10 Empowering Nonfiction Must-Reads for Women’s History Month

March 25 2022
Share 10 Empowering Nonfiction Must-Reads for Women’s History Month

You don’t need us to tell you that March is Women’s History Month, but we can tell you about these gloriously empowering must-reads that are sure to get you in the spirit to celebrate. From lively biographies to revealing journalistic portraits, relatable self-help books to sweeping cultural surveys, these ten nonfiction gems all offer inspirational stories, illuminating facts, and actionable goals. Whether you need a spiritual pick-me-up or an intellectual deep dive, we’ve got you covered. Like what you see? Share it with a friend! Because if there’s anything better than personal empowerment, it’s sharing that empowerment with others.

Pay Up
by Reshma Saujani

After years in which women have been told to lean in, Girls Who Code founder Reshma Saujani rejects the script in PAY UP, advocating instead for systemic change to prevent burnout for America’s working women. Dismantling the myth of what it means to “have it all” by revealing the devastating data behind women’s mental health over the course of the last decade, Saujani offers a compelling call to action by advocating for four specific steps: empower women, educate corporate leaders, revise what it means to be successful, and advocate for policy reform.

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Pay Up
Reshma Saujani

The founder of Girls Who Code and bestselling author of Brave, Not Perfect confronts the “big lie” of corporate feminism and presents a bold plan to address the burnout and inequity harming America’s working women today.

We told women that to break glass ceilings and succeed in their careers, all they needed to do is dream big, raise their hands, and lean in. But data tells a different story. Historic numbers of women left their jobs in 2021, resulting in their lowest workforce participation since 1988. Women’s unemployment rose to nearly fifteen percent, and globally women lost over $800 billion in wages. Fifty-one percent of women say that their mental health has declined, while anxiety and depression rates have skyrocketed.

In this urgent and rousing call to arms, Reshma Saujani dismantles the myth of “having it all” and lifts the burden we place on individual women to be primary caregivers, and to work around a system built for and by men. The time has come, she argues, for innovative corporate leadership, government intervention, and sweeping culture shift; it’s time to Pay Up.

Through powerful data and personal narrative, Saujani shows that the cost of inaction—for families, for our nation’s economy, and for women themselves—is too great to ignore. She lays out four key steps for creating lasting change: empower working women, educate corporate leaders, revise our narratives about what it means to be successful, and advocate for policy reform.

Both a direct call to action for business leaders and a pragmatic set of tools for women themselves, Pay Up offers a bold vision for change as America defines the future of work.

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The Agitators
by Dorothy Wickenden

Harriet Tubman, who rescued more than seventy enslaved people in the 1850s, often used two stops on the underground railroad: one with Quaker mother Martha Coffin Wright and another with Frances A. Seward, the wife of Lincoln’s secretary of state. In this expertly researched exploration of Tubman, Wright, and Seward from the 1820s until after the Civil War, Dorothy Wickenden revises the familiar narratives of figures like Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, and John Brown by exploring the period through the eyes of these three fearless women.

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The Agitators
Dorothy Wickenden

An LA Times Best Book of the Year

“Engrossing... examines the major events of the mid 19th century through the lives of three key figures in the abolitionist and women’s rights movements.” —Smithsonian

From the executive editor of The New Yorker, a riveting, provocative, and revelatory history of abolition and women’s rights, told through the story of three women—Harriet Tubman, Frances Seward, and Martha Wright—in the years before, during and after the Civil War.

The Agitators tells the story of America before the Civil War through the lives of three women who advocated for the abolition of slavery and for women’s rights as the country split apart. Harriet Tubman, Martha Coffin Wright, and Frances A. Seward are the examples we need right now—another time of divisiveness and dissension over our nation’s purpose ‘to form a more perfect union.’” —Hillary Rodham Clinton

In the 1850s, Harriet Tubman, strategically brilliant and uncannily prescient, rescued some seventy enslaved people from Maryland’s Eastern Shore and shepherded them north along the underground railroad. One of her regular stops was Auburn, New York, where she entrusted passengers to Martha Coffin Wright, a Quaker mother of seven, and Frances A. Seward, the wife of William H. Seward, who served over the years as governor, senator, and secretary of state under Abraham Lincoln. During the Civil War, Tubman worked for the Union Army in South Carolina as a nurse and spy, and took part in a spectacular river raid in which she helped to liberate 750 slaves from several rice plantations.

