Elaine Showalter's A Jury of Her Peers, according to one review, points out that 19th century Great Britain produced several literary titans with two X chromosomes--Jane Austen, the Brontes, George Eliot, and then Virginia Woolf later on--while the United States during the same period produced, well, Harriet Beecher Stowe. Why? Apparently Showalter suggests that even poor British women had servants, while their American counterparts kept house. But it would seem that children above all may have barred the way to literary greatness.
The Library of America series may serve as a rough guide to canonical status, and only seven women have volumes devoted to them: Stowe, Sarah Orne Jewett, Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, Gertrude Stein, Flannery O'Connor (who is the subject of a new and reportedly excellent biography), and Katherine Anne Porter. With the exception of Stowe, who amazingly bore seven children, none of these women ever answered to "Mommy." (Emily Dickinson, who obviously warrants a volume but doesn't have one yet--some copyright issue I guess--obviously wasn't a mother either).
Uncle Tom's Cabin is among my sheepishly as yet unread classics. Stein I have never yet been able to stomach (the emperor's clothes problem for me). Cather, Wharton, and Porter I find very good indeed, but probably only O'Connor would I consider absolutely essential, if only because she is sui generis.
Jewett (1849-1909) I had never read until recently, and given her general obscurity since her death a century ago one wonders whether her Library of America status may be owing to a bit of feminist affirmative action. The daughter of a successful country doctor, and granted independence by family wealth, she was much acclaimed in her lifetime and traveled widely in literary circles. In an interesting parallel with O'Connor's lupus, she struggled with rheumatoid arthritis for much of her life.
The text of Jewett's striking story "A White Heron" is here, and I also read her short novel The Country of the Pointed Firs, a local color affair based on the Maine coast and featuring eccentric but tough farm women and old salt-of-the-earth sailors. Not much happens, but the characters, relationships, and above all the sense of place are conveyed quietly but powerfully--perhaps a kind of premodern Virginia Woolf.