Someone wise once told me that what defines a great writer isn’t merely being good with words but truly having something to say. With that in mind, the inspiring women on this list are some of the greatest writers in history.
From contemporary essayists to classic novelists, these iconic writers continue informing, inspiring, and expanding our worldviews and sense of self. So without further ado, here are the 25 female writers who might just change your life.
British-born Zadie Smith burst onto the literary scene in 2000 with her debut novel, White Teeth. Its mass success set the bar very high. With every thought-provoking essay and immersive novel to follow, Smith only grew into more of a literary icon. She even made Time’s selective round-up of 100 best English language novels from 1925-2003.
The New York Times once declared her “a prodigy in written form.” If you’re looking for writing that’ll leave you feeling more present, aware, and enriched in your daily life, Smith is likely the author for you.
One of the most innovative, captivating, and influential authors of the 20th century, Virginia Woolf has more than earned her spot on this list. Masterworks like Mrs. Dalloway and The Lighthouse are among her best-known novels, but Woolf also pioneered essays on artistic theory, literary history, women’s writing, and the politics of power before it was a cool thing for women to do.
Classic essays like A Room of One’s Own continue to inspire those who feel unheard to find their voice.
Virginia Woolf helped to reshape the world around her, expanding access to outsiders into an insular artistic world. Her writing, lectures, and public speaking influenced society’s shift towards inclusion, diversity, and equalityThe Book Aquarium
You might not be familiar with Doris Lessing. In truth, I only discovered her a few years back. But mark my words, once you dive into this writer’s work, you’ll wonder how it took you so long. Per Vice, Joyce Carol Oates once declared her “a revolutionary feminist voice in 20th-century literature.”
From her spooky space odysseys to her heady personal essays, Lessing’s mind-stretching, uninhibited, and complex work will unearth and ignite parts of yourself that you didn’t know existed. Today, the Nobel Prize-winning author is widely regarded as one of the most important post-war writers of her time.
Toni Morrison is often credited with reshaping the landscape of literature in the 1980s. The Nobel Prize-winning author was a master of revelation and a force to be reckoned with in the literary world and beyond. In her endlessly celebrated stories of origin, escape, and return, she transported the reader to places that no other author, male or female, had dared to go. Her words still strike an everpresent nerve in the heart of readers.
If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.Toni Morrison
Once upon a time, Chilean-American Allende was let go from a job translating romance novels from English to Spanish. She thought the women should sound smarter, so she took some creative liberties with the dialogue and even changed the endings to give female characters more depth and agency.
Ironically, the bold edits that got her fired later set the tone for her most influential works. While much of her writing falls under the umbrella of magical realism, the complex human truths learned from real-life hardship have become her most powerful trademark.
Lorrie Moore was the first writer that pulled me all the way in. Of course, I soon learned that has been the standard response to her electric, sharp, and fast-paced prose since the1980s. In short, she knows people. Dubbed one of the most compelling writers of all time, Moore is widely considered one of the main contemporary architects of the short story. And none of her works have had more of an impact on readers than her critically acclaimed1986 essay collection Self Help. Consider it this year’s must-read.
A story is a kind of biopsy of human life. A story is both local, specific, small, and deep, in a kind of penetrating, layered, and revealing way.Lorrie Moore
There’s no denying the literary prowess of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. The groundbreaking 1961 book continues speaking straight to the heart of people of all ages. While Lee didn’t pen the most extensive body of work, her timeless contributions continue to dazzle readers and move the masses. In 2007, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.Harper Lee
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie might be one of the newest authors to make the list, but she’s already proven her staying power. Critics and readers alike often describe her 2014 novel, Americanah, as transfixing and transformational. Empathetic and brutally honest, this best-selling book about race, identity, nostalgia, and romance has been named one of the most important fiction works of the 2000s written by one of the most necessary voices of our time.
So smart about so many subjects that to call it a novel about being black in the 21st century doesn’t even begin to convey its luxurious heft and scope. . . . Capacious, absorbing, and original.NPR
Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale predicted some extremely ominous societal events that actually started to unfold before our eyes. Today, it’s regarded as being more vital reading than ever, and Atwood remains the voice of reason. Best known for her fiction and feminist leanings, she’s published over 40 works throughout her wildly successful career and collected endless accolades, including the Booker Prize and the Arthur C. Clarke Award.
