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Although the world’s earliest-known writer (Enheduanna, c. 2300 BCE) was a woman, women’s literature has largely been disregarded and trivialized, at least until the twentieth century’s feminist wave focused attention on it. From ancient Greece’s Sappho to contemporary authors of the developing world, the subjects, styles, and stories are varied; women’s literature, however, often does challenge boundaries and confront oppression.
Historically, women have both penned and been the subject of literary works since ancient times, but their relationship to the literary realm has been mediated by their struggle to become literate—to be able to write, read, and critique literary works—and by their insufficient participation in the production process. As objects under the male gaze, they have largely been stereotyped or downright ignored, rarely presented as autonomous agents of history. Furthermore, women writers historically have been marginalized by their male counterparts, and many of their works either remain unacknowledged or tokenized by literary critics. With the rise of the global women’s movement, and the feminist movements in the West in the last millennium, male and female scholars alike are rediscovering and celebrating foundational works of women’s literary production from ancient times to the present.
Ancient Women Writers
Some of the earliest writings and evidence of women’s literacy have been found in excavations of the ancient cities and cultural centers of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia, and the Americas. The earliest known female writer, and the earliest known author of all literature, Enheduanna, lived and wrote around 2300 BCE, almost two thousand years before the “Golden Age” of Greece, in what we know today as the Middle East. She was an Acadian (at the time part of what is present-day Iraq) writer, priestess, poet, and princess, daughter to King Sargon I of Akkad, who created the first historical empire. The paucity of writing about this important author and poet as well as her exclusion from world literature and women’s literature anthologies is not surprising given that her works have only recently resurfaced. All of the artifacts upon which translations of Enheduanna’s work are based come from the Old Babylonian period nearly a half millennium after her existence and include at least two and possibly three major hymns directed to the goddess Inanna, the goddess of battle. These works were rediscovered in excavations at Ur in 1921, but the first translations of her work into English did not occur until 1968 when W. W. Hallo and J. J. Van Dijk translated The Exaltation of Inanna by Enheduanna. More recently, the German scholars Annette Zgoll and C. Wilcke have separately identified up to forty-nine newly publicized texts, resulting in a new, updated translation by Zgoll.
Although no evidence has been unearthed so far of literary works written by ancient Egyptian women, they did have a goddess of writing—the goddess Seshat, the “female scribe.” Other than Seshat, very few women were depicted with a scribe’s writing kit in the surviving scrolls, as the preferred writing medium of papyrus has not endured the passage of time like the clay tablets of Mesopotamia. The high-ranking or royal women who were literate were often given a private tutor who taught them reading and writing. For example, Neferura, the female pharaoh Hatshepsut’s (reigned 1503–1482 BCE) daughter, had a private tutor, Senmut. Excavations in Egyptian tombs have provided evidence that at least some ordinary housewives were able to read and write—there were laundry lists, female fashion advice, and other female concerns found in preserved papyrus scrolls. A detailed history of the role of women in ancient Egypt is provided in Mistress of the House, Mistress of Heaven: Women in Ancient Egypt (Capel, Markoe, and Markoe 1977).
The Greek poet Sappho is one of the most well-known female poets of all time. She was born toward the end of the seventh century BCE, during the Greek Archaic Period. A native of Mitylene in the island of Lesbos, Sappho was one of the two (with Alcaeus) great leaders of the Aeolian school of lyric poetry. She was widely acclaimed for the originality of her brilliant lyric poetry and lived to be honored by her people for her literary gift. Poetry in her day was usually accompanied by music and dance, and Sappho was so accomplished at composing in all three modes that she acquired a reputation for being the divine inspiration of the muses; she was even referred to as the tenth muse. The debate and speculation about her expression of strong passion toward other women has been the subject of many articles, books, presentations, conferences, and even websites. But in Sappho’s society, as in later pre-Freudian eras, women often congregated and, among other social activities, shared the poetry they had written, and their open expression of love and passion toward one another, whether sexual or not, was acceptable and commonplace. Her lyric poems formed nine or ten books, but only fragments of these have weathered the ages, and no piece is longer than sixteen lines. The most important is an ode to Aphrodite, which may be the most complete of the works that have survived.
