Top 50 Influential Books by Women Writers

11th Feb 2013

Last week, The Guardian revealed a list of English literature's fifty key moments, 'from Marlowe to J.K. Rowling.' And quelle suprise, it was a total sausage-fest, with only a handful of women writers being mentioned.

Although apparently acknowledging the gender inequality of the original list, no attempt was made to redress this – instead the women get their own separate list.

we took the liberty of compiling a list of our own, of books and authors who reinvented genres, set literary precedents, won prestigious literary prizes; books that have and continue to influence readers, writers and academics around the world...That in itself came across somewhat patronising and tokenistic. But then we got to the list itself. And all its numerous, seemingly obvious omissions. At this point, we were being deluged with tweets and emails suggesting McCrum had simply googled ‘women writers’ to put his list together, and we’re inclined to agree it looks that way.

It didn’t take us long to come up with a long list of names who should have been featured, so we took the liberty of compiling a list of our own, of books and authors who reinvented genres, set literary precedents, won prestigious literary prizes; books that have and continue to influence readers, writers and academics around the world…

1. The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir
2. The Women’s Room by Marilyn French
3. The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
4. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
5. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
6. them by Joyce Carol Oates
7. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
8. Beloved by Toni Morrison
9. Oranges are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson
10. Forever by Judy Blume
11. The Madcap of the School by Angela Brazil
12. The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall
13. Delta of Venus by Anais Nin
14. Blood and Guts in High School by Kathy Acker
15. Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center by bell hooks
16. The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean Auel
17. Push by Sapphire
18. Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
19. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein
20. South Riding by Winifred Holtby
21. Circle of Friends by Maeve Binchy
22. The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver by Edna St. Vincent Millay
23. The Other Boleyn Girl by Phillipa Gregory
24. The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan
25. Fear of Flying by Erica Jong
26. We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver
27. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
28. The Dialectic of Sex by Shulamith Firestone
29. White Teeth by Zadie Smith
30. The Secret History by Donna Tartt
31. Gigi by Colette
32. A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor
33. The Awakening by Kate Chopin
34. Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice
35. On Lies, Secrets & Silence by Adrienne Rich
36. The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13 ¾ by Sue Townsend
37. The Story of Tracy Beaker by Jacqueline Wilson
38. The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader by Joan Nestle
39. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
40. Live or Die by Anne Sexton
41. The Naughtiest Girl in the School by Enid Blyton
42. Suite Francaise by Irène Némirovsky
43. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
44. Enough Rope by Dorothy Parker
45. The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
46. The Progress of Love by Alice Munro
47. The Disposessed by Ursula K. Le Guin
48. The Story of O by Pauline Réage
49. SCUM Manifesto by Valerie Solanas
50. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

And here’s fifteen other options from The Guardian list we wanted to include too:

1. The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter
2. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (we’d go for the classic option over Colossus and Other Poems)
3. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
4. Little Women by Louisa Alcott
5. A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft
6. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
7. A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf
8. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
9. The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer
10. Middlemarch by George Eliot
11. Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen (We’d go for this rather than Emma, as its success allowed her to continue writing)
12. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
13. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
14. Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
15. The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

What do you think of The Guardian’s list? And is ours any better? We’ve tried hard to ensure that it’s diverse, inclusive, accessible and exciting, but with such a wealth of options, there’ll inevitably be some titles and authors we’ve missed, so tell us: who would you have included?

(Image via Thomas Hawk)


  • sianushka says:

    i’ve read 20 on list 1 and 12 on list 2!

  • Sian says:

    I think it’s all subjective (although The Guardian’s first list was pathetic, and the second attempt to smooth things over is laughable). Peter Rabbit might not be the most influential character, but I think Beatrix Potter as a writer was hugely influential for women in publishing. There’s also a lot to be said for context – I’ve heard of most of the books, but not all of them. I’d love to know why they’re influential and what it is that gives them a place on any list.

    • Jane Bradley says:

      Absolutely – and I’d definitely agree that Potter and several of the other authors on both lists were more influential in terms of the impacts that their books had, rather than the contents of the books themselves, if that doesn’t come across as too self-contradictory.

      And I’d absolutely love to expand on each of these choices, and why they’re so important – we wanted to get our response to The Guardian’s list out today, which meant we were a bit up against the clock, but I’ll be putting together some notes with more info and links on exactly that soon…

      • Sian says:

        I’ve totally bookmarked for further reading. I guess it just interests me that Harper Lee, Enid Blyton and Virginia Woolf all pop up on the same list.

  • Ann Morgan says:

    Um. A Vindication of the Rights of Women? The Female Eunuch?

  • Sybille Bedford? Penelope Fitzgerald? Mary Renault?

  • Mandy Vere says:

    “Woman on the Edge of Time” by Marge Piercy. I remember when the US edition was imported it was like gold dust. A massively important feminist utopia/dystopia & critique of psychiatric oppression of women. Followed by her less well-known but equally wonderful “He, She & It” which foreshadowed the internet in a battle between corporate power and free society.

