Washington DC

Her Story: A Century of Women Writers

Her Story: A Century of Women Writers is an exhibition dedicated to showcasing 24 women writers who shaped young and old minds alike. It was launched on September 18, 2020, as the nation commemorated the centennial of the 19th Amendment in 1920. The exhibition celebrates some of the United States’ most influential women writers.

The exhibition is staged at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC. When I wandered through its halls on December 30, I was struck by the number of women who lingered in front of the photographs, paintings, and sculptures of these truthtellers and poets.

“Many of us grew up with their stories, poems, and essays and have since passed them on to friends and families.”

National Portrait Gallery

I number so many friends who line the walls of this museum. From Margaret Wise Brown who wrote Goodnight Moon, which I read to my children since they were infants, to Willa Cather, who defined the life of the immigrant in the Midwest in the 19th century with such classics as O Pioneers!

“Several of them have won Pulitzer Prizes, Nobel Prizes, or both, and as this exhibition reveals, their personal stories-in addition to those they have written-continue to offer insight and inspiration.”

National Portrait Gallery

I know that I am incredibly lucky to live in Washington, DC. There is a constant flood of new exhibitions at the Smithsonian Institution. But I have never been as engrossed in an exhibition like this one.

Sadly, this exhibition will end on January 23, 2022. Since I know so many people will never get to see it, I have photographed over a dozen writers showcased at the exhibition. Hopefully, some of these portraits will remain hanging at the Portrait Gallery. But these writers’ words will never vanish from our memories.

Willa Cather (1873-1947)

Born in Back Creek Valley, Virginia, this 19th-century writer grew up in Nebraska. She sourced many of her stories from her life on the Great Plains, including O Pioneers! and My Antonia. Photographer Edward Steichen photographed Cather for the 1927 issue of Vanity Fair.

“Most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen.”

Willa Cather
Credit: Edward Steichen

Pearl S. Buck (1892-1973)

Born in Hillsboro, West Virginia, Pearl Buck lived for more than three decades in China, first with her missionary parents and then her husband. Buck won the Pulitzer Prize for her second novel, The Good Earth. Edward Steichen took this photo of Buck in 1932.

“Many people lose the small joys in the hope for the big happiness.”

Pearl S. Buck
Credit: Edward Steichen

Frances Hodgson Burnett (1849-1924)

Born in Manchester, England, Burnett and her mother immigrated to the United States in 1865. She is most famous for three children’s stories (Little Lord Fauntleroy, A Little Princess, and The Secret Garden.) This charcoal portrait of Burnett is painted by Samuel Jackson Woolf.

“If you look the right way, you can see that the whole world is a garden.”

Frances Hodgson Burnett
Credit: Samuel Johnson Woolf

Margaret Wise Brown (1910-1952)

Born in Brooklyn, New York, Brown was a groundbreaking writer of books for children. She attended the Bureau of Educational Experiments, which was an experimental academy dedicated to early childhood development in New York City. Over 15 years, she authored more than 100 children’s books, including the classics (Goodnight Moon and Runaway Bunny). Brown uses the repetition of language as a poetic device in her books for children.

“Quietness is an essential part of all awareness. In quiet times and sleepy times, a child can dwell in thoughts of his own, and in songs and stories of his own.”

Margaret Wise Brown
Credit: Philippe Halsman

Anne Sexton (1928-1974)

Born in Newton, Massachusetts, Sexton was a groundbreaking confessional poet. She wrote about the personal condition of the middle-class white woman in the 1950s and 1960s. She won the Pulitzer Prize for her poetry collection Live or Die. Diagnosed as bipolar, she spent significant time in mental health treatment. She committed suicide in 1974.

“Put your ear down close to your soul and listen hard.”

Anne Sexton
Credit: Rollie McKenna

Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965)

Born in Chicago, Illinois, Lorraine Hansberry wrote A Raisin in the Sun at age 29. It opened to glowing reviews on Broadway. She was the first African American playwright to win the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award.

