In schools across the nation, students will be donning red and white striped hats and eating green eggs and ham today—all to honor one of the most beloved children’s writers of our time. But “Dr. Seuss Day,” officially known as Read Across America Day, isn’t just for our little ones. It serves as a beautiful reminder to us all that books are indeed magic portals into different parts of our imagination, heart and souls. When done beautifully, they whisk us away to other places. They invite (and often demand!) us to question our world view and reexamine our perspectives. And, in rare cases, they stay with us as we move through life….long after the last page.
Here we celebrate 10 female authors who’ve reshaped the literary world with their work.
1. Cheryl Strayed
Cheryl Strayed is known best for penning “Wild,” a dazzling memoir in which she makes sense of her mother’s death by wandering over 1,000 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail on her own. The piece explores the transformative, healing power of solitude, particularly when set within nature. But what really sets Strayed’s voice apart throughout all her work is that it’s continually asking the essential questions about self-acceptance, surrender, and returning to our truest self. She’s also an outspoken artist when it comes to balancing motherhood and creativity, asserting that the greatest gift she can give her children is a mother who “pursues her passions like a motherfucker.”
Our favorite quote: “It was my life—like all lives, mysterious and irrevocable and sacred. So very close, so very present, so very belonging to me. How wild it was, to let it be.”
2. May Sarton
May Sarton was a seeker in every sense of the word. A central theme that runs through much of her work explores what it means to really be alone with oneself, to confront all the old ghosts of our past. Her writing, which spans fiction, poetry and memoir, is also celebrated for questioning the male-dominated literary structure of her time. (“Half the world is feminine—why is there resentment at a female-oriented art?”)
Our favorite quote: “We have to dare to be ourselves, however frightening or strange that self may prove to be.”
3. Anais Nin
Anais Nin is arguably one of the most prolific essayists and memoirists of the 20th century—female or otherwise. Her exploration into interconnectedness, joy and creativity are illuminated in her now-famous journals, which she began keeping at age 11. Many speculate that her works of fiction, particularly “A Spy in the House of Love,” were thinly veiled attempts to make meaning of who she was in relation to her sexual self. Like the story’s protagonist, Nin revealed in her diaries that she yearned for wholeness ; to bridge her sexual identity and desires with her true self. This desire is familiar even to modern women today. (The journey of unifying the many fragmented parts of ourselves is a big part of what we care about most at Alanis.com.) Nin did so by living as presently as she could; using her senses, deep sensuality and space around her as portals inward.
Our favorite quote: “All of my creation is an effort to weave a web of connection with the world; I am always weaving it because it was once broken.”
4. Maggie Nelson
Maggie Nelson put heartbreak front and center with her 2009 book “Bluets,” which explored the depths and nuances of aloneness by way of the color blue. An out-of-the-box subject, the color became the pathway for which isolation and sadness to be explored. Nelson spins the idea into a book-length essay that exposes emotional loss at its rawest.
Our favorite quote: “Loneliness is solitude with a problem.”
5. Jeanette Winterson
Jeanette Winterson is often regarded as one of the best female authors living today. The British novelist has been known to draw on her own upbringing to spin autobiographical tales centered on sexual identity and nonconformity. Many argue that her signature work is the 1985 novel “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit,” in which Winterson explores female adolescence as it relates to same-sex relationships and the church.
Our favorite quote: “Book collecting is an obsession, an occupation, a disease, an addiction, a fascination, an absurdity, a fate. It is not a hobby. Those who do it must do it.”
6. Sylvia Plath
Is it possible to discuss influential female authors without giving a nod to Sylvia Plath? While the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet led a tortured life, her writing reflected an all-too-real relationship between creativity and mental illness; one that’s mirrored in her only novel, “The Bell Jar.” After a fierce, lifelong battle with depression, Plath eventually took her own life in 1963, but the exquisite body of work she left behind continues to touch readers to the core.
Our favorite quote: “I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.”
7. Dorothy Parker
Razor-tongued and sharp-witted, Dorothy Parker led the charge for intellectual young women of her time. As a founder of the Algonquin Round Table, this forward-thinking writer was one of the first to grace the pages of The New Yorker. She also had an illustrious screenwriting career to boot. Still, she’s perhaps best remembered as an unapologetically witty woman unafraid of speaking her mind and offering a sense of sisterhood to the more sensitive among us.
Favorite quote: “The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue.”
8. Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood has been putting out one best-selling book after another for decades, with titles like “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Alias Grace” and “The Heart Goes Last” under her belt. As fans and critics await her next release, the award-winning author also wears the hat of an environmental activist. Atwood delightfully intertwines these two loves, claiming that each can empower the other.
Our favorite quote: “The Eskimos had fifty-two names for snow because it was important to them: there ought to be as many for love.”
9. Harper Lee
The news of the recent passing of Harper Lee touched many with great grief. The beloved author spun “To Kill A Mockingbird,” the bestseller turned Academy Award-winning film that’s now rumored to hit Broadway next year. Lee herself was quite private, despite having started a decades-long, national conversation about racial equality. Her death spotlights the life of a female writer whose work lives on.
Our favorite quote: “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.”
10. Shirley MacLaine
Most of us see Shirley MacLaine as star of screen and stage, but equally compelling within her pedigree is the fact that she’s also an accomplished author. Her approach to storytelling is one that explores inner life, divinity and the dynamic journeys of the human soul. With a free spirit and an open heart, MacLaine seeks to make sense of it all, in her inimitable way, in her writing.
Our favorite quote: “We are not victims of the world we see, we are victims of the way we see the world.”