11 Books about Iconic Women We’re Reading to Celebrate the First Female VP

January 20 2021
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The last four years have felt so absurd, that if an author had chronicled it all in a book, years before it happened, we would have critiqued its story as implausible. That author would have been told that readers would not buy into its tragedy and the insanity. But, as these past four years have shown again and again, life is stranger than fiction. And it’s these times that makes hope that much more impactful and necessary to seek out. Hope for a better tomorrow and hope that great leaders will step forward. As a young woman in the US, I have found that hope in seeing a woman take on the role of VP, and the first Black and South Asian VP to boot! So, to help keep the excitement high and that promise of brighter tomorrows, here are 11 books about iconic women, and, of course, a couple about Kamala Harris herself.

Kamala's Way
by Dan Morain

If you want to know more about our first black female VP, then Dan Morain’s biography is essential. You may know that Kamala is the daughter of two immigrant parents and you may know about her career as a prosecutor, but Morain takes a deeper dive into her life story. Morain charts Harris’s unconventional and incredible path that’s led her to the white house while also showcasing her values and priorities as a political leader.  

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Kamala's Way
Dan Morain

A revelatory biography of the first Black woman to stand for Vice President, charting how the daughter of two immigrants in segregated California became one of this country’s most effective power players.

There’s very little that’s conventional about Kamala Harris, and yet her personal story also represents the best of America. She grew up the eldest daughter of a single mother, a no-nonsense cancer researcher who emigrated from India at the age of nineteen in search of a better education. She and her husband, an accomplished economist from Jamaica, split up when Kamala was only five.

The Kamala Harris the public knows today is tough, smart, quick-witted, and demanding. She’s a prosecutor—her one-liners are legendary—but she’s more reticent when it comes to sharing much about herself, even in her memoirs. Fortunately, longtime Los Angeles Times reporter Dan Morain has been there from the start.

In Kamala’s Way, he charts her career from its beginnings handling child molestation cases and homicides for the Alameda County District Attorney’s office and her relationship as a twenty-nine-year-old with the most powerful man in the state: married Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, a relationship that would prove life-changing. Morain takes readers through Harris’s years in the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office, explores her audacious embrace of the little-known Barack Obama, and shows the sharp elbows she deployed to make it to the US Senate. He analyzes her failure as a presidential candidate and the behind-the-scenes campaign she waged to land the Vice President spot. Along the way, he paints a vivid picture of her values and priorities, the kind of people she brings into her orbit, the sorts of problems she’s good at solving, and the missteps, risks, and bold moves she’s made on her way to the top.

Kamala’s Way is essential reading for all Americans curious about the woman standing by Joe Biden’s side.

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Ida B. the Queen
by Michelle Duster
Another great addition to this list of iconic women is IDA B. THE QUEEN. Ida B. Wells's legacy as a journalist, suffragist, antilynching crusader, and co-founder of the NAACP is often overlooked throughout history, but in this poignant biography, Ida B. Wells's great-granddaughter crafts an incredibly vivid portrait of Wells and the mark she left on this country. Her achievements serve as an inspiration in the continuous fight to dismantle systemic racism as Duster analyzes Wells's life with the Black experience in America.
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Ida B. the Queen
Michelle Duster

Journalist. Suffragist. Antilynching crusader. In 1862, Ida B. Wells was born enslaved in Holly Springs, Mississippi. In 2020, she won a Pulitzer Prize.

Ida B. Wells committed herself to the needs of those who did not have power. In the eyes of the FBI, this made her a “dangerous negro agitator.” In the annals of history, it makes her an icon.

Ida B. the Queen tells the awe-inspiring story of an pioneering woman who was often overlooked and underestimated—a woman who refused to exit a train car meant for white passengers; a woman brought to light the horrors of lynching in America; a woman who cofounded the NAACP. Written by Wells’s great-granddaughter Michelle Duster, this “warm remembrance of a civil rights icon” (Kirkus Reviews) is a unique visual celebration of Wells’s life, and of the Black experience.

