10 Absorbing Reads That Bring Real Women of History Back to Life

March 3 2021
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This Women’s History Month, I’m reading stacks of both fiction and nonfiction that peel back the layers of time to either illuminate or reimagine strong, iconic women who have been pushed to the background. Whether from 1596 Stratford, England, the Richmond plantations in the 1850s, or the Jazz Age in NYC, these women are role models who fought, failed, sacrificed, persisted, and ultimately created lasting legacies that’ll inspire generations to come.

Rhapsody
by Mitchell James Kaplan

Classical pianist Kay Swift was just launching a flourishing career as one of Broadway’s first female composers when she began a lengthy love affair with George Gershwin, leaving behind her wealthy banker husband. Caught in the throes of a passionate love, Kay’s own musical ambitions were strained by the curse of fame and fortune, but she refused to let her ambitions be denied, even for a man of great talent. The stage is set, with all the glamorous sights, sounds, and famous figures of New York City in the Jazz Age, in this riveting tale of one creative woman fighting for her own potential in a man's world.

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Rhapsody
Mitchell James Kaplan

“Mitchell James Kaplan [brings] his impressive knowledge of history, composition, and the heart’s whims to bear on this shining rendition of Swift and Gershwin’s star-crossed love.” —Therese Anne Fowler, New York Times bestselling author of Z and A Good Neighborhood

“A lilting, jazzy ballad as catchy as a Gershwin tune…Rhapsody will have you humming, toe-tapping, and singing along with every turn of the page.” —Kate Quinn, New York Times bestselling author of The Alice Network and The Huntress

One evening in 1924, Katharine “Kay” Swift—the restless but loyal society wife of wealthy banker James Warburg and a serious pianist who longs for recognition—attends a concert. The piece: Rhapsody in Blue. The composer: a brilliant, elusive young musical genius named George Gershwin.

Kay is transfixed, helpless to resist the magnetic pull of George’s talent, charm, and swagger. Their ten-year love affair, complicated by her conflicted loyalty to her husband and the twists and turns of her own musical career, ends only with George’s death from a brain tumor at the age of thirty-eight.

Set in Jazz Age New York City, this stunning work of fiction, for fans of The Paris Wife and Loving Frank, explores the timeless bond between two brilliant, strong-willed artists. George Gershwin left behind not just a body of work unmatched in popular musical history, but a woman who loved him with all her heart, knowing all the while that he belonged not to her, but to the world.

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Yellow Wife
by Sadeqa Johnson

Enslaved in Charles City, Virginia, Pheby Delores Brown was promised freedom on her eighteenth birthday, but a tragic death, a wife’s jealousy, and betrayal lead to her being sent to the infamous Devil’s Half Acre jail, where the jailer soon claims her for his own. For the sake of her loved ones and her own survival, Pheby must become the jailer’s “yellow wife.” Through those painful years, Pheby tries time and again to work toward freedom, only to have it wrenched away, forcing her to adapt to new, even more harrowing circumstances. This is an incredibly difficult, heartbreaking read and, while Pheby Dolores Brown is a fictional character, her story provides a glimpse into the lives of actual yellow wives of history, and it incorporates many details of the tragic true story of Mary Lumpkin.

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Yellow Wife
Sadeqa Johnson

“A fully immersive, intricately crafted story inspired by the pages of history. In Pheby, Sadeqa Johnson has created a woman whose struggle to survive and to protect the ones she loves will have readers turning the pages as fast as their fingers can fly. Simply enthralling.” —Lisa Wingate, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Before We Were Yours

Called "wholly engrossing" by New York Times bestselling author Kathleen Grissom, this harrowing story follows an enslaved woman forced to barter love and freedom while living in the most infamous slave jail in Virginia.

Born on a plantation in Charles City, Virginia, Pheby Delores Brown has lived a relatively sheltered life. Shielded by her mother’s position as the estate’s medicine woman and cherished by the Master’s sister, she is set apart from the others on the plantation, belonging to neither world.

