For the last day of Women’s History Month, we’re sharing our top non-fiction reads about women. You’ll sense a common thread running through our choices. These historic women—be they famous or obscure—were pioneers. They stepped out of their “traditional” roles and helped pave the way for modern women.
From Jennifer McGowan
ELIZABETH’S WOMEN Friends, Rivals, and Foes Who Shaped the Virgin Queen, by Tracy Borman. This book proved to be the kind of reference text that reads like a novel, providing an “inside look” at the women who shaped the actions and policies of one of history’s greatest Queens. Especially as I was preparing to write a series of novels involving young female spies for Queen Elizabeth, I was fascinated by her relationships with women in her court. There are many great resource books on Queen Elizabeth, but this one stands holds a primary place on my keeper shelf.
From Katherine Longshore
SOVEREIGN LADIES: The Six Reigning Queens of England by Maureen Waller is a study not so much of the history surrounding Mary I, Elizabeth I, Mary II, Anne, Victoria and Elizabeth II, but of the women themselves and how being a woman affected their queenship. This book inspired me to want to know more as all good histories should.
From J. Anderson Coates
WOMEN SAILORS AND SAILORS’ WOMEN BY David Cordingly does a great job of integrating women into eighteenth and nineteenth-century maritime history and using evidence to poke holes in the accepted narrative that women had no active role in the age of sail. He brings up famous female sailors such as Hannah Snell and Mary Ann Talbot who dressed as men and went to sea, but he also discusses teenage Mary Patten who took command of her husband’s merchant ship when he was incapacitated, as well as the numerous and unnamed wives of officers (and sometimes ordinary sailors) who brought powder and ball to gunners on warships like Nelson’s Victory and acted as nurses. Cordingly is less interested in highlighting how the presence of women was special and unique and more focused on showing how common it was, how women were always part of this world and in a variety of ways. His work is engaging, amusing in places, and a great example of how to do “women’s history” well.
From Cat Winters
I first learned about women in history through a 1970s volume of books for kids called ValueTales. The books told the stories of famous historical figures from childhood through adulthood, using colorful illustrations, and in the very back pages readers could find a more serious bio of each person. My favorite book in the series was THE VALUE OF FAIRNESS: THE STORY OF NELLIE BLY, by Ann Donegan Johnson, because Bly struck me as a brave and fascinating human being who fought for the rights of her gender, especially women mistreated in prisons, AND she circumnavigated the world like a Jules Verne character! I still own the book to this day—and the protagonist of my Fall 2014 release is a big admirer of Nellie Bly, thanks to my longtime interest that stemmed from this 1970s gem.
From Susan Hill Long
PERSONAL HISTORY by Katherine Graham is a fascinating look at the woman who became president of the Washington Post in the 1960s, when women did not hold positions of power in the media. She oversaw groundbreaking reporting during a turbulent time in American history, and said of herself, “I had very little idea of what I was supposed to be doing, so I set out to learn. What I essentially did was to put one foot in front of the other, shut my eyes, and step off the edge.” Brave person.
From Sharon Biggs Waller
SYLVIA PANKHURST: A MAVERICK LIFE by Shirley Harrison is the inspiring biography of Emmeline Pankhurst’s middle daughter, Sylvia. Sylvia was a big campaigner for women’s suffrage and supported her mother’s association: the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) through her exquisite artwork. She was also very active in the movement and was arrested and force fed many times. She worked tirelessly to help the poor in the East End of London, and later fought against fascism in Ethiopia. This is a beautiful book full of rare photos and it shows the struggles women faced during the Edwardian era. This book helped me imagine how life might have been for my protagonist, Victoria Darling, in A MAD, WICKED FOLLY. Edwardian women were not the sweet little biddable misses people often imagine, and Sylvia Pankhurst is proof of that!