You may have heard of them, or perhaps you’ve been assigned one of their novels or short stories in English class. Required reading aside, these seven women writers all wrote during the last half of the 20th century and offer unique perspectives on topics and issues that are still top of mind for contemporary audiences. Let’s look at the women who should be a the top of your reading-for-pleasure list right now.
Though her work is well-known and respected among avid science fiction readers, Octavia Butler has never been mainstream. She wrote about a black woman transported back in time (and against her will) to save a white ancestor in pre-Civil War North America; a race of aliens who are a third gender; and vampire-like people who are polyamorous and discriminated against. Her work is eye-opening and even more relevant today than it was when she wrote it, mostly in the 70s through the early 2000s.
2. Leonora Carrington
Carrington has mostly fallen out of modern-day consciousness, but during her life she was recognized as one of the few female surrealist artists and writers during the male-dominated surrealist movement of the 20s and 30s. Her stories are sharp-minded and darkly humorous, especially “The Debutante,” which turns a critical eye on upper-class society by having a wealthy young woman switch places with a talking hyena. Carrington published several short story collections from the 30s through the 80s and exhibited her artwork throughout the world.
Works to read:
• The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington , 215 pages
Carter is perhaps most known for her short story collection “The Bloody Chamber” where she reinterpreted classic fairy tales like Beauty and the Beast and Bluebeard through a feminist lens—one of the first female writers to do so. She wrote prolifically throughout the 60s, 70s, and 80s, publishing many novels, short story collections, books of poetry, and works of nonfiction.
With the 2015 film Carol, based on her novel The Price of Salt, Patricia Highsmith reentered contemporary culture. A novelist and short story writer who published from the 50s to the 90s, Highsmith is perhaps most known as a masterful writer of thrillers, such as Strangers on a Train, which was adapted into a movie by Alfred Hitchcock. Worth reading, even more, is The Price of Salt: its intimate portrayal of the romance between two women, and thoughtful exploration of the nature of love and attraction regardless of gender, was a rarity for the era it was published in.
Many readers may have encountered Jackson’s shocking short story “The Lottery” in English class or watched the recent Netflix adaptation of her novel The Haunting of Hill House, but her other short stories and novels are also worth exploring. Jackson was masterful at crafting stories that depict the subtle horrors of everyday life, particularly the sometimes oppressive nature of living as a housewife in the 50s and 60s, which is perhaps best portrayed in her short story “The Good Wife.”
While some of O’Connor’s short stories are staples of English classes focused on postmodern work, she isn’t a household name. Yet, her writing, which is preoccupied with the grotesqueness of everyday life, is well worth reading. She often incorporated disability into her work, such as in her story “Good Country People,” where the main character, Joy, has a prosthetic leg. O’Connor herself had lupus, which led to her early death.
7. Jean Rhys
Anyone who is left unsatisfied with Bertha Mason’s story after reading Jane Eyre should turn to Rhys’s novella Wide Sargasso Sea, which is a prequel of sorts to its Victorian predecessor. From the British West Indies herself, Rhys wrote Wide Sargasso Sea from Bertha’s perspective, giving a voice to a woman silenced by her husband, her family, and her society. From the 20s through the 70s, Rhys published many novels and short story collections, some also inspired by her upbringing in the Caribbean.