If your high school experience was anything like mine, you read almost zero literature by women writers. In the two decades since then, I’ve done much of my own research.
On this list, I’ve included 24 books by female authors of the 20th century that I highly recommend to help you read excellent literature by women.
When you get right down to it, literature written by women are just as masterful as that written by men. It’s just that men had more opportunities to get published than women. Really, these books are testament to the power of these stories… they had to go through so many more obstacles to get published!
Lives of Female Writers in the Twentieth Century
Women in the twentieth century were starting to embrace new independence and female writers wrote more novels than before. The women writers of this time period are a great inspiration for writers today, as well as an important part of history.
The twentieth century spanned only 100 years, but it covered so many changes that humanity had never seen happen at such a rate. From flight, Women’s Suffrage, two World Wars, going to the moon, the Civil Rights Movement, Reaganomics, and the invention of the internet. These books or short stories are highly varied for that exact reason: they are reflective of the decade the woman lived in.
(These books are in no particular order.)
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24 Books by Female Authors of the 20th Century
1) Beloved, Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison is an African American author who wrote in the twentieth century. Toni won the Nobel prize in Literature in 1993. She was also awarded the Pulitzer Prize for this novel Beloved.
Beloved is about Sethe, a former slave who escaped to Ohio. She endures such hardship and trauma in her life, so for those wanting to avoid triggers such as abuse, this book may not be for you.
Toni Morrison is a master of creating vivid descriptions and characters, haunting stories, and revealing so much truth about the real world in her books. She is one of my favorite authors.
2) A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf was an English author who lived between 1882 and 1941. Her most famous work is A Room of One’s Own, published in 1929.
A Room of One’s Own is a book-length essay about women writers and the hardships they have suffered to be able to get to create their work. What if Shakespeare had had a sister who was just as genius as he, but had not been able to write a word?
I could also include this book in my list of female empowerment books, as it screams of feminism and equality. Witty writing.
3) The Color Purple, Alice Walker
Alice Walker is an American writer who won the Pulitzer Prize for this book in 1983.
The Color Purple is a poignant and heavy book about our protagonist Celie. She’s an uneducated Black woman in the south in the early 1900s. She is married off to an abusive widower, but the strong women in her life help lead her to on a journey of self-discovery.
This book should also include trigger warnings for abuse and sexual content. But Celie’s story is a beautiful one, and a much recommended read.
4) The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath
Sylvia Plath is an American writer who is known for committing suicide at the age of 30. Sylvia Plath is known for The Bell Jar among other novels.
The Bell Jar is about protagonist Esther Greenwood, who is leading a life filled with success and beauty, but drowning in depression. It is disturbing and holds no bars when detailing the things Esther experiences with her depression.
It’s not particularly uplifting, but it is sharp. A necessary read.
5) To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
Harper Lee is an American author. She is best known for To Kill a Mockingbird, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and is one of the best known books by women writers in the 20th century.
This is one that many people read in high school. For good reason.
It tells the story of Atticus Finch, a local lawyer, and his defense of a Black man against a crime he did not commit. Told through the eyes of Scout, his daughter, this is a timeless tale of racism, justice (and injustice), and history.
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6) I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou was an African American author and poet. Her most famous work is I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a memoir of her childhood and early life.
In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou chronicles her early life through her vivid prose. The heart-wrenching events in Maya’s early life shaped her world and made it possible for her to become the powerful woman we know today.
It’s not particularly an easy read, it’s very heavy, so take your time.
Trigger warning for rape.
7) Death of the Heart, Elizabeth Bowen
Elizabeth Bowen was an Irish author who lived between 1899 and 1973.
Read Death of the Heart with a bit of self-reflection, especially if you are affluent. This story is a reflection of London’s upper class society in the 1930s. The writing engulfs you in the inner lives of the characters and Portia, our protagonist, suffers a betrayal of the heart.
8) The Awakening, Kate Chopin
Kate Chopin is an author who is best known for The Awakening, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1901. She is a great inspiration for female writers today, as well as an important part of history.
