book form and they make you wonder how this brilliant writer was so overlooked.
Sarah Orne Jewett
1849 – 1909
Read: “A White Heron”, 1886
In the days when a woman doctor was inconceivable, Jewett wanted to be just that. Lucky for us, she fell in love with writing instead. Things started out rough for her. She had rheumatoid arthritis as a child and was told that taking walks was the only thing that would help her pain. She bucked up and started to reflect on nature and how badly she wanted to teach others about the beauty of Maine. She was published in The Atlantic Monthly at the age of 19. Her short story, “A White Heron”, is about a city girl moving to the beautiful country and torn between the nature she loves and a dashing hunter who wants to destroy it. Let’s just day that anyone who is sick of wimpy and swooning female protagonists is going to love this story.
After Jewett’s best friend Annie Fields’s husband died, the two women shacked up for life and couldn’t give a damn what anyone thought about it. They traveled around the world and enjoyed Jewett’s success as a writer. Jewett was so injured after a carriage accident, she could no longer write and never fully recovered. Many authors consider her an influence, including Willa Cather.