Just 15 Women Have Won The Nobel Prize In Literature
The Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded twice this year, following a sexual assault scandal within the Swedish Academy that resulted in the postponement of last year's award. The good news is that one of the winners was Olga Tokarczuk, the Polish author of Flights and Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of Your Dead. For anyone who isn’t familiar with the history of the Nobel Prize in Literature, it might come as a surprise that of the 116 Nobel Laureates awarded the prize, only 15 are women. (Or, maybe, given that the history of fanfare bestowed upon women artists is spotty, at best, this won’t come as a surprise at all.)
As one of the original Nobel Prizes listed in the will of Alfred Nobel, founder of the prize, the first Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded in 1901. The first woman writer to receive the prize, Swedish writer Selma Lagerlöf, did so in 1909. The longest period the Academy has ever gone without awarding a woman was from 1966 to 1991: a whopping quarter of a century. And, although women writers have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature much more frequently — nine of the last 28 laureates have been women — men definitely still dominate the field.
But with the rise of women’s voices everywhere from politics to popular culture — and given that the 2017 award was postponed specifically because 18 women raised their voices against assault and harassment — it seemed inevitable that the Swedish Academy would celebrate one of the numerous women writers worthy of the prize this year.
Let’s look back on the 15 spectacular women writers who have won the Nobel Prize.
Year won: 1909
Not only was Selma Lagerlöf the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, she was also the first woman admitted into The Swedish Academy, in 1914. A Swedish teacher and novelist, Lagerlöf’s work was influenced by her early experiences with children’s literature and by reading the Bible cover-to-cover, which she did at just 10-years-old. She was awarded the Nobel Prize "in appreciation of the lofty idealism, vivid imagination and spiritual perception that characterize her writings."
Year won: 1926
An Italian novelist who was reputed to have published one novel a year on average throughout her career, Grazia Deledda was the second woman awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature "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.” Writing from and about the culture of Sardinia, Deledda's work often focused on themes of isolation and ostracization.
Year won: 1928
A Norwegian novelist deeply influenced by Catholicism, Sigrid Undset wrote primarily about the experiences of women, and specifically — as in the case of her best-known work, Kristin Lavransdatter — women of the Middle Ages. It's this work especially for which she was awarded the Nobel, "principally for her powerful descriptions of Northern life during the Middle Ages.” She was forced to flee Europe for the United States in 1940, because of her vocal opposition to Nazi Germany.
Pearl S. Buck
Year won: 1938
The Good Earth was a novel I grew up on — one that was read and referenced in my home frequently, well before I could understand it. It was for this best-selling work in particular that Pearl S. Buck won both the Pulitzer Prize and later, the Nobel Prize. An American daughter of missionaries, Buck spent most of her early years in Zhenjiang, China. These experiences are what informed much of her writing, which the Swedish Academy said were: "rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life in China and biographical masterpieces.”
Year won: 1945
The pseudonym of Chilean poet and diplomat Lucila Godoy Alcayaga, Gabriela Mistral was the first Latin American to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, for "her lyric poetry which, inspired by powerful emotions, has made her name a symbol of the idealistic aspirations of the entire Latin American world." Fun fact: she’s also the face pictured on the 5,000 Chilean peso.
Year won: 1966
Growing up as a Jewish child in Germany during the rise of the Nazis left Nelly Sachs so terrified she was unable to speak at one point. In 1940, she fleed to Sweden, a feat facilitated by another female Nobel Laureate, Selma Lagerlöf, who is credited with saving Sachs' life. Suffering from mental illness throughout her life, Sachs' poignant poetry became an outlet for her paranoia and hallucinations. She was awarded the Nobel for: "her outstanding lyrical and dramatic writing, which interprets Israel's destiny with touching strength."
Year won: 1991
South African writer and activist Nadine Gordimer's novels couldn't be published for years in her home country. Focused on issues of racism and apartheid, novels like Burger's Daughter and July's People, which explore anti-apartheid martyrdom and an imagined South African revolution were banned under the regime. The Swedish Academy, however, deemed her work "of very great benefit to humanity" and worthy of the Nobel.
Year won: 1993
This iconic American novelist's Nobel Prize was long overdue — Toni Morrison was rocking the literary world all the way back in 1970. In the middle of the publication of Morrison's Beloved trilogy, she was awarded the Nobel for "novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, [which] give life to an essential aspect of American reality". She was the first black woman to do so.
Year won: 1996
Polish poet and essayist Wisława Szymborska won the Nobel for "poetry that with ironic precision allows the historical and biological context to come to light in fragments of human reality" — despite the fact that she once claimed no more than 2,000 people appreciate the art of poetry.
Year won: 2004
An feminist and activist Austrian playwright and novelist who isn't afraid to write about women, sex, and Communism — making her somewhat controversial — Elfriede Jelinek, while honored to receive the Nobel prize, simultaneously regretted the end of the relative anonymity she was said to have enjoyed. (Ironically, she also noted a male writer who she thought was more deserving of the prize than her.) Nevertheless, the Swedish Academy gave her the award "for her musical flow of voices and counter-voices in novels and plays that with extraordinary linguistic zeal reveal the absurdity of society's clichés and their subjugating power."
Year won: 2007
Doris Lessing’s geographic history is a unique one — born to British parents in Iran, she grew up in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) before settling in the United Kingdom. If you recognize her, it’s probably for her now-feminist classic novel The Golden Notebook, which is a collection of the imagined diaries of writer and artist Anna Wulf and explores — as most of her work does — the interior lives of characters and women, the social pressures and the mental breakdowns. Of her and her, the Swedish Academy said: "that epicist of the female experience, who with skepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilization to scrutiny."
Year won: 2009
Born in Romania, but living and writing in German, Herta Müller is a novelist and a poet, the creative mind behind novels like The Hunger Angel and even the film The Fox Has Always Been The Hunter. Her work, which has been translated into more than 20 languages, reads like political terror (if that were actually a genre.) Or, as the Swedish Academy said: "with the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed."
Year won: 2013
If you've ever taken a college-level writing or literature class, chances are you've come across Alice Munro. The Canadian writer is basically the best short story author in the history of written language. Fittingly, the Swedish Academy thought so too, awarding her the Nobel with the description: "master of the contemporary short story."
Year won: 2015
A Belarusian investigative journalist and oral historian, Svetlana Alexievich has spent her career writing about the people who are often forgotten in the aftermath of war or disaster: mothers, children, women. She was the first Belarusian author awarded the prize, for what the Swedish Academy described as her "polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time."
Year won: 2018
In 2019, the Swedish Academy awarded two Nobel Prizes in Literatures, after a #MeToo scandal resulted in the postponement of the 2018 awards. That is why Olga Tokarczuk was officially announced as a Nobel Laureate in Oct. 2019, though she is technically the 2018 winner.
Tokarczuk is beloved — and widely read — in her native Poland and beyond. In the United States, her work has been widely celebrated. Flights, released in its English translation in the U.S. in 2018, won the Man Booker International Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award for Translated Literature. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, published in the U.S. in 2019, was longlisted for the same award.
The Swedish Academy attributed her win to "a narrative imagination that with encyclopedia passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life."
Additional reporting by Cristina Arreola.
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