Female Firsts in Literature (BCE-1000)

Updated: Mar 11, 2019

Women have been writing as long as there has been written language, and there are plenty of literary firsts achieved by female writers. From innovations in literature to winning major literary prizes, women from all over the world have contributed to the global conversation with their works of fiction, non-fiction, letters, diaries, poetry, plays, journalism, and other written works. This timeline shows a handful of those firsts and how they influenced literature at the local, national, and international level.

From the first known written work in history to early best sellers to one of the first pilgrimage travelogues to early European mystery plays, women have had major roles in literature dating back from ancient and even semi-prehistoric times. Even in cultures seen as repressive and oppressive to women in ancient times, there were often still women working to ensure their voices were heard. Here is a list of some of those accomplishments from 2885 BCE until around 1000 CE.

2885 BCE

Enheduanna is the first writer

The earliest known writer ever recorded is also the first female writer ever recorded. Enheduanna was a high priestess of the goddess Inanna and the moon god Nanna in the Sumerian city state of Ur. She lived sometime between 2285 BCE and 22650 BCE and wrote many texts of ancient Sumerian literature. In addition to the surviving personal devotions and collection of temple hymns ascribed to her, there are even more books that she is said to have written. This makes her the first named author. Of course, priestess and writer weren’t her only roles. Enheduanna was appointed to her role by her father, King Sargon of Akkad, to help secure his power in Ur. She continued to be the head of the temple when her brother Rimush became king. This didn’t mean she kept out of politics.

Disk of Enheduanna is an ancient Sumerian bas-relief portrait depicting Enheduanna, one of the ancient civilizations most prominent high priestesses and the first named author in human history.

One of her surviving compositions “The Exaltation of Inanna” describes how she was removed from her position by her brother due to political turmoil and then eventually reinstated. She wrote the poem as an allegory, connecting her own exile with the exile faced by Naram-Sim who was cursed and cast out by the Sumerian god Enlil. After her death, Enheduanna was made semi-divine herself and was one of the most prominent priestesses depicted in the tombs where the high priestess were buried in Ur. Examples of her work survived for centuries after her death in Sumerian cities including Nippur, Ur, and Lagash and may have even been collectors items at one point.

700 BCE

Gargi Vachaknavi becomes the first known female poet in an Indian language

Born sometime around 700 BCE, Gargi Vachaknavi was an Indian philosopher and renown explorer of Vedic literature. She is said to have written many of the hymns that appear in the Rigveda and engaged in a famous debate with the sage Yajnavalkya, which was organized by the local king. Gargi herself was the daughter of a sage and named after her grandfather, also a sage. She allegedly became interested in Vedic scripture from a young age and was highly knowledgeable in both the Vedas and Upanishads, holding intellectual debates with well-known philosophers. She is still greatly revered today.

690 BCE

Lady Xu Mu becomes the first female poet in China

A princess from the state of Wey (now largely part of the Henan province), Xu Mu was born to the ruling Ji clan in the Spring and Autumn period of China and is considered to be China’s first female poet. She was born in one of the most war-torn eras of Chinese history in the Wey capital city of Dingchang. She was young when she was married to Duke Mu of Xu, whose name she is known by. Far from her home, she began writing poetry to express her homesickness, including her works “Bamboo Pole” and “Spring Water.” She also took an active political role after the assassination of her uncle, who had been king of the Wey state, but writing to leaders for help and even personally visiting people in her chariot to ask them for their aid. She wrote a scathing poem titled “Speeding Chariot” about how unwilling to help or cowardly many of the men she met were. Her work was celebrated not only in her own time but also later and she was included in a Western Han dynasty biography of Chinese great women, cited for both her artistry and patriotism.

630 BCE

Sappho is the most famous poet in Greece

One of the earliest surviving images of Sappho, from c. 470 BC. She is shown holding a lyre and plectrum, and turning to listen to Alcaeus.

One of the most famous female Greek lyric poets of all time, Sappho of Lesbos was widely regarded as one of the ancient civilizations best writers and was known often as “The Tenth Muse” or the “The Poetess.” Even great Greek writer Homer referred to her simply as “The Poet” in many of his works, including a biography he wrote of her. She came to prominence between 630 and 570 BCE ad though most of her poetry is lost today, there is a single poem that survives in its entirety. In addition to the fragments of her poetry, the works of ancient commentators describing her work and its influence still exist.

