“Wake me when you cover the Bad GIRLS of Literature,” wrote a commenter who goes by the handle of “Literati” on our recent “10 Legendary Bad Boys of Literature” post. Well, rise and shine, friend, because it’s happening. For this post, we showcase ten fantastic female authors whose careers span 3000 years — from Sappho to Alice Walker — and are just as capable of badass behavior as their male counterparts. We easily could have made this list five times as long, so make your case for any omissions in the comments.
Sappho (Seventh Century BC)
Known both in her own time and today as one of Greece’s most important lyric poets, Sappho has also provided much of our current vocabulary surrounding female homosexuality. Hailing from the isle of Lesbos, she gives us both the noun “lesbian” and the descriptor “sapphic.” But Sappho didn’t just write love poems to people of both sexes — she also ran an academy for young, unmarried ladies that was dedicated to the cults of Eros and Aphrodite, and rumor has it that she was the object of some serious girl-on-girl worship, too. There’s little concrete biographical information to back up the millennia of gossip, and yet, all signs point to Sappho being Western literature’s first full-fledged female badass.
George Sand (1804-1876)
Jumping ahead a couple thousand years, we meet George Sand. This influential French writer was wildly prolific, producing dozens of novels, quite a few plays, several memoirs, and sheaves of literary criticism. Still, she found plenty of time for mischief. Sand (born Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin) was one of many 19th-century female authors who adopted a male pen name, but her gender-bending didn’t stop there. She was known for wearing men’s clothing in public, because she found it more practical than the Victorian-era gowns that constrained other women of the era, and smoked tobacco — a big no-no for ladies at the time. And then there was her romantic life: Married at 19 and divorced nine years later, Sand carried on affairs with some of her most illustrious contemporaries, including Prosper Mérimée and Frédéric Chopin.
Ah, the French. We probably could have populated this whole list with them. (We haven’t, but we’re not through with them, either.) Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette was born in the twilight years of Sand’s life, and in many ways, their biographies are similar. Publishing her debut novels — the then-scandalous Claudine series — under the name of her bisexual first husband, Colette was eventually married three times and is known to have cheated on her second husband with his own son. A music-hall dancer who wrote about the lives of showgirls and courtesans, she was also open about her affairs with women and even kissed one female lover onstage as part of a pantomime at the Moulin Rouge.
Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950)
Her best-known poem is the one about burning the candle at both ends, and boy did she. Beautiful Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote all sorts of transgressive poetry (and plays) in the first half of the 20th century, but she’s just as famous for practicing what she preached. A rebellious child, she went on to a lifetime of bisexual love affairs; her 26-year marriage to Eugen Jan Boissevain was an emphatically open one. Millay’s iconoclasm wasn’t confined to the sexual sphere, either — she was also an outspoken pacifist whose radicalism attracted all sort of popular ire.
Dorothy Parker (1893-1967)
Boasting the sharpest tongue at New York’s legendary Algonquin Round Table, Dorothy Parker was one of the 20th century’s great wits. A novelist, screenwriter, poet, and critic, she was known for her singular aphorisms, fearless willingness to offend her peers, and hard-partying personal life. Parker was married three times (twice to the same man, Alan Campbell, who she called “queer as a billy goat”), carrying on a slew of affairs on the side. She’s also become synonymous with the literary world’s liquor-fueled excess, her spotty late work reflecting the ravages of alcoholism. But, like her contemporary, Millay, Parker’s unconventional sensibility came paired with a deep and forward-thinking concern for social justice. The writer willed her estate to the Martin Luther King, Jr. foundation, and her ashes are buried at the NAACP’s Baltimore headquarters.
Anaïs Nin (1903-1977)
Erotica. Bigamy. Psychoanalysis. High-profile affairs. The biography of Delta of Venus author and scintillating memoirist Anaïs Nin has it all. Splitting her time between the literary crowds of Paris and New York, she didn’t achieve fame until her multi-volume diaries were published, beginning in the last decade of her life. It’s easy to see why the journals are so popular — they’re the perfect book-geek indulgence, chronicling her unconventional marriages and affairs with Henry Miller, Edmund Wilson, Gore Vidal, and featuring cameos by a who’s who of mid-century literati. Undeniably juicy, the diaries are also smart, thoughtful, and richly descriptive.
Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986)
The author of The Second Sex may be known as the mother of French feminism, but that’s just about the only maternal thing about Simone de Beauvoir. Freed from the confinement of marriage by her family’s inability to provide a dowry, she rejected religion as a teenager and eventually fell in with Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist crowd. He and Beauvoir maintained one of the most revolutionary relationships of their time. Although she refused his marriage proposal in 1931 and the couple never cohabited, they remained lovers and trusted colleagues until his death five decades later. While each was the other’s primary partner, both were open about their affairs, and sometimes they shared girlfriends. And if, for some reason, that isn’t enough to qualify Beauvoir as a bad girl, kindly recall that she also knew how to take a sexy photo.
Sylvia Plath (1932-1963)
Let’s get one thing straight: Committing suicide in the prime of her life isn’t what makes Sylvia Plath a bad girl, and depression and electroshock therapy shouldn’t be dismissed as risqué behavior. So, here’s what qualifies Plath in our mind: her frank writing about mental illness and sexuality in The Bell Jar, her soul-baring poetry, and her inspiring commitment “to be true to my own weirdnesses.” Oh, and there’s the fact that the first time she met husband Ted Hughes — who had a girlfriend at the time, mind you — she liked him so much that she bit his cheek and drew blood. Now that’s badass.
Kathy Acker (1947-1997)
The first thing you need to know about Kathy Acker is that her postmodern 1984 novel, Blood and Guts in High School, is a cult classic that helped inspire the riot grrrl movement. Combining purposefully plagiarized passages with a plot that features incest, abortion, and the queer outlaw French writer Jean Genet, the book flummoxed critics, divided feminists, and managed to piss off just about everyone. Her later writing was no less difficult or controversial, continuing to incorporate lifted passages, critical theory, and even pornography. The second thing you need to know about Acker is that she grew up wanting to be pirate. Although she died in 1997 of breast cancer, presumably without ever captaining a rebel ship, we think we can safely say that in many inspiring ways (not least her appropriation of other texts), she became one.
Alice Walker (b. 1944)
She may not be bad in the same way as Dorothy Parker and Colette, but make no mistake — Alice Walker is a badass. Her novel The Color Purple, which addresses the economic and sexual oppression of poor, black women, was nothing short of revolutionary, and its unflinching depiction of sexual violence continues to make it a target for censors. But Walker’s fearlessness isn’t limited to her writing; a civil rights activist in the ’60s who withstood Ku Klux Klan harassment after her interracial marriage in 1965, she was arrested alongside fellow bad-girl author Maxine Hong Kingston in a 2003 protest against the Iraq War.