Discover Historic Female Figures at Your Library

“Well-behaved women seldom make history.” – Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

Tap into one of these nonfiction titles about recognizable women from history – and some you may not recognize. Some of these books tell stranger-than-fiction stories that will have you furiously turning pages ’til the end – even if you already know what happened.

Check out our librarian-recommended books on women who made history and leave a comment below about books you recommend. Whether they involve women or not, we want to hear about what you’re reading and why.

Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World
by Matthew Goodman
eightdaysAfter the publication of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days in 1873, travelers everywhere were challenged to see if the imaginary feat could actually be done. Though it wasn’t until November 14, 1889, that two women, journalists Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland, would set off in opposite directions in a race to beat the eighty days and each other. Not only would completion of the race be amazing, but it was undertaken by two women in an age when women were expected to be chaperoned when out in public. This book is part travel log, biography, history and one huge adventure. Read full book recommendation by Christina Callison.

Revolutionary Heart: The Life of Clarina Nichols and the Pioneering Crusade for Women’s Rights
by Diane Eickhoff
revolutionaryheartDriven by a deep inner need to end the mistreatment of women, Clarina Nichols (1810-1885) left the comforts of her Vermont home and moved west to the wild frontier of “Bleeding Kansas,” where her sons fought alongside John Brown and she helped shape the state’s new Constitution to free slaves and give women rights they had nowhere else in America. Now for the first time the story of Nichols comes alive thanks to Diane Eickhoff, whose meticulous, six-year quest to collect and analyze Nichols’s scattered writings and papers has yielded a richer understanding of this remarkable pioneer in Revolutionary Heart: The Life of Clarina Nichols and the Pioneering Crusade for Women’s Rights.

Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon – and the Journey of a Generation
by Sheila Weller
Carole King, Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon remain among the most enduring and important women in popular music. Each woman is distinct. Carole King is the product of outer-borough, middle-class New York City; Joni Mitchell is a granddaughter girlslikeusof Canadian farmers; and Carly Simon is a child of the Manhattan intellectual upper crust. They collectively represent, in their lives and their songs, a great swath of American girls who came of age in the late 1960s. Their stories trace the arc of the now mythic ’60s generation – female version – but in a bracingly specific and deeply recalled way, far from cliché. The history of the women of that generation has never been written – until now, through their resonant lives and emblematic songs.

Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo by Hayden Herrera
fridaHailed by readers and critics across the country, this engrossing biography of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo reveals a woman of extreme magnetism and originality, an artist whose sensual vibrancy came straight from her own experiences: her childhood near Mexico City during the Mexican Revolution; a devastating accident at age eighteen that left her crippled and unable to bear children; her tempestuous marriage to muralist Diego Rivera and intermittent love affairs with men as diverse as Isamu Noguchi and Leon Trotsky; her association with the Communist Party; her absorption in Mexican folklore and culture; and her dramatic love of spectacle.

Amelia Earhart: The Turbulent Life of an American Icon by Kathleen C. Winters
earhartWhen Amelia Earhart disappeared over the Pacific in 1937, she was at the height of her fame. Fascination with Earhart remains just as strong today, as her mysterious disappearance continues to inspire speculation. In this nuanced and often surprising biography, acclaimed aviation historian Kathleen C. Winters moves beyond the caricature of the spunky, precocious pilot to offer a more complex portrait. Drawing on a wealth of contemporary accounts, airline records, and other original research, this book reveals a flawed heroine who was frequently reckless and lacked basic navigation skills, but who was also a canny manipulator of mass media.

A Few Fiction Options

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
handmaidstaleMargaret Atwood is a poet, novelist, essayist, and literary critic who has published more than 50 books during her long career. Her most widely-read novel is The Handmaid’s Tale. This novel is at once scathing satire, dire warning, and tour de force. The lead character, Offered, is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets. Offered can remember the years before, when she lived and made love with her husband, Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now. Hear all about this and other Atwood novels in a library podcast we call Hush.

chaperoneThe Chaperone by Laura Moriarty
Louise Brooks is a real actress and dancer popular in the ’20s. Moriarty has used this real Hollywood story to inform and inspire the made-up story of Cora Carlisle, a woman who chaperoned a teenaged Brooks’ from Kansas to New York. The novel spans six decades of Cora’s life shows us how American life has changed over the 20th century. The Chaperone, among other Kansas-authored books, was the topic of a recent library podcast. Listen to the entire podcast here.

Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear
maisiedobbsThis is book one of a nine-book, bestselling, critically acclaimed series. Maisie Dobbs is a fictional character, but she encounters issues that were real in England between World War I and World War II. We see Maise as a maid, a nurse, a student, an intern and a psychologist and investigator. Her career mirrors reality in post-war England where women found more opportunities for employment. Gender and socioeconomic struggles play huge roles in this book. Read the full review by Christina Callison.

A public relations professional, editor and writer, Lisa shares the library story in her blog posts, in the bimonthly Library News, and media interviews. A self-described social media and news nut, Lisa harnesses that passion to raise awareness and understanding of the library's vital role in this community.

  • Angela

    A reporter and a Mexican communist who had nothing but distain for our country? Really? Margaret Thatcher, Joan of Arc, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Eleanor Roosevelt, Sor Juana, Madeleine Albright, Golda Meier, Clara Schubert, Mary Cassat, Madame Currie …

  • Sharon

    I am reading Kisses From Katie, a non fiction about a 26 year old “Mother Teresa” living right now l among the poor in Uganda. It is a NY Times best seller.

  • Kathy Brown

    Angela is quite right-Kahlo is an abysmal choice. Not only did she utterly detest the US; she adored Stalin, knowing that he was responsible for millions of deaths. She was an alcoholic, a drug addict, and while she complained about the abuses of Rivera, she made the choice to stay with/return to him, and she had numerous affairs with men and women during the course of her ‘marriage’. There’s no dearth of women to truly admire-this choice is appalling. As for Maggie Thatcher-that’ll be the day when a conservative woman is chosen by a public library to adorn its list of ‘women to admire’!

  • Jackie Bogner

    I’m guessing this is not a typo since you use “Offered” twice in “The Handmaid’s Tale” blurb above. The women’s names have the form “Of – man’s name” signifying ownership. The lead character is therefore “Of – fred” Offred.