15 Empowering Memoirs By Women, For Women

Creeping into mid-December means it's time to get down to business with the holiday shopping, which can definitely seem overwhelming. If you're feeling anything like me right now, you might be wondering how you're possibly going to squeeze it all in before the end of the month. But remember, this is supposed to be fun, and it still can be. Gift-giving is about love, and the best way to show your love through a gift is by being thoughtful. There's still time for that, trust me.

If you're a book-lover, you know how nice it is to receive a hand-picked recommendation from someone you care about. Some of my favorites have been memoirs, and it's not just me. As humans, we want to know about each other. People's personal stories allow us into the deepest parts of their lives and minds, exposing how they handled the tough times and made it to the good times. They prove that even our heroes face obstacles and have suffered life's greatest pains. They also prove that no matter how flawed we may think we are, or how weak we feel in a given moment, we can do the same.

The right memoir can lift a person up when they most need it, whether it's with a simple laugh, an encouraging piece of insight, or its themes of self-creation and resilience. So go ahead and let a strong woman in your life know how much she means to you with an inspiring memoir that will expand her knowledge, encourage her to push her boundaries, and most importantly, remind her just how much she's capable of. Below are 15 reads that will do just that.

1. Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody

Moody tells the gripping story of her experience growing up African-American in Mississippi during the Civil Rights Era. From her days as a young girl witnessing horrifying acts of white supremacy to her adulthood as a brave political advocate for equality, Moody proves she is an incredible storyteller with an exceptional story to tell. This is a heavy but important read, especially during a time when racial tensions are again at the forefront of our society's concerns.

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2. A Girl From Yamhill by Beverly Cleary

Ever wonder how Beverly Clearly became Beverly Cleary? There's a book for that. Cleary's tales of growing up as an only child in Portland, Oregon, during the Great Depression are more serious than Ramona Quimby's mischievous adventures, but just as enjoyable. You'll discover how the prolific author found her passion for books, managed familial pressures, and dealt with the confusion she felt from the unwanted attentions of her uncle. At the end, she heads off to college in California, where her second memoir My Own Two Feet starts up. Both reads are highly recommended, especially for big-time Clearly fans.

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3. Why Not Me? and Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling

If you're looking for something on the lighter side, either one of Kaling's memoirs should do the trick. The comedian's hilarious and inspiring stories about wanting to be liked, prioritizing hard work, and choosing courage over fear are the kinds you can read again and again. They're also perfect for the women in your life who are intimidated by long books, because the chapters are fairly short and each piece stands alone.

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4. Lakota Woman by Mary Crow Dog

Mary Crow Dog’s story about life as a Native American woman on the Lakota reservation in South Dakota tells the story of a rarely touched-upon American experience. After growing up in a community plagued by alcoholism, violence, and sexism, Crow Dog goes on to become a fierce and fearless advocate in the 1970s American Indian Movement. Her fascinating look at gender, race, and identity makes for an eye-opening read.

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5. Bossypants by Tina Fey

As far as I’m concerned, you can never read too many memoirs by comedians. Just like watching a sitcom or comedy special, it’s sure to brighten your day. Fey’s is no exception: Bossypants is hilarious, crazy smart, and fiercely feminist. Not to mention, worth a reread (or six).

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6. Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search For Everything Across Italy, India, and Indonesia by Elizabeth Gilbert

If you’re looking for a gift for someone who’s ever wanted to eat endless dishes of pasta in Italy, take a revealing spiritual journey, or fall in love on a beautiful island, this book will do the trick (as much as a book can). Gilbert’s story is filled with so much detail and character that it not only feels like you are traveling the world with her, but like you truly know her. Her vulnerable descriptions of how she overcomes her struggles with self-loathing, guilt, and depression will lift you up and often make you laugh out loud.

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7. Men We Reaped: A Memoir by Jesmyn Ward

Another heavy tale about race in America, Men We Reaped explores the reasons behind the deaths of several young men close to Ward. She connects their deaths to a general sense of hopelessness felt in response to the history of racism in the Mississippi community where she grew up. The memoir is tragic to put it simply, yet deeply inspiring in its exposure of issues that are in desperate need of eradicating.

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8. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

Strayed’s story of her hike up the Pacific Crest Trail following the death of her mother is an empowering tale of self-discovery. I think this book would be powerful for anyone, but as someone who read it after the loss of my father, I found it particularly helpful. Strayed’s words made the extreme sadness and instability I was feeling seem more normal, and thus more manageable. Her story reinforces that it’s human to be flawed and feel pain, and her journey for independence and emotional healing reminds her readers of their resilience.

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9. Quivers: A Life by Robin Quivers

The Howard Stern Show is known for being far from feminist, but if it has one shining light for women, it’s the show’s cohost, Robin Quivers. She’s smart, level-headed, and open about her personal struggles on the radio. Her memoir is the same. She talks less about her role on Stern and more about her experiences with depression, abuse from her father, career changes, and relationship troubles. Realizing Quivers’ difficult childhood makes her determination to chase her dreams and her eventual success all the more inspiring.

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10. Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things by Jenny Lawson

Thank God for people like Jenny Lawson: funny, complicated, and brave enough to be totally honest about their struggles with disorders like depression, anxiety, and OCD. Lawson’s stories are messy, genuine tales of what it’s like to be a human, and more specifically a human suffering from mental illness. Judging by the massive community of fans she’s built from her career as both a blogger and author, it’s safe to say Lawson’s vulnerable, relatable writing is an inspiration to countless women. Chances are, you know someone who will love her.

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11. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

Walls’ memoir tells the tale of her chaotic and nomadic childhood: She and her three siblings were constantly uprooted by their alcoholic father and unstable mother, who rarely had enough money to make ends meet. Though Walls’ story is at times heartbreaking, her descriptions of her parents are often affectionate, which makes it an especially relatable read for anyone wrangling with the conflicting feelings of frustration and love that come from growing up in a dysfunctional family. Her eventual career success and escape from poverty prove that our struggles really can make us stronger.

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12. Blood, Bones, & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef by Gabrielle Hamilton

Hamilton is now one of the most successful chefs in the country, but that title didn’t come easily. She started taking care of herself at age 16, and worked draining odd jobs at restaurants for nearly twenty years before she opened her well-respected restaurant, Prune, in New York City. An incredibly well-written story, this book is perfect for anyone who loves food (or just good books.)

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13. Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More by Janet Mock

When it comes to overcoming adversity, it doesn’t get much more moving than transgender advocate Janet Mock’s story. Mock details her experience growing up lacking resources and parental guidance yet finding the courage to fly across the world when she was only 18 for sex reassignment surgery. Her success in her career and impressive activism in the trans community makes her an admirable figure whose story will remind readers just how important it is to unapologetically be themselves, even when it requires great bravery.

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14. M Train by Patti Smith

Fans of the musician or really anyone interested in music and art will appreciate Smith’s memoir about writing, travel, love, and loss. She describes what it’s like to be an artist — how the path is often lonely, but creation is always worth it. Her poetic ruminations on life are emotional, relatable, and well-worth sharing with your loved ones.

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15. Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison

This “coming of age novel” does not truly fit into the memoir category, but it is based off of the author’s life, and is too powerful a read to leave off the list. Allison tells the story of a young girl growing up in the rural South, managing extreme familial abuse and poverty. It’s beautifully written, with raw and tragic descriptions that will likely bring its readers to tears while simultaneously reminding them just how much we are all capable of overcoming.

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