• search-icon

26 Biographies of Remarkable Women That You Need to Read

These fascinating biographies deserve a spot on your must-read list.

History is chock-full of women who made incredible contributions to society, yet are overlooked by the public. From pioneers and political dissidents to inventors and astrophysicists, the biographies of these historical female figures deserve a spot on your must-read list.

1. Amelia Earhart (and more)

Buy Fly Girls at Amazon

Fly Girls

By Keith O'Brien

During the 1920s and 1930s, aviation was not yet a typical mode of travel. Instead, it was a spectacle, with those who flew the newfangled things becoming icons in their own right. Pilots were praised as heroes—fearless as they stared down death in one of the most dangerous sports. However, not all pilots received the same praise, as is the case of five remarkable aviators. Brave enough to overcome numerous obstacles, they were often ridiculed and faced prejudice based on one common factor: They were all women. 

During the early stages of aviation, women showed great determination and willpower as they sought to prove themselves in the skies. O’Brien focuses on five trail-blazing women who impacted the industry: Florence Klingensmith, Ruth Elder, Amelia Earhart, Ruth Nichols, and Louise Thaden. These women accomplished many feats, broke sexist barriers, were innovators in the aviation world, and broke multiple records. A thrilling read until the final page–and newly available in paperback on March 5–Fly Girls will leave you in awe.

Related: Fly Girls: The Daring Women Who Competed in Airplane Races During the Early 1900s  

Fly Girls

By Keith O'Brien

2. Candy Darling

Buy Candy Darling at Amazon

Candy Darling

By Candy Darling

Rediscover the first trans superstar in Candy Darling’s personal journals, chronicling her time in Andy Warhol’s Factory and as muse to The Velvet Underground. Darling, who sadly passed away at only 29, was one of the most visible of Warhol’s stars and starred in the first, Off-Broadway run of a Tennessee Williams play after the playwright specifically requested her casting. Her witty thoughts capture an era in this memoir.

Related: 11 Fascinating LGBT History Books to Read for Pride Month 

Candy Darling

By Candy Darling

3. Victoria Woodhull

Buy Free Woman at Amazon

Free Woman

By Marion Meade

Often ignored by historians, Victoria Woodhull is a historical figure that drastically shifted the political conversation in the United States. Woodhull's commitment to rabble-rousing and activism marked a major shift in the movement toward's women's suffrage. She even ran for President of the United States in 1872.  

Those who opposed her views (and who were likely equally appalled by her unconventional background) heavily attacked Woodhull. She had been twice divorced and held a series of unorthodox careers before running for President. Even the feminists of her time were infuriated by Woodhull’s campaign—she was an advocate for free love, birth control, and the freedom of female sexuality, long before any of those ideas became commonplace.

Free Woman

By Marion Meade

4. Violette Szabo

Buy Carve Her Name with Pride at Amazon

Carve Her Name with Pride

By R J Minney

One of World War II’s most notable female spies, Violette Szabo was a French and British Special Operations agent in occupied France. Szabo’s bilingualism was a major asset to Allied forces; she was sent into France to scout out the locations of German munitions factories undercover as a French secretary on her way to a new job. Szabo, sadly, was eventually captured by German forces and deported to Ravensbrück, a concentration camp outside of Berlin.

Carve Her Name with Pride

By R J Minney

5. Helen Keller

Buy The Story of My Life at Amazon

The Story of My Life

By Helen Keller

A story that has been transformed into both stage and film adaptations, Helen Keller has remained an American icon for triumphing in spite of having lost her sight and hearing at a young age. With the help of her teacher—and later devoted friend—Anne Sullivan, she was able to embark on a journey that would change her life forever. Her perseverance led Keller to become the first deaf-blind person to receive a Bachelor of Arts degree. 

Related: 20 Influential Women in History You Need to Know About 

Keller published this book when she was 22 years old; in it, she testifies to the darkness and silence she experienced before meeting Anne Sullivan. Her narration is rich with descriptions of her view of the world—she refuses to let her situation debilitate her understanding of the world. Keller’s positive outlook on life and the testament of her willpower will leave you feeling hopeful.

