If there’s one thing I love, it’s an untold story, especially when there’s a badass woman at the center of it. More often than not, history is told through the eyes of those who hold the power. And while we all know women have that power, they rarely have possessed it enough to create their own narratives—until now. Here are some incredible, inspiring biographies of women you may not know but should.
Bored by her life in nineteenth-century England, Gertrude Bell did what any adventurous woman would: left her life as a socialite and explored, mapped, and excavated the Middle East as a member of British intelligence in the early twentieth century. Once considered the most powerful woman in the Empire, she became friends with T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) and literally changed the world.
Ellen Sirleaf broke through centuries of patriarchal rule, assuming a role that few thought possible: becoming the president of Liberia in 2005, the first female head of state in Africa’s history. Sirleaf was mother of four, a victim of domestic violence, an international banking executive, and a Nobel Peace Prize winner. This is her inspiring, empowering story.
At the age of 16 in 1852, Cixi was selected to be one of Emperor Xianfeng’s concubines. Years later, after his death and their young son’s assumption of the throne, she launched a coup against the regents, giving birth (no pun intended) to modern China. With newly available research, Jung Chang draws an astonishing portrait of ambition and leadership.
Powerful, deeply researched, and provocative, this biography explores the life and politics of the most powerful woman in 19th century China. From concubine to dowager empress, Cixi operated behind the scenes to usher China into the modern age, expand education, and advocate women’s rights.
Dorothy Day was a prominent Catholic, the cofounder of an activist movement that was dedicated to serving the poorest of the poor and actively challenged the Church on their approach to doing so. Now she’s a candidate for sainthood. In this personal and insightful book, Day’s granddaughter tells her story, shedding light on a woman who should be more visible in our history.
In 1962, three men received the Nobel Prize for their work on DNA. Not so surprisingly, a fourth member of the team went unacknowledged: the woman whose data and photographs led to their discovery. Essentially erased from scientific history, Rosalind Franklin was a focused and bright young scientist who was determined to make her presence known. Brenda Maddox powerfully explores the complexities of being female in a male-dominated world.
Betty Pack made it a point to defy convention: a dazzling American debutante, she became an Allied spy during World War II, working for Britain’s MI-6 and America’s OSS. Recently declassified files, which Howard Blum brings to life, reveal her work seducing diplomats in search of ciphers, cracking embassy safes, and even discovering the notebooks that were key to Alan Turing’s success. The result is a fascinating and cinematic story that will have you looking at history in an entirely new way.
In 1905, J. P. Morgan hired the young Belle da Costa Greene to organize his rare book and manuscript collection, a challenge that would result in one of New York’s most influential and prominent institutions and a completely changed life for Belle, who was born to a free family of color and hiding deep secrets about her past. More than just a biography, this is a deep and provocative look at race and identity.
Almost every girl knows the name “Carolyn Keene” from their Nancy Drew classics, but what some might not know is that their beloved author never existed. The brainchild of a children’s book packager, “Carolyn Keene” was the pseudonym of the group of women who wrote the books. In this page-turning literary mystery, Melanie Rehak finally gives them their due and illuminates the making of an American icon.
Before Hillary, there was Helen. A three-term congresswoman beginning in 1944, Nixon’s opponent for Senate in 1950, Broadway star, friend of FDR, lover of LBJ, and passionate advocate, Helen Gahagan Douglas was a public intellectual whose legacy has been tragically underplayed in American history. In this fascinating, richly detailed narrative, Sally Denton restores it to its rightful place.
Audrey Munson’s name and face is all over New York City. Her ideal figure landed her jobs posing for artists and sculptors and her likeness can be found in numerous spots on public buildings and monuments. A star of the Gilded Age, she dated billionaires, was the first American movie star to be naked in a film, and lived a life of passion and glamour. That is, until her doctor fell in love with her and killed his wife. After Audrey tried to commit suicide, her mother had her committed to an asylum, where she remained until her death at age 104. James Bone’s biography tells her remarkable story in details that are often stranger than fiction, making this a must read.
The original girlboss, Brownie Wise capitalized on postwar optimism to build an empire that has made its way into every home in America. Though she did not invent Tupperware, she elevated it from random accessory to a suburban must-have by hosting parties that demonstrated its use. As sales soared, she became the first woman to appear on the cover of Business Week. And then, just as suddenly, she was fired and erased from the company’s and product’s success story. Until now.
Discover the true story behind Tupperware, the ubiquitous plastic containers that have been a part of American families since the 1940s and host of countless suburban parties. A remarkable tale of success, power, and gender politics, LIFE OF THE PARTY brings a clear-eyed spotlight to overlooked business icon Brownie Wise.
Next time you’re finding peace and balance in your vinyasa, say a silent thank-you to Indra Devi. When she was born in Russia at the end of the nineteenth century, yoga was virtually nonexistent outside India. But as she traveled, Devi discovered yoga and its importance and potential, ushering in a craze that would change the world.
Before the 1950s, we knew less about the ocean floor than we did about outer space. In a time when the sexism of academia prevented countless women from study and work, Marie Tharp pushed through and discovered a new way of seeing the world. By transforming data into detailed maps, she helped to prove the theory of continental drift, initiating a new era of geology and oceanography.
Before Marie Tharp’s groundbreaking work in the 1950s, the ocean floor was a mystery. By transforming dry data into beautifully detailed maps, she completely changed our understanding of the planet’s evolution, upendeding scientific consensus and ushering in a new era in geology and oceanography.
Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Joyce, and Stein. The world knows their names, but not many people know the name of the woman who gave their work and legacy a home: American Sylvia Beach, owner and operator of the now-infamous Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris. Beach played an integral role in literary history, from defending the store against Nazis to smuggling copies of ULYSSES into the United States.
In 1942, a young social worker named Irena Sendler was granted access to the Warsaw ghetto to examine and observe the families living there. She noticed the danger they were in and began smuggling young children out, finding them new homes and hiding places that ultimately saved them from the Nazis. If that wasn’t amazing enough, she kept secret, detailed lists of the children’s true identities, so they could be found and reunited with surviving relatives after the war. This is an incredible and inspiring story of bravery, resilience, and redemption.
In 1942, Irena Sendler, a young social worker, was granted access to the Warsaw ghetto as a public health inspector. In the months that followed, she managed to smuggle out 2,500 children, saving them from death and deportation.