Female Nobel Prize Winners: Literature

The Nobel Literature Prize is the highest award one can achieve for their writing. Swedish inventor and industrialist of the Nobel Prize, Alfred Nobel, declares that the winner is awarded to “those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit of mankind.” Today, on October 8, 2020, the number of female Nobel Prize winners rose by one: essayist and poet Louise Glück is the first woman writer to win the prize for literature since 1996 when Wisława Szymborska was awarded the prize for her work in poetry. Glück’s matter-of-fact diction coupled with her sharp wit has captured the hearts of her readers, and now, the Norwegian Nobel Committee.

Women in Literature

It has taken a long time for females to become recognized for their brilliance in the literary field. Some of the greatest women novelists were subjected to shallow criticism by their male editors and contemporaries. The Brontë sisters originally published their novels under a male alias, using the names Currur, Ellis, and Acton Bell. Charlotte Brontë later stated, “We did not like to declare ourselves women, because… we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice.”

It can only be speculated that this was due to the scathing criticism that Emily Brontë received when Wuthering Heights (1847) was first published. Male reviewers described the novel as “brutal,” “wicked,” and “inartistic.” Even distinguished male authors have made unethical remarks, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of The Scarlet Letter (1850). In 1855, he stated in a letter to his publisher that “America is now wholly given over to a damned mob of scribbling women, and I should have no chance of success while the public is occupied with their trash.”

Wuthering Heights (1847)
A page from the first edition of the novel Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, 1847.

It is hard to believe that such prejudice could exist today, especially with the modern proliferation of great female writers, such as Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Amy Tan, Anne Rice, etc…. However, the 2011 Nobel Laureate V.S. Naipaul recently expressed his belief that women writers are unequal to men.

In an interview with Royal Geographic Society, Naipaul was asked if he considered any woman literary writer to be his match. His response: “I don’t think so.” He even considers Jane Austen to be his inferior, because of her “sentimentality” and “narrow view of the world.” He explained that “Inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of the house, so that comes over in her writing too.”

It is astonishing how such ignorant and shallow prejudices could still exist today, and more surprisingly, within the minds of exceptionally bright people. So, in honor of the women who have overcome this discrimination and degradation, here are some of the female Nobel Prize winners who have made a profound impact on mankind.

Selma Lagerlöf, 1909

female nobel prize winners
Swedish writer Selma Lagerlöf (1858–1940).

Selma Lagerlöf, a Swedish author and teacher, was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature for her “lofty idealism” and “vivid imagination.” Lagerlöf is considered a revolutionary romanticist who challenged the prevailing realism of her male contemporaries. Her novels and other fantastical works are set with beautiful and sometimes haunting landscapes filled with wolves, snow, supernatural elements, and eccentric characters. Her most famous novels are the Gösta Berling’s Saga (1891), The Emperor of Portugallia (1914), and The Wonderful Adventures of Nill (1904).

Grazia Deledda, 1926

female nobel prize winners
Portrait of Grazia Deledda by Plinio Nomellini, 1914, oil on canvas, private collection.

Grazia Maria Cosima Damiana Deledda was an Italian writer, who wrote a large collection of novels, short stories, poems, articles, and stage plays. The themes of her work, which placed her in the small group of female Nobel Prize winners, mainly center around love, pain, death, passion, and moral dilemmas. Many of her novel’s characters are described as outcasts who struggle with isolation (a timeless problem that we can all relate to, especially while undergoing quarantine). Deledda’s writing also prominently features aspects of her cultural life in Sardinia. Henrick Shuck of the Swedish Academy praised her for “her idealistically inspired writings which with plastic clarity picture the life on her native island and with depth and sympathy deal with human problems in general.” Her most popular works include New Italian Women: A Collection of Short Stories (1926) and Reeds in The Wind (1913).

Pearl S. Buck, 1938

Pearl Buck
Pearl Buck sitting at a table and writing, Korea, 1969.

Pearl S. Buck was an American writer and teacher who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for her best-selling novel, The Good Earth (1931). She was the first American woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for her “rich and truly epic description of peasant life in China.” Afterwards, she became a leading advocate in the Rights of Women and Minorities group, and she is also well known for her efforts to promote Asian and mixed-race adoptions. Her other notable works include Pavilion of Women (1946), Peony (1948), and the more recent Portrait of a Marriage (2014).

Nelly Sachs, 1966

Nelly Sachs
Photograph of the Nobel laureates Nelly Sachs and Samuel Agnon preparing for the festivities in Stockholm December 10, 1966.

Nelly Sachs was a German-Swedish poet and playwright. Her life under the Nazi regime led her to portray the grief and suffering of her fellow Jewish people. Sach’s writing is eloquent, lyrical, and reflects the influence of German romanticism that she experienced while growing up. Her only love, a non-jewish man, was killed at an early age in a concentration camp. This is most likely why many of her love poems, such as “You Too, My Love” and “Here and There” end with a beloved’s death or some other form of tragedy. Her prose is hauntingly beautiful and represents the horrors Jewish people endured throughout the Holocaust. In 1961, when Nelly was presented with the first Nelly Sachs award for her literary achievements in Germany, she stated “I represent the tragedy of the Jewish people.”

Nadine Gordimer, 1991

female nobel prize winners
South African writer and political activist Nadine Gordimer at the Göteborg Book Fair, September 24, 2010.

Nadine Gordimer was a South African writer and political activist who deals with race issues such as the South African Apartied. Her novels portray the complicated social and personal relationships between her characters who are placed in extremely contentious environments. Her best received novels, claimed as masterpieces, are July’s People (1981), Burger’s Daughter (1979), and The Conservationist (1974).

Toni Morrison, 1993

female nobel prize winners
Toni Morrison speaking at “A Tribute to Chinua Achebe – 50 Years Anniversary of Things Fall Apart“. New York City, February 26th, 2008.

Chloe Anthony Wofford Morrison, also known as Toni Morrison, was an American novelist, essayist, book editor, and college professor. Her work explores the history of Black Americans through narrative stories of individual people. She is best known for her novel Beloved (1987), which is based on a true story of a runaway slave. The characters in her novels live in unjust societies where they struggle to define themselves. The central themes in her work — justice, race discrimination, cultural identity, wealth disparity, and sexism — derive empathy from readers of any race.

Alice Munro, 2013

female nobel prize winners
Photo courtesy of Marie Crestie Joie Contrata on Pexels.com.

Alice Munro, another name on the shortlist of female Nobel Prize winners, is a Canadian short story writer, who was deemed “master of the contemporary short story” by the Swedish Academy. Her work revolves around the mundane life of average men and women who, upon closer inspection, are not so average at all. Relationship problems, moral dilemmas, and the subtleties between memory and reality are often depicted in her works. Although Munro began writing as a teenager, her work was rejected for many years before she was successfully published. Her most notable works include The Love of a Good Woman (1998) Runaway (2004), and Dear Life (2012).

Olga Tokarczuk, 2018

female nobel prize winners
Author Olga Tokarczuk at the presentation of the Polish movie Spoor at Berlinale, 2017.

Olga Tokarczuk is a Polish writer, political activist, and intellectual. Her novels are famous for creating tension between culturally opposing characters like in Flights (2007) and The Books of Job (2014). The themes of her work include nature versus culture, reason versus madness, male versus female, and home versus alienation. Some of her most praised novels are Drive Your Plow Over The Dead (2009), Primeval and Other Times (1996), and House of Day, House of Night (1998).

Written by Katie Jensen

Click here to learn more about the Nobel Prize in Literature.

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