Women’s History Month 2023: A Brief History of Women’s Writing

For Women’s History Month, we’ve put together two displays in the library exploring the history of women writing from the seventh century BCE (Before Common Era) to the twentieth century, as well as an exploration of some of the women who’ve studied at the University of Oxford in the last hundred-odd years. The displays highlight examples of writing by women and try to place those texts within the context of broader change.

If you’ve not caught the display in the library, or if you’ve already left Oxford for the vacation, don’t worry! We’ve put together an overview of the display here. Read to the end for a list of all the texts featured in the display, as well as some other resources you can find at the library.

A Brief History of Women Writing

Glass display case in the library, titled 'A Brief History of Women Writing'. There are six texts on display. From left to right: If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho. The Book of the City of Ladies, by Christine de Pizan. Oroonoko, by Aphra Behn. The Female Quixote, by Charlotte Lennox. A Vindication of the Rights of Women, by Mary Wollstonecraft. A Room of One's Own, by Virginia Woolf

The First Women Writing: 7th Century BCE to 14th Century CE

The first ‘writing women’ featured in this display are Sappho and Christine de Pizan. Sappho ‘flourished’ – that is, ‘either lived or was born or was known to be living’ – roughly 2,000 years ago, in the seventh and sixth centuries BCE. Very little is known about her life. She was from the island of Lesbos, and at some point was exiled to Sicily – though we don’t know when or why. But despite this dearth of knowledge about her ‘real person’, her poetry remains as fascinating today as it was popular in antiquity. Today, only one poem survives in its entirety (you can have a look at the original Greek alongside a translation into modern English in If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho by Anne Carson, which features in the display); the rest are fragments.

Two book covers. Left: If not, winter: Fragments of Sappho by Anne Carson. Right: The Book of the city of Ladies, by Christine de PizanWe know more about the other early woman writer in the display – Christine de Pizan. In 1390, de Pizan was widowed, left with no inheritance or income and three small children to support. Out of necessity, she turned to her pen, becoming the first woman to earn a living through her writing.

De Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies – which is the book included in the display – represents nothing less than the first work written by a woman in praise of women. De Pizan argues that women are not naturally inferior to men, but that they lack the opportunities – and most importantly, education – afforded to men at that time. To a modern reader, her ideas are strikingly feminist; to her contemporaries, they were revolutionary and unprecedented.

(Later in this post, we’ll discuss Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, in which she makes a similar argument roughly 400 years after de Pizan was writing. Depressingly, it was considered just as revolutionary then.)

Writing Fiction in English: 17th to 18th Centuries

From fifteenth-century France, we jump to seventeenth-century England, where Aphra Behn is writing both plays and prose. Behn has often been cited as the first professional female writer, including by Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own (we’ll return later to Woolf and A Room of One’s Own!). There are striking similarities between Behn and her predecessors: Christine de Pizan was earning a living through her writing in the fourteenth century, and we know very little of Behn’s early life – though admittedly more than we know about Sappho.

Christine de Pizan notwithstanding, Behn was the first known Englishwoman to make a living through her writing, and – as Woolf argued – paved the way for the women who would write after her. But later audiences and readers turned away from her work, put off by her open treatment of sexuality and other ‘unfeminine’ topics. While she was a trailblazer, eighteenth-century women’s writing was markedly different. Enter: Charlotte Lennox.

Two cover images. Left: Oroonoko by Aphra Behn. Right: The Female Quixote: or, The Adventures of Arabella by Charlotte Lennox.

Lennox wrote novels, plays and poetry; her most popular work was and remains the novel, The Female Quixote. It recounts the adventures and misadventures of Arabella, a socially isolated young woman who believes that the romance stories she reads accurately reflect real life.

One reason given for the growing number of female writers in the 1700s was women’s ability to commercially exploit ideas of femininity. They explored the ambiguities of innocence as both integral to femininity and a potential source of danger which could leave young women open to corruption. The Female Quixote encompasses these themes, as Lennox shows how Arabella’s innocence and naivety get her into trouble. It is a marked departure from the more open sexuality in Behn’s writing.