She’d been promised freedom on her eighteenth birthday, but instead of the idyllic life she imagined with her true love, Essex Henry, Pheby is forced to leave the only home she has ever known. She unexpectedly finds herself thrust into the bowels of slavery at the infamous Devil’s Half Acre, a jail in Richmond, Virginia, where the enslaved are broken, tortured, and sold every day. There, Pheby is exposed not just to her Jailer’s cruelty but also to his contradictions. To survive, Pheby will have to outwit him, and she soon faces the ultimate sacrifice.

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The Princess Spy
by Larry Loftis

At the start of World War II, Aline Griffith was a recent college graduate, making petty cash modeling clothes, when a chance conversation at a NYC dinner party led to an opportunity that could help end the war. Sent off to Europe, where her good looks and quick wit soon launched her espionage career as a spy in high society, she mingled with diplomats and officials in order to uncover secrets about the Nazis. To round out this truly cinematic story, she winds up marrying the Count of Romanones, and continues her daring espionage activities at the height of European nobility. This is one American heroine whose legacy as a spy could’ve easily been lost to history, but thanks to author Larry Loftis’s work pulling together the few fragments left of her story, we can learn about, and learn from, this incredible princess spy.

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The Princess Spy
Larry Loftis

INSTANT NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
Seen on Today
What to Read in 2021 —The Washington Post

​The international bestselling author of the “exciting, suspenseful, inspirational” (Brad Thor, #1 New York Times bestselling author) Code Name: Lise weaves another exceptional and thrilling hidden history of an ordinary American girl who became one of the OSS’s most daring spies in World War II before marrying into European nobility. Perfect for fans of A Woman of No Importance and Code Girls.

When Aline Griffith was born in a quiet suburban New York hamlet, no one had any idea that she would go on to live “a life of glamour and danger that Ingrid Bergman only played at in Notorious” (Time). As the US enters the Second World War, the young college graduate is desperate to aid in the war effort, but no one is interested in a bright-eyed young woman whose only career experience is modeling clothes.

Aline’s life changes when, at a dinner party, she meets a man named Frank Ryan and reveals how desperately she wants to do her part for her country. Within a few weeks, he helps her join the Office of Strategic Services—forerunner of the CIA. With a code name and expert training under her belt, she is sent to Spain to be a coder, but is soon given the additional assignment of infiltrating the upper echelons of society, mingling with high-ranking officials, diplomats, and titled Europeans, any of whom could be an enemy agent. Against this glamorous backdrop of galas and dinner parties, she recruits sub-agents and engages in deep-cover espionage to counter Nazi tactics in Madrid.

Even after marrying the Count of Romanones, one of the wealthiest men in Spain, Aline secretly continues her covert activities, being given special assignments when abroad that would benefit from her impeccable pedigree and social connections.

Filled with twists, romance, and plenty of white-knuckled adventures fit for a James Bond film, The Princess Spy brings to vivid life the dazzling adventures of a remarkable American woman who risked everything to serve her country.

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The Lost Queen
by Signe Pike

Languoreth was the twin sister of the man who inspired the legend of Merlin, as well as a forgotten queen of sixth-century Scotland—and this historical fiction imagines the epic, wonderous world of King Arthur through her eyes. Combining history, romance, adventure, and more, THE LOST QUEEN is fundamentally OUTLANDER meets brilliant British historical fiction writer Philippa Gregory, with the added bonus of basically rescuing a queen from obscurity. Read more from the author on what inspired her to reimagine Languoreth’s lost narrative.

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The Lost Queen
Signe Pike

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Song of a Captive Bird
by Jasmin Darznik

If you ever doubted poetry’s power, read the novel SONG OF A CAPTIVE BIRD, which beautifully reconstructs the life and poetry of Forugh Farrokhzad in 1950s Iran. Raised in Tehran to strict parents, Forugh felt suffocated until she ran away. In the midst of the Iranian revolution of 1978–79, she began to share her poetry with the world and used her art to inspire other Iranian women to express themselves and speak out against injustices. Author Jasmin Darznik drew on archival material to reconstruct this intense, inspiring narrative of one brave woman.

