Outstanding Women Writers of the 20th Century

Some of the women writers in this list have won awards and some have not, some are more literary and others more popular—this sisterhood of writers is very diverse. About all that they have in common is that they lived in the 20th century and made a living by writing—something far more common in the 20th century than in earlier times.

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Willa Cather

Willa Sibert Cather, 1920s
Willa Sibert Cather, 1920s. Culture Club / Getty Images

Known for: writer, journalist, Pulitzer Prize winner

Born in Virginia, Willa Cather moved with her family to Red Cloud, Nebraska, in the 1880s, living among the newly-arrived immigrants from Europe.

She became a journalist, then a teacher, and published a few short stories before becoming managing editor of McClure's and, in 1912, began writing novels full time. She lived in New York City in her later years.

Her best-known novels include My AntoniaO Pioneers!Song of the Lark, and Death Comes for the Archbishop.

Books by Willa Cather

  • Coming, Aphrodite! And Other Stories (Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics. Margaret Anne O'Connor, editor
  • Lucy Gayheart
  • My Antonia
  • Shadows on the Rock
  • Willa Cather in Person: Interviews, Speeches and Letters. Brent L. Bohlke, editor
  • Willa Cather in Europe: Her Own Story of the First Journey

Books about Willa Cather and her work

  • Mildred R. Bennett. The World of Willa Cather
  • Marilee Lindemann. Willa Cather: Queering America
  • Sharon O'Brien. Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice
  • Janis P. Stout. Willa Cather: The Writer and Her World
  • Willa Cather's New York: New Essays on Cather in the City. Merrill Maguire Skaggs, editor
  • Merrill Maguire Skaggs. After the World Broke in Two: The Later Novels of Willa Cather
  • Readings on My Antonia (Greenhaven Press Literary Companion to American Literature). Christopher Smith, editor
  • Joseph R. Urgo. Willa Cather and the Myth of American Migration
  • Laura Winters. Willa Cather: Landscape and Exile
  • James Woodress. Willa Cather: A Literary Life
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Sylvia Woodbridge Beach

Publisher Sylvia Beach At Her Paris Bookshop, 1920s
Publisher Sylvia Beach At Her Paris Bookshop, 1920s. Pictorial Parade/Getty Images

Born in Baltimore, Sylvia Woodbridge Beach moved with her family to Paris where her father was assigned as a Presbyterian minister.

As owner of the Shakespeare & Co. bookshop in Paris, from 1919 through 1941, Sylvia Beach hosted French students and British and American authors, including Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, André Gide, and Paul Valéry.

Sylvia Woodbridge Beach published James Joyce's Ulysses when it was outlawed as obscene in England and the United States.

The Nazis closed her bookstore when they occupied France, and Beach was briefly interned by the Germans in 1943.

Books by Sylvia Woodbridge Beach

  • Memoir: Shakespeare and Company
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Doris Kearns Goodwin

Doris Kearns Goodwin on Meet The Press 2005
Doris Kearns Goodwin on Meet The Press 2005. Getty Images for Meet the Press / Getty Images

Known for: professor, writer, biographer, historian, Pulitzer Prize winner

Doris Kearns Goodwin was recruited by President Lyndon Baines Johnson to be a White House assistant, after she'd written a critical article about his presidency. Her access led to her writing a biography of Johnson, which was then followed by other presidential biographies and much critical acclaim for her work.

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Nelly Sachs

Nelly Sachs
Nelly Sachs. Central Press / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Known for: poet, playwright, Nobel Prize for Literature, 1966

Dates: December 10, 1891 - May 12, 1970

Also known as: Nelly Leonie Sachs, Leonie Sachs

A German Jew born in Berlin, Nelly Sachs began writing poetry and plays early. Her early work was not notable, but Swedish writer Selma Lagerlöf exchanged letters with her.

In 1940, Lagerlöf helped Nelly Sachs escape to Sweden with her mother, fleeing the fate of the rest of her family in Nazi concentration camps. Nelly Sachs eventually took on Swedish nationality.

Nelly Sachs began her life in Sweden by translating Swedish works to German. After the war, when she began writing poetry to memorialize the Jewish experience in the Holocaust, her work began to win critical and public acclaim. Her 1950 radio play Eli is especially noted. She wrote her work in German.

