Biographies of interesting women
September 4, 2016 7:17 PM   Subscribe

Mefites, I trust you way more than the random lists on Goodreads. Could you suggest some recent-ish biographies of interesting, mostly not-very-well-known women?

This year I've read a few biographies of women I'd never heard of, and I'd love to get suggestions for more. Extra points for books about women scientists. I'm pretty open to any era.

Biographies I've read and liked:
Nellie Taft: The Unconventional First Lady of the Jazz Age by Carl Anthony
Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary by Anita Anand
Privilege and Scandal: The Remarkable Life of Harriet Spencer, Sister of Georgiana, Janet Gleeson
Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space by Lynn Sherr (OK, Sally Ride I was of course well aware of)

I had a look through previous biography/book questions, and I'll be mining those, but lots of those suggestions feature male subjects. I'm really hoping to hear about some great biographies of women.
posted by Janta to Media & Arts (32 answers total) 93 users marked this as a favorite
Not very well known to me, and I suspect most other Americans, was Catherine of Aragon. I read this book a few years ago and learned much and enjoyed it.
posted by falsedmitri at 7:36 PM on September 4, 2016

Best answer: Desert Queen by Janet Wallach, a biography of Gertrude Bell (1868-1926). She traveled widely in the Middle East and is largely responsible for the current state boundaries there today.

From wikipedia:
Gertrude Bell was an English writer, traveller, political officer, administrator, spy and archaeologist who explored, mapped, and became highly influential to British imperial policy-making due to her knowledge and contacts, built up through extensive travels in Greater Syria, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor, and Arabia. Along with T. E. Lawrence, Bell helped support the Hashemite dynasties in what is today Jordan as well as in Iraq.[2]
posted by maggiemaggie at 7:42 PM on September 4, 2016 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I really enjoyed the bio of James Tiptree Jr (pen name of Alice Sheldon), a seminal (ha!) science fiction author. I think you might enjoy it even if you aren't a huge SF fan.
posted by thebrokedown at 7:48 PM on September 4, 2016 [4 favorites]

Katharine Graham's Personal History

One of the blurbs from Amazon:
In lieu of an unrevealing Famous-People-I-Have-Known autobiography, the owner of the Washington Post has chosen to be remarkably candid about the insecurities prompted by remote parents and a difficult marriage to the charismatic, manic-depressive Phil Graham, who ran the newspaper her father acquired. Katharine's account of her years as subservient daughter and wife is so painful that by the time she finally asserts herself at the Post following Phil's suicide in 1963 (more than halfway through the book), readers will want to cheer. After that, Watergate is practically an anticlimax.
posted by good lorneing at 7:51 PM on September 4, 2016 [3 favorites]

Best answer: A bookseller friend recommends this biography of Madame Tussaud, but I have not read it myself.

Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race

I recently bought this book of short bios of American women for a friend's High School classroom bookcase.
posted by anastasiav at 8:05 PM on September 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I am excited to read this biography because I'm interested in Eleanora Sears, athlete and fascinating character of socialite Boston in ~1900 - I'm recommending Ms Sears more than the book, as I haven't gotten to read it yet.
posted by aimedwander at 8:15 PM on September 4, 2016

Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages is a biography of the married lives of five women of the era, and it is CRAZY INTERESTING. The marriages profiled are Jane Welsh and Thomas Carlyle, Effie Gray and John Ruskin, Harriet Taylor and John Stuart Mill, Charles Dickens and Catherine Hogarth, George Elliot and George Henry Lewes. (Charles Dickens is a VERY BAD MAN.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:19 PM on September 4, 2016 [7 favorites]

Valerie Solanas
posted by Katine at 8:21 PM on September 4, 2016 [2 favorites]

Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement
posted by veery at 8:26 PM on September 4, 2016

It's not super recent, but I liked Nathaniel C. Comfort's The Tangled Field: Barbara McClintock's Search for the Patterns of Genetic Control.

While she's not exactly little-known, and it's kind of slight, I did like Richard Rhodes's Hedy's Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World .

As a biography itself, it's thin if enjoyable, but Rachel Swaby's Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science--and the World can help with generating ideas of who-to-read-up-on-next.

And outside of science, I delightedly ate up Elizabeth C. Goldsmith's The Kings' Mistresses: The Liberated Lives of Marie Mancini, Princess Colonna, and Her Sister Hortense, Duchess Mazarin. Susan Ottaway's A Cool and Lonely Courage: The Untold Story of Sister Spies in Occupied France (about Eileen "Didi" Nearne and her sister Jacqueline) was eye-opening and heartbreaking.
posted by mixedmetaphors at 8:29 PM on September 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: There is an online book club dedicated to reading biographies of women. You should consider it!
posted by wooh at 8:50 PM on September 4, 2016

My mother's been raving about Mistress of the Vatican last two times I talked to her.
posted by mark k at 8:59 PM on September 4, 2016

Best answer: seconding joining the wlclub/Women's Lives Club (it's a google group). I haven't been keeping up with the reading but it seems to still be going strong. There are many many email threads with tons of book suggestions that you can find in the group archives.
posted by acidic at 9:02 PM on September 4, 2016

I liked Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood by Alexandra Fuller, and Wild Swans: Three Daughers of China by Jung Chang.
posted by smcameron at 9:51 PM on September 4, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Rise of the Rocket Girls:The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars
posted by calgirl at 10:48 PM on September 4, 2016

Catherine de Medici was an interesting woman. I can't recommend a specific book. It's been more than thirty years since I read about her. But her life was quite the adventure and I found her fascinating.

