books about historical women
August 14, 2018 12:04 PM   Subscribe

looking for well-written, compelling books about historical women

Some non-fiction can be written in a dry academic fashion.

Then there's the fun stuff, like Bill Bryson, and the "this reads like a well done novel", like Bruce Catton.

I'm looking for more stuff like those, easy or gripping reads-- but I'm specifically looking for books about historical women (historical = let's say no later than 1950, and earlier than that is better).

Can be specific women, can be groups of women, can be women as a whole at a specific place/time.

If book isn't exclusively about woman/en but features them very prominently (like, say, a married couple with each half getting equal screentime) that's okay also.
posted by Cozybee to Writing & Language (41 answers total) 78 users marked this as a favorite
Hetty Green.

I found her to be a really interesting person and this book a *ahem* good read.
posted by AugustWest at 12:23 PM on August 14, 2018

The Rose Of Martinique, Andrea Stuart - great

The Widow Cliquot, Tilar J. Mazzeo - great
posted by the man of twists and turns at 12:27 PM on August 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

A Scandalous Life: The Biography of Jane Digby is wonderful. She gave exactly zero fucks and lead an extraordinary life because of it.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:29 PM on August 14, 2018

I just started reading Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret after reading this NYT article. I am already so into the format, even though I'm only a little ways in.

Edited to add: I loved the Widow Clicquot too!
posted by chatongriffes at 12:32 PM on August 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

Funny you should ask!! I just this morning finished Nancy Goldstone's the Rival Queens (about Catherine de Medici and her daughter Marguerite de Valois, omg, what an f'd up relationship it was, she literally tried to have her daughter executed) and it was so much fun to read. I went and grabbed several more of her books, all about different European queens and the relationships between them.
posted by fingersandtoes at 12:33 PM on August 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

Are memoirs OK? If so, Beryl Markham's West With the Night. Hemingway said of this book, "She has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer . . . [She] can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers . . . It is really a bloody wonderful book."
posted by FencingGal at 12:35 PM on August 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

I read Hetty Green The Witch of Wall Street which is also good, and an older look at the same lady.

I've also liked

- A Schoolteacher in Old Alaska: The Story of Hannah Breece by Jane Jacobs - a non-uncomplicated story about a woman teaching in Alaska
- Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story by Peter Bagge - a graphic novel, probably under your time deadline.
- The Rebel Countess: The Life and Times of Constance Markievicz by Marreco, Anne - you may be noticing a theme here

The other Jessamyn West has some great autobiographical writing including a book To See The Dream in which she describes how she went to Hollywood to see her novel Friendly Persuasion be made into a movie with Gary Cooper. Very old school California in the 50s and written with humor.
posted by jessamyn at 12:38 PM on August 14, 2018 [3 favorites]

Ha, was about to recommend Rival Queens but fingersandtoes beat me to it! I also highly recommend Goldstone's Four Queens: The Provencal Sisters Who Ruled Europe-it's a similarly delicious mix of fascinating history and insane royal family drama.
posted by LadyNibbler at 12:39 PM on August 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

This one is toeing the 1950 line, but I recommend The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.
posted by slipthought at 12:45 PM on August 14, 2018 [4 favorites]

Also, for pure entertainment value, Eleanor Herman's books Mistress of the Vatican and Sex with the Queen are unbeatable, if you don't mind your history a bit fast and loose (I've seen things Herman presents as fact dismissed as anecdote in other works, but eh. They're fun enough that I forgive her.)
posted by LadyNibbler at 12:47 PM on August 14, 2018

A few suggestions, all non-fiction, but that seemed very readable to me:
(I'll be linking to the Goodreads pages for these books)

Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary by Anita Anand. Princess Sophia was born into an Indian royal family, but grew up in England. She became involved in the suffrage movement in the UK.

Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History-Making Race Around the World by Matthew Goodman. Two Victorian-era women reporters attempt to break the record for fastest trip around the world.

Nellie Taft: The Unconventional First Lady of the Ragtime Era by Carl Sferrazza Anthony. Another intriguing lady from the late 19th-early 20th century.

Passionate Minds: Emilie Du Chatelet, Voltaire, and the Great Love Affair of the Enlightenment by David Bodanis. Du Chatelet was instrumental in bringing Isaac Newton's writings to a larger audience.

The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women by Kate Moore. The story of young women who worked as watch-dial painters in the early 20th century, using radium paint. Fascinating, appalling, enraging.