Wright, a “dangerous woman” in the eyes of her neighbors, worked side by side with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony to organize women’s rights and anti-slavery conventions across New York State, braving hecklers and mobs when she spoke. Frances Seward, the most conventional of the three friends, hid her radicalism in public, while privately acting as a political adviser to her husband, pressing him to persuade President Lincoln to move immediately on emancipation.

The Agitators opens in the 1820s, when Tubman is enslaved and Wright and Seward are young homemakers bound by law and tradition, and ends after the war. Many of the most prominent figures of the era—Lincoln, William H. Seward, Frederick Douglass, Daniel Webster, Charles Sumner, John Brown, William Lloyd Garrison—are seen through the discerning eyes of the protagonists. So are the most explosive political debates: about the civil rights of African Americans and women, about the enlistment of Black troops, and about opposing interpretations of the Constitution.

Through richly detailed letters from the time and exhaustive research, Wickenden traces the second American revolution these women fought to bring about, the toll it took on their families, and its lasting effects on the country. Riveting and profoundly relevant to our own time, The Agitators brings a vibrant, original voice to this transformative period in our history.

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Madame President
by Helene Cooper

In this biography of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Helene Cooper paints an indelible portrait of the first democratically elected female president (of Liberia) in African history. Starting from her years as a domestically abused mother of four boys and following her through her career as an international bank executive, postwar president, and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Cooper’s story of Sirleaf’s life depicts her not only as a political icon, but as a representative of Liberian women’s coming of age. Throughout her highs and lows, Sirleaf shines as an inspiring and triumphant figure.

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Madame President
Helene Cooper

BEST BOOKS of 2017 SELECTION by * THE WASHINGTON POST * NEW YORK POST *

The harrowing, but triumphant story of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, leader of the Liberian women’s movement, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and the first democratically elected female president in African history.

When Ellen Johnson Sirleaf won the 2005 Liberian presidential election, she demolished a barrier few thought possible, obliterating centuries of patriarchal rule to become the first female elected head of state in Africa’s history. Madame President is the inspiring, often heartbreaking story of Sirleaf’s evolution from an ordinary Liberian mother of four boys to international banking executive, from a victim of domestic violence to a political icon, from a post-war president to a Nobel Peace Prize winner.

Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and bestselling author Helene Cooper deftly weaves Sirleaf’s personal story into the larger narrative of the coming of age of Liberian women. The highs and lows of Sirleaf’s life are filled with indelible images; from imprisonment in a jail cell for standing up to Liberia’s military government to addressing the United States Congress, from reeling under the onslaught of the Ebola pandemic to signing a deal with Hillary Clinton when she was still Secretary of State that enshrined American support for Liberia’s future.

Sirleaf’s personality shines throughout this riveting biography. Ultimately, Madame President is the story of Liberia’s greatest daughter, and the universal lessons we can all learn from this “Oracle” of African women.

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Wild Swans
by Jung Chang

WILD SWANS is a story of three women: author Jung Chang’s mother, her grandmother, and herself. Her grandmother was kept as a warlord’s mistress. Her mother was a revolutionary Communist who later faced the dark truths behind her beliefs during the Cultural Revolution. And Chang herself, who was a Red Guard, a peasant, a doctor, and a laborer, finds herself writing to make sense of her present and ancestral identities amid generations of cultural upheaval. Simultaneously intimate and panoramic, Chang’s sweeping portrait is both a narrative history and a memoir.

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Wild Swans
Jung Chang

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Ladies Get Paid
by Claire Wasserman

In LADIES GET PAID, career coach Claire Wasserman offers inspirational and down-to-earth tips to help women realize their worth by getting paid what they deserve. With advice on how to do everything from coping with office politics to negotiating a raise, this approachable how-to book is dedicated to promoting gender equality and helping women recognize how community involvement can do more for their own empowerment than individual action alone.

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Ladies Get Paid
Claire Wasserman

From career coach and founder of the startup Ladies Get Paidthe eponymous organization leading the fight for equality in the workplace—comes a “powerful call to action” (Reshma Saujani, CEO and author of Brave, Not Perfect) that provides the tools you need to strategically navigate the workplace, achieve success, and become a true leader.

Claire Wasserman has one goal for women: Rise up and get paid.

