11 Books to Read in Celebration of Women’s History Month
11 Books to Read in Celebration of Women’s History Month
Biographies and memoirs about inspirational, rule-breaking, truth-telling, risk-taking women
In celebration of Women’s History Month, observed each March, BU Today has put together a list of books about compelling women who have blazed trails and challenged the status quo. From ancient queens to Olympic runners to international spies to self-made millionaires, there’s plenty of inspiration to go around.
The Light We Carry: Overcoming in Uncertain Times
There were times during the Obama administration when it almost felt like First Lady Michelle was America’s cool mom. From her advocacy on behalf of healthy families and higher education to her support of service members and military families to her commitment to adolescent girls around the world, it really seemed like she had our backs. In this best-selling memoir, she offers words of practical wisdom and reflections on how to effect change and navigate power. One of Time magazine’s 100 Must-Read Books of 2022, The Light We Carry continues in the vein of Obama’s 2021 memoir, Becoming, suffused with intimate memories from her life as a lawyer, a wife, a mother, a daughter, and a First Lady. This time, the reminiscence is in service of helping readers understand their roles in the precarious present—after all, mother knows best.
Born to Mormon survivalists, Tara Westover spent her childhood helping in her father’s junkyard and stewing herbs for her mother, a self-taught midwife. Indoctrinated on the evils of public education, she didn’t set foot in a classroom until she was 17. What followed, against all odds, was a love affair with learning that took her from the mountains of Idaho to Brigham Young University, Trinity College, Harvard and, eventually, a PhD. Westover’s memoir, Educated, isn’t the story of a world-class education trumping rural ways, but rather a reckoning between the past and the present, duty and passion, and a meditation on what we owe each other. The book debuted at No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list and was named a best book of 2018 by more than 20 media outlets.
Choosing to Run
Des Linden and Bonnie D. Ford
In 2018, California native Des Linden became the first woman in 33 years to win the Boston Marathon. A two-time Olympic marathon runner, Linden has had an astonishing career that shows no signs of slowing down; in 2021, she became the first woman to run a 50k in under three hours. Her memoir reveals personal and professional insights, from how she trains to how she became close with fellow giants of distance running, including Shalane Flanagan, Kara Goucher, and Amy Cragg. She touches on her defeat at the 2012 London Olympics due to a stress fracture of the femur, and her triumph four years later in Rio, where she placed seventh. In recounting a career of long odds and unprecedented success, she reveals herself as the kind of athlete for whom running is not an innate talent, but rather an intentional—and sometimes difficult—choice.
It Won’t Always Be Like This
In this graphic memoir, author Malaka Gharib, an Egyptian Filipina American, recalls her yearly trips to visit her father’s family in Cairo, and her discovery, during the trip she took at age nine, that her father had remarried and she now had an Egyptian stepmother to contend with. She recounts how, over the next 15 summers, her trepidation at her father’s growing family turned into feelings of displacement—she neither looked nor acted like her new family, and her Americanness wasn’t always welcomed on her trips to Egypt. Eventually, she comes to see that she shares more in common with her stepfamily than she first thought. It Won’t Always Be Like This, a follow-up to Gharib’s first graphic memoir, I Was Their American Dream, expands on her fascination with belonging and identity, and is sure to resonate with anyone who has ever felt caught between two worlds.
I’m Glad My Mom Died
Former Nickelodeon star Jennette McCurdy’s first book has become a No. 1 New York Times bestseller and an instant book club darling, thanks in no small part to its attention-grabbing title. No longer an impressionable young actor in a cutthroat industry, McCurdy uses I’m Glad My Mom Died to parse through an adolescence marred by eating disorders, addiction, mental distress and, at the center of it all, an overbearing stage mom. The author’s memories range from the infuriating to the heartbreaking to the downright bizarre, but she’s not here to dwell in misery—if there’s one thing she makes clear, it’s that she has the last laugh. Whether you laugh, cry, or gasp in shock, you won’t get through this memoir unaffected or without admiration for McCurdy’s resilience.