She was so influential that Greek writers were still trying to imitate her style more than 600 years after she began writing. Little is known about her life, but historians have pieced together some of her story. It is believed she was from a wealthy family from the city of Mytilene on the isle of Lesbos and that she had at least two brothers, possibly three. Her father most likely died in her childhood and She and her entire family wound up exiled to the city of Syracuse in Sicily, then a Greek colony, around the time she began writing, but were eventually allowed to return. It is believed she wrote some 10,000 lines of poetry in her lifetime though only around 650 survive. Much of her life - even her sexuality - is still openly debated among scholars based on what can be pieced together by her own work and that of others.

410 BCE

Aspasia’s rhetoric becomes the basis for Socrates

In the Greek philosophical tradition, it is well-known that Socrates taught Plato who in turn taught Aristole who then taught Alexander the Great. What many do not realize is that there is another link in this chain and it’s a female one. Aspasia was not originally from Athens, but she would take an important role as a Greek thinker. In fact, her home served as one of the intellectual centers of ancient Athens, welcoming the day’s most prominent thinkers and writers and influencing them through her own teaching. There are some scholars who believe that the Socratic method attributed to Socrates was actually a method he learned from Aspasia. Her contributions to Greek thought are mentioned throughout the works of Plato, Aristophanes, Xenophon, and others.

Marble herma in the Vatican Museums inscribed with Aspasia's name at the base. Discovered in 1777, this marble herm is a Roman copy of a fifth-century BC original and may represent Aspasia's funerary stele.

Born in Miletus which is now present-day Turkey, Aspasia most likely belonged to a well-to-do family that provided her with a great education. It is unsure when she first traveled to Athens, but is is believed she was brought there by her sister and brother-in-law Alcibiades II of Scambonidae, who was born in Athens and briefly exiled to Miletus. Aspasia may have had affairs with philosophers including Anaxagoras and General Jason of Lira, but her best known relationship was with the statesman Pericles. The two may have even been married and they definitely had a son known as Pericles the younger. Because she was not from Athens herself, Aspasia was not bound by many of the traditions and customs of Athenian women and therefore was one of few women permitted to participate in Athenian public life. Friends like Socrates would even breach custom of the time by bringing their wives to hear her speak.

It would later be claimed that Aspasia was a prisoner-of-war, slave, prostitute, or brothel owner to downplay her role in Greek thought as well as because she didn’t adhere to the Athenian custom of women not engaging in public discourse. This allegations may have also been part of political attacks against Pericles as well as fears that Aspasia herself was becoming too involved in Athenian politics. However, not all of the press about her from her own time was negative. Plato’s character of Diotima in his Symposium is possibly based on Aspasia and he would later satirize Aspasia and Pericles’ relationship in Menexenus. Historians would also record her as one of Athens first female public orators. Xenophon mentions advice Aspasia gave to Socrates in his writing and both Aeschines Socraticus and Antisthenes named dialogues after her. Socrates even recommended that his fellow Athenians send their sons to her home to learn about thought.

200 CE

Greek physician Metrodora writes the earliest surviving medical text by a woman

While little is known of this ancient Greek woman, Metrodora was one of the first known women to be practicing medicine in the Greco-Roman world. What is known about her is from the two volume, 63 chapter medical text she wrote titled On the Diseases and Cures of Women. The text was one of the earliest dealing with women’s health and in particular gynecology. It remained one of the most influential medical texts about women well into the medieval era. She also wrote about other aspects of women’s health care at a time when the few women who practiced medicine were allowed to do much outside of midwifery. In addition to being the first medical text written by a woman, hers was also the first alphabetized medical encyclopedia.

340 CE

Princess Iwa is credited as the first female Japanese poet

Also known as Empress Iwa no hime for her role as empress consort to Emperor Nintoku, Princess Iwa is largely regarded as the first female Japanese language poet. A descendant of emperors herself, Iwa was her husband’s first wife and lived sometime in the early 300s. She is most known for the poems she exchanged with her husband, which are collected in the Man'yōshū or Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves, itself the oldest existing collection of Japanese poetry. Her poems mostly deal with her longing and love for her husband, though many modern scholars believe these poems may have been more tongue-in-cheek than serious. Three of her sons would go on to be emperors of Japan.