    • Gill Jackman says:

      Absolutely. But have you read it lately? Doesn’t stand the test of time at all.

      • Julie says:

        I read it for the first time last year and found it fascinating. The themes of family, community, science, sexuality and the roles of women are still very much relevant today – although I hope
        we now have a better understanding of how to care for the mentally ill.

  • Bina Shah says:

    Bit eurocentric – where’s Arundhati Roy, Kiran Desai, Chimimanda Ngoze Adichie, Jung Chang, Nadine Gordimer, Isabelle Allende?

    • Megan Redmond says:

      My choices would include:
      Anita Desai, Ama Ata Aidoo, Buchi Emecheta, Mavis Gallant, Tove Jansson, Octavia Butler, Bessie Head, Gertrude Stein, Maxine Hong Kingston, Cora Sandel, Annie Proulx and Good Morning Midnight by Jean Rhys

    • jemima101 says:

      Influence is so hard to measure, but I do think the omissions of Allende and Chang are both huge.

  • Jane Bradley says:

    Thanks for all the additional suggestions, everyone! We always knew fifty could never be enough – we’ll have to get working on another instalment, so please do keep those comments coming and we’ll stash them for when we compile the next one…

  • Dan Holloway says:

    Sappho was one of the most celebrated poets of the ancient world, and her clarity of language, her quiet, subtle nature metaphors, her frank sensuality, her concision, her ability to peel away the layers of skin and feeling to reach an emotional core make her as important and powerful now as she was then

  • Louise Pennington says:

    I love this list. I’ve blogged my list here: http://therealsgm.blogspot.co.uk/2013/02/my-top-50-influential-women-writers.html but I’d add LM Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, Harriet Jacob’s Narrative of a Slave Girl and Beverly Cleary’s Ramona!

    • Jane Bradley says:

      Thanks for sharing, Louise! Can’t believe we didn’t have Kate Millett, and a few of the others you’ve mentioned will definitely have to go on our next instalment too. Loving all the discussions and recommendations coming out of these conversations though – just goes to show many truly amazing books written by women there are out there…

  • Becki says:

    I would have had Anne Bronte on there – she takes a slightly more cynical view of the Byronic hero than her sisters (in that, in her books, the brooding, bad-tempered hero is shown to be simply a bullying misogynist, and dealt far less sympathy than Rochester (although I do heart him) and Heathcliffe. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is considered to be one of the first overtly feminist novels – and is supremely underrated in my opinion!

    Have a look at this cartoon strip: http://www.harkavagrant.com/history/brontessm.png

  • JennieSue says:

    What a fantastic list. I love to see Judy Blume and Philippa Gregory included side by side with Margaret Attwood and Simone de Beavouir. So unusual to see a list which includes important literary works with popular books that have grabbed me and have a very special emotional hold on me. There are of course hundreds of suggestions that could be made and included, but this is such a diverse list, it really does deserve applause.
    And has added a few to my reading list, thank you!

    • Jane Bradley says:

      Thanks so much for this lovely comment, Jennie – it was really important to us that we made our list accessible, and included popular and commercial choices as well as more literary and academic options! Of course all lists are subjective, and this one especially is far from definitive given that there are so many other amazing books and authors that could have been included, but it’s really great to see it having such positive feedback as a starting point!

  • Natasha says:

    JK Rowling! No seriously. Why isn’t she on either list. And there’s a disturbing lack of fantasy writers (other than Ursula Le Guin and Anne Rice). Malorie Blackman would be another one for me I think.

  • Vivienne Cox says:

    I only recently found that Stendhal (The Red and the Black) was a woman. This is on my TO READ list, so can’t recommend it – but can anyone else?

  • Hazel says:

    Sorry Vivienne but Marie-Henri Beyle was definitely a man.

  • Maisha koirla says:

    My Choice will include BLUE EYES by HEMA MACHERLA & WHITE LIES by Lynn Michell. They are amazing books and very powerful stories of women’s strength.

  • Amy Wack says:

    NO POETRY????

  • Claudia says:

    Where are Doris Lessing and Elfriede Jelinek??????

  • Alex Sheppard says:

    Bookmarked! My reading for the next year sorted.

  • michelle says:

    There are two obvious omissions to this list:

    Silent Spring
    The Blade and the Chalice

    Both are cultural paradigm shifting literary works.

  • Diana says:

    Louise Erdrich, great Native American writer

    • Catherine T Davidson says:

      Just joined this list and think I’m twice as old as many of you, but was prompted by a recent panic about how many great women writers arise and seem to disappear from the culture. So happy to see so many favourites listed and might also add Grace Paley, Sandra Cisneros, Maxine Hong Kingston as writers from the US worth considering.

      • Beulah Devaney says:

        I love Grace Paley! And we’re happy to have you aboard the good ship FBS – I’m the Features Ed and if you think there’s anyone we should be covering you can drop me a line at beulah@forbookssake.net