For Women, Of Women, By Women: 18th to 20th Centuries

It wasn’t only fiction that women were writing in the eighteenth century. Mary Wollstonecraft, for example, is best remembered for her political writing. In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, she argues that women are not weak and superficial by nature. Instead, their supposed inferiority stems from their lack of education. Society taught women to be pretty and to please men, not to be rational, independent moral people.

Cover image: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and A Vindication of the Rights of Men, by Mary WollstonecraftHer arguments are similar to those made by Christine de Pizan in the fourteenth century: just because so many learned (male) writers say women are inferior to men, does not mean that it’s the natural order. But there are key departures in Wollstonecraft’s work, not least the anger that shines through her writing and her witty ripostes to her (predominantly though not exclusively) male critics. After 400 years where so little seemed to have changed, perhaps her anger and frustration aren’t surprising.

Cover image: A Room of One's Own and Three Guineas, by Virginia WoolfIn the early twentieth century, Virginia Woolf was equally concerned with women’s rights. In A Room of One’s Own, she offers a history of women’s writing and of female authors – or, more accurately, a history of the reasons why women have not been able to write. Her argument builds on what Wollstonecraft had said, in that a lack of education held women back. But Woolf went further, arguing women need not only an education, but also the opportunity to use it: women historically lacked an income and privacy, epitomised by having a room of their own. A Room of One’s Own explores themes which form the undercurrent of all Woolf’s writing, namely the question of woman’s nature and what she can contribute to civilisation.

So there you have it – a brief overview of women’s writing, in the smallest of nutshells! You can find links to the SOLO records for all the books at the end of this post, as well as links to some other resources.

At this point, you may be thinking: the history of women’s writing is all very well, but what were women closer to home writing? Well, wonder no longer! Our second display case for Women’s History Month explores writing by women who were students at Oxford in the twentieth century.

A Brief History of Oxford Women Writing

Close-up of the display case, titled 'Women at the English Faculty'. There are three books in this image. From left to right, they are: Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers; The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch; and Orangers are not the only fruit, by Jeanette Winterson.

It was only 103 years ago that women first received degrees from the University. Women had been able to study at Oxford before then – Vera Brittain, for example, first came up to Oxford in 1914, though her studies were interrupted by the First World War – but it wasn’t until 1920 that women were able to receive their degrees.

Early Twentieth Century: Vera Brittain and Dorothy L. Sayers

Brittain attended Somerville College in 1914, reading English Literature. At that point, she wouldn’t have been able to use the English Faculty Library, which only allowed women in from 1916. After one year of studying, Brittain decided to delay her studies so she could support the war effort, working as a nurse. Testament of Youth (1933) is based on diaries she kept of her experiences during the First World War. In 1919, Brittain returned to Oxford to read History.

Left: Testament of Youth, by Vera Brittain. Right: Gaudy Night, by Dorothy L. SayersBrittain wasn’t the first woman to study at Oxford by any stretch. Dorothy L. Sayers, for example, received the Gilchrist Scholarship for Modern Languages to Somerville College in 1912, graduating with first-class honours in 1915. Although she couldn’t receive her degree at the time, Sayers came back in 1920 and was among the first women to receive an Oxford degree. Gaudy Night (1935) is a mystery novel set at the fictional Shrewsbury College, Oxford, and draws on Sayers’s own university experiences.

Mid- to Late-Twentieth Century: Iris Murdoch, Jeanette Winterson, and Wendy Cope

By the mid-twentieth century, the pace of change was picking up. In 1948, Agnes Headlam-Morley was appointed Professor of International Relations at St Hugh’s College, the first woman to be awarded a full professorship at the University. That same year, Iris Murdoch started teaching philosophy as a fellow of St Anne’s College.

Murdoch had been a student at Sommerville College from 1938 to 1942. While she had initially intended to study English Literature, she ended up switching to ‘Greats’ (a combination of classics, ancient history, and philosophy). The Sea, The Sea (1978) – which features in the display – was her nineteenth novel.