The Awakening is about a young mother’s journey of self-discovery. She is a painter, an artist, and she never cared much about having children. Her journey takes her to an ebullition of emotion caused by a harsh and suffocating world.
For me, The Awakening was one of the most powerful books I had ever read in my 20s.
9) Are you There God? It’s Me, Margaret, Judy Blume
One of the female writers on this list that primarily wrote for children and tweens, Judy Blume was born in 1938 and is still living today. Her most famous work is Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret is a coming of age story about twelve year old Margaret Simon, who has anxiety over moving to a new town and making new friends. But she can always talk to God, despite not having a religion.
Most certainly one of the lighter books on this list, but still a touching book.
10) Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie
Agatha Christie is an English author who wrote in the 20th century. Her books have sold over a billion copies and she is certainly one female author who has become a household name for her fame as a crime writer.
Murder on the Orient Express is a murder mystery set on a train stopped overnight by a snowdrift. Detective Hercule Poirot must solve the murder before the killer strikes again.
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11) The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver
One female author of the 20th century who was new to me, Barbara Kingsolver was born in 1955 and lived briefly in the Congo, which is where this novel is set.
This book is tragic and evocative, telling the tale of a missionary family that settles in the Congo. It is a political and religious commentary about imperialism and the human race’s true nature.
A stunning novel to read.
12) The Group, Mary McCarthy
Mary McCarty, 1912-1989, was a novelist, critic, and political activist.
Published in 1963, The Group is about Vassar College classmates as they progress through life: careers, marriage, sexual awakenings, and loss. It is described as the “Sex and the City” of its time (1930s), The Group is witty and juicy.
13) Interview with the Vampire, Anne Rice
Anne Rice was born in 1941 and just passed away months ago in December 2021. She left a legacy for women writers, and many women in my writer’s group were mourning her passing.
Interview with the Vampire is the novel that propelled the love of gothic horror vampire stories (spawned from Bram Stoker’s Dracula) into the twentieth century. It tells the tale of vampire Louis de Pointe du Lac’s 200-year long life.
14) Complete Poetry of Dorothy Parker
Dorothy Parker, 1893 to 1967, was once dubbed the wittiest woman in America! Her poems were often short and quippy, and she wrote about a variety of subjects. But mostly, she just wrote about life and her observations.
Whether or not you’re into poetry, there’s no way you can’t enjoy her writing!
15) The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde
Audre Lorde lived from 1937 to 1992, and she was most known for her work on feminism, queer theory, and critical race issues. She is another that I could include on my list of female empowerment authors.
For women who embrace feminism, feminist spirituality, or queerness, Audre Lorde is essential reading!
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9) A Good Man is Hard to Find, Flannery O’Connor
Flannery O’Connor was an American author who wrote Southern Gothic literature. Her most famous work is Wise Blood, which was published in 1952.
A Good Man is Hard to Find is a nightmarish short story about a Southern family on vacation who are taken by three men at gunpoint.
This may be one short story by a female writer that you read in high school. (I did.)
10) Shakespeare and Company, Sylvia Beach
Sylvia Beach was American-born (1887) but lived in Paris most of her life. She lived until 1962.
Sylvia Beach’s memoir Shakespeare and Company is the tale of her English bookstore in Paris and the many writers of the time who came through, including James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, T.S. Eliot, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, among others.
11) The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
Becoming more well-known with the Hulu adaptation of this book, Margaret Atwood is a female author of the 20th century everyone knows.
The book is set in a dystopian society where young women, called Handmaids, are subjected to sexual slavery in order to bear children. The protagonist, June, is trying to flee the society to be reunited with her husband and daughter.
Margaret Atwood’s books are jarring, psychological thrillers.
12) Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand
Ayn Rand (1905-1982) was a Russian-American novelist who used her novels as platform for her philosophical ideology. She believed in individualism and laissez-faire capitalism.
It seems that this book is either huge dud or a stunning triumph. Regardless of Ayn’s politics, this book is worth reading.
13) Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier
Daphne du Maurier lived between 1907 and 1989 and was an English author and playwright.
One of my all-time favorite books, Rebecca is the tale of the Mrs. de Winters (whose first name is never revealed) after marrying her widower husband. When they move back into Manderley, his home, the memory of his first wife Rebecca haunts them mercilessly.
Gripping and psychological, this book is not one to be missed.
14) The Grass is Singing, Doris Lessing
Doris Lessing was born to British parents in Iran, then spent a number of years in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) before moving back to London. She won the Nobel Prize in literature in 2007.
The Grass is Singing is set in South Rhodesia under white rule. It is about Mary Turner, wife of farmer, and their Black slave. It is raw story of racism in Africa.
15) O Pioneers!, Willa Cather
Willa Cather (1873-1947) is an American female author who wrote about the immigrant experience traveling across America. Her Great Plains Trilogy consists of three mini-novels that begins with O Pioneers!
Cather won the Pulitzer Prize in 1923 for her novel One of Ours.
16) Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter
Katherine Anne Porter lived from 1890 until 1980. She was an American journalist and writer, and her Collected Short Stories received a Pulitzer Prize in 1966.
17) The Volcano Lover, Susan Sontag
Susan Sontag (1933-2004) was an American intellectual, writer, and filmmaker who wrote a lot about progressive issues including AIDS and human rights. She was bisexual and had a long relationship with photographer Annie Leibovitz.
The Volcano Lover is a historical fiction book about Emma Hamilton, who lived between 1765 and 1815.
18) Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan
In the Joy Luck Club, 4 women, friends, and Chinese immigrants begin to meet in what they call the “Joy Luck Club”. A raw look into the lives of Asian immigrants, this is a book you don’t want to miss.
Amy Tan was born in 1952 in California to Chinese immigrant parents. She has written many other novels, a couple of children’s books and non-fiction.
19) The Good Earth, Pearl Buck
Having won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932 and the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1938, Pearl Buck is an amazing and accomplished woman writer who has gone under the radar for many years! She lived in China for many years and many of her books are reflections of that.
The Good Earth is about Chinese farmers in the 1930s who helped Americans consider China an ally in the pending war with Japan. It’s very readable and you won’t want to put it down!
20) The Optimist’s Daughter, Eudora Welty
Eudora Welty (1909-2001) is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author who primarily set her stories in the American South.
Set in New Orleans and Mississippi, The Optimist’s Daughter is a novel of self-discovery, loss, and grief. It’s not particularly plot-driven, but it’s enlightening and touching.
21) Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe, Fannie Flagg
This book tells the story of two women and their blossoming friendship. It explores the themes of “family, aging, lesbianism” and racism.
Fannie Flagg, born in Alabama in 1944, was nominated for an Academy Award in 1992 for her screenplay adaptation of this book!
22) Brokeback Mountain, Annie Proulx
Annie Proulx was born in 1935 in Connecticut. She has many novels and short stories, and has won the Pulitzer Prize twice for different novels.
The short story Brokeback Mountain was published in 1997 in the New Yorker. The movie won several Academy Awards.
23) The Thorn Birds, Colleen McCullough
Colleen McCullough is an Australian writer with Irish roots, which shows in this novel, The Thorn Birds.
Set over three generations of a family of Irish immigrants in Australia, the book details the heartbreaks the women of the family suffer, and how they change and grow with the changing landscape of modern society.
With forbidden love, infidelity, struggles, and dreams, this one is a juicy read.
24) The Lottery and Other Short Stories, Shirley Jackson
Shirley Jackson (1916-1965) was primarily a horror and mystery writer. I adore her short biography in the New Yorker and admire her for her female empowerment.
Here is another psychologically thrilling short story. It is the tale of a small town caught in a terrorizing tradition. While some neighboring towns have rethought their lottery, this town continues on, no matter the cost.
It is a thought-provoking story and should be referenced much more when we look at our traditions in our own society.
Wednesday 27th of July 2022
Many thanks for this post!