A century after her death, Wells’s genius is being celebrated in popular culture by politicians, through song, public artwork, and landmarks. Like her contemporaries Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony, Wells left an indelible mark on history—one that can still be felt today. As America confronts the unfinished business of systemic racism, Ida B. the Queen pays tribute to a transformational leader and reminds us of the power we all hold to smash the status quo.

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The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane
by Lisa See

I love Lisa See’s novels, and THE TEA GIRL OF HUMMINGBIRD LANE is one of my favorites. Her stories always explore strong women, so they are perfect reads to celebrate our first female VP. Li-yan and her family live in a mountain village farming tea, but when the modern world creeps in and Li-yan desires more, everything changes. She has a baby out of wedlock and refuses the custom of handing the newborn over to be killed. Instead, she abandons her daughter at an orphanage in a nearby city. Li-yan then leaves her small village in China in search of an education and city career while, unbeknown to her, her child is raised by kind adoptive parents in California. As they each search for comfort and purpose in life, they find meaning in the study of Pu’er, the tea that has shaped their family’s past.

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The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane
Lisa See

From #1 New York Times bestselling author Lisa See, “one of those special writers capable of delivering both poetry and plot” (The New York Times Book Review), a moving novel about tradition, tea farming, and the bonds between mothers and daughters.

In their remote mountain village, Li-yan and her family align their lives around the seasons and the farming of tea. For the Akha people, ensconced in ritual and routine, life goes on as it has for generations—until a stranger appears at the village gate in a jeep, the first automobile any of the villagers has ever seen.

The stranger’s arrival marks the first entrance of the modern world in the lives of the Akha people. Slowly, Li-yan, one of the few educated girls on her mountain, begins to reject the customs that shaped her early life. When she has a baby out of wedlock—conceived with a man her parents consider a poor choice—she rejects the tradition that would compel her to give the child over to be killed, and instead leaves her, wrapped in a blanket with a tea cake tucked in its folds, near an orphanage in a nearby city.

As Li-yan comes into herself, leaving her insular village for an education, a business, and city life, her daughter, Haley, is raised in California by loving adoptive parents. Despite her privileged childhood, Haley wonders about her origins. Across the ocean Li-yan longs for her lost daughter. Over the course of years, each searches for meaning in the study of Pu’er, the tea that has shaped their family’s destiny for centuries.

A powerful story about circumstances, culture, and distance, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane paints an unforgettable portrait of a little known region and its people and celebrates the bond of family.

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Stranger in the Shogun's City
by Amy Stanley

Travel to the city that would later become Tokyo with a woman who is willing to sacrifice her reputation and leave her family in order to find a life for herself. Strong-willed Tsuneno was expected to follow in her mother’s footsteps and live a traditional life in their small Japanese village. But after her third divorce and her family’s disapproval, she runs away to Edo. Stanley has expertly woven Tsuneno’s story, based on family documents and history, to paint an amazing picture of the life of a bright, skilled woman in early 1800s Japan.

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Stranger in the Shogun's City
Amy Stanley

A vivid, deeply researched work of history that explores the life of an unconventional woman during the first half of the 19th century in Edo—the city that would become Tokyo—and a portrait of a great city on the brink of a momentous encounter with the West.

The daughter of a Buddhist priest, Tsuneno was born in a rural Japanese village and was expected to live a traditional life much like her mother’s. But after three divorces—and a temperament much too strong-willed for her family’s approval—she ran away to make a life for herself in one of the largest cities in the world: Edo, a bustling metropolis at its peak.

With Tsuneno as our guide, we experience the drama and excitement of Edo just prior to the arrival of American Commodore Perry’s fleet, which transformed Japan. During this pivotal moment in Japanese history, Tsuneno bounces from tenement to tenement, marries a masterless samurai, and eventually enters the service of a famous city magistrate. Tsuneno’s life provides a window into 19th-century Japanese culture—and a rare view of an extraordinary woman who sacrificed her family and her reputation to make a new life for herself, in defiance of social conventions.

Immersive and fascinating, Stranger in the Shogun’s City is a revelatory work of history, layered with rich detail and delivered with beautiful prose, about the life of a woman, a city, and a culture.

