When you open a history book, you're usually confronted with the faces and stories of white men of the past. And while we're not here to diminish the accomplishments of those men, it's also high time we shine a brighter light on the women who fought tirelessly in their shadows. Their bravery paved the way for the Michelle Obamas and Elizabeth Warrens of our present-day—an era in which female voices are finally being heard.
March is Women's History Month, so we've curated a list of insightful reads about the powerful ladies who came before us. From tales about "witches" to those of female war correspondents, these books tell the stories of women who changed history and thus shaped the future.
Spy Princess tells the incredible story of British SOE-trained secret agent, Noor Inyat Khan. Working under the code name “Madeleine”, Khan became the first woman wireless operator to infiltrate WWII Occupied France and join an elite spy squad, the Prosper Resistance Network. Although most of her peers were captured soon thereafter, Khan valiantly endured one of the most dangerous posts in underground Paris despite the continual threats to her life. In Spy Princess, Shrabani Basu authentically details the biography of her life from birth to death; Basu spotlights the bravery and excellency Khan embodied throughout her life and maintained up until the very moments of her death.
Related: Meet the French Resistance
She-Wolves is a true account of the lives of four compelling women who, despite all odds, wielded major political influence in medieval England. Empress Matilda, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Isabella of France, and Margaret of Anjou were each uniquely astute in political matters. Each managed to develop their own spheres of influence and in doing so, paved the way for future female monarchs-to-be. Written by historian and bestselling author Helen Castor, She-Wolves enlightens us with several captivating stories from their lives, detailing the impressive strategy which brought about each woman’s climb to royal influence.
Reverend Addie Wyatt
Reverend Addie Wyatt was a leading activist of the civil rights movement, labor union leader, feminist, and trailblazer of the 20th century. Wyatt fought tirelessly for the civil liberties of her community, unafraid to assume leadership positions which would advance the reach of her voice and advocacy. She was the first female president of a major chapter of the United Packinghouse Workers of America and also served as a labor advisor for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). She worked with several other leaders including Eleanor Roosevelt and Dr. Martin Luther King, and even served on the Action Committee of the Chicago Freedom Movement.
Her unquestionable impact was celebrated when, in 1975, she became Time magazine’s Woman of the Year. Marcia Walker-McWilliams authors this account in order to celebrate the life of service which Reverend Wyatt led. It commemorates her embodiment of exceptional activism which shall be esteemed by those who hope to continue the fight for equal rights.
The Daughters of Kobani
Written by bestselling author and journalist Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, The Daughters of Kobani tells the true story of the author’s time with a group of Syrian Kurdish women soldiers at war with ISIS. After several years of on-the-ground reporting, Lemmon shares snippets from her many interviews with the heroic fighters, and outlines their rise to rebellion against totalitarianism.
In 2014, the revolution began in Northeastern Syria in the town of Kobani, where these women engaged in active combat with ISIS. From there, a fire was lit, igniting a movement of women militia groups empowered to fight alongside the United States for women’s rights and freedom. By playing a comprehensive role in mitigating the global threat posed by ISIS, these women epitomize true strength and courage. Their sacrifices are a commendable promise of equality to not only their daughters, but to women all over the world.
Daughters of the Inquisition
After years of suffering, the author of Mommie Dearest rose above past traumas by connecting with—and harnessing—an inner fortitude. But what exactly are the origins of this strength, and what was its legacy? This is the question that forms the soul of Crawford’s latest book, Daughters of the Inquisition, which examines the colorful history and indefatigable spirit of womanhood. From the Goddess-worshipping Neolithic period to the violent misogyny of the 12th century, Crawford peels back 10,000 years to reveal the roles, battles, and unique powers of the female kind.
The Gentle Tamers
Our perception of the Old West is clouded by gun-slinging cowboys, saloon brawls, and John Wayne, but its history is far richer—and far more female—than we’ve been told. In The Gentle Tamers, the author of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee wipes the dust from our eyes, revealing the forgotten but indelible marks left by the female adventurers and pioneers of the region.
The Women Who Wrote the War
Take a trip back to the Second World War, and discover the astonishing tales of its courageous female correspondents. One-hundred writers are covered in The Women Who Wrote the War, and author Nancy Caldwell Sorel draws multi-dimensional portraits of familiar faces—reporter Martha Gellhorn, for example—but never overlooks the accomplishments of more under-the-radar heroines. It’s a comprehensive and inspiring chronicle of the fiercely independent ladies who were soldiers armed with mighty pens.
To Believe in Women
Female trailblazers like Eleanor Roosevelt and Susan B. Anthony were “women who lived in committed relationships with other women”—and, according to Lillian Faderman, were likely lesbians. In her book, Faderman argues that it was these women who, bolstered by the unique power of their sexual orientation, were able to instigate the social and feminist movements of the past two centuries. Featuring the recovered, eye-opening correspondence of Faderman’s subjects, To Believe in Women is an unmissable tribute to the lesbians who changed America.
The Peabody Sisters
While we're all familiar with the Brontë brood, there's another trio of sisters worth your attention: the Peabodys. Elizabeth, the eldest, matriculated in the same social circles as Henry Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, and ultimately sparked the Transcendentalist movement of the 19th century. Mary, next in line, was a notable writer and the wife of Horace Mann, a major player in U.S. educational reform. Meanwhile the youngest, Sophia, found fame as a painter and a husband in author Nathaniel Hawthorne. Each Peabody woman comes alive in Megan Marshall’s Pulitzer Prize finalist, which is at once a three-part biography as well as an overall study of a remarkable sisterhood.
Once Upon a Pedestal
If you don’t know the name “Emily Hahn,” it's high-time you do. As a young woman, Hahn briefly left the arts to pursue an education in engineering. After becoming her university program’s first female graduate, Hahn traveled America disguised as a man, established herself as a writer, hiked across Central Africa, and taught English in Shanghai. Once Upon a Pedestal is Hahn’s account of these extraordinary adventures which, though not widely known, informed her novels and reshaped our perception of Asia and Africa.
Witches, Midwives, and Nurses
Originally published in 1973, this feminist classic examines the complex relationship between women and the medicine. Of particular focus is the infamous persecution of “witches”—or, rather, the demonization of women healers—by male doctors wanting to maintain absolute control over the field. Thus, Ehrenreich’s book not only provides a fascinating history of female oppression in the medical community, but also sheds light on how these practices continue to effect the modern-day healthcare system.
When and Where I Enter
When and Where I Enter explores Black women’s contribution to the creation and evolution of present-day America—and boy, is it a large one. From activist Ida B. Wells to civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer, these women instigated major social and political reform by bucking against the racism and sexism of their time. Giddings’ discussion of “white feminism” also feels especially prevalent today.
The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World
Amazons have recently come into mainstream consciousness thanks to the blockbuster film, Wonder Woman—but did the likes of Hippolyta and Antiope exist outside of Greek mythology? Adrienne Mayor’s book offers a resounding “yes.” Through an analysis of archaeological findings, cultural traditions, and ancient myths, Mayor highlights how real-life warrior women from Egypt, India, and more inspired your favorite Amazonian war and love stories.
The Woman's Hour
It’s 1920, and all of America is waiting to see if women will finally be granted the right to vote—a decision that lies in the hands of swing-state Tennessee. But the country is divided: The suffragettes stand on one side while their enemy is a smattering of big-wig politicians and fearful moralists. Elaine Weiss studies this landmark moment in The Woman’s Hour, following a diverse group of women as they fight for their freedom and change the course of American history.
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