The Story of My Life

By Helen Keller

6. Bessie Smith

Buy Bessie at Amazon

Bessie

By Chris Albertson

The “Empress of the Blues”, Bessie Smith was the highest paid African American performer during the 1920s. Smith was performing by the age of 10, busking on the streets with her brother, Andrew. By the time she was 30, she was the biggest act in the black community, leading shows with as many as 40 supporting entertainers–singers, dancers, musicians–and touring in a custom-built railroad car. Now overshadowed by the singers that followed her, like Billie Holiday, Albertson brings the iconic singer back to life through interviews with her family and friends.

Bessie

By Chris Albertson

7. Sojourner Truth

Buy The Narrative of Sojourner Truth at Amazon

The Narrative of Sojourner Truth

By Sojourner Truth

A poignant narrative written by one of the most famous and admired African-American women in history, Sojourner Truth easily shows why she is still an inspirational figure. Truth traveled across the country to give speeches on the rights of black people, and specifically black women. It became Truth’s mission to free those who were marginalized by a predominately masculine and white society. The "Ain't I a Woman" speech, said by some to be extemporaneous, cemented her legacy. First given in 1851, the speech was heavily publicized in 1863, leading to her meeting President Lincoln in 1864.

Related: 14 Facts About Black History That You Might Not Know 

The narrative shares many details from Truth’s lifetime, from her childhood to her later years as an abolitionist and preacher. The account addresses many of the horrors of slavery, and sheds light on the reality that northern slavery was just as terrible as its southern counterpart. Truth describes her childhood as a slave who transitions into emancipation when she changed her name and began her career as a preacher. Despite her obvious intelligence, Truth was illiterate throughout her life. She dictated her memoirs to a dear friend, Olive Gilbert.

The Narrative of Sojourner Truth

By Sojourner Truth

8. Constance Wilde

Buy Constance at Amazon

Constance

By Franny Moyle

Constance Wilde was a beloved children’s author, a suffragette, and a fashion icon who pushed for the so-called dress reform. But today, she is only remembered, if at all, as Oscar Wilde’s wife. Moyle resurrects Constance Wilde from this forgotten state and brings her back to life in her full form.

Related: Constance: The Untold Story of Oscar Wilde’s Wife 

Constance

By Franny Moyle

9. Rachel Carson

Buy Rachel Carson at Amazon

Rachel Carson

By Linda Lear

Rachel Carson didn’t mean to become the face of the modern environmental movement. But her gift for understanding nature, communicating its ebbs, flows, wants, needs, and desires, and her passion for the world around us made her its first spokesperson in our era. Lear lovingly describes Carson, the activist, and Carson, the woman in this authoritative biography.

Related: Rachel Carson's Books Defined an Environmental Revolution 

Rachel Carson

By Linda Lear

10. Emily Hahn

Buy Nobody Said Not to Go at Amazon

Nobody Said Not to Go

By Ken Cuthbertson

In 1924, Emily Hahn embarked on her first of many travel adventures. She and friend Dorothy Raper began a 2,400 mile drive across the contiguous United States. Hahn shocked many by dressing as a man during this trip. This trip set a precedent for Hahn––she would continue to journey far and wide throughout her life. As the title of Cuthbertson’s biography says, nobody said not to go, a saying Hahn held dearly and took seriously her whole life.

Related: The Forgotten Treasure: 7 Books by Emily Hahn

Nobody Said Not to Go

By Ken Cuthbertson

11. Anne Sexton 

Buy Anne Sexton at Amazon

Anne Sexton

By Anne Sexton

A poet known for both her professional and personal life, this biography provides insight into Anne Sexton’s own world. Recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1967, Sexton was known for her deeply personal confessional verse. Her poetry spanned various topics such as depression, suicidal tendencies, and other intimate details. Because Sexton disclosed overlooked female experiences, her poetry quickly gained popularity. 

