“Don’t Look at Me in That Tone of Voice”: Ten Lesser-Known Women Writers Who Kick Butt

Recently, Flavorwire published an article titled “10 Legendary Bad Girls of Literature.”  They made some worthy choices: Sappho, Dorothy Parker, and Anais Nin among them. While these names are well-known, there are other notable women with less fame who also deserve some accolades.

1. Jeannette Winterson

Winterson is not unknown, of course, but she ought to be better known. Her first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit won the prestigious Whitbread Prize in 1985. Subsequent novels, like  Lighthousekeepingcontinue Winterson’s vein of intellectual, thought-provoking, fearless prose.


2. Kathy Acker

From this image of the late writer (Acker died of breast cancer in 1997), it probably is not surprising to learn that Acker was a polarizing figure. Although she championed feminist issues, feminist critics did not universally embrace her work. While some praise her for exposing a misogynistic capitalist society that uses sexual domination as a key form of oppression, others argue that her extreme and frequent use of violent sexual imagery quickly becomes numbing and leads to the degrading objectification of women.

Acker’s most famous work is Blood and Guts in High School.

3.  Margery Kempe

Margery Kempe’s The Book of Margery Kempe is remarkable in that the work is widely considered to be the first autobiography ever written in English:

The narrative of Kempe’s book begins just after her marriage, and relates the experience of her difficult first pregnancy. While delivering this child, she became gravely ill and feared for her life. She called for a priest to hear her confession, as she had a “secret sin” that had been weighing on her conscience for some time. The priest began to censure her before she could divulge this sin in its entirety, and then left. Fearing eternal damnation, she fell into a delusional state, where she describes seeing devils around her, and was considered a danger to herself and others. She was chained in a storeroom for six months, until, as she describes, Jesus sat down at her bedside, and asked her, “Daughter, why hast thou forsaken Me, and I forsook never thee?” She relates, at first, intending to become God’s servant, but admits she could not “leave her pride nor her pompous array.” Kempe undertook two domestic businesses—a brewery and a grain mill—both common home-based businesses for medieval women, both of which endured for a little while, then failed.

4.  Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Gilman’s name may cause some a glimmer of recognition. Her short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the tale of a woman who slowly goes insane, is typically included in most literature anthologies. However, she wrote many more novels and stories, most of which are now unknown. Gilman’s novel, Herland, for example, is a delightful envisioning of an isolated all-female society whose members have learned to reproduce without the help of men.

5. Joan Slonczewski

Slonczewski is a professor of microbiology at Kenyon College and a kick-ass science fiction writer to boot. Her novel A Door into Ocean combines her knowledge of microbiology, ecofeminism, and non-violent revolution on a fictional, water-covered planet that has never known war. Or men. Until both are brought to their seas. Far from being a man-hating work, Slonczewski’s novel seeks to find common ground and understanding.

7.  Sarah Vowell

Vowell is probably best known for her insightful, witty commentaries on NPR’s This American Lifebut she is also the author of many collections of essays, all with a historical bent. Each of her books makes you look at America in a different way. Check out, for example, Assassination Vacation where she uncovers the places were some of our lesser-known presidents have taken their last breaths.

8.  Mina Loy

Loy was a writer and a bohemian, the last of the first generation of modernists to have her work posthumously recognized. She was perhaps most admired for her poetry, and such luminaries as T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, and Gertrude Stein praised her work.

9.  Christine de Pisan

In 1405, Pisan wrote The Book of the City of Ladies in response to Jean de Meun‘s The Romance of the Rose. Pisan found his work to be misogynistic and populated her ficitonal “city” with accomplished females from history to prove de Meun wrong as well as to call for equal rights for women, at least as far as education goes.

10.  Katherine Dunn

Katherine Dunn is a playwright, a novelist, a journalist, and a poet. Her novel Geek Love was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1989.  Michael Abernathy, writing for Pop Matters summarizes the novel:

Katherine Dunn’s 1983 novel is the first-person story of Olympia Binewski, an albino, bald dwarf with a hunchback. Olympia’s freakish nature is not an aberration of nature so much as a carefully planned deviation. Olympia, or Oly, is one of four freak children born to Al and “Crystal Lil” Binewski, who run a traveling circus and create their own sideshow freaks by feeding Crystal Lil poisons, pills, insecticides, and radioisotopes during her pregnancies. Those children who fail to survive the traumatic pregnancies are preserved in jars for public viewing; those who do survive are put to work in the circus. This foundation takes the novel into the realm of the surreal, but Dunn doesn’t seek to just startle or disgust viewers. She examines human nature and relationships from an alternative perspective, challenging perceptions of what love is and what is “normal”.

Of course, any list will have omissions readers would like to have seen included; these are just my own personal selections. Are there authors you would like to have recognized? Let us know!

1 Comment

  1. chazgallant

    Cheers for this piece. Have to admit my knowledge of more than 50% of the ladies makes me feel like I’m not reaching out of bounds as far as I thought I was. Keep em coming Jamie!

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