351 CE

Faltonia Betitia Proba becomes the earliest surviving Christian poet

Born sometime around the year 306, Faltonia Betitia Proba is the earliest female Christian poet whose work survives today. Her most well-known work is the Cento Vergilianus de laudibus Christi, a poem where she took verses similar to those of Virgil and applied them to the life of Jesus Christ. She was born into an influential Roman family, her father, brother, and grandfather all serving stints as Roman consuls. She also married into a powerful family and her husband Clodius Celsinus Adelphus was a prefect for the city of Rome. While her family was pagan, Proba converted to Christianity as an adult and convinced her husband and sons to convert as well.

380 CE

Egeria writes one of the earliest surviving travelogues

Also known as Etheria or Aetheria, Egeria is considered to be one of the earliest travelogues ever written and chronicles a journey she took to the Holy Land in the early 380s. The letter was originally titled the Peregrinatio or Itinerarium but has been published in later translated versions as The Journey of Egregia or The Pilgrimage of Egregia. Today, only the middle part of her account survives after being copied into the Codex Aretinus in the 1000s and being rediscovered by an Italian scholar in 1884. A few new fragments dating from around the year 900 have been discovered since. Little is known about the author herself, but her text gives great insights to early Christianity during the period before the fall of the Roman empire and when the empire as centered in Byzantine.

Some scholars believed she was from Gallaecia - the present day province of Galicia - and that her pilgrimage took place between 381 and 384 during the reign of Theodosius I. Others believe, based on the written patterns of speech she uses, that she was from Roman Gaul or modern day France and that her pilgrimage took place about 200 years later during the reign of Justinian. She may have been a nun or simply a religious tourist and was probably from an upper class or wealthy background as she was educated and could afford to take a journey to the Holy Land from Europe. The text is written in an epistolary style to the women of her spiritual group back home, and she details visits to places like Mount Sinai, Constantinople, Jerusalem, Mount Nebo, and the tomb of Job. She also details the liturgical services of the church calendar in these locations, including a celebration of the nativity of Jesus before the church set its date in December.

450 CE

Laila bint Lukaiz becomes the first known Arabian woman poet

Also known as Layla bint Lukayz or Layla the Chaste, this legendary Arabian female poet was one of the first to right romantic epics featuring the concept of the knight and shining armor and damsel-in-distress motif that would later become the model for chivalric romances in European courts. Her most famous poem “If Only al-Barraq Could See” was later set to music and became a popular song in the Arab world. She died around 483 and is one of the few surviving female poets who wrote in the Pre-Islamic Middle East.

600 CE

Al-Khansa becomes the most famous poet in the pre-Muslim world

One of the best known female poets in Arabic literature, the real name of this poetess was Tumāḍir bint ʿAmr ibn al-Ḥareth ibn al-Sharīd al-Sulamīyah. Her nickname al-Khansa meant “gazelle” or “snub-nose,” and she won fame and respect for writing elegies to the deceased that were performed at funerals, one of the few avenues of poetry open to women in her culture. Some of her most famous elegies were written for her own brothers who died in battle.

A modern illustration of how al-Khansa may have looked

Born and raised in Najd, Arabia, she was a contemporary of the prophet Muhammad and eventually converted to Islam. She herself had four sons who also converted and were all killed in the Battle of Qadisiyah. She was considered the finest poet of her time by many of her male contemporaries and didn’t shy away from asserting herself as the finest poet, both male and female, in her culture. The Islamic State would later name their all-female police and religious enforcement unit after her, despite the fact that her poems remained stepped in pre-Islamic tradition and metaphor well after her conversion. Nearly 1,000 lines of her work remain, most of which deal with tenderness and grief. Her poems featured in anthologies of Arabic works as early as the 800s.

915 CE

Rabi'a Balkhi becomes the first female poet to write in Farsi

Also known as Rābi'a bint Ka'b al-Quzdārī, this female Persian poet has achieved legendary status as the first woman writer of New Persian poetry, the term for the earliest poetry written in the Farsi language. Arabic had often overshadowed Farsi or Persian before so Balkhi was one of the first women to make a name for herself writing in her native dialect rather than Arabic. References to her have been made by subsequent Farsi poets, making her one of the few female medieval poets from Persia to be recorded.