I would like to be the air that inhabits you for a moment only. I would like to be that unnoticed and that necessary.Margaret Atwood
Donna Tartt has become just as revered for her writing as her unusual creative process. Since her debut thriller, The Secret History, Tartt has taken almost a full decade per novel, but the results have all been well worth the wait. Rarely doing interviews and notoriously private, the Mississippi-born writer tends to let her often dark and always brilliant work speak for itself.
All fiction should be immersive, but reading a novel by American author Donna Tartt is like entering a parallel universe, constellated by sumptuous descriptions and erudite references, suspenseful twists and jolting turns, as well as characters so fully fleshed out that you mourn their absence long after returning the books to their shelves.Dazed Digital
Jhumpa Lahiri was born in London to Indian immigrants and raised in New England. Her personal history greatly informed much of the Pulitzer Prize winner’s writing. The internationally impactful writer was first met with critical acclaim for her precise and poignant short stories, followed by her first novel, The Namesake, which was adapted into a film. In 2015, she was awarded the National Humanities Medal for her contributions to literature and “deepening the nation’s understanding of the human experience.” But she’s stayed humble since day one.
You can’t have a hit every time. The main thing is to keep on working and not be afraid to take risks. It’s better to do something that’s not perfect and successful every time. It’s important to be fearless and move forward, to learn from what went wrong.Jhumpa Lahiri
Simone de Beauvoir
Simone de Beauvoir isn’t just an impactful female writer–she’s a feminist icon. In fact, many consider The Second Sex to be the first-wave feminist movement’s bible, but her philosophies expand far beyond that. Whether or not you agree with all she says, her potent work remains relevant food for thought.
Change your life today. Don’t gamble on the future, act now, without delay. One’s life has value so long as one attributes value to the life of others, by means of love, friendship, indignation and compassion.Simone de Beauvoir
This urban activist and talented author had no formal training as a city planner, but she reshaped the way we thought about city life with her groundbreaking ideas and constant push for “urban renewal.” She even helped defeat various community soul-sucking projects pitched in New York City, including the Lower Manhattan Expressway, which would’ve annihilated SoHo, Chinatown, and some of Greenwich Village. Ultimately, her writings explore who we are as a people, the things we build, and what our surroundings say about us.
We expect too much of new buildings, and too little of ourselves.The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs
Alice Walker is a literary icon. We’re all familiar with The Color Purple, but her entire body of work sings and should be praised more often. Most notably, her essays on identity are considered some of the most personal, poignant, and hope-inducing on the planet. Check out Beauty: When The Other Dancer Is The Self to see what I mean.
Life is abundant, and life is beautiful. And it’s a good place that we’re all in, you know, on this earth, if we take care of it.Alice Walker
There’s been a great debate for decades surrounding what really mattered most to Ayn Rand. But without a doubt, the controversial writer fervently pushed for protecting and cultivating one’s own happiness throughout her career. What’s also undeniable is her lasting influence with Atlas Shrugged, with many calling the 1957 masterpiece the most impactful book of their entire lives.
Learn to value yourself, which means: fight for your happiness.Ayn Rand
Now in her 80s, Munro is still gaining new fans. Will you be one of them? Of the many high honors she’s collected, her visceral portrayals of human relationships earned her the 2009 Man Booker International Prize and the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature. Adding to her intrigue, Munro continues to keep her true identity hidden. This choice has allowed her to commit herself to the truth in the most uncompromising of ways in her work.
We women have been pushed to the margins, towards subservience, even when it comes to our literary work. The female story, told with increasing skill, increasingly widespread and unapologetic, is what must now assume power.The New York Times, Alice Munro
Wisława Szymborska (pronounced vees-WAH-vah shim-BOR-ska) is one of just 16 women to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. Known for her vivid imagery, the Polish poet received literature’s highest honor back in 1996. If you want to dive into her most eye-opening and engaging work, pick up the four-decade spanning collection, Poems New and Collected.
Once dubbed the “Mozart of Poetry,” Szymborska is forever regarded as one of the most inspiring European Poets to ever live.
Elena Ferrante is acclaimed by critics, but she’s largely unknown by the masses and completely mysterious to all. That’s because Ferrante is another brilliant wordsmith who uses a pseudonym to keep the focus on the truth, not the teller. Still, you will come to know this elusive Italian writer very well through her endlessly unflinching works and commanding presence. Ferrante has garnered a devoted cult following, with many proclaiming that once they pick up her books, they’re unable to put them down.