The first recorded female playwright, Hroswitha of Gandersheim, was born in 932 CE to the Saxon aristocracy. She became a Benedictine cloister nun early in life and was known for her witty and farcical plays. A century later, Anna Comnena became the first female historian. Born in 1083, Comnena detailed the reign of her father, Alexius I, and the exchanges between the Byzantines and western crusaders of the first crusades in her fifteen-volume history of her family, titled Alexiad. Comnena lived in an era when women chiefly were expected to remain secluded in their quarters (called gyneceum) attending solely to family matters. They covered their faces with veils in public and were not even allowed to appear in processions. In her writings, however, it is evident that she was allowed to express her own thoughts and serve an important role in preserving her family’s history.
In the realm of theology, composition, and visionary writing, Hildegard von Bingen, born in 1098, published the visionary Scivias. Known as “Sybil of the Rhine,” she was highly revered for her treatises about natural history and medicinal uses of flora and fauna as well as minerals and stones. She founded several convents, and is the first composer whose biography is known. She has been beatified and is often referred to as Saint Hildegard. She wrote, composed, and was a respected leader and wise woman at a time when few women were accorded these privileges.
Japanese writer Murasaki Shikibu is credited with writing the world’s oldest novel and one of the finest, The Tale of Genji. Written in the Heian period (794–1185) in Japanese history, during the early eleventh century, when prose and poetry by women scarcely existed in the West, the work followed a tradition of romances depicting life among the court nobility of Japan. Shikibu was born into the Fujiwara family, daughter of the governor of a province, who was a well-known scholar. He allowed Shikibu to study with her brother, even letting her learn some Chinese classics, which was considered improper for females at the time. In its length (more than one thousand pages in the English translation), complexity, realism, psychological depth, and literary distinction, The Tale of Genji is considered a masterpiece of Japanese literature.
The First Feminists
With the publication of her poetry in the fourteenth century, poet and philosopher Christine de Pisan became the first woman to earn her living through writing. She is widely believed to be the first feminist writer in the history of literature. Many of de Pisan’s works urged that women be allowed to participate more fully in society. She also denounced the way women were portrayed in medieval literature. For example, in her long poem Letter to the God of Love, she complained that women were often described as dishonest and unreliable. She openly criticized misogynous literature in a controversial debate known as the Querelle des Femmes, a debate which is thought to have also inspired many British women writers who came after her.
Indeed, British women writers argued strongly for women’s literacy, even as they were forced to use pen names so as to avoid scandal. The first known feminist argument published in English is credited to one Margaret Tyler, whose true identity remains a mystery. In 1578, Tyler argued that women have the same capacity to research and write as men do, and that they should be allowed not only to write, but also to choose their own subjects. A decade later, in 1589, another writer whose identity is still unclear but who went by the pen name of Jane Anger became the first major female polemicist in English. In a lengthy tract called Jane Anger: Her Protection for Women (1589), she challenged the misogyny present in Elizabethan culture and asked, “Was there ever any so abused, so slaundered, so railed upon, or so wickedly handeled [sic] undeservedly, as are we women?” Other “First Feminists,” as the scholar Moira Ferguson calls them, include Aphra Behn, the first female British playwright and a spy for the British government; Mary Collier, author of The Woman’s Labour (1739); Ann Cromartie Yearsley, author of “A Poem on the Inhumanity of the Slave-Trade” (1788); Catherine Sawbridge Macaulay Graham, who in 1790 published Letters on Education; and the most influential British feminist thinker of her time, Mary Wollstonecraft, who said, “It would be an endless task to trace the variety of meanness, cares and sorrows, into which women are plunged by the prevailing opinion, that they were created to feel than reason, and that all the power they obtain, must be obtained by their charms and weakness.” Wollstonecraft advocated for a more humanitarian approach to Native American Indians, and in her A Vindication of the Rights of Man (1793), she attacked slavery as well. Her persuasive and passionate call for human justice is exemplified in her most famous work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, written in 1792.
Following in the line of daughters of the nobility around the world who had access to literacy, the Indian poet Mira Bai, a devotee of Krishna and a princess who renounced her royal family, was the only female among the sixteenth-century Bhakti poets. Her poems celebrate women’s songs and folk traditions, and are often directly addressed to a female friend or an audience of women. At a time when infringement of the rules of chastity, modesty, and seclusion for married women was an insult to the family of a noblewoman, her writings showed a remarkable sensuality and were considered to be quite subversive.