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Song of a Captive Bird
Jasmin Darznik

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Hamnet
by Maggie O'Farrell

HAMNET begins in 1596 Stratford with William and Anne (Agnes) Shakespeare’s son Hamnet sick with the plague, and then the bulk of this intriguing novel pivots to focus on Anne. Raised by a sorceress with a love of forestry, Anne’s upbringing instilled in her a connection with nature and an uncanny prescience, enabling her to sense Will’s true potential. When she manages to convince Will’s father to send him off to London, thus begins his path to success, and the beginning cracks in their relationship. Alternating between time periods, this book explores the trauma of grief and the triumph of storytelling. It’s one heartbreaking historical reimagining that feels simultaneously monumental and intimate.

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Hamnet
Maggie O'Farrell

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Ida B. the Queen
by Michelle Duster

Just considering civil rights icon Ida B. Wells’s achievements is impressive enough—cofounder of the NAACP, hard-hitting investigative journalist, Pulitzer Prize–winner, and more—but this biography of her from her great granddaughter Michelle Duster enhances her story with contextual historical details, photos, and illustrations. Detailing Ida B. Wells’s progressive activism, heated confrontations, and courtroom contests, IDA B. THE QUEEN displays the roots of a civil rights icon’s legacy, which will live on for generations.

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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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Love and Ruin
by Paula McLain

With the PBS documentary coming out soon, everyone’s discussing Hemingway, but I find it much more interesting to dive into the women in his life. Hemingway’s third marriage to (and treatment of) war correspondent Marth Gellhorn is perhaps one of his most infamous relationships, so it’s therefore so invigorating to read about events from Martha’s perspective in LOVE AND RUIN. Martha was just on the cusp of her writing career—and went off to report on the Spanish Civil War—when she developed a deep connection with Hemingway. Traveling the world together during the turbulent WWII years, Martha found herself in a floundering relationship, with a misplaced sense of identity, and struggled amid Hemingway’s own rising success and personal troubles. Love and ruin is right, but luckily Martha Gellhorn’s story is an example of how, indomitably, she powered through.

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Love and Ruin
Paula McLain

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Eleanor
by David Michaelis

The first single-volume autobiography of one of America’s most intriguing First Ladies, ELEANOR presents an enlightening, comprehensive character portrait, so gripping that it’s hard to believe it’s not historical fiction. Growing up, Eleanor experienced immense privilege, as well as tragedy with the early deaths of both her parents, and went on to develop a deep compassion for others. It’s fascinating to watch her character transform, from a child in the Gilded Age and progressing through her rigorous years in the White House—and encompassing her husband’s, political campaigns, infidelity, and her own explorations of sexuality. Ultimately, this book will leave you reeling and revering a woman of such deep empathy, curiosity, and drive to change the world for the better.

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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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Stranger in the Shogun's City
by Amy Stanley

Tsuneno, the restive main character in STRANGER IN THE SHOGUN’s CITY, wasn’t exactly engaging in espionage activity or escaping from danger like many of the other women on this list, but her story is no less important. Author Amy Stanley used Tsuneno’s own letters to reveal her story. A wise lower-class woman in nineteen-century Japan, she lived a dutiful life filled with many personal successes and hardships that women faced at the time, though without the fanfare of achievements listed in any history books. Her letters and this resulting narrative provide insight into the vibrant cultures and lifestyles of Japan’s past, from a childhood in Ishigami village to the capital city of Edo (present-day Tokyo). Tsuneno’s life will surely resonate with women of any age. And her stories also show how, long after we’re gone, history levels the playing field, and has the power to distill our lives and transform anyone of us into a hero.

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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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