Sexton's letters are somehow even more intimate than her verse. The letters featured in this collection were chosen by Sexton's daughter and a close friend. Although the relationship between Sexton and her daughter Linda was, at best, complicated (Linda has since spoken of the physical and sexual abuse she suffered at her mother's hands), their relationship was close and allowed Linda to choose from thousands of letters to best display her mother's personality.

Anne Sexton

By Anne Sexton

12. Emma Goldman

Buy Red Emma Speaks at Amazon

Red Emma Speaks

By Alix Kates Shulman

Anarchist activist Emma Goldman played a crucial role in the spread of anarchist political philosophy across Europe and North America during the early 20th century. Goldman immigrated to the United States from Russia in 1885. She became a writer and renowned lecturer on women’s rights, free speech, birth control, and other social issues, attracting thousands of followers. 

During her life, Goldman helped plan an unsuccessful assassination attempt on Henry Clay Frick, industry baron and union enemy. She was jailed for inciting to riot in 1893, spending 10 months in jail. She was arrested for urging men not to register for the WWI draft and was deported to Russia in 1920 in the midst of the Red Scare. Upon her return to Russia, she denounced the Soviet Union for its violent suppression of independent voices. Goldman was considered a free-thinking “rebel woman” by admirers and denounced as an agitator by many in power. Goldman was mostly forgotten until the 1970s, when the new women's movement brought her back into the public sphere.

Related: Discover Emma Goldman's Anarchist Life in To the Barricades 

Red Emma Speaks

By Alix Kates Shulman

13. Ada Lovelace

Buy Ada's Algorithm: How Lord Byron's Daughter Ada Lovelace Launched the Digital Age at Amazon

Ada's Algorithm: How Lord Byron's Daughter Ada Lovelace Launched the Digital Age

By James Essinger

Ada Lovelace, an English mathematician and writer, is most notable for her work on Charles Babbage’s proposed mechanical general-purpose computer, the Analytical Engine. Because she acknowledged the machine’s ability to create complex algorithms, Lovelace was considered the first computer programmer. Through marriage, she became a countess, and it was through this position that she was able to meet famous scientists and writers to continue her education.

Between 1842 and 1843, Lovelace translated an Italian article about Babbage’s work. As she did, she added notes to explain the function—those notes are considered the first true computer program, an algorithm carried out by a machine.

Ada's Algorithm: How Lord Byron's Daughter Ada Lovelace Launched the Digital Age

By James Essinger

14. Pauli Murray

Buy The Firebrand and the First Lady: Portrait of a Friendship at Amazon

The Firebrand and the First Lady: Portrait of a Friendship

By Patricia Bell-Scott

In 1938, Murray officially entered the Civil Rights Movement when she campaigned for entry to an all-white school. With assistance from the NAACP, Murray’s case received national attention. After receiving her law degree, she moved to New York City to continue her fight for equality. She published influential literature in 1951 on the state’s laws toward race, but suffered from the impacts of McCarthyism, as she was believed to be too radical.

Related: You Know the Founding Fathers, Now Meet the Founding Mothers 

After losing her position at Cornell University, she published an autobiography documenting her family’s heritage and their struggle toward racial justice. By 1977, Murray became the first African American woman to become an Episcopal priest. This fascinating biography details Murray’s life and her enduring friendship with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, with whom Murray often discussed social issues. 

The Firebrand and the First Lady: Portrait of a Friendship

By Patricia Bell-Scott

15. Amelia Bloomer

Buy Amelia Bloomer & Dress Reform, Or: How Women Came to Wear Pants at Amazon

Amelia Bloomer & Dress Reform, Or: How Women Came to Wear Pants

By Joan Baker

A women’s rights and temperance advocate, Amelia Bloomer was the first woman to own, operate, and edit a news platform for women. While Amelia did not fashion the radical style of dress known as bloomers, she was one of its earliest adopters. 

In opposition to fellow women’s rights activists, Amelia Bloomer felt women’s suffrage conventions were unseemly. Instead, she believed writing was the best way for women to affect change and inspire reform. She remained a suffrage pioneer, writing and speaking, through her entire life until her death. Bloomer is also the namesake of the Amelia Bloomer Project, which publishes annually a list of children’s books with feminist content.