In the Americas, there is also a rich history of women authors that has only recently begun to be rediscovered and celebrated. Societal and cultural attitudes resulting from the legacy of colonization, genocide, forced destruction, and undermining of indigenous people’s traditions and values have led to a literary canon that is characterized by the inadequate representation of female-authored works. Of the autonomous ancient peoples of Mesoamerica (i.e., central and south Mexico, including the Gulf Coast, the Yucatan Peninsula, Guatemala, and parts of El Salvador and Honduras, the general area where high civilizations flourished between 1000 BCE and 1521 CE), it is the Aztec princess Macuixochitl “5-Flor” (5-Flower) who stands as the lone female voice in a rare compilation of poems by thirteen Aztec poets published by Don Miguel Leon Portillo, Mexico’s leading indigenous scholar, in the 1960s. Daughter of the great adviser to seven Aztec emperors, Tlatoani Tlacaelel, Princess Macuixochitl 5-Flor exemplifies the high status that the daughters of the ancient Aztec nobility could achieve. Hers is so far the only female literary voice that remains from precolonial Mesoamerican history, even though there are several chronologies of the conquest that provide a secondhand portrayal of women and their experiences in colonial America. Of these representations, perhaps the most famous in Latin America and in world literature is the figure of La Malinche, an Indian woman who served as interpreter, guide, mistress, and confidante to the Spanish invader Hernan Cortes during the time of the conquest. Considered by some as the first woman of Mexican literature—and by most Mexicans before the modern period as a traitor, prostitute, and symbol of national betrayal—her story has been the topic of countless and oftentimes contradictory descriptions and interpretations and, with the rise of Chicana and Mexicana writers and critics such as Adelaida R. Del Castillo, Cherrie Moraga, and Elena Poniatowska in the twentieth century, of more positive reconfigurations.
The first feminist, and undoubtedly the greatest poet of the Americas in the seventeenth century, the Mexican poet Juana Ines de la Cruz, was born in 1651 in San Miguel Nepantla, a village south of Mexico City. Her given name was Juana Ines Ramirez. She was a Jesuit nun, a woman of genius whose ideas and accomplishments were ahead of her time. With works like Respuesta a Sor Filotea (Response to Sor Filotea), Protesta Que Rubrica con Su Sangre (Profession of the Faith Signed with Her Own Blood), and Carta Atenagorica (The Athenagoric Letter) Sor Juana, a Jesuit nun, became the first woman in the Americas to speak out against the injustices done to women and called for their education. She wrote amazing lyrical poetry, of which her most famous are her Redondillas. She also wrote comedic plays that criticized the passive role that was expected of women in the Middle Ages, and challenged the female archetypes in medieval literature. Her secular poetry, her rhetoric, music, plays, and pursuit of scientific knowledge were unheard of in her society, especially by a nun, and she was in the end censured for her analysis of a sermon given by a Jesuit priest she disagreed with. When she refused to stop writing secular works, she was forced by the archbishop to turn over her books, scientific instruments, and other possessions, and died alone of an unknown epidemic that swept her convent. She is often compared to the Greek poet Sappho and has influenced countless women writers after her.
The 1800s and Early 1900s
The late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw a proliferation of publications by women. After centuries of calling for greater access to literacy and education, to legal rights and labor rights, the international women’s struggle for human and civil rights intensified and reached new heights. An influential group of American women, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, composed the “Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions,” outlining the main issues and goals for the emerging women’s movement, at the First Women’s Rights Convention at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. The first gains in the international suffragist movement earned women the right to vote in countries like Sweden (1862, in local elections), Scotland (1881, local elections), and New Zealand, which became the first and only country to allow women to vote before the end of the nineteenth century, in 1893. In the United States, at the same time when Southern white women created Confederate memorial societies to help preserve the memory of the “Lost Cause,” newly emancipated Southern black women formed thousands of organizations aimed at “uplifting the race.” Then, in 1866, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony formed the American Equal Rights Association, an organization for white and black women and men dedicated to the goal of universal suffrage. It was in this environment of division and cooperation that African-American women’s writings began to proliferate. The works of these writers spanned several literary genres, including poetry, essays, short stories, histories, narratives (including slave narratives), autobiographies, novels, theological works, social criticism, and economic and philosophical treatises. Although the first known book of poetry by an African American, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral by Phillis Wheatley, appeared in 1773, it was not until the mid-nineteenth century that novels like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) and Our Nig by Harriet Wilson (1859) appeared. This is perhaps due to the fact that before the Civil War, most people of African descent were held in bondage in the United States. Sojourner Truth once remarked, in reply to an allusion to the late Horace Greeley, “You call him a self-made man; well, I am a self-made woman.” Indeed, what may be considered the first testimonial work by an African American woman, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave, a dictated memoir by Sojourner Truth, was published in 1850, and the first collection of essays by an African American, Ann Plato’s Essays, was published in 1841.
