The Greatest Female Authors

Women make up almost 20% (59) of the authors on my updated Greatest Books list. To be honest, I’m impressed that the number is that high given the historical, financial, familial, and cultural obstacles that women face. Still, 20% pales in comparison to the fact that women constitute half of the population, both domestically and globally.

So I wanted to spend some time with the female segment of the Greatest Books list and see what I could discern.

First, here’s the complete list, sorted alphabetically by author last name:

Year Title Author
1815 Emma Austen, Jane
1813 Pride and Prejudice Austen, Jane
1931 Years of Grace Barnes, Margaret Ayer
1996 Ship Fever and Other Stories Barrett, Andrea
1938 The Death of the Heart Bowen, Elizabeth
1847 Jane Eyre Bronte, Charlotte
1847 Wuthering Heights Bronte, Emily
2006 March Brooks, Geraldine
1932 The Good Earth Buck, Pearl S.
1927 Death Comes for the Archbishop Cather, Willa
1923 One of Ours Cather, Willa
1918 My Antonia Cather, Willa
2011 A Visit from the Goon Squad Egan, Jennifer
2012 The Round House Erdrich, Louise
1925 So Big Ferber, Edna
1984 Victory Over Japan: A Book of Stories Gilchrist, Ellen
1942 In This Our Life Glasgow, Ellen
2002 Three Junes Glass, Julia
2010 Lord of Misrule Gordon, Jaimy
1965 The Keepers Of The House Grau, Shirley Ann
2003 The Great Fire Hazzard, Shirley
1937 Their Eyes Were Watching God Hurston, Zora Neale
1935 Now in November Johnson, Josephine Winslow
2000 Interpreter of Maladies Lahiri, Jhumpa
1961 To Kill A Mockingbird Lee, Harper
1985 Foreign Affairs Lurie, Alison
1998 Charming Billy McDermott, Alice
1934 Lamb in His Bosom Miller, Caroline
1937 Gone With the Wind Mitchell, Margaret
1988 Beloved Morrison, Toni
1954 Under the Net Murdoch, Iris
1969 Them Oates, Joyce Carol
1971 The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor O’Connor, Flannery
1929 Scarlet Sister Mary Peterkin, Julia
1966 Collected Stories Porter, Katherine Anne
1994 The Shipping News Proulx, Annie
1939 The Yearling Rawlings, Marjorie Kinnan
1966 Wide Sargasso Sea Rhys, Jean
2005 Gilead Robinson, Marilynne
1977 Blood Tie Settle, Mary Lee
1818 Frankenstein Shelley, Mary
1995 The Stone Diaries Shields, Carol
1021 The Tale of Genji Shikibu, Murasaki
1992 A Thousand Acres Smiley, Jane
1999 In America Sontag, Susan
1969 The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie Spark, Muriel
1970 Collected Stories Stafford, Jean
2009 Olive Kitteridge Strout, Elizabeth
2004 The News from Paraguay Tuck, Shirley
1989 Breathing Lessons Tyler, Anne
1983 The Color Purple Walker, Alice
2011 Salvage the Bones Ward, Jesmyn
1980 Collected Stories of Eudora Welty Welty, Eudora
1973 The Optimist’s Daughter Welty, Eudora
1921 The Age of Innocence Wharton, Edith
1905 The House of Mirth Wharton, Edith
1924 The Able McLaughlins Wilson, Margaret
1927 To the Lighthouse Woolf, Virginia
1925 Mrs. Dalloway Woolf, Virginia

I tried sorting the table by year, but didn’t find any trends there.

When I tallied the authors by decade, the period from 1920-1939 seemed most rewarding, with eight “Greatest” female authors in each decade. By comparison, the ‘60s, ‘80s and ‘90s saw six “Greatest” female authors in each of those decades.

Interestingly, I’ve discussed before how the 1930s were the most prevalent decade overall on the Greatest Books list, with 1934 being the most represented year on the list. One could theorize that when women are given publishing opportunities and/or recognized for their accomplishments, the whole field of literature is better for it.

Eudora Welty
Eudora Welty

Next, I sorted the table by the source. That is, which award or listing got the author onto my compiled Greatest Books list.

  • 29 of the 59 (49%) came from the Pulitzer Prize list
  • 17 of the 59 (29%) came from the National Book Award list
  • 14 of the 59 (29%) came from, a grand list of lists
  • 9 of the 59 (15%) came from the Modern Library

Note: the percentages won’t add up to 100% because many authors came from multiple sources.

This tells me that the Pulitzer is an important source of recognition for female authors, but let’s dive into each list a little further.

I have 86 Pulitzer Prize winners on my Greatest Books list, male and female. This means 34% of the winners have been female. With 70 authors on the National Book Award list, 24% are female. With 100 authors on my Modern Library list, only 9% are female. And with 95 authors on the list, 15% are women.

Zora Neale Hurston
Zora Neale Hurston

In this light, the Pulitzer is still the most equanimous (if you can consider 34% anywhere near equal). In both lights, Modern Library has the longest way to go before managing any semblance of equality.

When I was compiling the Greatest Books list, I definitely hesitated to add Modern Library. No other publishing company was given such preference. But if I were to remove their books from my list, I’d lose 63 titles and I didn’t want to lose the likes of Rudyard Kipling, Aldous Huxley or V.S. Naipaul. In terms of women, I’d lose a Willa Cather title and Edith Wharton, among others. No thank you!

There are several names that appear multiple times on the “Greatest” female author list. They are:

  • Willa Cather (3)
  • Jane Austen (2)
  • Eudora Welty (2)
  • Edith Wharton (2)
  • Virginia Woolf (2)
Edith Wharton
Edith Wharton

Pulling together this Greatest Books list has exposed me to several new (to me) female authors, including Edna Ferber, Flannery O’Connor, Shirley Hazzard, Eudora Welty, and Pearl S. Buck, in addition to Cather and Wharton, mentioned above

(There are others on the list that I have read and cherish and  I look forward to meeting more female authors through their works!)

What do you think of the five authors with multiple titles on the list?

Do you think times are changing; will we see more literature – considered great – from female authors?

Which favorite female authors of your own would you want added to the list?