She was the last of the de Medicis, smuggled out of Italy and married off to a minor prince of France at age 13 or 14 to save her life after her plotting family was all murdered. Her husband had multiple older brothers, so there was no expectation her husband would ever be king. Ultimately, he was king for a time as was one or more of her still minor children. At one point, she and an advisor to her elementary school age son the king were de facto running the country.

Her life could make a gripping movie, all of it true.
posted by Michele in California at 10:51 PM on September 4, 2016

Best answer: Sisters of Sinai
posted by crocomancer at 12:46 AM on September 5, 2016

The Pinecone by Jenny Uglow: "the story of Sarah Losh, forgotten Romantic heroine – antiquarian, architect and visionary." It's a wonderful book, Uglow paints all the facets of Losh's childhood, going into the stories of her parents and siblings as well as the wider socio-political context.

Jenny Uglow also has a dictionary of women's biography! The blurb on her site reads: "Now a classic (if sometimes irreverent) reference book, this contains short biographies of over 2,500 women, from Cleopatra to Condoleeza Rice, Jane Austen to Madonna. Historical coverage has been broadened to include new research, and the scope ranges from politicians and poisoners, mountaineers and scientists, to activists from Afghanistan, Africa, Australia, India and South America."
posted by fraula at 1:44 AM on September 5, 2016

I enjoyed reading Peggy Guggenheims Confessions of an Art addict, if you're interested in contemporary art of that era, it had just enough art history & just enough trashiness
posted by Under the Sea at 3:47 AM on September 5, 2016

Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier, a fictionalized biography of Mary Anning, paleontologist.
posted by mareli at 5:28 AM on September 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

There's already one Jung Chang recommendation, but I'd like to put a word in for her biography of Empress Cixi
posted by calico at 7:49 AM on September 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

I remember really enjoying Anna of All the Russias: A Life of Anna Akhmatova. From the amazon blurb: Anna Akhmatova rose to fame in the years before World War I, but she would pay a heavy price for the political and personal passions that informed her brilliant poetry. In Anna of All the Russias we see Akhmatova's work banned from 1925 until 1940 and again after World War II. We see her steadfast opposition to Stalin, even while her son was held in the Gulag. We see her abiding loyalty to such friends as Mandelstam, Shostakovich, and Pasternak as they faced Stalinist oppression. And we see how, through everything, Akhmatova continued to write, her poetry giving voice to the Russian people by whom she was, and still is, deeply loved.
posted by dysh at 7:53 AM on September 5, 2016

Spitfire Women of WW2 is recent-ish biography of some of women of the UK's Air Transport Auxiliary. Includes Amy Johnson and Lettice Curtis.

"This is the incredible true story of a wartime sisterhood of women pilots: a group of courageous pioneers who took exceptional risks to fly Spitfires, Hurricanes and Lancasters to the frontlines of World War II."
posted by halcyonday at 7:59 AM on September 5, 2016

Dr. Leonie von Zesch was a dentist in the early 1900s who spent many years providing care in rural Alaska, among other places. She wrote her memoirs but they were not published during her lifetime; her niece finally put them together in 2002. She was added to the Alaska Women's Hall of Fame in 2012. I found the book hard to put down, and I wish I could do a better job at describing how interesting it is.

I bought a hard copy through the book site but it looks like it is on Kindle now too.
posted by veerat at 8:45 AM on September 5, 2016

The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll is a little devastating and a lot fascinating.
posted by mudpuppie at 9:07 AM on September 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: 'The Tigress of Forli: Renaissance Italy's Most Courageous And Notorious Countess, Caterina Riario Sforza De' Medici' by Elizabeth Lev is pretty fascinating if you like reading about political intrigue, specifically about a woman who defied princes, kings, popes, generals, diplomats, etc.
posted by ovvl at 10:14 AM on September 5, 2016

None of these are straight-up biographies (I like memoir!), but they are all nonfiction books about interesting women:

-My Beloved World, Sonia Sotomayor's memoir. (If you like audiobooks, Rita Moreno reads this one, so it's excellent!)

-Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History-Making Race Around the World

-Girls Like Us: Fighting for a World Where Girls are Not for Sale, an Activist Finds Her Calling and Heals Herself a memoir about the author's own commercial sexual exploitation and her foundation of a nonprofit to help girls and women in similar situations.
posted by nuclear_soup at 7:55 PM on September 5, 2016

Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a bio I read several years ago. Couldn't put it down, and still among the top biographies I've ever read.
posted by AnOrigamiLife at 10:54 PM on September 5, 2016

Argh!! I am late to this party, but was given this biography of Louisa Adams and thought it sounded incredibly dull. Turns out it was utterly fabulous--can't recommend it enough!

The Other Mrs. Adams by Margaery Heffron

Also, another rec here for desert queen!
posted by Mrs. Rattery at 7:27 AM on September 6, 2016

Not about scientists, but I highly recommend Lisa Cohen's All We Know, a triple-biography of three largely-forgotten women in the first half of the 20th century: Esther Murphy, Madge Garland, and Mercedes de Acosta. It's an amazing book about what constitutes fame, influence and legacy.
posted by libraritarian at 6:10 AM on September 7, 2016

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone! I've marked as best answer the recommendations for books which I've actually been able to get my hands on, but really they're all the best. I'll be referring to this post often!
posted by Janta at 10:45 AM on October 15, 2016

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