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Eleanor
by David Michaelis

In ELEANOR, Michaelis captures the very essence of what made Eleanor Roosevelt an incredible American figure. This biography chronicles Eleanor’s life from the orphaned niece of Teddy Roosevelt to the first lady and wife of FDR. It explores her human rights work and how she became a voice for the voiceless while her husband recovered from polio. It also portrays her relationship with pioneering journalist Lorena Hickok, the love she found outside her marriage. This all-encompassing look at the longest-serving First Lady of the United States is a fantastic way to celebrate strong female leaders.

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Eleanor
David Michaelis

New York Times Bestseller

Prizewinning bestselling author David Michaelis presents a “stunning” (The Wall Street Journal) breakthrough portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt, America’s longest-serving First Lady, an avatar of democracy whose ever-expanding agency as diplomat, activist, and humanitarian made her one of the world’s most widely admired and influential women.

In the first single-volume cradle-to-grave portrait in six decades, acclaimed biographer David Michaelis delivers a stunning account of Eleanor Roosevelt’s remarkable life of transformation. An orphaned niece of President Theodore Roosevelt, she converted her Gilded Age childhood of denial and secrecy into an irreconcilable marriage with her ambitious fifth cousin Franklin. Despite their inability to make each other happy, Franklin Roosevelt transformed Eleanor from a settlement house volunteer on New York’s Lower East Side into a matching partner in New York’s most important power couple in a generation.

When Eleanor discovered Franklin’s betrayal with her younger, prettier social secretary, Lucy Mercer, she offered a divorce and vowed to face herself honestly. Here is an Eleanor both more vulnerable and more aggressive, more psychologically aware and sexually adaptable than we knew. She came to accept FDR’s bond with his executive assistant, Missy LeHand; she allowed her children to live their own lives, as she never could; and she explored her sexual attraction to women, among them a star female reporter on FDR’s first presidential campaign, and younger men.

Eleanor needed emotional connection. She pursued deeper relationships wherever she could find them. Throughout her life and travels, there was always another person or place she wanted to heal. As FDR struggled to recover from polio, Eleanor became a voice for the voiceless, her husband’s proxy in presidential ambition, and then the people’s proxy in the White House. Later, she would be the architect of international human rights and world citizen of the Atomic Age, urging Americans to cope with the anxiety of global annihilation by cultivating a “world mind.” She insisted that we cannot live for ourselves alone but must learn to live together or we will die together.

Drawing on new research, Michaelis’s riveting portrait is not just a comprehensive biography of a major American figure, but the story of an American ideal: how our freedom is always a choice. Eleanor rediscovers a model of what is noble and evergreen in the American character, a model we need today more than ever.

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Circe
by Madeline Miller

Circe, daughter of the Titans, is not like the other gods. She is strange and believed to be powerless. But she actually practices witchcraft and possesses the ability to turn men into monsters. You’ve met her in the Greek myths and The Odyssey, but this is now fully her story. After discovering her power, the gods banish her to an island where she hones her abilities and meets some of the most famous characters in mythology. But when she draws the wrath of both men and the gods, Circe will have to decide if she belongs with the gods, or the humans she’s come to love. Circe is a strong character who explores her power and shapes her own destiny. Whether you’re a fan of the original Greek myths or not, you are sure to love this retelling.

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Circe
Madeline Miller

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
by Rebecca Skloot

On the surface, this true story is about the ethics and complications of science, but it is also about the many layers of womanhood, history, racism, and legacy. It depicts society’s exploitation of Black women in Henrietta Lacks—known by scientists as HeLa—a poor southern tobacco farmer whose cells were harvested without her consent in 1951, when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer, and used to develop some of the most important tools in modern medicine. And it shows the power of female persistence, as Henrietta’s daughter Deborah kept asking questions about her mother and seeking out the truth of her suspicions with the help of Skloot’s journalist pursuit.

