15 Of The Most Influential Women In History — And The Biographies Of Them You Really Need To Read
Last week, BBC History Magazine released readers' definitive ranking of the 100 most influential women in history, with Nobel Prize-winning physicist Marie Curie topping the list at No. 1. Because the Top 15 most influential women in history led such fascinating lives, I've put together the following list of biographies you should read to learn more about these women who changed the world.
All history is women's history, but our contributions and achievements have often been left out of the official narrative, or worse, credited to men instead. That kind of erasure is even more likely to occur if a woman is disabled, part of a racial or ethnic minority, a member of the LGBTQ+ community, or otherwise marginalized.
Unfortunately, BBC History Magazine's list — which was compiled by "ask[ing] experts in 10 different fields of human endeavour to nominate 10 women" each, then putting those nominees for a public vote — isn't particularly diverse. Less than 25 percent of the women on the list are women of color, and of the two women of color who made it into the Top 15, one is generally portrayed as a white person, despite hailing from what is today a part of Israel. Although all of the women on BBC History Magazine's ranked list deserve to be recognized for their accomplishments, it would have been nice to see more women who have been woefully overlooked because of more than their gender.
Check out the 15 biographies of the most influential women in history on the list below, and share your favorite women's stories with me on Twitter!
Marie Curie: 'Marie Curie: A Life' by Susan Quinn
In Marie Curie: A Life, Susan Quinn brings together the private and public writings of the Nobel Prize-winning physicist to paint a portrait of the woman behind the research.
Rosa Parks: 'At the Dark End of the Street' by Danielle L. McGuire
In this microhistory, Danielle L. McGuire examines Rosa Parks' contributions to the Civil Rights Movement through her involvement as an NAACP investigator working with Recy Taylor, a black sharecropper who was raped and beaten by seven white men in 1944 Alabama.
Emmeline Pankhurst: 'Emmeline Pankhurst: A Biography' by June Purvis
If you only know her name from that one Mary Poppins song, you absolutely need to read this biography of Emmeline Pankhurst, the founder of the Women's Social and Political Union: a suffrage organization that staged protests and hunger strikes to win British women the right to vote.
Ada Lovelace: 'Ada's Algorithm' by James Essinger
Rosalind Franklin: 'Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA' by Brenda Maddox
For years, the world credited her work to James Watson and Francis Crick. Now, we recognize the importance of Rosalind Franklin's research in demystifying DNA. Read about this "dark lady" in Brenda Maddox's biography of the chemist.
Margaret Thatcher: 'The Iron Lady' by John Campbell
The first woman to become Prime Minister of the U.K., Margaret Thatcher has built a controversial legacy as then-POTUS Ronald Reagan's across-the-pond friend. Read about her rise to political power in this biography from John Campbell.
Angela Burdett-Coutts: 'Lady Unknown' by Edna Healey
Philanthropist Angela Burdett-Coutts fought for the rights of women and children in Victorian England, before she shocked the nation by marrying a man nearly 40 years younger than she. Read about her activism and exploits in Edna Healey's Lady Unknown.
Mary Wollstonecraft: 'Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft & Mary Shelley' by Charlotte Gordon
Because she died of childbed fever shortly after the girl was born, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman author Mary Wollstonecraft never met her daughter, Mary Shelley. In Romantic Outlaws, Charlotte Gordon weaves together the two writers' shared and broken lineage.
9. Florence Nightingale: 'Florence Nightingale: The Making of an Icon' by Mark Bostridge
Nursing was not considered a noble profession in Florence Nightingale's time, but the Crimean War veteran and medical pioneer bucked expectations for a woman of her social status, and laid the foundation for modern nursing in the process.
Marie Stopes: 'Marie Stopes and the Sexual Revolution' by June Rose
The founder of the U.K.'s first contraceptive clinic, Marie Stopes was a botanical researcher who wrote many pamphlets on sex and reproduction in the early 20th century. June Rose chronicles Stopes' influence on later women's rights movements in Marie Stopes and the Sexual Revolution.
Eleanor of Aquitaine: 'Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life' by Alison Weir
As the wife of two kings — France's Louis VII and England's Henry II — Eleanor of Aquitaine rode off on the Crusades in her early 20s, and ruled as regent while her son, Richard the Lionheart, did the same, more than 40 years later.
The Virgin Mary: 'Mother of God: A History of the Virgin Mary' by Miri Rubin
There's no denying the powerful charisma of the Virgin Mary as a cultural and religious icon. In Mother of God, Miri Rubin examines the development of Mary's identity in early Catholic tradition.
Jane Austen: 'Jane Austen at Home' by Lucy Worsley
This inventive biography of Pride & Prejudice author Jane Austen examines her life by taking a close look at the places she lived and possessions she treasured.
14. Queen Boudicca: 'Boudicca' by Marguerite Johnson
After the Roman Empire annexed her land in the wake of her husband's death, Queen Boudicca — also Boudica or Boadicea — led the Iceni people in a revolt against the occupying Roman forces. Marguerite Johnson explores what we know of Boudicca's life in this biography.
Diana, Princess of Wales: 'Diana: Her True Story' by Andrew Morton
The world lost its beloved Princess Di in August 1997, when the charity patron and former member of the British Royal Family was killed in a car crash at the age of 36. For those of us who have fond memories of Diana as "the people's princess," Andrew Morton's Diana: Her True Story is a must-read.