A statue of Rabi'a Balkhi

Little is known about her life, but it is believed that she was a native of the city of Balkh in present-day Afghanistan and that she most likely was descended from a royal family. Her father was a chieftain of the Samanid court and was possibly a descendant of Arab immigrants who had come to Persia during the time of Abu Muslim. After her father’s death, her brother allegedly uncovered that she had been having an affair with a Turkish slave and imprisoned her in a bathroom. She wrote her final love poem to the slave in her own blood on the walls and after her brother found she was dead, he killed the slave and then himself. The story, though possibly apocryphal, inspired the Qājār poet Rezā Qulī-Khān Ḥedāyat to write his Baktāshnāma.

931 CE

Uallach ingen Muinechain becomes Ireland's first female Ollamh Érenn or Chief Bard

Not only was Uallach ignen Muinechain one of the first known female Irish poets; she was also considered the greatest bard in Ireland during her lifetime as evidenced by the title Ollamh Érenn. Born in Corca Dhuibhne on the Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry, her father was probably named Muinechain as evidenced by her surname. None of her works survive, but she is mentioned in the Annals of Innisfallen as serving as the Chief Ollam of Ireland or Ollamh Érenn from 931 to 934. This not only makes her one of the only known female poets of early Ireland but also the first woman to hold the title. Each Irish chiefdom or tuath ad its own ollam and overseeing all of these ollams or bards was the chief bard or Ollamh Érenn. The social status of this position was akin to being High King of Ireland and afforded the head bard their own palace, a retinue of about 30 other bards, and their servants as well as the right to wear six colors in their clothes and other honors. The position was largely hereditary and it was hard to become Ollamh Érenn if one’s father and grandfather weren’t poets as well. Originally, it was an appointment made by the high king, but by Uallach’s time it had become an elected position. This meant that Uallach had been voted into the seat by her fellow bards.

935 CE

Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim writes the first medieval play

A 10th Century German cannoness, dramatist, and poetess, Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim is widely considered to be not only the first German woman to write a play but also the first person to write a drama since the fall of the Roman empire. Her name meant “strong honor” in Saxon, but she claimed it meant “a clarion voice” and used that voice to convert others to Christianity from her home at Gandersheim Abbey, today located in Bad Gandersheim in Lower Saxony. It is unknown who her family were or why she chose to be a nun and it is believed that she was born some time after 912 and must have been from a Saxon noble family. It is believed that she also took the veil later and life, perhaps after the death of a husband.

Hrotsvit of Gandersheim presents an aged emperor Otto the Great with her Gesta Oddonis, under the eyes of Abbess Gerberga, depicted in a1501 woodcut by Albrecht Dürer

It is known that she studied under Gerberga, the daughter of Duke Henry I of Bavaria and the niece of Otto the Great. Gerberga herself became abbess of Gandersheim in 956 and introduced Hrotsvitha to ancient Roman writers as well as the writings of church fathers. She also probably read the gnostic or apocryphal gospels because she used some of the material from them in her later works. Hrosvitha’s works are divided today into three major collections. The first is the eight legends that are epic poems depicting the stories of figures including the Virgin Mary, the ascension of Jesus, St. Gangulphus, St. Pelagius of Cordova, St. Theophilus of Adana, St. Basil the Great, St. Denis, and St. Agnes of Rome as well as a poem dedicated to Abbess Gerberga. All of these legends are written in Leonine hexameter save one and the legend of St. Theophilus in particular became one of the most popular of the time.

The second includes a poem about the Vision of St. John along with six dramas about the lives of Abraham, St. Callimachus, St. Gallicanus, the comedy of Dulcitus, Paphnutius or The Conversion of the Harlot Thaïs, and Sapienta, or Widsom. These plays were largely mystery plays that were becoming popular among the Catholic church of the medieval period and had religious themes designed to educate as well as entertain parishioners. The plays also represented Christian alternatives to the Rome style plays popular at the time. It is unknown whether or not any of these plays were actually performed during her lifetime, but it is known that they were performed widely after her death including in Paris in 1888. Her third and final book features historical poems dedicated to the emperors and other important figures who most likely patronized her abbey.

Next - 1000 CE-1500 CE

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