The Discovery of Jeanne Baret: A Story of Science, the High Seas, and the First Woman to Circumnavigate the Globe by Glynis Ridley. 18th century woman disguises herself as a man in order to work as a botanist.

The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It by Tilar Mazzeo. The biography of the woman behind the Veuve Cliquot champagne empire.

I haven't read this one yet (it's on my TBR pile!), but Dr James Barry: A Woman Ahead of Her Time by Michael DuPreez and Jeremy Dronfield. A young Irish woman disguises herself as a man in order to get into med school, and lives the remainder of her life as a man.

On preview: nthing Nancy Goldstone's books -- IIRC she focuses largely on medieval and Renaissance women, and her books are quite enjoyable. IN addition to the aforementioned books, she also wrote one called The Maid and the Queen: The Secret History of Joan of Arc which I thought was an interesting look at Joan of Arc.
posted by Janta at 12:47 PM on August 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

I have read a couple books by Lisa See so far. Seems like Lisa's thing is historical Chinese women.
posted by aniola at 12:48 PM on August 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

Letter to the world: Seven women who shaped the American century. Compelling biographies of Eleanor Roosevelt, Dorothy Thompson, Margaret Mead, Katharine Hepburn, Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Martha Graham and Marian Anderson.
posted by Melismata at 12:54 PM on August 14, 2018

The author of Wild Swans tells the history of 20th century China through the lives of her grandmother, her mother, and herself.
posted by FencingGal at 12:58 PM on August 14, 2018 [3 favorites]

Ok, one more comment then I'll stop-I loved loved loved Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth. It intertwines the story of the author who wrote one of the earliest versions of Rapunzel (she lived at the court of Louis XIV and was a fascinating woman) with a wonderfully dark and gripping re-telling of the fairy tale. Utterly beautiful and heartbreaking.
posted by LadyNibbler at 1:05 PM on August 14, 2018

The book Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years – Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times by Elizabeth Wayland Barber is very engagingly written. Plus it's one of those books that can change how you see the world around you. (The standard women's outfit of a white blouse, skirt, and leather belt? I had no idea how interesting that actually is, once you know this history.)
posted by Lexica at 1:08 PM on August 14, 2018 [4 favorites]

Ooo! Judith Zinsser is really good at this. Her book on Emilie du Chatelet is great.

(And if you like that, you can go whole hog and get Zinsser’s magnum opus, the two-volume A History of Their Own. It’s scholarly, yes, but not dry. It has had an honored place on my bookshelf for years.)
posted by minervous at 1:11 PM on August 14, 2018

I read both of these a while ago and can't remember which one is better, but the subject matter is hair-raisingly amazing- Soviet women pilots and substantial female air force personnel in combat in WWII:

Wings, Women, and War: Soviet Airwomen in World War II Combat

A Dance with Death: Soviet Airwomen in World War II

posted by twoplussix at 1:25 PM on August 14, 2018

A few I've read and recommend:

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

Queer, There and Everywhere is not exclusively about women, but is primarily focused on women and gender nonconforming folks from throughout history.

Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science-and the World

I also very much enjoyed Spinster which is a look at several historical literary women intertwined with the author's own contemporary memoir.

A few on my to-read list:

Revolution, She Wrote

Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells
posted by nuclear_soup at 1:37 PM on August 14, 2018

I just read this- it's a hard read because of the incredible abuse the author received for the year described in the book, a memoir of the integration of Little Rock High School. Just a few years past your cut-off point:
posted by twoplussix at 1:50 PM on August 14, 2018

No one has mentioned Antonia Fraser yet? She has very well written biographies of fascinating historical women:

Warrior Queens

The Wives of Henry VIII

Love and Louis XIV

I also really enjoyed this biography of Catherine of Aragon.
posted by Lycaste at 1:50 PM on August 14, 2018 [3 favorites]

I read this a long time ago but I remember liking it very much: Lise Meitner: a Life in Physics. She should have gotten a Nobel but she did have an element named for her, though after the book was published.
posted by Botanizer at 2:02 PM on August 14, 2018

Fun stuff that gives you a broad spectrum of different women from different times, countries, and cultures would be best served by Vicki Leon's various Uppity Women series. I have had three books borrowed and never returned, if that is any indication of how good they are...
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 2:02 PM on August 14, 2018

Rosa Luxemburg biographies by JP Nettl, Paul Frölich, and (graphic novel) Kate Evans