Other important African American women writers include Harriet Jacobs, Nancy Prince, Elizabeth Keckley, and Ellen Craft. Jacobs, who was born in 1813 and wrote the most in-depth pre–Civil War slave narrative written by an African American woman in America, published her Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl in 1861. The book was thought to be written by a white woman until the rediscovery of Jacobs’s works in the 1980s, as she had not used people’s real names and claimed the pseudonym Linda Brent for herself in the narrative. Nancy Prince, who published Narrative of the Life and Travels of Mrs. Nancy Prince in 1850, provided the first autobiographical account of life as a free black woman in antebellum America. It is also an important contribution to the genre of autobiographical travelogues, since she documents her travels to Russia, Jamaica, and different parts of the United States over the course of eighteen years and provides a firsthand account of the 1824 flood of St. Petersburg, the deaths of Emperor Alexander I and Empress Elizabeth, and the Decembrist Revolt of 1826. Elizabeth Keckley, who wrote Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House as a personal account of life in the White House, challenged the predominant stereotypes of women, and African American women in particular, in the nineteenth century. A friend and confidante of Mary Todd Lincoln, she was highly criticized for claiming that she was a friend of a white woman, and the wife of a president at that. The oldest son of President Lincoln, Robert Lincoln, waged a campaign against the book, and was successful in having the book withdrawn from publication. She went on to found a school for young black girls in 1863, was president and founder of the First Black Contraband Relief Organization, and represented Wilberforce University at the 1893 Columbian World’s Exhibition in Chicago. Ellen Craft’s amazing account of her and her husband’s escape from slavery, Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom, is considered to be “one of the first examples of racial passing, crossdressing, and middle-class performance in a society where each of these boundaries were thought to be distinct and stable” (Brusky 2000). Craft dared to use her light skin to pass as a white male in order to travel by train and boat, with her husband William Craft posing as her slave. Their escape, and particularly Ellen’s disguise, illustrates the interlocking nature of race, gender, and class, for Ellen’s passing had to be successful in all three arenas simultaneously in order for them to travel undetected. And since William’s narrative voice actually tells the story, Running also shows how difficult it was, even for a woman bold and daring enough to escape slavery in this way, to find a public voice as a black woman. Indeed, like her disguise, which involved poultices that “muffled” her and allowed her to avoid conversation, Ellen’s voice is given through the filter of William’s perspective.
The mid-nineteenth century also saw the publication of one of the earliest precursors to contemporary Chicana (Mexican-American) literary tradition. With the publication of her novels Who Would Have Thought It? in 1885 and The Squatter and the Don (under the pseudonym C. Loyal) in 1872, Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton became the first writer to publish a novel from the perspective of the Californios, the dispossessed population living in Alta California at the end of the U.S. invasion of Mexico that began in 1846 and ended with the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo in 1848. Ruiz de Burton’s novels and personal writings provide a scathing condemnation of the new rulers and the forms of ruling imposed upon the conquered population and give balance to mainstream histories of this period of American history.
In Spain, the nineteenth century produced the most celebrated female author of her time, and arguably one of Spain’s most important literary figures. Emilia Pardo Bazan, born in 1852, was a Spanish countess who wrote over five hundred short stories and essays, more than forty novels, and seven plays. She also edited and published several magazines in her lifetime, including La Revista de Galicia and Nuevo Teatro Critico, and in 1892 founded La Biblioteca de la Mujer (The Woman’s Library). Having had her first work published at the age of eight, she won many awards, perhaps the most notable of which was the Crux Pro Ecclesia et Pontifi ce (Cross for the Church and Pontiff), which she received from Pope Benedict XV. Of all her works, perhaps her best known piece is La cuestion palpitante (The Critical Issue), written in 1883. A polemical essay that discusses naturalism, it introduced the French and Russian literary movements to Spain and started an important literary controversy in which she championed the free will of the individual. In 1916 she became Professor of Contemporary Literature at Central University of Madrid, a position created solely for her.
