Today is the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, a day established to push for women’s right to work, to vote, and to hold public office. Much of the world has come a long way toward these goals in the last century. To gauge a sense of the changes 100 years have brought in the literary sphere, I decided to take a snapshot of some prominent women writers in 1911.
America’s best-seller list in 1911 doesn’t tell us much. Women occupied four of the top 10 slots, but I’ve never heard of any of the writers, male or female, on this list. Perhaps a lesson about the mutability of best-sellers there. For the record, the four best-selling women of 1911 and their novels are:
- Margaret Deland – The Iron Woman
- Mary Johnston – The Long Roll
- Elaenor Abbott – Molly Make-Believe
- Florence Barclay – The Rosary
If, however, we consider five writers who were alive in 1911 and whose works are still read today, the picture looks like this.
Willa Cather (1873-1947)
In 1911 Cather was working as an editor at McClure’s magazine in New York City and writing her first novel, the Henry James-influenced Alexander’s Bridge. After its publication in 1912, Cather would quit her job to write full-time, and she would bloom early as a novelist with her Prairie Trilogy about life on the frontier in Nebraska where she’d grown up: O Pioneers (1913); The Sound of the Lark (1915), and My Antonia (1918). In 1912 she would also move into a New York City apartment with her good friend, Edith Lewis, and they would live together until Cather’s death. In 1925 Cather would be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her novel One of Ours. ”The fact that I was a girl never damaged my ambitions to be a pope or an emperor,” Cather once said.
Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960)
In 1911 Hurston, who would become an anthropologist and one of this country’s seminal African-American writers, was working a series of menial jobs as she tried to finish her education. In 1917 at age 26 she would reset her birth date ahead 10 years and enter high school in Baltimore before attending Howard University. By the 1920s Hurston would become a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance group of black writers in New York City. In 1935 she would publish her study of African-American folklore, Mules and Men, to be followed in 1937 by the novel considered her best work, Their Eyes Were Watching God, about life in Eatonville, Florida, the small community where she’d grown up. Hurston was always a crusty personality who enjoyed her maverick stances – she opposed the 1954 Supreme Court decision that integrated U.S. schools, for example - and her work fell into obscurity for many years. Hurston said famously that “people can be slave-ships in shoes.”
Selma Lagerlof (1858-1940)
The Swedish Lagerlof was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, a feat she’d accomplished in 1909. (In 1911 the French scientist Marie Curie, the first woman to receive a Nobel, in 1903 for chemistry, won her second Nobel, this time in physics.) Lagerlof had been a country schoolteacher for 10 years, and her writing career began when she won a local newspaper’s contest for Gosta Berlings Saga, a novel of Swedish rural life meant to evoke the medieval Icelandic sagas and a work often seen as an early example of magic realism. This first novel, along with her 1907 children’s story, The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, would remain her most popular works, though she would continue to write through the 1930s. The woman she loved, Sophia Elkan, was another writer.Gosta Berlings Saga begins with this famous (in Sweden) sentencence, “Finally, the vicar was in the pulpit.,” and another often quoted passage is, “Life and nature are hard. They bring forth courage and joy as a counterweight against their own hardness, or no one could endure them.”
Edith Wharton (1862-1937)
In 1911 Edith Wharton, a well-established novelist at this point in her career, published Ethan Frome, a novel of thwarted love and a tragic sledding accident that many of us read in eighth grade. The novel is sometimes seen as a displaced version of autobiography because Wharton’s husband had been institutionalized years before for depression, and in 1908 she’d embarked on a long-lasting affair with the journalist Morton Fullerton. Wharton also moved in 1911 to an apartment in Paris, where she lived the rest of her life, continuing to write many more novels and short stories. In 1921 she would become the first woman to win a Pulitzer for her novel The Age of Innocence. Her last published work, appearing posthumously, was her first novel, written in 1876, with the evocative title of Fast and Loose. It’s hard not interpret her life in terms of her remark: “Life is always a tightrope or a feather bed. Give me the tightrope.”
Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)
In 1911 Vrigina Woolf was writing reviews for the Times Literary Supplement, working on the book that would become her first novel, The Voyage Out, and living in the Bloomsbury neighborhood of London. The daughter of Leslie Stephen, England’s leading literary critic of the Victorian era, Woolf had suffered two nervous breakdowns at that point, and depression would recur throughout her life. In 1912 she would marry the publisher Leonard Woolf, and they would found Hogarth Press in 1917, the publisher of most of her works, including the four novels (beginning with Mrs. Dalloway) that she published between 1925 and 1931 in the “stream of consciousness style” that made her reputation as one of the great modernist novelists. In the 1920s she would also begin her long-lived affair, conducted mainly in the form of letters, with another writer, Vita Sackville-West. In 1941 Virginia Woolf committed suicide by filling her coat pockets with stones and walking into a river. Her 1929 essay A Room of One’s Own has become a key text in women’s writing, and her succinct line - ”A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction” – sums up a great deal about the circumstances in which women’s literature arises.
About the headline that begins this post – I’d not claim that these are the only worthy women writers from 100 years back, but they are the five that come first to mind for me. I’m basing these deeply subjective selections on literary influence, prestigious prizes won, and the creation of work still worth reading.
I borrowed the title from a 1977 play by the late Wendy Wasserstein called Uncommon Women and Others, because these five women all seem to depart, in their lives and work, from the conventional path for women of their time.