11 Books About World-Changing Women That Everyone Should Read
Just because we gals haven’t shattered that highest of glass ceilings yet (at least in the United States — as of 2016, 59 other countries have elected female heads of government) doesn’t mean that there still aren’t plenty of women who have changed the world — with or without attaining positions of great political power along the way. And I don’t know about you, but I could definitely use a little feminist inspiration right now; a little reminder that we women have long been breaking ranks, kicking ass, and getting good work done. Women — like the ones profiled in these books about women who changed the world — have worked to make the planet a better place since long before a Trump presidency, we’re committed to continuing to do so throughout a Trump presidency, and you better believe we’ll keep raising our voices and standing up for what we believe in long after ol’ Don has left the Oval Office.
But at times like this, when the roles and rights of women are being challenged and threatened, it’s important to remember the women who came before us; those change-making sisters who shaped the history of the United States and the world, and who paved the way for the rights and freedoms that we have today. And that’s where these books about women who have shaped history come in. Check out these 11 books about world-changing women that every woman — that everyone, rather — should read.
1. ‘Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America’ by Elliott J. Gorn
As the activist, political agitator, and community organizer at the heart of the modern American labor movement, Mary Harris Jones began her life as a teacher and seamstress, before taking her energies to the streets. She coordinated labor strikes, particularly with miners and child laborers, and co-founded the labor union Industrial Workers of the World. Nicknamed "Mother Jones" she was also the inspiration behind the name of nonprofit politics, arts, and culture magazine Mother Jones. Elliot J. Gorn’s biography, Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America presents a powerful and formidable portrait of this unstoppable woman.
2. ‘Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA’ by Brenda Maddox
In 1962 scientists Maurice Wilkins, Francis Crick, and James Watson received the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for, in part, their discoveries regarding the molecular structure and function of DNA. But their “discovery” was actually made by Rosalind Franklin, an English chemist and X-ray crystallographer who was the first scientist to produce one of the clearest photographic images of the double-helix structure of DNA. But as a female scientist working in the 1950s and ‘60s, Franklin’s contributions were predictably wiped from history. In Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA, Brenda Maddox finally gives Franklin credit where credit is due, presenting an astounding portrait of one of the most influential scientists of the 20th century.
3. ‘Unbowed: A Memoir’ by Wangari Maathai
Kenyan environmentalist, feminist, and political activist Wangari Maathai has led a pretty extraordinary life. Born in a rural Kenyan village in 1940, Maathai was not only determined to get an education at a time when Kenyan girls rarely did so, but she planned on using it to make her community and her continent a better place as well. After earning a Bachelors degree, a Masters degree, and two Doctorates, Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement, designed to fight deforestation in Africa and employ women as tree planters in their own communities — one of the many accomplishments that earned Maathai the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. Her memoir, Unbowed, tells her amazing story in her own words.
4. ‘Rad American Women A-Z: Rebels, Trailblazers, and Visionaries Who Shaped Our History… and Our Future!’ by Kate Schatz and Miriam Klein Stahl
Yes, this is a children’s alphabet book. But here’s why readers of all ages are going to love it: A is for Angela Davis. B is for Billie Jean King. C is for Carol Burnett. P is for Patti Smith. You see where I’m going here? And so continues Rad American Women A-Z: Rebels, Trailblazers, and Visionaries Who Shaped Our History… and Our Future!, a children’s picture book by Kate Schatz and Miriam Klein Stahl, which celebrates diverse, radical, and world-changing women from American history. #Obsessed.
5. ‘I Am Malala: The Story of the Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban’ by Malala Yousafzai
Everyone has heard Malala’s breathtaking story by now, but if you haven’t read her book yet, you’re definitely going to want to add the seriously inspiring title to your shelves this year. I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban tells the story of Malala Yousafzai — a Pakistani teen blogger for the BBC, who wrote about the realities of life for women in her Taliban-ruled country, and who was shot at just 15-years-old while riding a bus home from school. She has since become a globally-recognized advocate of peace, women’s education, and women’s rights; and to-date is the youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.
6. ‘On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson, Author of Silent Spring’ by William Souder
Published in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Rachel Carson’s world-changing book on environmentalism, Silent Spring, William Sounder’s On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson offers readers a captivating and passionate profile of the biologist who exposed the grave effects of pesticide DDT use on fish, birds, other wildlife, and soil quality. Credited with transforming the modern environmental movement and inspiring government action that ultimately led to the founding of the EPA, Carson’s impact on our natural world cannot be overstated.
7. ‘Rosa Parks: A Life’ by Douglas Brinkley
In the early days of my education I learned that Rosa Parks was simply a woman on a bus, tired after a long day at work, and whose refusal to give up her seat for a white bus rider was purely coincidental — rather than the thoughtful and deliberate act of protest and civil disobedience that it was. Historian Douglas Brinkley’s biography, Rosa Parks: A Life, is a well-researched and engaging portrait of the brave and revolutionary woman, who grew up in Jim Crow Alabama and became an early member of the NAACP, and whose actions were central to the Civil Rights Movement.
8. ‘Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide’ by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
Sheryl WuDunn and Nicholas D. Kristof’s award-winning book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide is an absolute must-read collection of stories of women from all over the world. Sharing the struggles of childbirth without the aid of modern medicine, to the challenges of getting clean water every day, to the experiences of women working in the sex industry, WuDunn and Kristof pair tales of incomprehensible struggle with amazing stories of resilience, hope, and strength, demonstrating how a little bit of help and inspiration can go a long way towards empowering women to transform their own lives and the lives of others.
9. ‘Dorothy Hodgkin: A Life’ by Georgina Ferry
As the third woman in history to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Dorothy Hodgkin was a British biochemist whose research included the confirmation of the structure of penicillin and the structure of vitamin B12, as well as engaging in groundbreaking research regarding insulin — research that became central to understanding the connection between insulin and diabetes. In Georgina Ferry’s biography, Dorothy Hodgkin: A Life, she sheds light on not only Hodgkin’s scientific life, but her work as a peace activist as well.
10. ‘Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley’ by Charlotte Gordon
Mary Wollstonecraft, English writer and author of the landmark feminist book The Vindication of the Rights of Women, and Mary Shelley, English novelist of the world-recognized story Frankenstein, were mother and daughter — although they never knew one another in life. But Wollstonecraft, who died of an infection a week after giving birth to the daughter who became Mary Shelley, left a literary legacy for the child she didn’t live to raise. In Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley, Charlotte Gordon weaves together the life stories of these two women and writers whose impact on both feminism and literature was extraordinary.
11. ‘A Necessary Spectacle: Billie Jean King, Bobby Riggs, and the Tennis Match That Leveled the Game’ by Selena Roberts
American tennis player and winner of 39 Grand Slam titles, former United States' captain in the Federation Cup, and most importantly, a lifelong advocate for gender equality (in sports and beyond) and social justice, Billie Jean King made history in 1973 when, at 29-years-old, she beat 55-year-old tennis champion Bobby Riggs in what became known as Battle of the Sexes. A Necessary Spectacle: Billie Jean King, Bobby Riggs, and the Tennis Match That Leveled the Game tells the story of that tennis match — one that was not only a major win for women in tennis, but represented a win for women and gender equality in sports programs across the United States.