As the tenth-generation descendent of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidic Judaism, Abby Chava Stein is as close to ultra-orthodox Jewish royalty as one can get. Yet, her identity, and the life set out for her, never fit quite right. Born male, she was on track to become a prestigious rabbi, before coming out as a trans woman in 2015. Becoming Eve documents Stein’s transition from a deeply religious, male-dominated society to a secular world where she could create her own destiny. Mingling biological, cultural, and faith-based understandings of sex and gender, Stein’s first book is a study in uncompromising self-determination and the magnetic pull of identity.
Cleopatra: Her History, Her Myth
Few women have cast the kind of spell that Cleopatra has. Queen of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt from 51 to 30 BC, Cleopatra has been portrayed throughout history as part sex symbol, part Machiavellian schemer. Now, best-selling author Francine Prose offers a feminist reinterpretation of the myths surrounding one of the world’s most famous female rulers, examining depictions by everyone from Plutarch to Shakespeare to George Bernard Shaw and actress Elizabeth Taylor (who famously portrayed the queen in a 1963 Hollywood film), and the political and cultural forces that influenced them. The author of 20 novels and previous biographies of Caravaggio and Anne Frank, Prose probes some of the biggest myths surrounding Cleopatra: did she actually roll out of a carpet to surprise Julius Caesar? Did she die from an asp bite? Were her parents siblings? Was she good, evil, neither? Prose uses both historical sources and contemporary discussions of whitewashing, Orientalism, and misogyny to craft a new understanding of Cleopatra for our times.
Start your young reader off right with an American story not often heard in the classroom. Madam C.J. Walker was the first female self-made millionaire in US history, creating a cosmetics and hair care empire in the first decade of the 20th century. Born Sarah Breedlove to a rural Louisiana family in the years immediately following the Civil War, Walker was orphaned at the age of 10, when she was forced to begin working for a living. With the help of her brothers, who were barbers, Walker learned the ins and outs of Black hair care, eventually creating the first patented line of hair products exclusively for Black women. More than a symbol of rags-to-riches success, she is remembered today as much for patronage of the arts and involvement with the NAACP. K.S. Horne tells Walker’s story as part of his Black History for Kids series for early readers.
Pop quiz: In 1952, Life magazine called which woman “…the most important woman in the American government, and perhaps the most important official female in the world”? Chances are you’ve never heard of her. In The Confidante, Christopher Gorham uncovers the almost-forgotten story of Anna Marie Rosenberg, a Hungarian Jewish immigrant with only a high school diploma who went on to serve as a diplomatic envoy to Europe in World War II, becoming the first Allied woman to enter a liberated concentration camp and a key advisor to Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson. As Gorham recounts, Rosenberg played a critical role in creating the GI Bill and the Manhattan Project. FDR referred to her as his “Mrs. Fix-It.” After his death, Rosenberg remained active in government, serving as assistant secretary of defense under Truman, and championing racial integration, women’s rights, and national healthcare. This book gives her the tribute she deserves.
Lives of the Wives: Five Literary Marriages
Far too often, the stories we tell about the wives of famous writers are ones of abuse, infidelity, and subjugation. The literary relationships featured in Lives of the Wives may have been tumultuous, but in Carmela Ciuraru’s telling, they are never tawdry, and nobody is a victim. The women she focuses on are complex, accomplished, and witty; their relationships are fully realized and dimensional. From Radclyffe Hall and Una Troubridge’s purported snobbiness to Roald Dahl and Patricia Neal’s one-upmanship to Elsa Morante and Alberto Moravia’s volatility, the five marriages depicted in Lives of the Wives offer an engaging examination into the creative mind: how it operates, who and what it loves, and what happens when that love is compromised.
If your future Nobel laureate is beginning to become curious about the women who cleared the path for her, this book is a must. Part of Clinton’s No. 1 New York Times best-selling She Persisted series for young readers, this book celebrates venerated historical scientists and contemporary STEM trailblazers in equal measure. Bringing together diverse fields—such as molecular biology, genetics, astronomy, mathematics, and more—the women of She Persisted in Science represent a broad swath of backgrounds and beliefs. Who knows? Your new favorite woman in STEM might be hiding within the pages, as well.
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