Born in 1882, Adeline Virginia Stephen, or Virginia Woolf, is credited with developing a new kind of prose that she associated with female consciousness and with her precise evocations of states of mind and body; thus she joined Marcel Proust and James Joyce in a move away from the conventions of modernist realism and linear plot to a more complex ordering of her narratives, including juxtapositions of diverse points of view, incomplete perspectives, and time and space displacement. A Room of One’s Own, perhaps her most famous work, examines the history of literature written by women and argues for women’s economic independence and the privacy of a room in which to write. Originator of the Bloomsbury Group, she was a successful publisher, founding Hogarth Press in 1917 with her husband, Leonard Woolf. She was also an activist in the suffrage and feminist movement, and taught as a volunteer at Morley College, which provided educational opportunities for workers, although her weak health and severe bouts of depression and mental illness plagued her until 1941, when she committed suicide.
Contemporary Women Writers
The French writer Simone de Beauvoir, with the publication of her book The Second Sex in 1953, is considered by some to have inspired the second wave of the feminist movement with her in-depth discussion of women’s oppression and of their role as “other.” Indeed, her comprehensive treatise on women weaves together history, philosophy, economics, and biology and postulates on the power of sexuality. The 1970s and 1980s were enormously important in feminist literary theory and women’s studies, with major contributions by Helene Cixous of France, Teresa De Lauretis of Italy, Belgium’s Luce Irigaray, Donna Haraway of the United States, Bengali exile Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and Julia Kristeva of Bulgaria, among others. Then, in the late 1980s, women of color and Third World women such as Kumari Jayawardena of Sri Lanka, Chandra Talpade Mohanty of India and the United States, Ella Shohat of the United States, Paula Moya of the United States, Lata Mani of India, Trinh T. Minh-ha of Vietnam and the United States, Gloria Anzaldua of the United States, and Cherrie Moraga of the United States published powerful writings that theorized, challenged, dialogued with, and expanded discussions of feminist theory, gay/lesbian/ queer/black feminist theory and Chicana/Latina feminist theory, and enriched the fields of postcolonial and Third World women’s literature.
Women writers in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have continued to speak out against oppression, to redefine the boundaries of what are considered acceptable literary forms and subjects, and to gain more widespread recognition of their works. But the literary canon is still in great need of revision that must insist upon the incorporation of women writers who have been ignored and omitted from literary history. One example of a text that follows this ideal of equality and inclusiveness is Shirley Geok-Lin Lim and Norman A. Spencer’s One World of Literature. This amazing anthology, originally published in 1993, offers an impressive array of twentieth-century male and female authors, and one of the most complete collections of full texts and excerpts by women writers from around the world. Highlighting the works of a diversity of writers like Bessie Head of Botswana, Rosario Ferre of Puerto Rico, and Jamaica Kincaid of Antigua, this anthology is essential reading for anyone interested in women in world literature. The anthology represents the works of brilliant female authors seldom known outside their own countries as well those known worldwide. The works of Ama Ata Aidoo of Ghana, Fawziyya Abu-Khalid of Saudi Arabia, Wang Xiaoni and Ding Ling of China, Ambai and Amrita Pritam of India, Ishigaki Rin of Japan, Shirley Geok-Lin Lim (the editor herself) of Malaysia, Elizabeth Jolley of Australia, and Margareta Ekstrom of Sweden are coupled with those who have achieved a wider international reach, such as Nobel Prize winner Nadine Gordimer of South Africa, Mahasweta Devi of India, Zhang Ailing of China, Isabel Allende of Chile, and Margaret Atwood of Canada. According to Shirley Geok-Lin Lim and Norman Spencer, “we live in an age in which an understanding of global cultures is more critical than ever. . . . [W]e are all affected by individuals, events and ideas from other cultures and countries, a truth the late twentieth century has brought home to almost everyone” (Lim and Spencer 1993, xv). It is with this spirit in mind that works such as theirs are beginning to bring balance to a literary world where women’s literacy, women’s writing and its assessment, and the representation of women as autonomous subjects has tended to suffer under the weight of homogeneity, unilateralism, patriarchy, ethnocentrism, and the Western gaze.
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