Nelly Sachs was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966, along with Schmuel Yosef Agnon, an Israeli poet.

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Fannie Hurst

Fannie Hurst, 1914
Fannie Hurst, 1914. Apic/Getty Images

Known for:  writer, reformer

Dates: October 18, 1889 - February 23, 1968

Fannie Hurst was born in Ohio, grew up in Missouri, and graduated from Columbia University. Her first book was published in 1914.

Fannie Hurst also was active in reform organizations, including the Urban League. She was appointed to several public commissions, including the National Advisory Committee to the Works Progress Administration, 1940-1941. She was an American delegate to the World Health Organization assembly in Geneva in 1952.

Books by Fannie Hurst

  • Star-dust: The Story of an American Girl, 1921
  • Back Street, 1931. Also a screenplay by Fannie Hurst
  • Imitation of Life, 1933. Also a screenplay by Fannie Hurst
  • White Christmas, 1942
  • God Must Be Sad, 1964
  • Anatomy of Me: a Wonderer in Search of Herself, autobiography, 1958

Books about Fannie Hurst

  • Fannie Hurst. Anatomy of Me

Selected Fannie Hurst Quotations

• "A woman has to be twice as good as a man to go half as far."

• "Some people think they are worth a lot of money just because they have it."

• "Any writer worth the name is always getting into one thing or getting out of another thing."

• "It takes a clever man to turn cynic and a wise man to be clever enough not to."

• "Sex is a discovery."

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Ayn Rand

Ayn Rand in New York City, 1957
Ayn Rand in New York City, 1957. New York Times Co./Getty Images

Known for: objectivist novels, critique of collectivism

Dates: February 2, 1905 - March 6, 1982

Ayn Rand, born in Russia as Alyssa Rosenbaum, left the USSR in 1926, rejecting collectivist Bolshevik Russia as the antithesis of freedom. She fled to the United States, where the individual freedom and capitalism that she found became her life's passion.

Ayn Rand found odd jobs near Hollywood, supporting herself while writing short stories and novels. Ayn Rand met her future husband, Frank O'Connor, on the set of the movie King of Kings.

She found the Hollywood fondness for left-wing politics coupled with an ostentatious lifestyle particularly grating.

An atheist from her childhood, Ayn Rand coupled a critique of religious altruism with her critique of social "collectivism."

Ayn Rand wrote several plays in the 1930s. In 1936, she published her first novel, We, the Living, followed in 1938 by Anthem and, in 1943, The Fountainhead. The latter became a best-seller and was turned into a King Vidor film starting Gary Cooper.

Atlas Shrugged, 1957, also became a best-seller. Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead continue to inspire and motivate philosophical exploration of "objectivism"—Ayn Rand's philosophy, sometimes called egotism. "Rational self-interest" is the core of the philosophy. Ayn Rand resisted justifying self-interest as grounded in the "common good." Self-interest is, in her philosophy, rather the source of achievement. She scorned illusions of a common good or self-sacrifice as motivators.

In the 1950s, Ayn Rand began to codify and publish her philosophy. Ayn Rand published books and articles promoting the positive value of selfishness and capitalism, and critiquing old and new left, continuing until her death in 1982. At the time of her death, Ayn Rand was adapting Atlas Shrugged for a television mini-series.

Books about Ayn Rand

  • Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand (Re-Reading the Canon Series): Chris M. Sciabarra and Mimi R. Gladstein. Trade Paperback, 1999.
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Maeve Binchy

Irish author Maeve Binchy in Chicago
Irish author Maeve Binchy in Chicago, 2001. Tim Boyle / Getty Images

Known for: writer; teacher 1961-68; columnist Irish Times, romance fiction, historical fiction, bestsellers

Dates: May 28, 1940 - July 30, 2012

Born and educated in Ireland, Maeve Binchy attended Holy Child Convent, in Killeney, County Dublin and University College, Dublin (history, education).

Maeve Binchy became a columnist for theIrish Times writing from London. When she married writer Gordon Snell, she moved back to the Dublin area.