“The thing that makes you exceptional, if you are at all, is inevitably that which must also make you lonely.”

Lorraine Hansberry
Credit: David Attie

Flannery O’Connor (1924-1964)

Born in Savannah, Georgia, Flannery O’Connor is a Southern Catholic writer. Most of her short stories take the reader on religious journeys. Her first collection of short stories was A Good Man Is Hard To Find. O’Connor received the National Book Award after her death for The Complete Stories.

“Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.”

Flannery O’Connor
Credit: Joseph Reshower

Jean Kerr (1922-2003)

Born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, Kerr was a playwright known for her comedies. She wrote Please Don’t Eat The Daisies and King of Hearts. Time Magazine featured Kerr on its cover to promote Mary, Mary, her comedic play about sex, marriage, and infidelity.

“If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs, it’s just possible you haven’t grasped the situation.

Jean Kerr
Credit: Rene Robert Bouche

Alice Walker (born 1944)

Born in Eatonton, Georgia, Walker wrote about her early involvement in the civil rights movement. She popularized the term “womanist.” She was instrumental in reviving interest in the work of Zora Neale Hurston. Walker won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Color Purple.

“Activism is my rent for living on the planet.”

Alice Walker
Credit: Bernard Gotfryd

Maya Angelou (1928-2014)

Born in New York City, Maya Angelou is the author of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings (1969). She produced seven autobiographical novels. She read her poem “On the Pulse of the Morning” at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton in 1993. President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Maya Angelou
Credit: Brigitte Lacombe

Toni Morrison (1931-2019)

Born in Lorain, Ohio, Toni Morrison wrote her first novel, The Bluest Eye, in 1970 at age 39. She won the Pulitzer Prize for Beloved, which was published in 1987. She also won the National Book Critic Award for Song of Solomon. She is the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”

Toni Morrison
Credit: Deborah Feingold

Maxine Hong Kingston (Born 1940)

Born in Stockton, California, Maxine Hong Kingston is the child of two Chinese immigrants who settled in the United States shortly before she was born. She wrote both fiction and non-fiction examining the divided life of the immigrant. She wrote The Woman Warrior: Memoir of a Girlhood Among Ghosts (1976). It won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction.

“Perhaps women were once so dangerous they had to have their feet bound.”

Maxine Hong Kingston
Credit: Anthony Barboza

Sandra Cisneros (Born 1954)

Born in Chicago, Illinois, Sandra Cisneros wrote about living up as the child of a working-class Mexican American family. Her book The House on Mango Street was awarded the American Book Award. It has been translated into 20 languages. President Barack Obama awarded Cisneros the National Medal of the Arts in 2016.

“I am a woman, and I am a Latina. Those are the things that make my writing distinctive. Those are the things that give my writing power.”

Sandra Cisneros
Credit: Al Rendon

Marilynne Robinson (Born 1943)

Born in Sandpoint, Idaho, Robinson published her first novel Housekeeping in 1980. It won the PEN/Hemingway Award. She published Gilead in 2004, which focused on the role of religion in rural American life. It won the Pulitzer Prize.

“Memory can make a thing seem to have been much more than it was.”

Marilynne Robinson
Credit: Alec Soth

Joyce Carol Oates (Born 1938)

Born in Lockport, New York, Joyce Carol Oates is the prolific author of more than 100 books. She also has written short stories, poems, essays, and criticism. She won the National Book Award in 1969 for her novel then.

“Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul.”

Joyce Carol Oates
Credit: Dan Winters

Anne Tyler (Born 1941)

Born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Tyler settled in Baltimore in her 20s. Since then, she has written extensively about “the dislocations and misconnections of modern American life.” She won the Pulitzer Prize for the novel Breathing Lessons.

“It’s true that writing is a solitary occupation, but you would be surprised at how much companionship a group of imaginary characters can offer once you get to know them.”