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Rebecca Skloot

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The Only Woman in the Room
by Marie Benedict

THE ONLY WOMAN IN THE ROOM is a fictional take on the historical Hedy Lemarr, a great actress who has only recently been recognized for her scientific contributions as an inventor. Lemarr is so much more than the pretty Hollywood starlet of history. Before WWII, she was forced to marry an Austrian arms dealer to save herself from Nazi persecution. Throughout the marriage, she becomes privy to some of the Third Reich’s plans through dinner parties and more. In 1937, Hedy flees her abusive husband and rising Nazi party and finds herself in Hollywood, where she begins a successful career as an actress. But when she develops an idea that could help the Americans against the Nazi regime, getting the US to listen proves to be more difficult than she imagined.

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The Only Woman in the Room
Marie Benedict

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The Radium Girls
by Kate Moore

This is the true story of the girls who worked in radium factories in the 1920s and 30s and their determination to fight for workers' rights, women's rights, and research into nuclear bombs. When radium was first discovered, it was thought to be a wonder drug in the medical community. Thus, the most coveted job for young women at the time was working in the radium-dial factories. The women would end up covered in so much radium dust that you could see them glowing from miles away—and then they began to get poisonously sick. What followed is one of the biggest American scandals of the early 20th century, and this book portrays the strength of the women involved, and their fight for justice.

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The Radium Girls
Kate Moore

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MENTIONED IN:

The 10 Most Popular Books of July

By Off the Shelf Staff | July 30, 2021

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Kamala Harris
by Nikki Grimes

Of course, it’s not just adults that get to be excited about Kamala Harris taking office. With Nikki Grimes and Laura Freeman’s stunning biographical picture book, this story shows readers of all ages that the fight for freedom and representation matters. KAMALA HARRIS: ROOTED IN JUSTICE follows Kamala’s life, in free verse, from a young girl in Oakland to prosecutor, to US senator, as she uses her voice to fight for justice. Perfect for all ages to share, this book reminds us that we all need to come together.

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Kamala Harris
Nikki Grimes

Discover the incredible story of a young daughter of immigrants who would grow up to be the first woman, first Black person, and first South Asian American ever elected Vice President of the United States in this moving picture book biography of Kamala Harris.

When Kamala Harris was young, she often accompanied her parents to civil rights marches—so many, in fact, that when her mother asked a frustrated Kamala what she wanted, the young girl responded with: “Freedom!”

As Kamala grew from a small girl in Oakland to a senator running for president, it was this long-fostered belief in freedom and justice for all people that shaped her into the inspiring figure she is today. From fighting for the use of a soccer field in middle school to fighting for the people of her home state in Congress, Senator Harris used her voice to speak up for what she believed in and for those who were otherwise unheard. And now this dedication has led her all the way to being elected Vice President of the United States.

Told in Nikki Grimes's stunning verse and featuring gorgeous illustrations by Laura Freeman, this picture book biography brings to life a story that shows all young people that the American dream can belong to all of us if we fight for one another.

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The Coldest Winter Ever
by Sister Souljah

Action-packed. Intense. Raw. Real. These are just a few of the words that come to mind when I think about THE COLDEST WINTER EVER by American activist, writer, musician, and film producer Sister Souljah. She weaves a feminist story about what it means to lose everything—and what one person might do to get it all back. THE COLDEST WINTER EVER follows Brooklyn-born Winter, the spoiled daughter of a wealthy drug dealer. She’s been taught to value things and wealth over people, and when something happens to take all of that away, Winter will do anything to hold on. There’s also a long-awaited sequel coming out this year—LIFE AFTER DEATH—so both books will be all the buzz.

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The Coldest Winter Ever
Sister Souljah

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MENTIONED IN:

The 10 Most Popular Books of July

By Off the Shelf Staff | July 30, 2021

Author Picks: My 6 Favorite Opening Lines of Literature

By Rémy Ngamije | July 29, 2021

10 Mystery Novels with Indomitable Female Sleuths

By Jennifer Proffitt | July 28, 2021

Editors Recommend: 10 Sizzling Reads for the Summer

By Off the Shelf Staff | July 27, 2021

10 Crowd-Pleasing Books That Are Easy to Love

By Chris Gaudio | July 26, 2021

9 Mesmerizing Books for Fans of All the Light We Cannot See

By Emily Lewis | July 22, 2021

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Image credit: iStock / Nadezda_Grapes

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