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15 Public Domain Works by Women
Women's History Month is Here!
March is Women’s History Month in the United States, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom. Women’s History Month celebrates the social and historical achievements of women. This year, the National Women’s History Alliance, who successfully lobbied to have the month nationally recognized in the United States, have announced that the theme for this year is “Celebrating Women Who Tell Our Stories” in recognition of women’s work in media and storytelling. So, I’ve put together a list of public domain women’s literature.
Most of us are familiar with the work of influential writers like Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, and Emily Dickinson - all well-worth a read. For this list, I am focusing on lesser known women writers whose books were firsts in women’s literature. Even so, there are so many that I’ll certainly be able to revisit this topic next year. I present the works in chronological order, beginning with the first named author in history. Scroll to the bottom for more lists of great works in women’s literary history which you can find on Project Gutenberg, the Internet Archive or UPenn’s Celebration of Women Writers. Also take a look at my previous posts for Pride Month and Black History Month, which include works by women amongst them. Happy Reading!
Enheduanna was the lead priestess of the moon god Nanna in the ancient Sumerian city-state of Ur. She is recognized as the first named author in history for her hymns which praised the gods and their places of worship. These works name her as their speaker or narrator. Although attributed to the 23rd Century BCE, these works were first written down during the Babylonian Empire, six centuries later, so there is debate about their historicity and attribution. Regardless, these poems attest to the influential creative voice of women since the earliest period of written literature.
The Tale of Genji is a Japanese novel from the early 11th century CE. It tells of the life of Hikaru Genji, the son of a Japanese emperor, as he is entangled with the politics, noblewomen, and lifestyles of the royal court. The book was written by the noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu. The book is known for its archaic and poetic style which makes it difficult to translate. It is believed to be the world’s first novel and is still considered a classic of Japanese literature.
The Alexiad is a medieval biographical history of the reign of Emperor Alexios I Komnenos of the Byzantine Empire, written by his daughter, Anna Komnene. The book includes an early discussion of the interactions between the East and West as the Byzantine Empire first encountered the Crusades. It is believed to be the earliest surviving history written by a woman.
Revelations of Divine Love is a book of Christian mystical devotions, based on visions received by Julian of Norwich in 1373 during a severe illness. She expanded on her account of these visions over the course of several decades of reflective solitude. It is the earliest surviving book written by a woman in the English language.
The Blazing World is a fanciful, satirical, and utopian account of a kingdom in another world that can be reached via the North Pole. Margaret Cavendish’s self-insert heroine is kidnapped into this world of talking animals and fantastic creatures, where she is made empress. Whereupon she discusses natural science and philosophy with the academics of this kingdom, then leads her navy to victory in the face of an invasion from her homeworld. It is one of the earliest examples of both utopian and science fiction literature.
Oroonoko is the first-person narrative of a heroic African prince who is banished from his homeland and tricked into English slavery. He struggles to reunite with his lost love and regain his freedom. Aphra Behn was inspired by her own travels to Suriname, as well as news stories and classic literature. Aphra Behn is the first woman known to have made a career out of writing. Behn was also a successful playwright, poet, translator, and essayist. Some credit Oroonoko and her earlier epistolary novel Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister (1684) as the first English-language novels.
A Vindication of the Rights of Women is an essay that argues that women ought to receive the same fundamental rights as men. The most important of these rights is to receive an education, in order to better educate the nation’s children and be suitable “companions” for their educated husbands, as well as to elevate their own rationality. This work is considered one of the earliest articulations of feminism, in its assertion that men and women are both subject to the same moral law and rights attendant on their personhood. Her work was an inspiration to the emerging sufragette movement.
Many people are aware that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) is the first modern work of horror and science fiction (at least in terms of a focus on possible future technologies, rather than travel to extra-terrestrial worlds, as in The Blazing World above). Fewer people know that she also pioneered the post-apocalyptic science fiction novel in The Last Man, a novel about surviving a mysterious plague which ravages society.
This book uses the cyanotype photographic method developed by an Atkins’ family friend to self-publish (in installments) the first book illustrated with photographs, in this case, beautiful white-silhouette photograms of seaweed and algae. Her later works include more botanical photograms and several works of fiction.
Life Among the Paiutes is a combination of an autobiographic memoir of Sarah Winnemucca and a history of her people, the Paiute, during their early contact with Europeans. Winnemucca wrote it as part of her work of education and advocacy for her people. It is the first known autobiography of a Native American woman and one of the the first ethnohistorical books written by a Native American.