Alexandra Kollontai biography and autobiography
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 2:03 PM on August 14, 2018

oh, if you're ok with a more "historical novel" approach, Philippa Gregory has whole series about the Plantagenet and Tudor women, written as novels, and honestly they are super fun and easy to read. (The best known is probably the Other Boleyn Girl, they made that into a movie with ScarJo and Natalie Portman.) I read all the White Queen/White Princess/Red Queen/Kingmaker's Daughter series when I was bedridden sick a couple years back (these are books you can read while stoned on pain meds) and I really enjoyed them.
posted by fingersandtoes at 2:12 PM on August 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

A Midwife's Tale
posted by praemunire at 2:38 PM on August 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

I really enjoyed Hild by Nicola Griffith.
posted by abeja bicicleta at 2:56 PM on August 14, 2018 [5 favorites]

I recently read Sojourner Truth: A Life, a Symbol, and I can recommend it.

It did a great job of peeling back the layers of myth to uncover a very quirky specific woman in 19th C America.

It also addressed the mythical/symbolic Sojourner Truth[s] - variously deployed by her, her contemporaries, and later generations that would claim her for themselves.

It has a deft popular academic tone, and you will learn a lot about the 1840s and 1850s —interesting times.
posted by Glomar response at 2:56 PM on August 14, 2018

I recently finished Sin in the Second City, about the proprietesses of a famous Chicago brothel. They aren't esteemed figures of history, but it's a fun, colorful read set in the middle of some really weird bits of American politics that I didn't know about before.
posted by bowtiesarecool at 4:20 PM on August 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

Divorced, Beheaded, Survived - one of the first feminist viewpoint histories of Henry VIII's wives.
posted by AliceBlue at 4:27 PM on August 14, 2018

I loved The Unfinished Palazzo and I think you might too!
posted by HandfulOfDust at 5:20 PM on August 14, 2018

A Midwife's Tale
posted by praemunire

Seconding, thirding, and fourthing this. Excellent history, compelling subject, not just about *a* woman but touching on women's lives during this time in general, and very readable.
posted by Preserver at 7:33 PM on August 14, 2018

Two British-focused ones:

Ruth Brandon's Other People's Daughters, about Victorian governesses.

Virginia Nicholson's Singled Out. Can't put it better than the Amazon synopsis: "In 1919, a generation of young women discovered that there were, quite simply, not enough men to go round, and the statistics confirmed it. After the 1921 Census, the press ran alarming stories of the 'Problem of the Surplus Women - Two Million who can never become Wives...'. This book is about those women, and about how they were forced, by a tragedy of historic proportions, to stop depending on men for their income, their identity and their future happiness."

(Virginia Nicholson also has books about women in the Second World War, Millions Like Us, and women's lives in the 1950s, Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes).
posted by Catseye at 1:43 AM on August 15, 2018 [3 favorites]

Bygone Badass Broads: 52 Forgotten Women Who Changed the World

The cross-section of women she covers in the book is quite diverse in race/ethnicity, culture, age, and historical era.

Note, this author often uses very casual, contemporary language, likely because the book's concept originated on a Twitter feed.
posted by fuse theorem at 8:01 AM on August 15, 2018

Response by poster: for anyone it helps: after having posted this, i started reading robert k massie's "Catherine the Great" and it is exactly what I am looking for (it reads like an Austen novel and is full of cool women)
posted by Cozybee at 12:01 PM on August 15, 2018 [2 favorites]

The Woman Who Smashed Codes, by Jason Fagone. Fantastic, enlightening, and a little enraging.
posted by current resident at 3:43 PM on August 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

Oh--late to the party, but Janice P. Nimura's Daughters of the Samurai, about Ume Tsuda and Sutematsu Yamakawa and the other Japanese girls who were sent as children/teenagers to America to study in the late 19th century. Ume Tsuda, who came back to Japan at nineteen after 12 years in America having essentially forgotten her Japanese, ended up founding a woman's college and doing amazing things.
posted by huimangm at 9:38 PM on August 15, 2018

A recommendation from popular historian Greg Jenner on Twitter :“Enjoying this energetic, witty and feminist biography of Agrippina, who was Emperor Nero’s mum and arguably the Cersei Lannister of the ancient world - it’s written by the ace @NuclearTeeth”

Agrippina: Empress, Exile, Hustler, Whore
posted by Bloxworth Snout at 4:24 AM on August 23, 2018

« Older How on earth do I make a slick slide deck?   |   Set Your Alarm Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.