I am the queen of spades, I am the wasp that stings, I am the dark serpent. I am the invulnerable animal who passes through fire and is not burned.The Days of Abandonment, Elena Ferrante
During the 1940s, Clarice Lispector broke the mold laid out for female writers. Early on in her career, she became an unlikely success in a male-dominated literary world, offering up a rarely heard feminist point of view through highly personal, abstract, and deceptively effective ways.
This somewhat overlooked author’s stream of consciousness style led to many top critics calling her work odd but admirably individualistic. Today, she’s praised for what The New York Times calls “her cryptic power,” and Colm Tóibín once declared her “one of the hidden geniuses of 20th-century.”
When it comes to second-wave feminism, Slyvia Plath’s writings were instrumental in igniting the movement. But the distinguished writer’s ongoing ability to inspire doesn’t end there. Plath’s published journals, poems, and roman à clef novel The Bell Jar all gave vulnerable, visceral, and illuminating glimpses into her brilliant but troubled mind. In turn, she’s credited with increasing mental health awareness.
Her heavily introspective writing is far from uplifting. But her ability to shed light on deep, dark feelings and thoughts has positioned her as the queen of existentially lonely writers who, ironically, make all who read her work feel much less alone.
Zora Neale Hurston
Zora Neale Hurston’s writing had a massive impact on the Harlem Renaissance. Her illuminating work examined Black folklore and culture. However, Hurston wasn’t given proper recognition for her literary contributions until after her death. Fellow literary great Alice Walker was actually the one to seek out Hurston’s unmarked grave and help reclaim her legacy.
Her 1937 novel and best-known work, Their Eyes Were Watching God, was the first major novel published by a Black woman. It left an immeasurable mark on literature in profoundly progressive ways.
It’s hard to imagine now, but Maya Angelou spent much of her life doing everything and anything but writing. But like all great writers, those experiences enriched and informed the civil rights activist’s masterful work. In 1969, Angelou released her instant bestseller, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
Of her many accomplishments, Angelou became the first female inaugural poet in U.S. presidential history in 1993. Years later, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. And when she helmed Georgia, Georgia back in the 70s, she became the first Black woman to write and score a screenplay for a major film. Frankly, there was nothing Angelou couldn’t do, and her difficult journey to the top is an inspiration in itself.
When it comes to culturally defining romantic screenplays, Nora Ephron wore the crown for decades. She’s the brains behind When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail, What Women Want, and Julie & Julia, to name a few whoppers. Still, the pithy wisdom and biting witticism found in her books are just as notable as her Oscar-winning rom coms, especially in the ways her words empower all women of all ages.
I can make a case that I regret nothing. After all, most of my mistakes turned out to be things I survived, or turned into funny stories, or, on occasion, even made money from.I Feel Bad About My Neck
Kate Chopin was a maestro of the written word and far ahead of her time. Once criticized for her hot-takes, she paid for her first book out of pocket. Upon being rediscovered in the 1970s, Chopin became celebrated and closely studied as one of the earliest and most significant feminist writers. Sticking it to the patriarchy in the most incisive and elegant of ways, 1899’s The Awakening still rings true. Her stunning prose never ceases to impress new readers who have only just discovered it.
I would give up the unessential; I would give up my money, I would give up my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself. I can’t make it more clear; it’s only something I am beginning to comprehend, which is revealing itself to me.”The Awakening, Kate Chopin
When Rupi Kaur made her literary debut, it was at a time when reading books, for many young people, was mostly a thing of the past. Especially poetry. However, this Instagram poet turned bestselling author sparked a reading frenzy among a new generation.
As she became a cultural phenomenon, her writings about love, heartbreak, and womanhood continued resonating with young women across the globe. The voice of a new generation, her devoted following consistently proclaimed they’d never felt “so seen,” often calling Milk and Honey “unexpectedly life-changing.”
One of the pioneers of new journalism, seeing the world through Didion’s eyes opened everyone else’s. She also softened us through her personal musings on places and people but remained impenetrably tough to the public.
Through her essays, memoirs, novels, and screenplays, we came to know the California native and keen observer who kept her emotional distance. And yet, she cut straight to the heart of every matter and dissected what was there with precision, grace, and nerve. To this day, there’s no way to encapsulate her profound hold on me.
Character – the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life – is the source from which self-respect springs.On Self Respect, Joan Didion