As the founder of Ladies Get Paid, Claire has worked her entire adult life to promote gender equality in the workplace. If you’re looking to navigate a promotion or break the glass ceiling, Ladies Get Paid is your essential toolkit for achieving success.

Filled with straightforward advice and inspiring stories, this book is a transformative “guide to succeeding in your field, even when you feel completely stuck” (Beth Comstock, author of Imagine It Forward), by encouraging self-advocacy and activism. Covering topics as crucial and varied as how to combat imposter syndrome, deal with office politics, and negotiate a raise, Ladies Get Paid is a reminder that you are valuable—both as an individual woman and as part of the female community. And ultimately, it’s about more than your wallet—it’s about your worth.

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The Barbizon
by Paulina Bren

In the Roaring Twenties, the Barbizon Hotel opened as the first residential hotel in New York City exclusively for the Modern Woman. From 1927 to 1981, it offered its 700 rooms to such luminaries as Sylvia Plath, Grace Kelly, and Joan Didion. And while many women began there before their rise to renown, it was also a residence for women whose coming-of-age did not result in fame and fortune. In this brilliant, sweeping portrait of a Manhattan landmark, award-winning writer Paulina Bren sketches a panoramic cultural history of female ambition in the twentieth century.

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The Barbizon
Paulina Bren

From award-winning author Paulina Bren comes the “captivating portrait” (The Wall Street Journal) of New York’s most famous residential hotel—The Barbizon—and the remarkable women who lived there.

Welcome to New York’s legendary hotel for women.

Liberated from home and hearth by World War I, politically enfranchised and ready to work, women arrived to take their place in the dazzling new skyscrapers of Manhattan. But they did not want to stay in uncomfortable boarding houses. They wanted what men already had—exclusive residential hotels with maid service, workout rooms, and private dining.

Built in 1927, at the height of the Roaring Twenties, the Barbizon Hotel was designed as a luxurious safe haven for the “Modern Woman” hoping for a career in the arts. Over time, it became the place to stay for any ambitious young woman hoping for fame and fortune. Sylvia Plath fictionalized her time there in The Bell Jar, and, over the years, it’s almost 700 tiny rooms with matching floral curtains and bedspreads housed, among many others, Titanic survivor Molly Brown; actresses Grace Kelly, Liza Minnelli, Ali MacGraw, Jaclyn Smith; and writers Joan Didion, Gael Greene, Diane Johnson, Meg Wolitzer. Mademoiselle magazine boarded its summer interns there, as did Katharine Gibbs Secretarial School its students and the Ford Modeling Agency its young models. Before the hotel’s residents were household names, they were young women arriving at the Barbizon with a suitcase and a dream.

Not everyone who passed through the Barbizon’s doors was destined for success—for some, it was a story of dashed hopes—but until 1981, when men were finally let in, the Barbizon offered its residents a room of their own and a life without family obligations. It gave women a chance to remake themselves however they pleased; it was the hotel that set them free. No place had existed like it before or has since.

“Poignant and intriguing” (The New Republic), The Barbizon weaves together a tale that has, until now, never been told. It is both a vivid portrait of the lives of these young women looking for something more and a “brilliant many-layered social history of women’s ambition and a rapidly changing New York through the 20th century” (The Guardian).

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As a Woman
by Paula Stone Williams

Paula Stone Williams was already a father to three children, married to a woman, and the sixty-year-old leader within the evangelical church when she made the decision to transition from male to female. After her transition she found herself not only isolated and kicked out of the evangelical churches she once called home, but suddenly more cognizant than ever of the ways society devalues and overlooks women. In this poignant and profound memoir, Williams writes about the process of exploring her new life, including what relationship she could have with her spirituality.

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As a Woman
Paula Stone Williams

This moving and unforgettable memoir of a transgender pastor’s transition from male to female is an “audacious, gripping, and profoundly real journey that speaks to the mind, heart, and soul” (Joshua J. Dickson, director of Faith Based Initiatives, Biden Campaign)—perfect for fans of Redefining Realness and There Is Room for You.

As a father of three, married to a wonderful woman, and holding several prominent jobs within the Christian community, Dr. Paula Stone Williams made the life-changing decision to physically transition from male to female at the age of sixty. Almost instantly, her power and influence in the evangelical world disappeared and her family had to grapple with intense feelings of loss and confusion.