Books by Maeve Binchy

  • Light a Penny Candle. 1983.
  • Lilac Bus. 1984. Short story collection.
  • Echoes. 1985.
  • Firefly Summer. 1987.
  • Silver Wedding. 1989. Short story collection.
  • Circle of Friends. 1990.
  • The Copper Beech. 1992. Short story collection.
  • The Glass Lake. 1994.
  • Evening Class. 1996.
  • Tara Road. 1996.
  • This Year It Will Be Different and Other Stories: A Christmas Treasury. 1996.Short story collection.
  • The Return Journey. 1998. Short story collection.
  • Ladies' Night at Finbar's Hotel.1998. Short story collection.
  • Scarlet Feather. 2001.
  • Quentins. 2002.
  • Nights of Rain and Stars. 2004.
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Elizabeth Fox-Genovese

Period costume in restored kitchen of the Lee family estate called Stratford Hill Plantation
Period costume in restored kitchen of the Lee family estate called Stratford Hill Plantation. FPG / Getty Images

Known for: studies on women in the Old South; evolution from leftist to conservative; critique of feminism and academia; historian, feminist, women's studies professor; 2003 National Humanities Medal Recipient

Dates: May 28, 1941 - January 2, 2007

Elizabeth Fox-Genovese studied history at Bryn Mawr College and Harvard University. After earning her Ph.D. at Harvard, she taught history at Emory University. There, she founded the Institute for Women's Studies and led the first Women's Studies doctoral program in the U.S.

After initially studying 17th century French history, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese focused her historical research on women in the Old South.

In several books in the 1990s, Fox-Genovese criticized modern feminism as too individualistic and too elitist. In 1991 in Feminism Without Illusions, she criticized the movement for too much focus on white, middle-class women. Many feminists saw her 1996 book, Feminism is Not the Story of My Life, as a betrayal of her feminist past.

She moved from a support, with reservations, of abortion, to considering abortion as murder.

Elizabeth Fox-Genovese's father was historian Edward Whiting Fox and her husband was historian Eugene D. Genovese.

Fox-Genovese converted to Roman Catholicism in 1995, citing individualism in the academy as a motivation. She died in 2007 after 15 years of living with multiple sclerosis.

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Alice Morse Earle

Costumes Of The Settlers Of America
Costumes Of The Settlers Of America. Interim Archives / Getty Images

Known for: writer, antiquarian, historian. Known for writing about Puritan and colonial American history, especially the customs of domestic life.

Dates: April 27, 1851 - February 16, 1911

Also known as: Mary Alice Morse

Born in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1851, Alice Morse Earle married Henry Earle in 1874. She lived after her marriage mostly in Brooklyn, New York, summering at her father's home in Worcester. She had four children, one of whom predeceased her. One daughter became a botanical artist.

Alice Morse Earle began writing in 1890 at her father's urging. She first wrote about Sabbath customs at the church of her ancestors in Vermont, for the magazine Youth's Companion, which she then expanded into a longer article for The Atlantic Monthly and later for a book, The Sabbath in Puritan New England.

She continued to document Puritan and colonial customs in eighteen books and more than thirty articles, published from 1892 through 1903.

In documenting the customs and practices of everyday life, rather than writing of military battles, political events, or leading individuals, her work is a precursor of the later social history. Her emphasis on family and domestic life, and the lives of her generation's "great grand mothers," foreshadows the emphasis of the later field of women's history.

Her work can also be seen as part of the trend to establish an American identity, at a time when immigrants became a larger part of the country's public life.

Her work was well-researched, written in a friendly style, and quite popular. Today, her works are largely ignored by male historians, and her books found mostly in the children's section.

Alice Morse Earle worked for such Progressive causes as establishing free kindergartens, and she was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution. She was not a supporter of the suffrage movement or other Progressive social reforms. She supported temperance, and found evidence for its value in colonial history.

She used themes from the new Darwinian theory to argue for the "survival of the fittest" among Puritan children who learned discipline, respect, and morality.

Alice Morse Earle's own moral judgments about Puritan and colonial history are fairly obvious in her work, and she found both positive and negative in the colonial culture. She documented enslavement in New England, not glossing it over, and contrasted it unfavorably to what she saw as the Puritan impulse to establish a free society. She was critical of the Puritan pattern of marrying for property rather than love.