Anne Tyler
Credit: Ralph Heimans

Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000)

Born in Topeka, Kansas, Gwendolyn Brooks wrote about Black urban working-class life in Chicago in her novella (Maud Martha) and her poem (We Real Cool). Her first collection of poems was A Street in Bronzeville (1945). She was the first African American writer to receive the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1950.

“Art hurts. Art urges voyages – and it is easier to stay at home.”

Gwendolyn Brooks
Credit: Sara S. Miller (sculptor)

Marianne Moore (1887-1972)

Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Marianne Moore is a poet known for the “keenly observed descriptions of humans and animals,” such as “A Jelly-Fish.” She won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for her Collected Poems in 1952.

“Poetry is the art of creating imaginary gardens with real toads.”

Marianne Moore
Credit: Gaston Lachaise (sculptor)

Dorothy Parker (1893-1967)

Born in Long Branch, New Jersey, Dorothy Parker was a writer and editor for Vanity Fair and Vogue. She was the founding editor of the New Yorker magazine. She won the O. Henry award in 1929 for her short story entitled “Big Blonde.” Parker also co-wrote the screenplay for A Star is Born.

“The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue.”

Dorothy Parker

Jhumpa Lahiri (Born 1967)

Born in London, England, Jhumpa Lahiri began living in the United States as a toddler. She won the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Hemingway Award for The Interpreter of Maladies (a short story collection). Her novel The Lowlands was a finalist for The National Book Award.

“Pack a pillow and blanket and see as much of the world as you can.You will not regret it.”

Jhumpa Lahiri
Credit: David Levine

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  • Hailey | The Restless Adventurer
    January 1, 2022 at 10:56 am

    Very interesting post! I love how you included all the quotes.

    • Terri
      January 1, 2022 at 11:52 am

      Thank you Hailey. I took a lot of time researching these writers’ quotes to give a feel for their style of writers. I am glad you liked the article!

  • Nikki
    January 1, 2022 at 12:08 pm

    What a cool way to remember these amazing women! Thanks so much for sharing this important tribute.

    • Terri
      January 1, 2022 at 4:56 pm

      I also felt this was a wonderful tribute to women writers that the Smithsonian organized. I wished this exhibition could go on the road and be seen in other cities’ museums. It is fantastic.

  • Cat @ Cat's Nine Lives
    January 1, 2022 at 3:33 pm

    Oh, what a wonderful exhibition! Thank you so much for sharing it – some really inspiring women and words here.

    • Terri
      January 1, 2022 at 4:02 pm

      I agree. I love seeing these women’s work highlighted at the Smithsonian. I just wish the exhibition could showcase 48 or 72 famous women writers!

  • Linda Jane
    January 1, 2022 at 4:41 pm

    What a great exhibition & an interesting collection of women with such wisdom & insight! I loved the quotes & Maya Angelou’s especially resonated with me. Thanks so much for sharing!

    • Terri
      January 1, 2022 at 4:55 pm

      My favorite part was choosing each author’s quote for this article. It took me forever because they all were so interesting. I am so glad that Maya Angelou’s quote resonated with you.

  • Ashleigh's Atlas
    January 1, 2022 at 8:18 pm

    Thank you for sharing, I really liked the quote “Many people lose the small joys in the hope for the big happiness”. So important to try to find joy in the day to day especially during this time.

    • Terri
      January 7, 2022 at 9:02 pm

      I couldn’t agree more! Find joy in the day to day.

    January 1, 2022 at 9:24 pm

    That is a lovely post. You gave me so many reading suggestions.

  • Tish
    January 2, 2022 at 4:23 pm

    Oh my Goodness what a wealth of knowledge to remember. Thank you for this wonderful information

  • Jordan
    January 2, 2022 at 6:52 pm

    What an amazing exhibit. I enjoyed reading this post and loved how you organized it.