14 Women who have won the Nobel prize in literature
Women make up half of mankind, but only 14 of the 114 are Nobel Literature Prize laureates.
This year, the Swedish Academy will announce not one Nobel literature laureate but two, as the prize seeks to move on from a year of unprecedented scandal.
The head of the award’s committee is confident the prize can make a comeback by avoiding the “male-oriented” and “Eurocentric” perspective that has dominated judging in the past.
The literature Nobel prize ceremony was postponed last year after a sexual abuse and financial misconduct scandal, which led to a series of resignations at the Swedish Academy, which runs the award.
Here is a list of the women who have won the prestigious honor since it was first awarded in 1901.
- 2015 – Svetlana Alexeivich (Belarus)
- 2013 – Alice Munro (Canada)
- 2009 – Herta Mueller (Germany)
- 2007 – Doris Lessing (Britain)
- 2004 – Elfriede Jelinek (Austria)
- 1996 – Wislawa Szymborska (Poland)
- 1993 – Toni Morrison (United States)
- 1991 – Nadine Gordimer (South Africa)
- 1966 – Nelly Sachs (Sweden), with Shmuel Agnon of Israel
- 1945 – Gabriela Mistral (Chile)
- 1938 – Pearl Buck (United States)
- 1928 – Sigrid Undset (Norway)
- 1926 – Grazia Deledda (Italy)
- 1909 – Selma Lagerlof (Sweden)
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. She was awarded the Nobel Prize “in appreciation of the lofty idealism, vivid imagination and spiritual perception that characterize her writings.”
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.”
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.”
Pearl S. Buck
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
A 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.
The British author Doris Lessing has won the 2007 Nobel prize for literature. Lessing, who is only the 11th woman to win literature’s most prestigious prize in its 106-year history, is best known for her 1962 postmodern feminist masterpiece, The Golden Notebook.
The 2009 Nobel prize has been awarded to Herta Müller, for depicting the ‘landscape of the dispossessed’ with ‘the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose’
Canadian short-story writer, 82, was one of favorites to win honor, awarded in same year she announced retirement.
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.”