Alice Morse Earle traveled widely in Europe after her husband's death. She lost her health in 1909 when a ship on which she was sailing to Egypt was wrecked off Nantucket. She died in 1911 and was buried in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Books by Alice Morse Earle

  • The Sabbath in Puritan New England. New York: Scribners, 1891; London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1892.
  • China Collecting in America. New York: Scribners, 1892.
  • Customs and Fashions in Old New England. New York: Scribners, 1893; London: Nutt, 1893.
  • Costume of Colonial Times. New York: Scribners, 1894.
  • Colonial Dames and Good Wives. Boston & New York: Houghton, Mifflin, 1895.
  • A Monument to Prison Ship Martyrs. New York: American Historical Register, 1895.
  • Margaret Winthrop. New York: Scribners, 1895.
  • Colonial Days in Old New York. New York: Scribners, 1896.
  • Curious Punishments of Bygone Days. Chicago: Stone, 1896.
  • The Stadt Huys of New York. New York: Little, 1896.
  • In Old Narragansett: Romances and Realities. New York: Scribners, 1898.
  • Home Life in Colonial Days. New York & London: Macmillan, 1898.
  • Stage-Coach and Tavern Days. New York: Macmillan, 1900.
  • Child Life in Colonial Days. New York & London: Macmillan, 1900.
  • Old-Time Gardens, Newly Set Forth. New York & London: Macmillan, 1901.
  • Sun Dials and Roses of Yesterday. New York & London: Macmillan, 1902.
  • Two Centuries of Costume in America, 1620-1820. New York & London: Macmillan, 1903.
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Lithograph by Sem: Le Palais De Glace: Colette; Willy and Other Persona. France, 1901
Lithograph by Sem: Le Palais De Glace: Colette; Willy and Other Persona. France, 1901. Georges Goursat / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Known for: author, dancer, mime; recipient of the French Legion of Honor (Légion d'Honneur) in 1953

Dates: January 28, 1873 - August 3, 1954

Also known as: Sidonie Gabrielle Claudine Colette, Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette

Colette married Henri Gauthier-Villars, a writer and critic, in 1920. He published her first novels, the Claudine series, under his own pen name. After they divorced, Colette began performing in music halls as a dancer and mime, and produced another book. This was followed with more books, usually semi-autobiographical with a narrator named Colette, and many scandals, as she established her writing career.

Colette was married twice more: Henri de Jouvenal (1912-1925) and Maurice Goudeket (1935-1954).

She was Roman Catholic and her marriages outside the church resulted in the Roman Catholic Church's refusal to allow a church funeral for her.

Books by Colette

  • Claudine series 1900-1903
  • Chéri 1920
  • La Fin de Chéri 1926
  • Francis, Claud and Fernande Gontier. Creating Colette: Volume 1: From Ingenue to Libertine 1873-1913. ISBN 1883642914
  • Francis, Claud and Fernande Gontier. Creating Colette: Volume 2: From Baroness to Woman of Letters 1913-1954.
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Francesca Alexander

Rolling Hill near Asciano, Tuscany.
Rolling hill near Asciano, Tuscany. Weerakarn Satitniramai / Getty Images

Known for: folklorist, illustrator, author, philanthropist, collecting Tuscan folk songs

Dates: February 27, 1837 - January 21, 1917

Also known as: Fanny Alexander, Esther Frances Alexander (birth name)

Born in Massachusetts, Francesca Alexander moved with her family to Europe when Francesca was sixteen years old. She was educated privately, and her mother exercised considerable control over her life.

After the family settled in Florence, Francesca was generous to neighbors, and they in turn shared with her folk stories and folk songs. She collected these, and when John Ruskin discovered her collecting, he helped her begin publishing her work.

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Outstanding Women Writers of the 20th Century." ThoughtCo, Aug. 31, 2020, thoughtco.com/women-writers-20th-century-4025141. Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2020, August 31). Outstanding Women Writers of the 20th Century. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/women-writers-20th-century-4025141 Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Outstanding Women Writers of the 20th Century." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/women-writers-20th-century-4025141 (accessed March 28, 2023).