Amelia Bloomer & Dress Reform, Or: How Women Came to Wear Pants

By Joan Baker

16. Zora Neale Hurston

Buy Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston at Amazon

Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston

By Valerie Boyd

Author of Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston was a writer, folklorist, and anthropologist. While living in New York City, she became a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance along with famed writers like Langston Hughes. After a series of financial struggles, she was forced to live in St. Lucie County Welfare Home where she died in 1960 from a stroke.

Her writing went largely unrecognized until novelist Alice Walker wrote a Ms. article about Hurston’s work. The article helped revive interest in the deceased writer. Wrapped in Rainbows explores the fascinating life Hurston led—including her dabbles in voodoo.

Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston

By Valerie Boyd

17. Dorothy Lawrence

Buy Sapper at Amazon

Sapper

By Dorothy Lawrence

Dorothy Lawrence is well-known for her clandestine transformation from journalist to soldier. After experiencing success with articles published in top newspapers and magazines, Lawrence began reporting on the outbreak of WWI in France, entering a war zone and reporting as a freelance war correspondent. She made it to the frontline but was ordered to leave. So she concluded that she must become a soldier to report on the war.

Related: 18 Important Women in History You May Not Have Heard of 

Lawrence befriended two British Army soldiers who smuggled her a uniform, flattened her figure with a homemade corset, used sacking and cotton-wool to bulk out her shoulders and cut her hair into a short military style. She darkened her skin and learned how to drill and march by a friend’s instruction. She then obtained forged identity papers and headed for the front lines. Upon her return from battle, she wrote about her experiences. 

Sapper

By Dorothy Lawrence

18. Nellie Bly

Buy Nellie Bly: Daredevil. Reporter. Feminist. at Amazon

Nellie Bly: Daredevil. Reporter. Feminist.

By Brooke Kroeger

Born Elizabeth Cochran but known primarily by her pen name, Bly was an American journalist most widely known for her record-breaking trip around the world in 72 days. She was a pioneer of her field, launching a new kind of investigative journalism. Her early work focused on the lives of working women. She then traveled to Mexico and reported on the cultural landscape of the country, later collecting her reports into a book.

Related: 11 Groundbreaking Books That Changed America 

Bly then accepted an undercover assignment to report on the harsh conditions of the treatment at the Women’s Lunatic Asylum in New York City. She managed to get herself committed to the asylum and experienced the conditions first hand. Ten Days in a Mad-House brought her instant fame. Bly was not just a writer—she was also an inventor, heavily involved in charity worker, and later, owner of the Iron Clad Manufacturing Company.

Nellie Bly: Daredevil. Reporter. Feminist.

By Brooke Kroeger

19. Cecilia Payne

Buy Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin: An Autobiography and Other Recollections at Amazon

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin: An Autobiography and Other Recollections

By Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin

A British-American astronomer and astrophysicist, Cecilia Payne proposed in her PhD thesis the contents of stars—namely, that they were primarily made of hydrogen and helium. This remains the accepted understanding of the composition of stars.

Payne completed her graduate studies at Cambridge, but was not awarded a degree, as the university did not award women degrees until 1948. She then moved to the United States to complete her PhD at Radcliffe College, now part of Harvard.

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin: An Autobiography and Other Recollections

By Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin

20. Alice Coachman Davis

Buy Queen of the Track at Amazon

Queen of the Track

By Heather Lang

Alice Coachman was the first African-American woman to receive a gold medal in the Olympics. She specialized in the high jump. At the height of her career, Coachman was unable to compete in the Olympics due to World War II. When, she finally participated in the 1948 Olympics, she jumped five feet and six inches, earning her the gold.

Upon her return to the United States, Coachman was a sports hero. She met President Truman and former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Parades were held in her honor and she spoke on behalf of women taking stronger leadership roles. In 1979, she was inducted into the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame. 

