Recommend me brilliant biographies about brilliant women
March 18, 2023 1:28 AM   Subscribe

I read a lot of biographies about great people because I find such books fascinating and inspiring. Almost all of the ones I've read have been about men. Help me change that!

My "to read" list doesn't have enough biographies of amazing women on it and I'm hoping the well-read Me-Fites here on the green can help me.

The most recent similar question I can find is this one from 2016. It's got lots of good ideas but I'm hoping there are some updates in 2023.

Things I'm looking for:

- Well written, readable biographies of women (the gender of the author doesn't matter)
- Ideally women who have worked in the areas of science, technology, engineering, mathematics, or exploration as those usually are my areas of interest (think Marie Curie, Amelia Earhart)
- The subject should be women who are either well-known (at least in their field) or would be well-known if they were men, or just should be well-known, godammit
- Major historical figures, especially lesser-known ones would be welcome (so Catherine the Great for example, but there must be a ton of powerful women who are far less well-known who are deserving of a great biography, and I want to read about them)

Things I'm not looking for:

- Biographies of artists or sportswomen (I'm not interested in those regardless of gender). If art or sporting prowess was a part of their life that's fine but not if it's the only thing they're known for. Hedy Lamarr is a perfect example of the sort of person I'd be interested in reading about.
- Biographies of modern politicians are borderline (again, I'm not generally interested in those regardless of gender) but if there is a truly great biography of a female politician akin to Morris' Teddy Roosevelt trilogy or Jenkins' Churchill I'm up for reading it

All that being said, if you can recommend a brilliant biography about a brilliant woman that doesn't fit those criteria and you're just bursting to tell people about it, please do. I'd rather decide if it's for me than never know about it, and maybe other people here would love to read it even If it's not my thing.

Thanks in advance for any suggestions!
posted by underclocked to Media & Arts (22 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: To kick it off with lesser-known major historical figures, The Dark Queens by Shelley Puhak about two medieval queens.
posted by matrixclown at 1:57 AM on March 18, 2023 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Magnificent Women and their Revolutionary Machines, by Henrietta Heald. I don't care for the title, but the book is worth reading. There is a review at Electrifying Women.
posted by paduasoy at 3:01 AM on March 18, 2023

Best answer: The Riddle of the Labyrinth by Margalit Fox follows Alice Kober's deciphering of the Linear B writing from Crete.
And Emma Southon's biography of Agrippina the Younger is a great read.
posted by sukeban at 5:39 AM on March 18, 2023 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I guess these, which I enjoyed, are now classics of the genre STEM women biogs.
Barbara McClintock: A Feeling for the Organism [1983] by Evelyn Fox Keller "Late Nobel jumping genes"
Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA [2002] Brenda Maddox
Dorothy Hodgkin, a Life [1998] by Georgina Ferry "Nobel for crystal structures"
posted by BobTheScientist at 5:46 AM on March 18, 2023 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm currently enjoying Jennifer Wright's Madame Restell: The Life, Death, and Resurrection of Old New York’s Most Fabulous, Fearless, and Infamous Abortionist.

Also, I know you're asking for books so apologies if this doesn't fit the brief, but if you also enjoy shorter pieces in this vein, you should check out Anne Thériault's Queens of Infamy series for Longreads.
posted by the primroses were over at 5:55 AM on March 18, 2023 [2 favorites]

Best answer: A Woman’s Place Is At the Top is a ripping biography of late 19th/early 20th century mountaineer and suffragist Annie Smith Peck.
posted by apparently at 6:06 AM on March 18, 2023

Best answer: From my own library:
Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo

What Fresh Hell is This?
A biography of Dorothy Parker

On the heartbreaking side:
Ethel Rosenberg: An American Tragedy

And while this first is not a biography, two special trips into the creative processes of my favorite living artist:
The Creative Habit
Push Comes to Shove
posted by BostonTerrier at 7:28 AM on March 18, 2023

Best answer: Oh, also, not sure if you're open to memoir, but since you mention Amelia Earhart - West with the Night by Beryl Markham is a classic adventure memoir by another early aviator.
posted by the primroses were over at 8:32 AM on March 18, 2023 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I recommend Eunice: The Kennedy Who Changed the World. JFK/RFK’s older sister was quite possibly the child who would have been groomed for the presidency if she’d been male. She helped make huge strides in the movement to improve the lives of and attitudes toward people with developmental delays and disabilities.
posted by bookmammal at 8:41 AM on March 18, 2023

Best answer: It's a roman a clef, but I can't recommend journalist Agnes Smedley's fascinating 1929 autobiography Daughter of Earth enough. It is her life story with almost no changes except some names.
posted by pangolin party at 9:37 AM on March 18, 2023

Response by poster: Some fantastic recs here, thanks everyone!
posted by underclocked at 10:55 AM on March 18, 2023

Best answer: I loved Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert a woman who rivals TE Lawrence for a life of adventure and influence.
posted by OHenryPacey at 11:50 AM on March 18, 2023 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Sisters of Sinai by Janet Soskice
posted by crocomancer at 12:02 PM on March 18, 2023

Best answer: It's biography-adjacent, but if you haven't read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, I strongly recommend it. It's more of a biography of her cells which were spread and used and sold throughout the world without her knowledge. Fascinating intersection of science, medicine, racism, and (lack of) social justice.
posted by hydra77 at 2:11 PM on March 18, 2023 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Ida: A Sword Among Lions tells the story of Ida B. Wells, civil rights and anti-lynching crusader. She was also a journalist, and just had a fascinating life all around. This one does veer to the history-minded-with-citations, but once I got into it, I was hooked.
posted by momus_window at 9:51 PM on March 18, 2023

Best answer: I really enjoyed Mistress of the Elgin Marbles: A Biography of Mary Nisbet, Countess of Elgin - wheelings and dealings with Napoleon, helping to introduce vaccines to the Middle East, and obviously all the real-life drama and intrigue of the removal of the Parthenon Marbles.

In a similar vein, Barbara Hodgson’s Dreaming of East is a survey of 18th-19th century Western European women travellers. Her bibliography is a great jumping-off point.

That’s how I learned about Princess Cristina Belgiojoso, an Italian noblewoman… who played a prominent part in Italy's struggle for independence. I read a good book on her, A Bird of Curious Plumage, by Charles Neilson Gattey. She led a sensational life.
posted by TangoCharlie at 10:01 PM on March 18, 2023

Best answer: I also just started Ben McIntyre’s Agent Sonya. Too early to say for sure, but if it’s half as good as his Agent Zig-Zag, it’s an easy universal recommendation.
posted by TangoCharlie at 10:05 PM on March 18, 2023

Best answer: Not sure if philosophy is quite in your brief, but I also recommend Metaphysical Animals, about four women philosophers who were influential in 20th century thinking.
posted by crocomancer at 5:18 AM on March 19, 2023

Best answer: This is borderline because of your not wanting politicians, but I found Tammy Duckworth’s book Every day is a gift to be super inspiring. It talks about her childhood and time in her military as a helicopter pilot, plus dealing with the aftermath of her injuries. I read it during my city’s COVID lockdowns and it made my problems seem super small in comparison. So inspiring!
posted by ec2y at 11:06 AM on March 20, 2023

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