In 1974, male colleges at Oxford started to admit women (it wouldn’t be until 1979 that women’s colleges would begin to admit men). One of the first male colleges to admit women was St Catherine’s College; four years later, Jeanette Winterson went up to St Catherine’s to read English Literature. Her 1985 novel, Oranges are not the only fruit, is a semi-autobiographical work inspired by her experience of coming out as a lesbian.

Top left: The Sea, The Sea, by Iris Murdoch. Bottom left: Two Cures for Love, by Wendy Cope. Right: Oranges are not the only fruit, by Jeanette Winterson.

To give another example of Oxford students’ writing: Wendy Cope read History at St Hilda’s College, training as a teacher and teaching in primary schools before becoming a freelance writer in 1986. Her poetry collection, Two Cures for Love, features poems she wrote between 1979 and 2006. In 2010, Cope was awarded an OBE – nearly a decade before Oxford would achieve gender equality in undergraduate admissions, in 2019.

Women’s writing has certainly come a long way. From Sappho to Virginia Woolf, and from Vera Brittain and Dorothy L. Sayers neither able to use the English Faculty Library nor collect their degrees in the early twentieth century, to the University of Oxford being awarded the silver Athena Swan award for progress towards gender equality in 2023, the pace of change has picked up considerably over the last 100 years.

Interested in finding out more? Have a look at some of the other resources you can access, either in the library or online using your Oxford SSO.

Featured texts (in chronological order as they appear in the display)

Carson, Anne, If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho (2003).

De Pizan, Christine, The Book of the City of Ladies (1983). First published 1405.

Behn, Aphra, Oroonoko (2020). First published 1688.

Lennox, Charlotte, The Female Quixote: or, The Adventures of Arabella (1986). First published 1752.

Wollstonecraft, Mary, A Vindication of the Rights of Men: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, [and] An historical and moral view of the French Revolution (2008). First published 1792.

Woolf, Virginia, A Room of One’s Own; Three Guineas (2000). First published 1929.

Brittain, Vera, Testament of Youth: An autobiographical study of the years 1900-1925 (2014). First published 1933.

Sayers, Dorothy L., Gaudy Night (2016). First published 1935.

Murdoch, Iris, The Sea, The Sea (2001). First published 1978.

Winterson, Jeanette, Oranges are not the only fruit (1985). First published 1985.

Cope, Wendy, Two Cures for Love: Selected Poems 1979-2006 (2008).


Other sources and resources

Amory, Hugh, ‘Lennox [nee Ramsay], (Barbara) Charlotte’, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 21 May 2009. [accessed 8 March 2023]

Anderson, Emily Hodgson, ‘Novelty in Novels: A Look at What’s New in Aphra Behn’s “Oroonoko”’, in Studies in the Novel, 39:1 (2007), pp.1-16.

British Library, ‘Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko, 1688’. [accessed 8 March 2023]

DuBois, Page, Sappho (2015).

Gallagher, Catherine, Nobody’s Story: The vanishing acts of women writers in the marketplace, 1670-1820 (1995).

Goldberg, Jonathan, Sappho: Fragments (2018).

Gordon, Lyndall, ‘Woolf [nee Stephen], (Adeline) Virginia’, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 23 September 2004. [accessed 8 March 2023]

Taylor, Barbara, ‘Wollstonecraft [married name Godwin], Mary’, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 1 September 2017. [accessed 8 March 2023]

Todd, Janet, ‘Behn, Aphra [Aphara]’, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 23 September 2004. [accessed 8 March 2023]

Turner, Cheryl, Living By the Pen: Women writers in the eighteenth century (1992).

Podcast: The Great Forgetting: Women Writers Before Austen (2016). ‘A free podcast series addressing the lives and works of eighteenth-century women writers, devised and produced by one journalist and three academics.’ 

Timeline: 100 years of women’s history at Oxford. [accessed 6 March 2023]

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