Queen of the Track

By Heather Lang

21. Rosalind Franklin

Buy Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA at Amazon

Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA

By Brenda Maddox

She may be unfamiliar to most, but Rosalind Franklin played a key role in the discovery of the structure of DNA. Most of her work was only recognized posthumously. After finishing her work on DNA, Franklin led pioneering efforts at Birkbeck on the molecular structures of viruses. One of the only women in her lab, Franklin’s life was a fascinating one, from childhood to the DNA discovery. Tragically, Franklin's life was cut short; she died in 1958 of ovarian cancer at the age of 37. 

Related: How the Stratton Brothers Became the First British Killers Busted by a Fingerprint 

Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA

By Brenda Maddox

22. Frances Perkins

Buy The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life and Legacy of Frances Perkins at Amazon

The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life and Legacy of Frances Perkins

By Kirstin Downey

The first woman to serve in a president’s cabinet, Perkins was the Secretary of Labor from 1933 to 1945 and became a key player in the construction of the New Deal. Her goal was always to increase the benefits and safety of the working class. 

In 1911, Perkins witnessed the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, later calling it the moment the New Deal was born. Upon his election, FDR asked Perkins to serve in his cabinet and help advance an agenda of social equality. Many of the advancements and protective regulations created by this hardworking woman are still in place today.

The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life and Legacy of Frances Perkins

By Kirstin Downey

23. Hedy Lamarr

Buy Hedy's Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamar, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World at Amazon

Hedy's Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamar, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World

By Richard Rhodes

Hedy Lamarr began her career as an actress known for her controversial presence on screen, appearing nude on occasion. She ran away from her husband in secret to Paris, where she met Louis B. Mayer. He offered her a contract with Hollywood, and her career quickly exploded.

Famous for her beauty and movies, Lamarr was also a talented inventor and tinkerer. At the beginning of World War I, Lamarr and composer George Antheil fashioned a radio guidance system for Allied torpedoes that combated jamming attempts by Axis powers. Although the U.S. Navy didn’t adopt the technology until the 1960s, Lamarr and Antheil’s creation is used today in Wi-Fi, CDM, and Bluetooth technology.  

Hedy's Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamar, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World

By Richard Rhodes

24. James Tiptree Jr. (aka Alice B. Sheldon)

Buy James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon at Amazon

James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon

By Julie Phillips

Alice Sheldon wrote science fiction under the pseudonym James Tiptree Jr. for 20 years. During that time, Tiptree was heralded as one of the best—and most masculine—sci-fi writers. When the truth about Sheldon's identity was discovered in 1977, assumptions about "feminine" and "masculine" science fiction came tumbling down. The recognition of women in hard sci-fi today, and the beginning of the end of gendered segregation in sci-fi interests, is all thanks to Sheldon.

Related: 10 Powerful Books to Read for Women's History Month 

James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon

By Julie Phillips

25. Sophia Duleep Singh

Buy Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary at Amazon

Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary

By Anita Anand

Princess Sophia Duleep Singh was the daughter of Maharaja Duleep Singh. Her father abdicated her throne, but he and her family kept their honorary titles. Goddaughter of Queen Victoria, Singh spent most of her life in England. She was one of the leading women in the struggle to gain voting rights in England, working primarily with the Women’s Tax Resistance League. She also worked with the Red Cross during World War I, was president of the Suffragette Committee, and worked for equality in many different areas. 

Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary

By Anita Anand

26. Isabella Lucy Bird

Buy A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains at Amazon

A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains

By Isabella Lucy Bird

Isabella Lucy Bird was a 19th-century English explorer, writer, photographer, and naturalist. Working with Fanny Jane Butler, she founded the John Bishop Memorial hospital in Srinagar. She’s best known for being the first woman to be elected fellow of the Royal Geographic Society. She traveled throughout India before venturing to the United States, where she spent a handful of years exploring the newly acquired territories to the west. She documented her experiences and later published her written work in this book.

A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains

By Isabella Lucy Bird

Featured photo of Victoria Woodhull, Bessie Smith, Helen Keller, and Rachel Carson: Wikimedia Commons

Published on 12 Mar 2019

scroll up