While many more doors have opened for young women aspiring to become writers, classic titles show the struggle for women’s visibility in literature, both as writers and as characters.
This list includes ground-breaking work and beloved classics, many of them told from a female perspective.
1. “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Gilman’s short story has become a staple in classrooms across the US, and her character’s descent into delirium is endlessly intriguing. It is written from the perspective of a young woman who is confined to a room in a vacation house after her brother and husband deem her unwell. As her time there progresses, she becomes ever more alienated from reality.
2. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
This classic bildungsroman follows a young girl, Scout, and her brother Jem as they navigate childhood and racial tensions in the South. As their father Atticus prepares to defend a black man against a rape charge, Scout and Jem speculate on the nature of their neighbor Boo Radley. Lee’s powerful novel sprawls across its plot and takes on societal conflict in the process.
3. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
In her memoir, legendary author Maya Angelou shows the unbreakable spirit of a young girl as she is confronted with racial oppression and sexual abuse. As the girl finds her voice through writing, Angelou’s book shows the power of the individual.
4. Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
Often indicated as a cause of the Civil War, Stowe’s novel has marked its place in history and culture. Uncle Tom’s Cabin begins as a family of slave owners is pushed to sell Eliza, a maid with a young child, and Tom. Eliza, learning that is going to be separated from her child, flees and struggles for freedom away from her pursuers. Tom, on the other hand, is sold and separated from his family. Following their narratives, Stowe’s novel became a cornerstone of the abolitionist movement.
5. The Giver by Lois Lowry
Set in a seemingly utopian world, Lowry’s young adult novel examines what happens when emotions and conflict are traded for “sameness”. In a settlement ruled by the desire for “sameness”, the protagonist Jonas is selected to inherit the memories of life before the change. As he begins his training and gains knowledge from The Giver, Jonas must confront the past and the possibilities for the future.
6. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Considered scandalous and radical for its time, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is the story of the title protagonist’s varied life and her commitment to freedom from oppression. As she struggles to maintain her autonomy against cruel guardians, controlling school masters, and finally, a brooding love interest, Jane Eyre is an active and complex female narrator.
7. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
One of the most frequently banned books of our time, The Color Purple is a brutal epic following the life of Celie, who begins as a poor black girl in rural Georgia, writing letters to God. Shrouded by abuse and injustice, Celie struggles as she seeks help and dignity. Poignant and searing, it is labeled one of the Best-Loved Novels by the BBC.
8. The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
Consisting of vignettes, Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street parallels the author’s experiences growing up. The book is told from the perspective of Esperanza Cordero, a young Chicano girl whose family moves into Mango Street. As the book progresses, Esperanza matures and experiences the world through her traumas and hopes for life out of poverty.
Each of the novels on this list shows the world from a new perspective, whether that be through science-fiction or poignant realism. With different viewpoints and concerns, the authors on this list have changed the face of literature and produced many significant works. As we continue to develop our collective literacy as a society, it’s vital that women continue to be at the forefront of creativity.