Feeling utterly alone after being expelled from the evangelical churches she had once spearheaded, Paula struggled to create a new safe space for herself where she could reconcile her faith, her identity, and her desire to be a leader. Much to her surprise, the key to her new career as a woman came with a deeper awareness of the inequities she had overlooked before her transition. Where her opinions were once celebrated and amplified, now she found herself sidelined and ignored. New questions emerged. Why are women’s opinions devalued in favor of men’s? Why does love and intimacy feel so different? And, was it possible to find a new spirituality in her own image?

In As a Woman, Paula’s “critical questions about gender, personhood, and place are relevant to anyone. Her writing insightfully reveals aspects of our gender socialization and culture that often go unexamined, but that need to be talked about, challenged, and changed” (Soraya Chemaly, author of Rage Becomes Her) in order to fully understand what it means to be male, female, and simply, human.

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All the Single Ladies
by Rebecca Traister

In ALL THE SINGLE LADIES, award-winning journalist Rebecca Traister fixes her lens on the unmarried American woman to reveal often unseen truths about contemporary American culture. In 2009, the proportion of married American women fell below 50 percent, and Traister wanted to know why. Through her discussions with social scientists, historians, and single women themselves, Traister starts to answer that question. She also looks at history to expose how when single women begin to influence society, society itself may undergo drastic changes.

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All the Single Ladies
Rebecca Traister

For your feminist friends

Rebecca Traister offers a comprehensive study of the power of independent women in America through the fascinating history of unmarried women and their lasting, radical effect on the nation.

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She Came to Slay
by Erica Armstrong Dunbar

The liberator of hundreds of slaves, a staunch suffragist, and a spy for the union army are just a few of the ways the courageous abolitionist Harriet Tubman could be described. In SHE CAME TO SLAY, historian and author of NEVER CAUGHT, Erica Armstrong Dunbar offers an informative and entertaining look at this one incredible woman, mixing expansive research with pop cultural appeal to deliver a unique portrait of this true icon. Perfect for fans of THE NOTORIOUS RBG, Dunbar’s blend of biography, illustration, and info graphics allows readers to know Tubman as they never have before.

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She Came to Slay
Erica Armstrong Dunbar

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The Pain Gap
by Anushay Hossain

After a traumatizing, near-death experience while in labor in an American hospital, journalist and political analyst Anushay Hossain dedicated herself to learning more about what went wrong during her own delivery and how women are being systematically harmed by sexism in health care. An impeccably researched and rousing call to action, THE PAIN GAP reveals the ways in which women—and particularly women of color—are dismissed in the American health care system. Further, Hossain shares her personal stories to encourage readers to help fight to revolutionize women’s care.

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The Pain Gap
Anushay Hossain

Explore real women’s tales of healthcare trauma and medical misogyny with this meticulously researched, in-depth examination of the women’s health crisis in America—and what we can do about it.

When Anushay Hossain became pregnant in the US, she was so relieved. Growing up in Bangladesh in the 1980s, where the concept of women’s healthcare hardly existed, she understood how lucky she was to access the best in the world. But she couldn’t have been more wrong. Things started to go awry from the minute she stepped in the hospital, and after thirty hours of labor (two of which she spent pushing), Hossain’s epidural slipped. Her pain was so severe that she ran a fever of 104 degrees, and as she shook and trembled uncontrollably, the doctors finally performed an emergency C-section.

Giving birth in the richest country on earth, Hossain never imagined she could die in labor. But she almost did. The experience put her on a journey to explore, understand, and share how women—especially women of color—are dismissed to death by systemic sexism in American healthcare.

Following in the footsteps of feminist manifestos such as The Feminine Mystique and Rage Becomes Her, The Pain Gap is an eye-opening and stirring call to arms that encourages women to flip their “hysteria complex” on its head and use it to revolutionize women’s healthcare. This book tells the story of Hossain’s experiences—from growing up in South Asia surrounded by staggering maternal mortality rates to lobbying for global health legislation on Capitol Hill to nearly becoming a statistic herself. Along the way, she realized that a little fury might be just what the doctor ordered.

Meticulously researched and deeply reported, this book explores real women’s traumatic experiences with America’s healthcare system—and empowers everyone to use their experiences to bring about the healthcare revolution women need.

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