Hawai’i’s Story by Hawai’i’s Queen was written by Queen Lili’uokalani, the last Queen of Hawai’i, just prior to the annexation of Hawai’i by the United States. Lili’uokalani recounts her childhood, accession to rulership, the overthrow of Hawai’i by pro-American colonists, her appeals to the United States to regain her rule of Hawai’i, and her final arrest, trial, and imprisonment following an unsuccessful uprising in 1895. Although President Cleveland was at first sympathetic to her claims, he referred the matter to Congress who determined that the seizure of power by colonist planters was outside of United States jurisdiction, then collaborated with this new government to annex Hawai’i a few years later. Although some historical details of the work are contested, Hawai’i’s Story is a powerful first-hand account of the last years of an independent Hawai’i.
Suffragette is the autobiography of Emmeline Pankhurst, a leader in the campaign for the women’s vote in the United Kingdom. Her followers were known for their militant activism, including protests, confrontations with police, imprisonment, hunger strikes, and arson. She was also an abolitionist and promoted women’s service in the armed forces during the First World War. Her work, particularly the widely publicized accounts of imprisonment, inspired suffrage efforts in many countries, including the successful effort in the United Kingdom.
There is Confusion is one of several novels written by Jessie Redmon Fauset, an African American poet, novelist, essayist, editor, and educator. Her work was notable for depicting African American life positively in the wake of the Great Migration to northern cities. It tells the story of three educated, middle-class African American children who struggle with racism and sexism as they grow up and pursue their artistic, economic, romantic, and scholarly ambitions in early twentieth-century New York City.
Man Into Woman: An Authentic Record of a Change of Sex is the posthumous memoir of Lili Elbe, an early recipient of gender-affirming surgery. After four successful gender reassignment surgeries, Elbe died as a result of complications from an immune system rejection of a uterus transplant. It was the first recorded instance of a uterus transplant surgery. In accordance with Elbe’s last wishes, the book Man Into Woman was created by Elbe’s friend Ernst Ludwig Harthern-Jacobson based on Elbe’s personal diaries. Man Into Woman records Elbe’s experiences with gender identity and gender reassignment surgery. It was first published in Danish in 1933, with German and English translations soon after. It was the first widely available book about a transgender person and the first personal account of gender affirming surgery. It has been a source of inspiration for many people to pursue gender transition and write about transgender experience. It was also the inspiration behind the bestselling novel and subsequent film, The Danish Girl.
Women and Their Bodies was a pamphlet that was the precursor to Our Bodies, Ourselves, an influential book on female reproductive health. Women and Their Bodies developed out of a workshop on “Women and Their Bodies” organized by Nancy Miriam Hawley at the 1969 “female liberation conference” at Emmanuel College. The women there expressed frustration at how little they knew about their own bodies and how little they were able to advocate for themselves or have their questions answered in doctors’ offices. They formed the Doctor’s Group (later known as the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective and later as the Our Bodies, Ourselves collective) to research and write about their questions and concerns. They worked with the New England Free Press to publish and sell the resulting 1970 booklet, which contained essays on female anatomy, physiology, sexuality, birth control, sexually transmitted infections, abortion, pregnancy, childbirth, post-partum care, and weaknesses of the medical establishment, including its close ties to capitalism and patriarchy. The pamphlet sold well and was followed by the revised version, titled Our Bodies, Ourselves. The group continued to grow and develop its non-profit mission through publications, education programs, and political advocacy, into the present day.
Links For More Women Writers:
Women Writers - Wikipedia - Last Edited January 3, 2023
A timeline and list of influential women writers from antiquity to the present.
A Timeline of Women Writers - Tim Lambert - Local Histories - 2022
A timeline of influential women writers from 2300 BCE to the present.
A Celebration of Women Writers - Mary Mark Ockerbloom - UPenn - 1994-2023
A collection of public domain works by women, with collections focused on travelers and diplomats, early Newbery Award winners, science fiction writers, and commentaries on women’s role at the 1893 Worlds Fair. There’s also a nifty feature that displays women writers whose birthday it is. The site is updated with new works on a regular basis.
Women of History: Selecting from the Writings of Standard Authors by the Editor of "Men of History." - W.P. Nimmo, Hay, & Mitchell, 1890 - Project Gutenberg
A 19th century book of short biographies of great women of history, many of whom are little known today.
100 Must-Read Classics by Women - Teresa Preston - Book Riot - March 10, 2017
A diverse list of classic books by women,
Early Female Authors of Science Fiction/Fantasy - Jesica Brubaker - SDSU University Library
A short article on women’s contributions to the science fiction genre.
Books That Shaped America - Library of Congress - June 25-September 29, 2012
A digital version of a Library of Congress exhibition on books with a great historical impact on the history of the United States, some of which were written by women.
Trendsetting Literary Ladies: In Many Cases, Women Did It First - Ashly Moore Sheldon - Thriftbooks - March 27, 2020
A short article exploring firsts in literature that were created by women.
Women Who Wrote Under Male Pen Names - Andrew Mulvania - Google Arts & Culture
Short biographies of five women writers who wrote under male pen names.
Thank you to the various websites and workers that make these public domain resources freely available!